Why you should care
Before India won independence, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had their own roller-coaster ride.
It was out of the frying pan and into the fire. In 1942, the Andaman and Nicobar Island archipelago — ruled by the British, along with the rest of India — was a key strategic point for Japanese troops. Their location, where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea, would be essential in Japan’s fight against British troops in World War II, a gateway to the rest of India. And thus, the propaganda machine set to work.
It was well aimed. The slogan of “Asia for the Asians” got locals and Indian nationalists on board with Japan’s plan, even as the British on the island, perturbed by airplanes overhead and submarines circling their territory, were keen to get out. The line had a “two-pronged mission,” writes Rabin Roychowdhury in Black Days in Andaman & Nicobar Islands, “and that was to incite hatred toward the British as imperialist and then to portray themselves as a savior and garner people’s support.”
That savior image, however, soon came crashing down. A few days after the Japanese landed, a young local man, Zulfikar Ali, also known as Sunny, turned a rifle on some Japanese soldiers he feared were looting the local shops. The troops soon got their vengeance: Sunny was publicly lynched. Meanwhile, locals were forced to provide free labor, and women were sexually enslaved by the invading soldiers.
When the Japanese sensed they were losing the war, they prepared to leave the island by shooting 750 civilians and pushing others into shark-infested waters, hoping to ensure that no witnesses survived to speak of their crimes.
Despite this reign of terror, the Japanese continued to woo India, hoping to bolster the efforts of the Axis powers. In December 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Indian National Army (INA) and a tireless Indian nationalist, arrived at the islands. He christened them Shahid Dweep and Swaraj Dweep and raised the tricolor, claiming them as the first free territories of India.
But when he sailed to Singapore, hoping to marshal further support for a free India, the Japanese stayed and continued to run amok. Bose — who died in a 1945 plane crash (conspiracy theories abounded) — claimed he was unaware of the atrocities, though many scholars are dubious. According to Ajay Saini, a researcher and writer on South Asian history and politics, most records from the period have long since been destroyed, leaving big gaps in modern knowledge.
What is known is that in 1944, Diwan Singh, a dissident imprisoned by the Japanese, was tortured to death. Another 44 INA members were shot on suspicion of spying. A year later — when the Japanese sensed they were losing the war — they prepared to leave the island by shooting 750 civilians and pushing others into shark-infested waters, hoping to ensure that no witnesses survived to speak of their crimes. The massacre ceased when Japan surrendered — at which point it was the British army who, ironically, marched in to liberate the island. The islands reverted to their earlier names.
It would be two more years before the islands got a third liberation. This one was from, rather than by, the British. On August 15, 1947, India gained control of the territory as the subcontinent was partitioned and British rule ended. This third liberation stuck, and the islands — 572 strong, though only a few dozen are inhabited — have remained part of the nation. There are a few hundred indigenous islanders, many in tribes like the Sentinelese, which refuse contact with outsiders completely.
But 72 years after their third freedom, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is now revisiting the islands’ history. In December 2018, he announced yet another name switch: Neil and Havelock islands, commemorating British military officers or surveyors, have now been re-renamed Shaheed and Swaraj, and Ross Island now bears the name Subhash Chandra Bose island.
“By renaming these islands, they are giving a message to the people in India,” says Saini, “that they are nationalist and the names that were given to these islands were given by the British and the British were oppressors.” Strategically important and weighted with immense emotional value, the islands — and their very names — are once again being used for political purposes.