Do Mainland Indians Have the Right to Impose Our Nationalism on the People of Andaman & Nicobar?


Do Mainland Indians Have the Right to Impose Our Nationalism on the People of Andaman & Nicobar?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On December 30, during his first visit to the Union Territory of the Andaman & Nicobar islands in his four-year tenure as the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi warmly announced how he made no differentiation between Port Blair and Delhi. It’s exactly the kind of feel-good statement you’d expect a politician facing a re-election campaign to make, though I genuinely wonder if the PM would allow missile launches into a semi-deserted stretch of Delhi like the BrahMos missiles in Nicobar.

“What land but the most wasted could be used as a target for testing of the BrahMos?” writes Pankaj Sekhsaria, a researcher at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences from IIT-Delhi, who has authored two books on the archipelago. The BrahMos launch was one among many security trials that have been carried out in the Nicobars, much to the worry of environmentalists.

As a part of his visit, Modi continued the renaming trend popularised by his party – the islands Ross, Neil, and Havelock will now be officially called Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, Shaheed Dweep, and Swaraj Dweep respectively, to mark 75 years of the Indian tricolour, hoisted by Bose in Port Blair. The choice of names is no accident. Bose and the Swarajya and Swadeshi movements all have indelible associations with the Independence movement, and it is quite a coup for the ruling government to be seen to be associated with these terms, which were traditionally linked to the Grand Old Party.

This renaming has precedence, of course. In May 2002, the Vajpayee government renamed Port Blair’s airport after Veer Savarkar, who is often credited with creating Hindutva and a freedom fighter imprisoned in the Cellular Jail during the British Raj. In fact, the name “Andaman” itself some say is derived from the word “Hanuman” and according to believers of mythology, the God landed on the island on his way to Lanka. However, there are multiple possible variants for the name, including “Angaman” and “Andaban” referred to by the ancient Roman Ptolemy and Chinese I’T Sing respectively, which have been left out in the popular narrative.

But for us, it doesn’t really matter. We mainlanders have been handed the islands as an exotic tourist destination on a platter. There is a convenient package of national fervour, clear coral beaches, and warm Tamil or Bengali cuisine waiting for us. There are rides through “Jarawa-infested” sanctuaries, and Jarawa fridge magnets to take home as souvenirs.

The Andaman & Nicobar islands are a part of the Indian imagination only when we need to go on holidays. We dimly remember that the 2004 Tsunami killed nearly 3,500 people in the islands, out of which 2,800 were indigenous Nicobarese. We don’t know that the Nicobar islands are often used as missile targets by the Indian security forces. We have not realised that there has been a growing military presence in the islands, consequently destroying the extremely fragile ecological balance of this unique biosphere. We don’t want to accept that we are responsible for the systematic decimation of the indigenous population.

The truth is, this washed-out waterscape far away from all centres of power on the mainland is nothing more than a security and economic adjunct to the nation-state. Tourism is of course a lucrative front and tens of crores have been poured blindly into the region without regard for persistent problems like that of scarcity of drinking water, poor connectivity, and lack of medical aid for the locals.

The PM announced a number of development projects that have been on the table for a while, including a submarine optical fibre cable between Chennai and Port Blair, a seven-megawatt solar power plant, a model solar village, and a State Wide Area Network (SWAN) project connecting 12 major islands.

The Andaman & Nicobar islands are at best an oddity forced onto the consciousness of the subcontinent.

All this rampant development rumbles on unabated, while we barely understand the fragile, protected ecosystem of the archipelago. Yet, one dare not comment on either the renaming spree, or the rapid and uncontemplated developmental projects that the government is sanctioning, because then you would be branded an anti-national. But honestly do we mainlanders really care? For us the renaming of the islands is similar to the insurgency in Manipur, something we express outrage over only to garner social media points.

When I left the Andamans on December 29, a day before the PM’s visit, the islands were in a blockade, standing still with internet jammers and hotels pre-booked to the last room for a whole set of VIPs being flown in. On our way to the airport, our driver said something about Modi’s visit. My grandmother cut him off mid-sentence to say, “Modi nahi, Modiji boliye, woh humare Prime Minister hain.” The man was silent for a second and from there on, he made a point to add the prefix ji each time he mentioned the PM. This is exactly how mainland Indians can impose their nationalism on a population that barely feels the comforting presence of a welfare state above it.  

Everywhere we went, the presence of India was a reassuring imposition on the tourists and the settlers, as if the government had created a sanctified haven for the mainlanders to fly to. “The colourful corals of various kinds and the aboriginal tribes of these islands have been a haunting pleasure for the tourists,” writes Baban Phaley, the author of Andaman and Nicobar Islands: The Land Of Martyrs and General Knowledge. And he might as well be right.

The Andaman & Nicobar islands are at best an oddity forced onto the consciousness of the subcontinent. The archipelago’s geopolitical location makes it an ideal security and trade post, and its exoticism makes it ideal for vacations for the mainlanders. However, as a part of the nation of India, it receives only irresponsibility, forgetfulness, and exploitation.

It is as if the former penal colony was left as a bonus encash-at-will cheque for the people of India. And in one of history’s saddest footnotes, the people who have lived there for nearly 40,000 years are commodities in that transaction as well.