The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the British and Jinnah

Posted by Maddy Labels: ,

Wrangling over ownership

Historically, the Andaman Islands were dreaded by the Indians, known as the Kalapani after the infamous acts of transportation and British incarceration of Indian convicts at those remote penal colonies. It was after toying with Australia, Penang and a few other remote isles that the British finally established the cellular jail in the A&N Islands. Convicts accused of various crimes were sent out there, including scores of Moplahs from Malabar after 1921, and the British operated the jail as a profit center. During the second world war, the Japanese captured and ruled the isles until it was handed over to NSC Bose and the INA. After the war, when deliberations started on Indian independence as well as the partition of Pakistan, the ownership of territories such as the Laccadive and Minicoy islands as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were hotly debated. It hides many stories and mysteries, and is also home to a Moplah community who were displaced from Ernad and resettled there. These were the people who elected to remain in the islands, people who still talk in that old Moplah dialect of Malayalam, living somewhat frozen in time. In a previous article, we studied the discussions as related to the Laccadives, now we can get to the tale of the contested A&N islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands is mentioned in the diaries of the Chinese Buddhist monk I-Ching dating to the 7th century, the Arab travelers of the 9th century and even of Marco Polo (CE. 1254-1324). The islands were part of the Chola Empire of Rajendra Chola (1014 to 1042 and were used by them as a strategic base for expeditions against the Srivijaya Empire (Indonesia). The Cholas called the Andaman Islands Ma-Nakkavaram (great naked land) and Necuverann (Nicobar). Ancient tales, vastly exaggerated, of cannibals devouring shipwrecked survivors provide a ghoulish backdrop. 15th-century Chinese sailors took notice and Ma Huan writes - The natives on it are of a color resembling black lacquer; they eat men alive, so that sailors dare not anchor on this coast. For a while, the Andaman was known as the kaffir island. In the post medieval times, changed hands from Danish (Nicobar was new Denmark) to the British. In the 17th century, the Maratha Sea warrior Kahnoji Angre operated out of the islands briefly. Austria briefly tried a take over in 1784. Italy then made a failed attempt at buying the Nicobar Islands from Denmark between 1864 and 1865. Denmark's presence in the territory ended formally on 16th October 1868 when it sold the rights on the Nicobar Islands to Britain, which made them part of British India in 1869. In 1872 the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were united under a single chief commissioner at Port Blair.

The story of the movement of people to Andaman is a sad and cruel one; especially during the initial century of its existence, as Andaman was to serve as the English Penal colony for Indians who acted against them. The English had chosen isolation to be a part of incarceration and as far as Indians were concerned, the Andaman Islands and the Hijli camp (near Kharagpur) were particularly infamous. This actually followed earlier attempts of transporting convicts to Singapore and other places like Botany Bay in Australia, where they were tasked with menial work as well as hard labor. Interestingly, the aspect of isolation was arrived at as people abhorred the prospect of back-breaking labor in faraway places from which there was no return (for lifers), especially in the case of Hindu middle-class caste conscious political prisoners not used to work or doing things like crossing the black waters or Kala Pani, against the tenets of early religious texts (see my article on ocean crossing taboo). Different classes of rebels were transferred to Andaman, Moplah rebels, the Wahabi movement convicts, those convicted of the Rumpa revolt of Andhra as well as those from the Tharawaddy rebellion of Burma. As an administrator, CB Lewis was to note drily - Natives of India bear transplantation badly in all circumstances, and, as prisoners, have lost heart and hope, and succumb without a struggle.

Moplahs, who started as prisoners in the islands, planned to stay back even after the expiry of their sentences and brought in their families from Kerala. They built villages and contributed their might to the development of these Islands. But the whole structure and situation changed with the start of the second world war and the entry of Japan into it. Port Blair was bombed in 1942 and the British evacuated in March 1942. In the 20th century, it became a convenient location to deport prominent members of India's independence movement, such as Veer Savarkar.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands were occupied by Japan during World War II and placed under the authority of the Arzi Hukumat-e-Azad Hind (Provisional Government of Free India) headed by Subhas Chandra Bose. He did visit the islands during the war, and renamed them as Shaheed (Martyr) & Swaraj (Self-rule). After a flag-raising in 1943, General Loganathan, of the Indian National Army, was named Governor of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, duly annexed to the Provisional Government.  After Indian Independence, the penal colony was shuttered. Most of the Andaman Islands became part of the Republic of India in 1950 and was declared as a union territory of the nation in 1956, while the Preparis Island and Coco Islands became part of Burma. Today it is a lovely tourist destination.

