The rename game
Cherry-picking history for the renaming logic at Andaman and Nicobar islands not only hurts the tourism industry but also highlights the questionable intent
The erstwhile-penal settlement of Andaman and Nicobar Islands is steeped in the Indian freedom struggle and to the frequently changing-hands of colonial powers including the Danes, Austrians, Japanese, and twice the British. Each reign was driven by its own historic impulses, complexities and considerations that both enriched as well as violated the Islands, simultaneously – affording an adjustable lens that can be retrofitted to support a certain narrative. Colonialism is a historic curse, unequivocally driven by the selfish instincts of the prevailing Imperial powers, however, to weigh one colonial tenure versus the other is fraught with selective interpretation. While the horrors within the 'Kaala Pani' (Cellular Jair) of Port Blair, incarcerating and torturing the Indian freedom fighters resonates in the emotions of India against the British Raj – the ferocity and sheer brutality of the Japanese rule in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands between March 1942 to October 1945, is unmatched in terrorising the locals and for historic underreporting, given India's own larger tryst and definition against the British colonial rule.
The period between the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II is said to have accounted for between 8-14 million deaths, directly attributed to Japanese war crimes. Colonial Japan's holocaust-like infamy at Nanking, Chahar, Manchukuo, Hopeh, etc., still haunts the Chinese conscience and regularly evokes calls for retribution, as the world gradually wakes to the unprecedented scale of terror unleashed by Imperial Japan. The Japanese reign of terror in Andaman and Nicobar was no different in severity and tenor with lesser-known massacres like the one in Homfreyganj or the aerial bombing of the hapless Jarawa tribes. However, the undeniable Japanese excesses in Andaman and Nicobar have got mired and overlooked due to the tactical support provided by Imperial Japan to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose in establishing a notional Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (Provincial Government of Free India) at these Islands during the brief interlude of the Japanese occupation in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Japanese act was in consonance with the realpolitik of its times, and Netaji would have rightfully partaken the opportunity to oust the principal occupier of India, the British forces.
When Netaji came to unfurl the tricolour for the first time on 'Independent' Indian soil, on December 30, 1943, at Port Blair, the three-day visit was carefully orchestrated by the Japanese to hide the fate of the horrified locals and the inhumanely treated Indian prisoners at the Cellular Jail. The Japanese charade of 'Independent' Indian soil, belied the reality of the barbaric fate that the native tribes and the deported Indian prisoners and settlers suffered - this was hauntingly and evocatively documented in the Ramakrishna report on the Andaman Islands under Japanese. Even the purported Governor of Azad Hind for Andaman and Burma, Arcot Doraiswamy Loganadan, later confessed and confirmed the Japanese atrocities and duplicitousness in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Meanwhile across the Pacific Islands and around the same time, the conduct of the Japanese forces who had taken Indian Prisoners-of-War (POWs), from the British Indian Army was despicable, with reports of forced starvation, bayoneting and worse, cannibalism. Accounts by Captain Ansari of 7th Rajput Regiment (later awarded George Cross for 'most conspicuous gallantry') pertaining to the inhuman treatment meted or the testimonies of Japanese cannibalism by Captain R U Pirzai and Subedar Gurcharan Singh, confirmed the worst. Yet the overarching anti-British stance of the period led to the possible underplaying of the Japanese conduct, even though the 5500 Indian soldiers who came out of the Japanese captivity alive, refused to join the Japan-supported Indian Independence League or INA. At Port Blair, the Japanese window-dressed the famous tour of Netaji, where the nationalist renamed the same as 'Swaraj-Dweep' and 'Shaheed-Dweep', even though unknown to him, his loyal Indian Independence League leader Dr Diwan Singh was suffering the most extreme privations and humiliations. Throughout Netaji's visit, the reality of the suffering Indians on the Island was hidden from him. Ironically, there was a collective sigh of relief amongst the Islanders when the colonial power reverted back to the British in 1945.
It is with this backdrop that when a proposal to change the name of Andaman and Nicobar came up as far back as 1969, the local representative recounted the local emotions and passions pertaining to this brief period of Japanese misrule and reminded the house that history of the Islands pre-dated 1943. Today as the nation is in the throes of uber-nationalism and renaming of places to 'free' from the 'injustices of past' - the 75th anniversary of the historic flag hoisting led to the renaming of Ross Island as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Neil Island as Shaheed Dweep and the Havelock Island as Swaraj Dweep. These Islands were previously named after officers of the British Indian Forces - Brigadier James Neill, General Sir Henry Havelock and a marine surveyor, Daniel Ross.
Interestingly the colonial names of some of the most gallant Indian Army regiments and battalions still abound, for instance, Hodsons Horse, Skinners Horse, Outram, Napier, etc., and yet, it in no way diminishes their 'Indianness' or soldering élan. Similarly, the names of these Islands had also acquired a certain resonance, ubiquity and 'brand' value that is invaluable in the tourism industry, the most important employment generator for the Islands. While it is absolutely essential to recognise and celebrate our own freedom fighters like Netaji, as indeed popularise the unsung saga of Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the freedom struggle – renaming as a tool, that too with a cherry-picked perspective on history could be construed as partisan and populism. Andaman and Nicobar is a 'shining outpost' of India with immeasurable strategic possibilities that remains untapped. It needs a slew of investments to overcome its geographical constraints and any of such game-changing investments or initiatives could perhaps have been more appropriate for naming after our illustrious freedom fighters, including those whom history forgot in the 'Kala Pani'. The phenomenon of name-changing is always susceptible to questionable intent, especially when done with one eye on electoral-gratification.
(The author is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal)