When the Minicoy Islands revolted
When our tryst with destiny was fulfilled on 15 August 1947, the same tryst of some three thousand five hundred Indians on a tiny island in the Arabian Sea had to wait for long nine years. This population was under the Union Jack in 1952 and finally they got their tricolor only in 1956. Though Independence Day and Republic Day have become nothing but assured holidays for most of us, they are still most auspicious days for the population of Minicoy Island. They sing, they dance and they bow to the tricolor.
We had a long hangover of the celebrations of independence that Bapu gifted to us. We were busy naming roads and streets after the revered martyrs. We took the mighty task of rewriting our history. We also found an excuse in saying that we had a very poor communication system then and that we had many more important issues to attend to… we had lost Bapu and annexed hundreds of riyasats.
Now we are an IT manpower and our satellites have given us world class communication systems. And now that we are almost done with our history assignments, we could not forget to celebrate the 100 years of the Delhi Durbar. We hardly miss out on any event that has a tag of 50, 75, 100, 125, 150 years and, if forced by history, we are liberal enough to take up 60, 105, 120 and so on.
But, Minicoy really ran out of any luck whatsoever. Year 2012 is the 125th anniversary of Minicoy’s first revolt against British rule, which took place in 1887, and 100th anniversary of their second revolt against a mightier British Rule. Although Minicoy came under British control only in 1909 when the Bibi of Cannanore signed the deal with British authorities, but for all practical purposes it was under their control since last decade ofthe eighteenth century.
In February, 1887 G W Dance, Head Assistant Collector from Madras, was on his visit to Minicoy as an inspecting officer. In those days British administration had made it mandatory to visit the islands, under the control of Malabar district, biennially. He was there with a mission to introduce a new Cowle system for better management of ‘government land’. It is argued, in colonial wisdom, that this system improved the waste land of the islands. He also tried to persuade local people to accept poll tax instead of the traditional tree tax. And, at his innovative best, he also tried to compel a tax on fishing boats. People went mad listening to the Amin, who was appointed by the British authority. They decided to throw the Amin out of their land for acceding to such arbitrary decisions taken by the authorities in Madras. They were paying taxes to the kings and Bibis of Cannanore for doing nothing for long, but now their patience had hit the limit. The people of Minicoy, under the leadership of their village headmen, assembled at the Cutcherry. After giving some false promises, Dance could disperse them. One of his successors, R H Ellis, writes ‘As he had not sufficient force with him to repel in the event of an attack or to enforce his authority, he withdrew to the steamer under cover of night..’ and next morning [11 February 1887] he fled to Calicut. After a week Dance, with the Collector W Logan and the Assistant Superintendent of Police, Mallapuram, G E Baudry, returned to Minicoy. They were also accompanied by 100 men of the Special Forces to restore order. They came; they saw and decided to postpone all their fancy ideas indefinitely to raise the revenue collection from the tiny island. It was a big win for the people of Minicoy Island.
In 1912 again, with same kind of ambition, W A Doig, as Inspecting Officer, landed there. People of the island again made Doig flee the island. As it had happened the last time, the then Collector, C A Innes, with men of Reserve Force returned and initiated a dialogue with the people of island. The Collector gathered from his conversation that it was impossible to make the people ready to accept the changes they wanted to impose. He abolished the idea of leasing out government land [Pandaram] to individuals. He fixed a rental of Rs 1552.00 for the whole Pandaram to the people of Minicoy in common, which was accepted by them.
He also removed the Amin and his clerk whom the people of Minicoy found roguish. R H Ellis, who was the predecessor of Doig, writes- ‘A perpetual cause of unrest was removed and peace and tranquility have reigned on the island since.’
That tranquility still prevails in this island in the Arabian Sea, but you need to recognize and respect their existence. And once you get deeper into their history; you will feel pity for the books of Indian history where this island can hardly find a place. Least you can do is to google the Minicoy and find where it is on the Indian map.
Akhilesh Jha is a civil servant. the views expressed are personal