What follows is an account of how the heated debate between India, Pakistan and Britain ended and how A&N became Indian territory. It was perhaps forgotten until then and appeared in the Independence bill draft for the first time in May 1947 as the India and Burma Committee deliberated. In a covering note sent with the Bill from the India Office to the Viceroy’s Private Secretary attention was drawn to two points, one whether the Indian political leaders should be consulted on the terms of the Bill and the other, the extreme secrecy of clause 16 relating to the Andaman Islands.

The demand came from the Defense Department and the whole story can be condensed simply as below – The Minister of Defense said the islands were of vital importance in the scheme of Commonwealth Defense and the Committee considered nothing should be done to suggest H.M.G. accepted the view that they could be regarded as an organic part of British India. It was then noted on 10 June in the India Office that a specific provision would be needed in the Bill if the islands were not to pass under Indian sovereignty, together with observations on likely Indian reactions if one were included. The Secretary of State submitted the question to the India and Burma Committee and the Viceroy commented that ‘any attempt by His Majesty’s Government to claim the Andaman Islands as colonies, to be treated in the same way as Aden, will cause an absolute flare-up throughout the length and breadth of India’.

A detailed study reveals many missives between bureaucrats, dignitaries and departmental officers on this subject, so I will attempt to provide a brief overview of the important events.

June 10th - The India office meeting minutes recorded that the Andamans should not pass under the sovereignty of the new Dominion of India. They commented that it was better to suppress the bill from Nehru and the Congress, so that there are no flare up over British claims. As the Viceroy was flying home on 16th August, they concluded that ‘The separation of the Andamans must then take place before that, concluding – we have roughly two months in which to get the whole matter cleared up and the Colonial Office’.

But the Pakistani negotiators got to know that something was up, and Mountbatten noted that Liaquat was adamant that Andamans were part of the overall assets of India, still to be divided between Pakistan and the rest of India. He added - It is, however, becoming increasingly clear to me that any attempt by His Majesty’s Government to claim the Andaman Islands as colonies, to be treated in the same way as Aden, will cause an absolute flare-up throughout the length and breadth of India, and will probably call forth violent opposition from Pakistan as well as from the rest of India.

My own position would be permanently undermined if I were to act on behalf of His Majesty’s Government in this matter; it will therefore have to be left to the High Commissioner or some other authority. But I believe that the only reasonable solution would be to suggest some form of joint control or a leasing of the naval and air bases under a treaty. Yet another alternative might be to refer the case of these islands to U.N.O. or some form of arbitration. The one thing I am quite certain about is that any high-handed action by His Majesty’s Government about these islands at this moment will destroy all the good feeling which now exists between the two countries, and that we must be careful to avoid dealing with any items appropriate for a treaty in a piecemeal way.

On the other hand, the Secretary of state was already planning on preparing for British administration of the Islands - If the islands are to be taken away from India, immediate provision must be made for their administration. The Ministry of Defense and the Colonial Office have been consulted. The Ministry of Defense consider that it is for the Colonial Office to take charge of the administrative side of the matter. I think there is no doubt that the Colonial Office is the only Department which can undertake this task. But he also suggested - It is clear therefore that we have to make definite choice now between (a) separating Andamans and Nicobars from India by British legislation (b) including islands in territory transferred to one of new Indian Dominions (presumably India as distinct from Pakistan) and relying solely on subsequent negotiation to secure our defense requirements.

He also warned the Viceroy Mountbatten - Defense interests are of extreme importance and we do not wish to be placed in position in which islands have been left by Parliament as part of India and we subsequently have to negotiate as to defense requirements. At same time we realize that simply to legislate islands out of India before appointed day without consultation with Indians may give rise to strong reactions from Congress.

June 13th - Many things happened behind the scenes and the matter somehow leaked to the press - A statement appeared in the Times of India on June 9th saying that it is reliably understood that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are to be ceded to British Government under the new arrangements.

