28 Apr 2024  |   06:07am IST


Vivek Menezes

In less than a month on May 25th, the great Libia “Libby” Lobo Sardesai will celebrate her 100th birthday. Unfortunately, like her childhood friend the late artist Francis Newton Souza – the two Goans grew up close to each other at Crawford Market in Bombay – it is deeply shameful that city and country are paying no attention, let alone the appropriate respect. But in this case, we do still have time for everyone to get their act together, to acknowledge the contributions of this indomitable, irresistible freedom-fighter. One fittaing tribute will be on May 12th, when Solomon Souza – the grandson of Libby’s teenage dancing partner – paints an immense new mural in dedication to her, in the heart of Panjim where she has lived for decades.

Today we are bombarded with propaganda about Nari Shakti – women’s power – but nothing compares with Libby, the one-woman juggernaut. Born into relative comfort into a family from Porvorim, this self-described “chit of a girl” was intent on participating in the vibrant world of ideas and idealism she was surrounded with in South Bombay. While still a student, she was the Secretary of Tristão de Bragança Cunha’s anti-colonial Goan Youth League. Then, after wartime years as a censor/translator for Italian prisoners of war (where many other Goans were similarly employed) she got her first degree at the new Siddharth College established by Ambedkar, where Babasaheb himself expressed pleasure about her signing up for admission.

Still in college, Libby was introduced – by her young professor Nissim Ezekiel amongst others – to MN Roy, the world-famous revolutionary who co-founded the Mexican Communist Party, and was Lenin’s nominee to the Comintern. By that point, after the devastating world wars, the radical was in the process of abandoning communism in favour of liberal humanism, and that important ideological influence remained with the bold Goan girl, who landed a good job at All India Radio but kept studying for another degree, from the Government Laaw College which had opened its doors conveniently close by. 

All through the 1950s, the Goans of Bombay remained in foment over continued colonialism in their ancestral homeland. There was no denying the “winds of change” signalling the end to European rule but they were stuck with the obdurate, uncomprehending (indeed, positively addled) dictator Salazar, who insisted on the delusional refrain “Aqui e Portugal” instead of negotiating seriously like the French with regards to Pondicherry. There was censorship, the curtailment of civil rights, a half-hidden regime of terror against nationalists, and Libby’s clean heart burned with anger about all these atrocities. She wanted to offer Satyagraha, but the Portuguese massacred 25 unarmed marchers and wounded over 200 more on 15th August 1955, so the Indian government stopped the border crossings. The young Goan was crestfallen, but that is precisely when history came calling.

Everything changed for Libby after Vaman Sardesai unexpectedly walked through the doors of All India Radio. This fine young scholar from Goa had completed his Lyceum education, and joined the Escola Médica, but was compelled to escape across the border when found in possession of anti-colonial literature. He moved to Wardha, and Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Sevagram Ashram, and eventually to Bombay where he too felt crushed at being unable to offer Satyagraha after August 15, 1955. Nonetheless, he joined AIR in the External Services Division, creating programming about “the problem of Goa” to be beamed abroad. But there was an inherent frustration, because – Libby recalls – he could see no impact: “all communications were suspended. The people of Goa had to rely only on the propaganda of the Portuguese, and they could not know anything about what was happening in the outside world, and how the [freedom] movement was going on. The people were getting desperate, and they were losing their morale. There was no way of communicating with the Goans or educating and enlightening them in any way.”

Very quickly, an extraordinary puzzle fell into place. During the liberation of the tiny Portuguese enclaves of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, the Indian authorities confiscated powerful wireless transmitters, and decided to use them to break the Portuguese embargo on news in Goa. A small team was assembled, comprising of Libby Lobo and Vaman Sardesai along with the older anti-colonial intellectual Nicolau Joao Menezes and his wife Alda. Under the pressure of severe conditions in the Western Ghats, the quartet proved short-lived. 

The Menezes couple (who happen to be my grand-uncle and aunt) quickly retreated, but not so Lobo and Sardesai, whose resolve only increased, and they went even further into isolation, where they remained undaunted for six long years, keeping up daily broadcasts of the “Voice of Freedom” (Sodvonecho Awaz in Konkani) in what would become one of the crucial interventions in the final demise of the colonial state.

 Rather incredibly, via fiat of the defence minister Krishna Menon himself, the elated duo was sent aloft by the Air Force on 19th December 1961 to fly across their newly liberated homeland, dropping leaflets and broadcasting the message that Goa was free.

All this is amazing, but it is far from everything that Lobo has achieved, quite besides her married life with Vaman Sardesai – they tied the knot on December 19 in 1964 – when he was Ambassador to Angola, and won the Padma Shri award. Following the dramatic freedom of Goa, Libby worked for the Ministry of External Affairs to repatriate the captured Portuguese troops, then became the first Director of Tourism, and the first lady advocate to practice in the history of Goan courts.

 Later, she was the founder and promoter of the path-breaking Women’s Cooperative Bank, which was and remains fully run and operated by women, and also the founder and president of the College of Home Sciences. Before, after, and always, she remained an icon of everything truly worthwhile about India’s smallest state and its people, and the lasting inspiration for countless people, most definitely including myself. 100 salutes for Libby! 

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


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