Lost in translation

Goa’s unexplored potential to connect India and the Portuguese-speaking world must be tapped

On a hot Delhi afternoon in the late spring of 2008, I got a desperate call from Juvenal C, a journalist from the West African nation of Guinea- Bissau. Juvenal had come under a scholarship of the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme (ITEC) to attend a three-month course at the Institute for Mass Communication Studies, in New Delhi. The only problem was… he didn’t speak a word of English.

Photo: Frederick Noronha

This was no rare exception: Portuguese- speaking Mozambicans and Timorese are sent to study not only in Delhi, but also smaller North Indian cities like Ludhiana, under various Government of India programmes, sometimes for full BA or PhD courses. As most of them have very limited knowledge of English, they often leave disappointed and I’ve met many who promise they’ll never return to (or recommend) India. But they would feel completely different if sent to Goa: more than the natural beauties of the coastal state, they would enjoy the opportunity to speak in Portuguese and explore many cultural similarities with their home countries – from food and music to the love for football. Instead of a disgruntled Juvenal, Delhi would see a delighted Juvenal returning as India’s finest ambassador to Guinea Bissau.


To avoid more stories like this one, India must make more intelligent use of its immense cultural diversity in its public diplomacy. Goa and its relations with the Portuguese- speaking world are a stark example of this unexplored potential. As New Delhi diversifies its external relations and builds stronger links with Latin American and African countries, and considers offering courses in French to scholars from francophone Africa, it should also find space for a niche diplomacy targeting the Portuguese-speaking world.

There are 250 million native Portuguese speakers in the world. It’s the world’s fifth or seventh most spoken language (depending on the criteria you choose, but certainly more than French), and it is official in eight states across four continents, five of which are in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe) and one each in Europe (Portugal), South America (Brazil) and Asia (Timor Leste).

Each of these countries is of strategic interest to New Delhi’s objectives to access critical resources and increase its global influence, and four of them are of particular importance. Brazil, a fellow IBSA member, is crucial to establish a significant footprint in Latin America, and many Indian investments there are hindered by the country’s low level English proficiency, a 2011 study placing it 31st among 43 economies. Angola is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, source of 5 percent of India’s oil imports, and many of its diamonds end up in Gujarat. Mozambique is a rare success story of India’s Africa policy, with several investments in the mining sector and of increasing importance to Delhi’s naval interests in the Indian Ocean. And Timor- Leste, the geopolitical hyphen connecting the trendy “Indo-Pacific” region, is witnessing massive Chinese and Australian investments in its infrastructure and offshore gas reserves, but has no formal Indian diplomatic representation.

India is thus affected by a Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) paradox that sees many of its efforts lost in translation: while its economic engagement with these countries and Macau is booming (now at $15.3 billion, up by 400 percent since 2005), the diplomatic and cultural engagement is lagging far behind. This will go on as long as there are only a handful of Indian diplomats fluent in Portuguese (and posted in Italy or Thailand) and the immense potential of Goa continues to be ignored.

If Punjab is used as a hub for confidence building measures towards Pakistan, Tamil Nadu as a bridge to Sri Lanka, and the Northeast as a “Look East” platform, why not transform Goa into India’s hub for the Portuguese-speaking countries? The region was under Portuguese control until 1961, has thousands of fluent Portuguese-speakers, and centuries of close links and exchanges with Brazil, Angola and the six other Portuguese- speaking countries (parts of the former Portuguese empire, including Mozambique, Macau and Timor, were actually administered from Goa itself until the late 19th century).

China, which integrated the former Portuguese colony of Macau in 1999, is already using the region (where Portuguese is an official language) as a hub for its Lusophone diplomacy, most notably through the Macau Forum, set up in 2003, which serves as a biannual ministerial meeting between Beijing and all eight Portuguese-speaking states. There is no reason why Goa should not host such an official (or, to start with, and informal Track-2) dialogue. This is an idea supported by many decision-makers in Brazil and Africa, including former Mozambican minister Oscar Monteiro, who recently called for Goa to play a “driving role” in India’s re-engagement with his country.

Most importantly, India must, in the meantime, secure its status as an associate observer of the CPLP, the organisation of Portuguese-speaking states (similar to the Commonwealth and the Francophonie). Equatorial Guinea, Mauritius and Senegal have all succeeded in acquiring such a status, and even China and Indonesia have expressed their interest. Brazil and Portugal should sponsor India’s entry, and Angola, currently holding the Presidency, would certainly be supportive.

At the same time, Goa would also be the perfect location for a naval security dialogue between the Indian Navy and its eight Portuguese- speaking counterparts, which could include peacekeeping efforts, anti-piracy and coastal security. India has been involved in joint exercises with the Portuguese Navy, the Brazilian one (under IBSAMAR with South Africa) and has reached an agreement with Maputo to patrol the strategic Mozambique Channel.

There are also softer dimensions of potential cooperation that deserve to be explored, including sports. For example, the Indian Olympic Association agreed in 2006 to become a member of the Association of Portuguese-Speaking Olympic Associations. New Delhi has since then agreed to send an Indian delegation to the first two editions of the “Lusophone Games” (Macau and Lisbon), and also backed Goa’s successful bid to host the third edition in 2013 (defeating Brazil). More such possibilities should be explored.

In an embarrassing mistake last year, India’s external minister S M Krishna read out the Portuguese minister’s speech at the UN Security Council, including a “personal note” expressing his “profound satisfaction regarding the happy coincidence of having two members of the Portuguese Speaking Countries (CPLP), Brazil and Portugal, together here today.”

If India finally decides to make good use of Goa and upgrade its relations with the Portuguese-speaking countries, perhaps in future Indian speeches these same words will no longer express mistaken, but genuine satisfaction.