The Defense Ministry would not be cowed down - These islands which are sparsely inhabited coral strips assume strategic importance from the air point of view if we find we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances they would be essential for our air reinforcement and transport route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. On the assumption that we cannot use India, the only practicable route to the Far East is through Ceylon. From Ceylon eastwards we have the facilities we need assuming that we can continue to rely on the use of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which are excluded from the transfer of power to the successor Indian Governments by the provisions of the draft India Bill. We can only provide adequate navigational aids and an emergency landing strip by making use of the Laccadive Islands. Without them regular air communication to the Far East would be entirely dependent on the continued and full co operation of the Indian authorities. Since we cannot assume that the successor States in India, even if they remain Dominions, will give us continued and full co-operation in the provision of the necessary facilities for the air transport route to the Far East, we must re-ensure by means of an alternative. The only alternative is the retention of the Laccadive Islands. We therefore conclude that legislative provision should be made for the transfer of the Laccadive Islands from the Government of Madras to the Administration of H.M.G. in the United Kingdom.

Based on the above, the draft bill was submitted for discussions – with the A&N islands covered under Clause 16. Excluding the Andamans from the territories to be transferred to India.

17th June - Mountbatten was firm in opposing this view. The department minutes (VP Menon was part of the meeting) recorded thus - His excellency said that he had been amazed to find in the Draft Bill provision that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands should cease to be part of India after 15th August. But it was not for him to attempt to disguise the intentions and desires of His Majesty’s Government in this respect. He considered that it would be better to allow this paragraph to be circulated to the leaders; to come out into the open and then to try to negotiate an agreement with them. Whoever took the document round to the Indian Leaders should draw their particular attention to this paragraph. They should point out that Aden had ceased to be part of India under the Act of 1935; and that it was a similar procedure which His Majesty’s Government now envisaged with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands; but that, if the leaders wished to contest this, some alternative means of satisfying His Majesty’s Government would have to be found, his excellency said that, so far as he knew, all His Majesty’s Government really wanted were harbors and airfields on the Islands. It would have to be a matter of negotiation. In the meanwhile, an alternative draft should be prepared. Was there, incidentally, any chance of splitting the difference, leaving the Andaman Islands in India, and taking over Nancowry and the Nicobars? He then authorized C.V.S. (Chief of Viceroy’s staff Lord Ismay) to conduct or arrange any negotiations which he thought fit with Pandit Nehru and Mr Jinnah, concerning the Draft Bill; and in this connection drew particular attention to the way (recorded above) in which to deal with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Committee thought that, in view of the advice given by the Viceroy, it would not be possible to pursue the suggestion of separating the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from India. We should have to try to secure our defense requirements by negotiation, and on this point the views of the Viceroy should be sought. There were various possible courses of action; we might seek to lease bases; we might try to negotiate a condominium; or it was possible that Burmese interest in the strategic area of the Indian Ocean might be recognized by a tripartite agreement for the strategic use of the Islands.

Meanwhile, the Muslim league staked their claim on 18th June claiming that they are entitled to a share in Andamans as an all-India asset. Another tricky situation crept in. The British wanted access to Gurkha troops with permission from the King of Nepal. Mountbatten feared that as soon as Nehru learned of the British missives to take over A&N, he would talk to Nepal and prohibit the access to Gurkha troops.

19th June - Mountbatten put his foot down stating - I have no other course but to press strongly for the complete exclusion from the draft Bill of any reference to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I must ask that I should be left to pursue this matter by negotiation.

25th June - The Military rose up in arms - The Chiefs of Staff asked me to let you know that they are very worried about the line taken by the Viceroy about the Andamans and Nicobars. They attach such importance to these Islands that they feel grave anxiety that we may lose any control over them if the matter is allowed to be left open for negotiations at some distant date. They feel strongly that some reference to the Andamans and Nicobars should be included in the Bill.

The Committee noted also that the Viceroy had come to the firm conclusion that no provision should be included in the Bill about the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In his view we should have to seek to obtain such strategic facilities as we might require by negotiations through the High Commissioner for India in due course. The Committee thought, however, that the Viceroy should be asked to put to the Indian leaders the clause to the effect that these Islands would belong to the two Indian Dominions jointly pending agreement, unless he was convinced that this would have definitely unfortunate repercussions. It could be put to them on the basis that His Majesty’s Government thought that this would be a convenient arrangement as between the two Dominions. The Viceroy should, however, be informed that, if the Indian leaders could not agree to it, we should be prepared to omit any reference to these Islands from the Bill and to leave our interests to be dealt with by negotiation with the new Dominion of India alone.

2nd July – Pakistani negotiators dig in - They strongly resent the inclusion of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Dominion of India and claim drat for geographical and strategical reasons they should be included in Pakistan. They point out that the Islands were given no representation in the existing Constituent Assembly and that their constitutional future had not been discussed at all. It was not, they say, till they saw the Bill that they realized that the Islands would be included in the Dominion of India. The leaders pointed out that it would be open [to] India to refuse to allow, e.g. the passage through India of Pakistan troops proceeding from Western Pakistan to Eastern Pakistan or vice versa; that in that 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 formally protested on 3rd July- One result of the manner in which the Dominions of Pakistan and India have been defined is that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been allotted to India although they have never formed the subject of discussion or agreement between the two parties at any time and this sudden inclusion in and allotment to India raises a very grave issue. Neither historically nor geographically they are part of India. They were British possessions which were administered by the Central Government, but were to be excepted from the competence of the Federal Ministers, being reserved to the Governor-General under the Constitution Act of 1935. Therefore, they are not in the same category as the other Chief Commissioner’s Provinces. The majority of the population of these Islands consists of tribes who are not connected with the peoples of India by ethnical, religious or cultural ties. Pakistan’s claims to these Islands are very strong, inasmuch as the only channel of communication between the eastern and western parts of Pakistan will be by sea and these Islands occupy an important strategic position on the sea route involved. They could also serve to provide convenient refueling bases for vessels plying between the two parts of Pakistan.

On the other hand, no such pressing considerations could be urged in favor of allotting them to the Dominion of India. These Islands should consequently form part of Pakistan. If no decision is feasible on this point immediately, these Islands should be specifically excluded from the scope of the present bill to be dealt with later on separately.

The viceroy was abrupt in his reply - I am unable to recommend any change in respect of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Nehru stepped in on 4th July - As regards the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, their total population, according to the census of 1941, was about 34,000, of whom about 12,000 were Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists; about 11,000 aboriginal tribes; about 8,000 Muslims; and about 3,000 others. It will thus be seen that they are very predominantly a non-Muslim area; it is not even correct to say that the majority of the population consists of tribes. In the judicial sphere, their administration is for certain purposes linked with the High Court at Calcutta. In other respects, they are administered as a Chief Commissioner’s Province. The islands do not lie on the direct route between the two parts of Pakistan. If they are of strategic importance to Pakistan, much more so are they to the Dominion of India. The claim that these islands should be allotted to Pakistan is therefore wholly untenable. There can 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 reacted on 5th July– Mountbatten records - He handed me a telegram addressed to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, (Churchill and Atlee) protesting against the exclusion of the Andamans from the Bill. I promised to transmit this. He said he would have a further protest to make on there having been no provision of machinery to ensure that the assets were fairly divided and that their transfer was correctly implemented. Jinnah stated after a preamble – I pointed out above facts on seeing Bill and suggested that if no immediate decision was feasible, islands should be excluded from scope of Bill and dealt with separately. Surprised to find no alteration in Bill as published this morning. Urge most strongly this grave injustice to Pakistan be rectified in Parliament

The decision was finally taken in favor of India - Despite the representations of the Chiefs of Staff who pressed strongly for the islands to be retained by Britain for strategic reasons and the Minister of Defense, the India and Burma Committee 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. The Atlee government sided with the Viceroy’s plan to retain A&N with India.

After this, further discussions moved on to other topics of grave importance and the transfer of power and partitions took place. Not much happened otherwise at A&N, there was a mention of a flag hoisting at Port Blair, and in 1948, the Radar and RAF detachment at Port Blair was moved to Car Nicobar. As KM Panikkar had previously stated, India to be a world power, has to dominate the blue waters and A&N was always an important step in that strategic plan. But in the process, the transfer of the Cocos islands to Burma, in hindsight, was not a great idea, for Burma succumbed to Chinese pressure and allowed Chinese SIGINT installations in those islands.

Going back to the Transfer of power deliberations, there is no mention of the Coco islands or Preparis (two islands to the North of the Andamans, separated by a 40-mile sound), in the discussions. The British colonial authorities in Calcutta transferred jurisdiction of the Coco Islands, which at the time had little more than a lighthouse on them, to British Burma, then an Indian province, as early as in 1882. With its control from Rangoon since 1882, the islands were officially part of British Burma and apparently, the islands became a self-governing crown colony even after Burma was separated from British India in 1937.  So, Cocos being part of Burma already, was never on the table during the transfer of power discussions in 1947.


The transfer of power 1942-7 - Volume XI