The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are natural jewels whose strategic location in the Bay of Bengal made them valuable assets to many different colonial powers over the centuries. In more recent times, they were owned by the Danes and then the British, only to go on the chopping block during the partition of India at Independence in 1947.
Although the British wanted to hold onto these ‘possessions’, post-Independence, they gave up their claim to the islands but Pakistan doggedly pursued its case to acquire them during the partition of India. Let’s rewind a bit before we get to that.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were known to ancient Chinese sailors, Arab travellers as well as the South Indian Chola dynasty. In the 17th century CE, Maratha admiral Kahnoji Angre briefly operated out of the islands and in the 18th century, they were colonized by the Danish (Nicobar was known as ‘New Denmark’).
Austria tried to take over the islands in 1784 CE, and Italy made a failed attempt to buy the Nicobar Islands from Denmark in 1864-65. Denmark’s presence in the territory formally ended in 1868, when it sold its rights over the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British-India in 1869. The Andaman Islands were already in British hands since 1858. 1872, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were united under a single chief commissioner at Port Blair.
As a penal colony during the British colonial period, various types of prisoners, especially those who took part in rebel movements, were transferred to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. After toying with the idea of setting up a cellular jail in Australia, Penang in Malaysia, and a few other remote regions, the British built one in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Moplah rebels from the Malabar, the Wahabi movement rebels, the Rumpa rebels from Andhra as well as those from the Tharawaddy rebellion of Burma ended up in the cellular jail. It was a dreaded place and C B Lewis, a British administrator, later noted: “Natives of India bear transplantation badly in all circumstances, and, as prisoners, have lost heart and hope, and succumb without a struggle.”
Many died in the jail but some who survived, including a large Moplah community, elected to remain on the islands. There are people who still speak in that old Moplah dialect of Malayalam, living somewhat frozen in time. They brought in their families from Kerala, built villages here, and contributed towards the development of these Islands. Most of the others came from Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra.
But things changed dramatically at the beginning of the Second World War and the entry of Japan into the war.
Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, was bombed in 1942 and the British quickly evacuated. The islands were then occupied by Japanese forces and the area was later placed under the authority of the Provisional Government of Free India, headed by Subhas Chandra Bose.
Bose visited the islands during the war and renamed them ‘Shaheed’ (Martyr) and ‘Swaraj’ (Self-Rule). After a flag-hoisting in 1943, General Loganathan of Bose’s Indian National Army was appointed Governor of the islands. However, the INA holding was notional. The islands were surrendered in 1945 to the British, by the Japanese. Later, in the 20th century, the islands became a preferred location to deport prominent members of India’s independence movement, such as Vinayak Damodar Savarkar.
Up For Grabs
As Indian independence loomed, the Andaman and Nicobar islands were placed on the chopping block, much like the Laccadive Islands. When the India and Burma Committee of the British Cabinet deliberated and prepared the Indian Independence Bill draft in May 1947, the islands became a bone of contention. The many secret notes that shuffled between the Viceroy and the committee, goaded by the British Defence Department, present these discussions in grim detail.
Viceroy Lord Mountbatten wanted a decision to be taken quickly as he was to relinquish his post and leave India on 16th August, just a few months away. Thus, discussions on Article 16 of the draft bill pertaining to the Andamans, which started in June 1947, ramped up to become a flurry of correspondence. These and the minutes of various meetings recorded in the Transfer of Power 1942-1947 binders provide most of the details.
Britain stated that the islands were of vital importance to them and wanted to retain possession. Muslim League negotiators insisted that the islands were part of the overall assets of India, which were still to be divided between Pakistan and India. Mountbatten initially believed that joint control (between Britain and India) over the islands or a long-term lease may be the answer instead of British sovereignty, so as not to sour relations between the two countries.
At this juncture, a statement appeared in the Times of India on 9th June, saying “It is reliably understood that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are to be ceded to British Government under the new arrangements.” With complete secrecy no longer possible, the discussions became trickier.
The British Defence Ministry would not be cowed down. It argued that these islands assumed strategic importance for their air reinforcement and transport route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East, adding that if for some reason this was not possible, the only alternative would be the retention of the Laccadive Islands.
Mountbatten opposed this view and insisted on leaving the islands with the Dominion of India. He suggested that the British negotiate and obtain such strategic facilities through the High Commissioner for India in due course. The committee pored over other alternatives such as leaving the Andaman Islands to India, while taking over Nancowry and the Nicobars, but Mountbatten did not concur and authorized Lord Ismay to arrange negotiations with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Meanwhile, the Muslim League staked its claim, claiming it was entitled to a share of the Andamans, which they insisted was an all-India asset.
Pakistan Stakes Its Claim
Pakistani negotiators objected formally, resenting the inclusion of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Dominion of India and claimed that for geographical and strategical reasons they should be included in Pakistan. They pointed out that India could deny passage through India, of Pakistan troops proceeding from Western Pakistan to Eastern Pakistan or vice versa; that in such an event the sea route would be the only available route and that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands constituted an essential coaling station for a voyage from Chittagong to Karachi.
They mentioned that the islands could also be a convenient refueling base for vessels plying between the two parts of Pakistan. They also argued that, historically or geographically, they had never been part of India, that the islands were British possessions which were administered by the Central Government, adding that a majority of the population of these Islands consisted of tribes who were not connected with the peoples of India by ethical, religious or cultural ties.
When the Viceroy was abrupt in his reply that he was unable to recommend any change from his stand, Nehru stepped in, with additional supporting arguments. He explained that the total population of the islands, according to the census of 1941, was about 34,000. Of this, he pointed out, about 12,000 were Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists; about 11,000 were aboriginal tribes; about 8,000 Muslims; and about 3,000 were of other ethnicities.
Nehru pointed out that the population of the islands was predominantly non-Muslim and that it was not even correct to say that the majority of the population consisted of tribes.
In the judicial sphere, their administration was for certain purposes linked with the High Court in Calcutta. In other respects, they were administered as a Chief Commissioner’s Province.
He added that the islands did not lie on the direct route between the two parts of Pakistan. If they were of strategic importance to Pakistan, much more so were they to the Dominion of India. The claim that these islands should be allotted to Pakistan was therefore wholly untenable. There could be no question of their being allotted to or forming part of Pakistan; only such areas can be included in Pakistan as have expressed a wish to that effect; the rest remains with India.
Jinnah complained to Winston Churchill, the leader of the Opposition and Clement Attlee, then the British Prime Minister, and suggested that if a quick decision was not possible, the islands should at least be excluded from the scope of the Indian Independence Bill and be dealt with separately. He urged that what he felt was a grave injustice to Pakistan, be rectified in Parliament.
After all these deliberations, the India and Burma Committee finally concluded that in the light of the Viceroy’s opinion, it would not be possible to pursue the suggestion of separating the islands from India. Finally, the Attlee government went with the Viceroy’s plan to keep the Andaman and Nicobar Islands with India. Thus, eventually, the islands became part of the Republic of India in 1950. They were declared a Union Territory in 1956, while the Preparis Island and Coco Islands became part of Myanmar.
After Indian Independence, the penal colony was shuttered and plans to relocate Anglo-Indians there were briefly discussed but never materialized. Today, the islands are a beautiful tourist destination, populated by Bengali, Tamil and Telugu settlers, with Port Blair as its capital.
Ullattil Manmadhan (Maddy) is a history enthusiast who writes about the history of the Malabar and Kerala on his blogs, Maddy’s Ramblings and Historic Alleys.
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