The Ranes of Goan Folklore, paper by Prof. Teotonio R. de Souza



Teotonio R. de Souza

(This article appeared in GOA TODAY , March 1987, pp. 28-33 (with illustrations). The article was meant for a Goa University publication to commemorate 25 years of Goa's liberation. The editorial board of the University developed cold feet and politely declined to include this article to avoid any conflict with Pratapsingh Rane, who was chief minister at that time. The Editor of Goa Today, Vaman Sardessai had more courage to publish this essay. It was his last issue before taking up the posting of Ambassador of India in Angola.)

THIS ARTICLE formed the crux of a research paper that was to be originally included in a Goa University publication on Goa's freedom struggle. The paper was deemed improper and was unceremoniously rejected at the time when historians subservient to ruling political interests were only interested in paying floral tributes to Goa's freedom struggle, or whatever they chose to understand by that. Unfortunately, even the institution that is meant to set the tone for our intellectual life, including historical research, joined the chorus with 'Goa Wins Freedom': This is the state of intellectual subservience and poverty twenty-five years after our liberation! And there are all the indications in our country that this tendency is on the rise.

The following exercise is what some modern scholars engaged in "subaltern studies" call historical 'deconstruction'. Our post-liberation historiography should not uncritically replace one elitist approach by another if political change in Goa is to serve truly democratic goals. We have an opportunity to put the "subaltern" or subordinate classes at the centre stage of our historical inquiry. Deconstruction in this context, is only a tool of analysis that seeks to attack and break down the existing elitist paradigms. It is not a nihilistic exercise, but a prolonged critical exercise to clear off the rubbish and prepare the ground for a sound alternative construction in the scheme of post-liberation historiography of Goa. What has been done here is to apply deconstruction analysis to one historical episode, namely the Rane myth in Goa's freedom struggle. Similar exercise will need to be extended to wider areas of Goa's history.

Truth is said to be stranger than fiction. The role attributed to the Ranes in Goa's freedom struggle is one illustration of this old dictum. Folklore and more recent political developments seem to have conspired to elevate the so-called 'Rajputs' of Satari to unquestioned honours as Goa's freedom fighters. Folklorising and political myth-making had its reasons and validity as means to sustain anti-colonial campaign. But twenty-five years after liberation we should be able to put aside political emotionalism and let historical criticism have its say.

How good is the Rane claim for Rajput origin? An anthropological study conducted by Dr. Germano de Silva Correia took the tradition of Rajput origin for granted, but the application of field techniques does not seem to have enabled him to confirm it decisively. He concluded saying that "their ethnic origin remains an anthropological problem to be solved" (Les Ranes de Satary, 1928:29). In the absence of further evidence, it remains to be proved that the Ranes of Satari differ essentially from the Marathas of the Deccan.

The origin of the Rajputs is a red herring that has been much dragged about in the historical writings on early medieval and medieval India. One can observe an extreme polarity of opinions which extends in range from attempts to trace the Rajputs to foreign immigrant stocks of the post-Gupta period, to contrived justifications for viewing the Rajputs as of pure kshatriya origin. The question of the indigenous origin of the Rajputs assumed symbolic overtones in the heyday of nationalist historiography and in the historical and purely literary writings of various genres, the military and chivalrous qualities of the Rajputs were repeatedly projected. All such writings tended to suggest that the Rajputs rose to prominence in the process of resisting foreign invasions and that they shouldered willingly the kshatriya duty of fighting for the land as well as for its people and culture.

Even in detailed studies of Rajasthan, the origin of the Rajputs in the early medieval period is far from settled and much less examined. There were widespread claims in the early medieval period to the traditional kshatriga status. Such claims were attempts to get away from, rather than reveal, the original ancestry. It was a process in which new social groups sought various symbols for the legitimization of their newly gained power. The case of the Ranes of Satari can be taken to illustrate a similar process of mobility to kshatriya status in this part of western India.

While elsewhere in the New Conquests the traditional village community set-up suffered some destruction under their Dessais, the village communities of Satari ceased to exist as a result of the recurring feuds among the Ranes themselves and their attempts to assert their own feudal control and relative independence. This is a very important historical background to be taken into consideration while critically assessing the so-called contribution of the Ranes to Goa's freedom struggle. Freedom, as we now tend to understand it, seems to have been the last thing the Ranes aspired to.

