The party’s over in India’s capital of fun

Sadhvi Sharma, a long-time vistor to Goa, reports on how the seaside resort has been remade as a mini police-state following the tragic murder of a British teenager.

Sadhvi Sharma

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I have visited Goa, the beach paradise and hot tourist spot on the west coast of India, every summer since I was 10. As a child, I spent my time scouring children’s libraries in Panaji, the Goan capital, cycling down university roads (my aunt was a lecturer there), and lazy afternoons with a book, lemonade and sandwiches on the beach. From 17, visits involved parties, beer and late nights by the shore. Last year, I went back to Goa after nearly seven years and I could still walk around freely, take a dip at 2am, and have late-night conversations with strangers on the beach.

Next time I choose to take a walk along a Goan beach after midnight, however, I will need ‘legitimate and sufficiently good reasons’. I could be stopped and searched by policemen. If I decided to linger on in a beach shack after midnight, talking to friends or strangers, or just staring into space bored, I could be required to answer for what I’m up to. And if some cop patrolling a beach decided I look dodgy, I could even be arrested.

These new restrictions on freedom and partying were introduced after 19 February, when British 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling was found dead on Anjuna beach in north Goa, allegedly raped and murdered. The case quickly became a frontpage story both here in India and in Britain. At the centre has been Scarlett’s mother, Fiona MacKeown, who has been battling with the Indian authorities ever since her daughter was found, challenging initial claims that the teenager died from drowning. MacKeown believes Scarlett was raped by more than one man and has claimed that links between police, politicians and the drugs mafia have hampered a proper investigation (1).


Meditation on the beach, Goa (picture: Nathalie Rothschild)

In the face of accusations of inefficiency, corruption and incompetence, the Goan police decided they had to Do Something. The result: a draconian ‘crackdown’ that would be seen as unacceptable in any free society. In the name of ‘improving safety’ on Goa’s beaches, police will be ‘strictly enforcing [an] 11 o’clock music curfew and all beach shacks should be closed by midnight. Anyone found loitering after beach shacks have closed will be questioned and if necessary searched.’ The inspector general of police, Kishan Kumar, promised to be ‘ruthless’. He said: ‘If there are people sitting in a beach shack after the curfew, then we will ask them what they are up to.’ (2)

The attempt virtually to turn Goa into a police state has been defended as a security measure, even as a natural reaction to a gruesome murder. But the response has been grossly disproportionate. This murder has been grasped as a symbol for the gradual decay of the Indian tourist hotspot, and the tough measures are a nervous response to outside criticism.

As the case, with all its contradictions, twists and turns, continued to unravel, a torrent of issues have been debated in the Indian media, government ministries and parliament. How will the attack on a foreign tourist affect India’s global image? Are tourists safe in India? Has there been a rise in violence against women? What should we do about the influx of Russian tourists and mafia involved in illegal land deals in Goa? How about the drug nexus operating there? How do we root out police corruption and crack down on Goan gun culture?


Beach at Morjim (picture: Nathalie Rothschild)

None of this has aided the police investigation. The heated debates and speculations have made Goa seem more like a debauched gangster nest than a place where Indian tourists, Western package holidaymakers and hippie backpackers alike seek out relaxation and fun.

Midnight curfews, music bans and police patrols are not introduced in Indian cities every time a rape or murder occurs. The high-profile Keeling case has been turned into an example, made out to be representative of a wider state of affairs in Goa, and the overall level of security there. ‘As attacks on tourists and locals grow, India is witnessing the rise of a new Goa: from a land of susegad [a term that implies leisure and relaxation], it has given rise to an industry of pimps, paedophiles and psychos’, said a report in the Hindustan Times last month.

The report estimates that at least 126 foreign nationals have died in Goa in the past two years. Forty of them were British. There was no mention, however, of what this statistic reflected — it could involve murders and drug overdoses, but also include deaths by natural causes and accidents. At most, it perfunctorily supports the view that Goa is an unsafe place full of psycho killers. According to Indian Ministry of Tourism statistics, over 4.4million overseas tourists visited India last year. An estimated 12 per cent – just over half a million – go to Goa (3). So, over the past two years, 0.012 per cent of tourists in Goa have died during their visits there. That’s roughly one in every 8,000 tourists dying from any number of different causes.


Fishing on the beach (picture: Nathalie Rothschild)

It is of couse widely known that there exists a drug culture in some Goan resorts. But then, Amsterdam is often associated with the same type of culture, and it is common knowledge that drugs do the rounds at certain high-society celeb parties in many Western capitals.Yet these cities are not treated as if they are in a state of emergency, with police enforcing curfews and being instructed to clamp down on personal freedoms.

There has been little outrage over the measures being enforced throughout Goa, or over the extended powers now given to police. Instead, there have been moralistic condemnations of Goa’s ‘decay’, paranoid claims that the state is rife with gun crime, that paedophiles scour its beaches and that female tourists are at constant risk of being raped.

One particularly shrill commentator claimed that ‘Goans simmer as they see their beautiful land being taken over by the dark forces’. But they – and the tourist board – should be more worried about the illiberal forces taking over Goa. Who wants to holiday in a place where you can’t walk down the beach without being eyed by a cop, and where the authorities tell you what time to go to bed? These disproportionate responses form the biggest threat to the reputation of Goa and to its tourist industry.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.

Previously on spiked

Sadhvi Sharma reported on the movement of thousands of Bombay’s slum dwellers to gleaming new flats. She also said it was backward to worship a Bollywood actress and explained why patronising gifts for the Third World get her goat. Kirk Leech reported that many in Gujarat welcomed the Narmada Dam and noted that, in India, sanctuaries created to ‘protect’ species have turned people into animals and animals into the kings of the jungle. Or read more at spiked issue Asia.

(1) Mother returns with Scarlett’s body, The Press Association, 1 April 2008

(2) Goa nightlife shackled, Hindustan Times, 18 March 2008

(3) India thwarts terrorist plan to attack tourists visiting Goa, E Turbo News, 8 February 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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