While going through “Jinnah Papers” published by the Government of Pakistan, one letter dated 5 July 1947, to the secretary of state for India from Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor-General of Pakistan claiming the Andaman and Nicobar Islands makes one curious to find during research many more claimants of the strategic location of nearly more than 500 islands. Of course, today the Union Territory is one of the precious geographic territories of India. The history of the Islands makes one more curious as one tries to hunt out more and more historical facts. On 30 December 2018, three islands of the Andaman group were renamed by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Ross Island as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Neil Island as Shaheed Dweep and Havelock Island as Swaraj Dweep.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands do find mentioned in the diaries of Chinese Buddhist monk I-Ching of 7 th century, the Arab travelers of the 9 th century and even of Marco Polo (C. 1254-1324). The islands were part of the Chola Empire of Rajendra Chola (1014 t0 1042) and later changed hands from Denmark to the British. The islands were used by the Cholas as strategic naval base for expedition against Sriwijaya Empire (Indonesia). The Cholas called the Andaman Island as Ma-Nakkavaram (great naked land) and Necuverann (Nicobar). Prof. Aparna Vaidik, a Historian from Ashoka University records, “The renaming (by PM Modi) commemorates Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s visit to the Andamans as the commander of the Azad Hind Fauj (INA) in December 1943. This was during World War II when the Japanese had occupied the Islands as allies of INA. They had wrested control from the British who had colonized the Islands in 1858.
Although mistakenly assumed to be a consequence of the Revolt of 1857, the colonization of the Andaman was an outcome of the oceanic politics of the Raj and its need for a strategic foothold in the Bay of Bengal.” It is interesting to note that the British had planned to separate the Lakshadweep Islands as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from Independent India since they wanted to retain. Pakistan had also claimed the islands! “In 1947, as the final days of the British Raj in India approached, the imperialists were keen to sabotage the emergence of a strong India. From the confidential records of the British Government released a few years ago, we are able to piece together the drama behind those crucial days. The chiefs of staff of the British army examined the question of keeping their hold over parts of India, which were not in the mainland,” writes K.R.N.
Swamy in ‘The Tribune’ and adds, “The report dated 13 June 1947, by the Joint Planning Staff of the British Army stated: ‘The Lakshadweep Islands, which are sparsely inhabited coral strips, assume strategic importance from the airport of view if we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances they would be essential for our air reinforcement and the support route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. British Navy cannot use the islands as they are only open anchorages. If we cannot assume that the successor states in India will give us these facilities then we will have to rely on Ceylon, provided we can exclude the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the transfer of power’. The same day, the Indian and Burma Committee of the British cabinet considered the report of the chiefs of staff. In their minutes they stated, ‘The claim by Pandit Nehru is that Hindustan will automatically succeed to the position of India as an international entity... and Pakistan is merely a seceding minority”.
The Islands became part of the Indian Republic with Partition. Mountbatten handed them to Nehru, despite Jinnah’s repeated claims, because in his view the Republic of India was the inheritor of the legacy of nationalist struggle and thereby of the Andamans, which were a sacred symbol of this struggle. It’s a different matter that Mountbatten had hoped to use the Islands’ as a British naval base. Of course, Netaji Bose had renamed Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Shaheed and Swaraj Islands in 1943, the British had undone when they took control of the Islands in 1945 following surrender of the Japanese forces with the end of World War II.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been inhabited for several thousand years, at the very least. The earlier archaeological evidence yet documented goes back some 2,200 years; however, the indications from genetic, cultural and linguistic isolation studies point to habitation going back 30,000 – 60,000 years, well into the Middle Paleolithic. In the Andaman Islands, the various Andamanese people maintained their separated existence through the vast majority of this time, diversifying into distinct linguistic, cultural and territorial groups. By the 1850s when they first came into sustained contact by outside groups, the indigenous people of Andamans were: the Great Andamanese, who collectively represented at least 10 distinct sub groups and languages; the Jarawa: the jungle (or Rutland Jarawa); the Onge; and the Sentinelese
(the most isolated of all the groups ). The indigenous peoples of the Nicobars (unrelated to the Andamanese) have a similarly isolated and lengthy association with the islands. There are two main groups: the Nicobarese, or Nicobari living throughout many of the islands; and the Shompen, restricted to the interior of Great Nicobar.
Administratively, the Union Territory of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has three revenue Districts. Port Blair- the capital and gateway to the islands lies in South Andaman Island and falls under South Andaman District. The latest North & Middle Andaman District with Maya Bunder as headquarters lies separated from South Andaman District by a creek. Car Nicobar is the District Head quarter of Nicobar District. As per 2011 Census, the total population of Andaman & Nicobar stands 3,79,944 and the literacy rate is 86.27%. The islands have 69.44% Hindus, 21.7 % Christians and 8.751 % Muslims. Port Blair is the capital of the Union Territory. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the east of the Indian mainland geographically, float in splendid isolation in the Bay of Bengal. Most of these islands (about 550) are in the Andaman Group, 28 of which are inhabited. The smaller Nicobars, comprise some 22 main islands (10 inhabited). The Andaman and Nicobars are separated by the Ten Degree Channel which is 150 Kms. wide. These islands also boast of freedom fighting days’ historically significant landmarks viz. Cellular Jail, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island, Viper Island, Hopetown and Mount Harriet. Even China has eyes set on these Islands.
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(The writer is a Socio-political Historian. E-mail: [email protected] )