In a taluka that is blessed with abundant natural resources, its own ganvkars inhabiting its original seventy or so villages were reduced to misery and beggary. Even the traditional Dessais and Nadkarnis were marginalised by the Sardesai Ranes who established their mokasas all over the fertile and cultivable low-lying western region of the taluka and extended their administrative and fiscal control over the rest of the taluka. The armed force of the Ranes was assisted in this task by their Brahmin Dubhashis. The Ranes also patronised hordes of Bhats who descended from across the ghats into Satari to perform their religious role of preaching the oppressed local population into submission to their new overloads, smoothening thereby the mechanism of violence and reducing the administrative costs. The Bhats were generously rewarded with many deussuns and areca groves. The Bhats grew in numbers and wealth just as the native ganvkars decreased in numbers and increased in misery. All that was left for them were places of worship and beliefs about the nobility of the Ranes.

We do not have much documentary evidence that could throw light upon the efforts of the Satari ganvkars and their traditional leaders to resist the oppression of the Ranes until the time when the region came under the Portuguese jurisdiction. As in the case of most subaltern classes they were hardly in a position to produce records of their protest. But we do have, for instance, a long representation submitted by a dozen ganvkars of various villages of Satari to the Portuguese Governor of Coa, D. Manuel da Camara in April 1824. The document listed the grievances of the villagers against the Ranes and their "tyrannical yoke" which had obliged many to seek refuge in the Portuguese territory and beyond the ghats. They were pleading with the Portuguese Government to protect them by taking direct charge of the villages of Satari and their revenue administration. It is very probable that this representation was inspired and drafted by the Nadkarnis of Sanklli. While these Nadkarnis pretended concern for the plight of the village ganvkars they were actually interested in regaining their own lost traditional control. With their proverbial skill to manipulate accounts and property records, in the 1830s the Nadkarnis of Sanklli nearly succeeded in settling old scores with the Ranes. Some details of this case could better help understand the complexity of interests in conflict and to realize that the Ranes did not represent the natives of Satari in their so-called freedom struggle.

The Nadkarnis represented traditional village interests and kept up their own freedom struggle against the Ranes. Obviously they were no match to the Ranes in military skill and force, but they relentlessly pursued their struggle with traditional chicanery and cunning. 'The Nadkarnis and their agents had infiltrated into the Portuguese administrative ranks. Soon after the disturbances created by the Ranes which coincided with the political instability, caused by the liberal-constitutional struggle in Goa (1822-1835), the Nadkarnis got round the Portuguese administration to frame a case against the Ranes for defrauding the Portuguese administration since 1746. In the process of fiscal inquiry entrusted by the Portuguese government to a certain Atmaram Parab, the Nadkarnis, Dessais and ganvkars of Satari produced 'documented' information to prove that the Ranes had been paying revenue dues to the Sawants of Wadi in lieu of the mokasas. Hence, in keeping with the terms of submission to the Portuguese the Ranes ought to have paid the same dues to the Portuguese exchequer. Obviously, the Nadkarnis would get back into the job of administering the revenue collection and of playing the power game that goes with it.

Luckily for the Ranes, their defence counsel managed to checkmate the judicial aspersions cast by the accusation of tax evasion by proving that Lakshman Kustam Sinai Nadkarni of Sanklli had cooked up the information supplied to Atmaram Parab and had also forged documents in Old Marathi using the seals of the Sawants. Another Nadkarni of Sanklli, Mallapa Sinai, was also involved. They had also roped in the official state translator (lingua do Estado) Sakharam Narayan Vaga. His handwriting was identified in the interpolations made on the 'Book of Peace Treaties' (Livro de Pazes) in the Secretariat archives.

It is apparent from the above that the Ranes had enemies from within. The traditional landed interests were not reconciled to being subjected to the power and ambitions of the Ranes. Any critical study of the recurring rebellions and disturbances caused by the Ranes will have to take into account the machinations and scheming of the Nadkarnis of Satari. What appears often as a straight Rane-Portuguese conflict will then be seen as a more complex situation in which the "subaltern" classes of Satari silently, or rather subtly, participated in the contest and sought to undermine the dominance of the Ranes.

