Saturday, December 12, 2009


by Pankaj Sekhsaria

THE LIGHT OF ANDAMANS, Vol 34, Issue 20, December 11, 2009

The recent call by the All India Forward Block (The Light of Andamans, Nov. 25, 2009) to rename the Andaman & Nicobar Islands as Shaheed and Swaraj is neither new nor unexpected. It has been around in the islands since the 1950s and more recently even others like historian Swati Dasgupta, for instance, have made the same call (‘Remembering Kaalapani’, The Times of India, May 7, 2005)

If these calls are heeded, these islands could well see a monumental shift in their present namescape. The island named after Sir Hugh Rose, the man who finally cornered Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi after the mutiny of 1857, could soon be named Laxmibai Dweep or maybe Rani Jhansi Dweep. Havelock Island named after the British General who re-took Lucknow from Nana Sahib could well be named Nana Sahib Dweep and the direct reference to the call by Subhas Chandra Bose is the most evoked one in any case.
The Rani of Jhansi or Nana Sahib may have known little of the islands (or even that they existed) but that surely is of little consequence.

This group of 500 odd islands scattered in an arc in the Bay of Bengal, are certainly fertile territory for a massive, even lip smacking renaming exercise – Tantya Tope, Mangal Pandey, Subhas Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar…how about Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi….the list is endless; one’s imagination the only limitation and why not – reclamation of one’s history, after all, is believed to be one of the most important and effective tools of nation building.

There is one hitch however, a question that renaming enthusiasts might want to first consider – How does one reclaim what was never yours in the first place? The islands, located far away from mainland India can only be considered a gift that British left India with when the empire disintegrated. There are undeniable connections of India’s freedom movement with the islands; best symbolized by the mutiny of 1857 and the Cellular Jail. There can be no denying that and neither can one deny the close bonds that a large section of the country feels with these islands, but, and this is the crux of the argument here, all put together this history does not go beyond a 150 years. We might want to rename Havelock Island in the memory of Nana Sahib, but is it not worth asking whether the island that is today called Havelock had some earlier name too?

Let it not be forgotten, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been the traditional home of a number of aboriginal communities - the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese (in the Andamans), the Nicobaris and the Shompen (in the Nicobars) that have been living here for nearly 50,000 years. The 150 years that we want to claim now is like the blink of an eye in comparison. Injustices have been done and continue to be done to these communities in a manner that has few parallels in India. Their lands have been taken, their forests converted to plywood and agricultural plantations, and the fabric of their societies so violently torn apart that extinction looms on the horizon for many of them. The Great Andamanese who were at least 5000 individuals when the 1857 mutiny happened are today less than 40 people. The Onge who were counted at about 600 individuals in 1901 census are only a 100 people today. There are critical issues of survival that these communities are faced with – problems that are complex and will be difficult to resolve. If indeed there is energy and interest in doing something in the islands and for the islanders these are lines that we need to be thinking on.

These are people, like indigenous peoples everywhere, who have their own histories, their own societies, and yes, their own names for the islands and places. First the British called something else and now we want to call something else again. If indeed the places have to be renamed, should not an effort first be made to find out what the original people had first named them, why they were so named, what the significances were and which names are still in use by them. Should that not be the work of scholarship and historical studies? Why is that this is not a history that political parties want to correct? It would be a far more challenging and worthwhile exercise and perhaps not a very difficult one either because a lot of information does already exist.

If indeed the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph. How’s that for a perspective and a context?

*Pankaj Sekhsaria is the author of Troubled Islands – Writings on the indigenous peoples and environment of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands