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Delhi’s colonial gaze at the Andamans

Updated on: 30 January,2023 06:10 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Ajaz Ashraf |

Recent renaming of 21 islands after Param Veer Chakra awardees is reminiscent of colonial powers naming places after those whom they deemed heroes, disregarding the sentiments of their subjects

Delhi’s colonial gaze at the Andamans

PM Narendra Modi pays tribute to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, whose association with the Japanese, remembered by the islanders for their brutality, was a compelling reason the people were not enthused at the renaming of Ross Island in 2018. Pic/Twitter

Ajaz AshrafThe nation is immeasurably indebted to the 21 soldiers who were awarded the Param Vir Chakra. Yet the Modi government’s decision to give their names to unnamed islands in Andaman and Nicobar Islands suggests the people there do not have their own history and heroes to celebrate, their own tragedies to commemorate. Delhi’s denial of their memory smacks of colonial arrogance.

Consider this: In October 2018, The Daily Telegrams, a local newspaper based out of Port Blair, published a notice inviting the public to suggest names for many of the unnamed islands, islets and rocks in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Homfreyganj memorial trust sent a list of martyrs to the Union Territory administration for consideration.

Memory, speak up!

On January 30, 1944, the Japanese, who took over Port Blair on March 23, 1942, gunned down 44 Indians, many of them members of the Indian Independence League, at Homfreyganj—and bayoneted their bodies. Among those killed was Prem Shankar Pandey; his great-grandson Jeivaish said the administration did not even deign to reply to the memorial trust, and expressed disappointment at the overlooking of local martyrs in the recent naming spree.

It is not that people like Jeivaish disregard the sacrifices of the 21 soldiers. But they would rather India became aware of the stories of the unsung heroes who resisted foreign occupations. The ‘stories’ include the Battle of Aberdeen that Andaman’s indigenous tribes fought against the British, fascinatingly narrated by academician Ajay Saini in The Hindu newspaper.

A year after the 1857 revolt, the British came to Ross Island, renamed Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island in 2018, with the Indian mutineers who had been taken prisoner. Around 130 of them escaped, sailing on rafts to an island across. They trekked through thick forests until they were surrounded by indigenes and killed. Only Dudhnath Tewari survived. The members of the Aka-Bea-da tribe—one of the 10 comprising the Great Andamanese group—took mercy on him, treated his wounds, and married him to one of their own. For 11 months, Dudhnath roamed with them.

Alarmed at the British expansion, the indigenes mounted three raids against them in 1859. The last one was on May 17, when the indigenes sent an armed contingent to attack the Aberdeen convict camp, south of Port Blair. Dudhnath was among them. So was another convict, Sadloo, whom another indigenous group had adopted. Both slipped out at night and warned the British of the impending attack. With the offensive deprived of the surprise element, a large number of indigenes perished, their bow and arrow no match to gunfire. Dudhnath’s wife, Lipa, had a miscarriage. Her name was changed to Modo Lipa, or the deserted bride.

The bells began to toll for the indigenous tribes.

Most of the 10 Andamanese groups are now extinct—such as Aka-Bea, Aka-Kol, Oko-Juwoi, Aka-Kede, etc. Apart from these 10, the Jangil disappeared in 1905. The Jarawa, the Sentineli and Onge just about survive. It would have been appropriate to have named some of the 21 islands after the tribes effaced from the nation’s memory.

The Modi government could also have considered the names of some of those 1857 mutineers who were banished to the Andamans. For instance, Musai Singh, convicted for his role in killing British officers, spent 47 years in the Andamans. His descendants still live there. Or Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, who issued a fatwa that Muslims should wage a jihad against the British. Great-great-grandfather of poet-lyricist Javed Akhtar, Khairabadi died in 1861, the day his son arrived on the Andamans.

The list is long of those who withered away in prison but did not, unlike V D Savarkar, Hindutva’s high priest, apologise to the British. In later decades, there was Mahavir Singh Rathore, Bhagat Singh’s associate, who went on a hunger strike with others—and died, in 1933, because of forced feeding.

In Andaman’s collective memory, the years of Japanese occupation were synonymous with brutality. Take Diwan Singh, a doctor whom the British had transferred from Rangoon to Port Blair in 1927. Suspecting him of being a British spy, the Japanese tortured him to death 16 days before perpetrating the Homfreyganj massacre.

The dominant historical discourse celebrates Bose hoisting the Tricolour in Port Blair. But his association with the Japanese was a compelling reason the Andaman and Nicobar people were not enthused at the renaming of Ross Island after Bose. Delhi unabashedly chose to overwrite the popular memory with its version of history.

Colonial powers named places after those whom they considered heroes, disregarding the sentiments of their subjects. What the indigenes knew as Thi-Lar-Siro was renamed after General Henry Havelock and what was Tebi-Shiro to them was given the name of James Neill. Both were British officers who played a crucial role in crushing the 1857 revolt.

In 2018, at the stroke of Delhi’s pen, with the disdain typical of colonial masters, Neil Island became Shaheed Dweep and Havelock Island, Swaraj Dweep. There are now 21 new names for the people to contend with. In this remembrance, local heroes have no place. And to think, the Union government accused the BBC of having a colonial mindset for making a documentary on Prime Minister Narendra Modi!

The writer is a senior journalist.
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