It was not in the interest of the Portuguese to deprive the Ranes of their privileges in Satari because they had served as a useful contra force to check the adventurism of the Marathas. Alarmed by Shivaji's attempts to extend his sway in the Konkan, the Portuguese continued to support the turbulent Dessais of Kudal, Pedne, Bicholim and Sanklli in resisting the territorial ambitions of the Maratha chieftains of the Deccan. Contrary to the myth propagated by most traditional Maratha historians that all Marathas (if not all Hindus) had enthusiastically rallied round Shivaji's banner and his Hindavi Swarajya, an eminent and critical Maratha historian, A R Kulkarni tells us that "the people of the Konkan never associated themselves with the Maratha movement launched by Shivaji. Shivaji did succeed in capturing some parts of the Konkan but the core of Konkan which was under the Desais and the Portuguese never came under the Maratha control."

Unfortunately, since liberation Goans are being taught their history by teachers from outside Goa with insufficient grasp of the local ethos and cultural background. We read in the Goa Gazetteer that "the aim of these wars (revolts of Ranes) was to regain the lost territory and freedom. The Ranes were supported by the common people who were eager to sweep out the intolerant, obnoxious rule of the Portuguese." No critical historian could state that the native population that was reduced to serfdom by the Ranes had the option to choose whether to join them (the Ranes) or not in their resistance to those who attempted to check their banditry.

The Ranes backed any neighbouring ruler (including the Portuguese) when it suited them, and they backed out from repeatedly renewed "oaths of fealty" to the Portuguese whenever it did not suit their interests. That the "common people" of Satari should have "supported the Ranes" can best be understood from the analysis of a modern and critical Maratha historian, Prof. P. V. Ranade: "Robbing the rich for the benefit of the poor is an instinct of all primitive rebellions. Shivaji's campaigns of mulukhgiri into Mughal territories were campaigns of plunder against rich emporiums and must have thrilled the hearts of the 'naked rascals'. Shivaji was shrewd enough to exploit this primitive instinct. Thus he and his successors (applicable to Ranes) could enlist the Maratha bargirs and shiledars in the mulukhgiri carnpaigns on the basis of an appeal to their predatory instinct and religious ethos."

There are several instances of the Ranes serving the Portuguese as mercenaries in Goa as well as far away from it in Ceylon during the 17th century. In the 18th century we find them serving the Portuguese as feudatories that were not always reliable. But that was nothing unusual in the feudal set-up. The doyen of Indian historians, Prof. D. D. Kosarnbi, a Goan by origin, states in his classic book An Introduction to Indian History that, with their depredations till the end of the last century, the Ranes were no better than "robbers claiming feudal titles". The evidence and analysis he provides tend to confirm such an assessment. The Ranes only sought to preserve and enlarge their feudal privileges. Under the Portuguese suzerainty since 1746, the clash between Portuguese colonial interests and their own feudal interests became inevitable. That is exactly what happened. The only option open to the Ranes was to shake off Portuguese fiscal controls, or submit to their encroachment and eroding power at the expense of their own feudal claims.

Faced with the above alternatives the Ranes tried solutions of despair. They were ill-matched to face the superior organizational and military powers of the Portuguese. This was true despite the apparent inability of the Portuguese to quell the rebellions without compromises and grants of amnesty. The Rane Revolts coincided with a very disturbed political period in Goa. A time arrived when new and powerful economic interests which had entered Satari finally crushed their ambitions: over 26,000 acres of land were taken over on long leases by industrial interests for large-scale plantations. Some of these planters were British and American citizens. In the wake of the establishment of the railroad by the British in and around Goa, the timber wealth of Satari attracted exploiters. An increasing administrative cooperation and coordination between Goa and British India made it increasingly difficult for the Ranes to carry on their traditional game of hit-and-run.

The revolts of the Ranes were woven into a myth of freedom struggle and even provided themes for Konkani folk songs as a result of the growing political discontent among the native intelligentsia of the Old Conquests of Goa. The Pinto Revolt, the Peres da Silva affair, and the liberal-political struggle provide the background and clues which account for the transformation of Satari's feudal lords into legendary freedom fighters.