Friday, August 29, 2008



The India Office Records and Library, London, provides a detailed account of the rebellion of 1st April 1859 by the first batch of convicts brought to the Andaman Islands. This information is extracted from the petition of Lalla Mathura Das who saved the life of Dr. JP Walker on the occasion of the rebellion and wanted some ‘Jageer’ (property) in return; and the recommendation of Walker in consideration of his loyalty and invaluable service. Lalla Mathura Das petitioned:

During the outbreak of convicts on the 1st of April 1859, I exerted myself so much to suppress it that I was severely wounded, my life having been despaired of for some time, and I was so far successful that I saved the life of the late Superintendent, and to preserve in proper order the arrangements made for the well being of the Settlement. For these services the Superintendent was pleased to recommend me for promotion. Several convicts who had aided us in suppression of the outbreak were ordered to be set at large as a reward for their good conduct; I beg therefore most humbly to express a hope that my humble services will likewise be rewarded by the grant of Jageers & c.”

Dr. JP Walker, formerly Superintendent of the Agra Central Prison and lately Superintendent of the Penal Settlement at Port Blair, wrote in his letter of recommendation:

Lalla Mathura Das, aged 32, of the Khutree caste, was employed in the Agra Central Prison as Accountant and Cashier from 1847 to 1851, when I promoted him to be Darogha or Deputy Jailor, an appointment he held until transferred as an Overseer on the formation of the Penal Settlement at Port Blair… But it was during the mutiny and rebellion, when all other qualities unalloyed with active loyalty were worthless, that the sterling qualities of Lalla Mathura Das were conspicuous.”

In March 1858, Lalla Mathura Das accompanied me as an Overseer to Andamans, and during eighteen months performed in a most zealous manner the multifarious duties, which from the want of establishment necessarily devolved upon him, and thereby contributed greatly to the successful organization of the Penal Settlement formed under extraordinary difficulties.”

On the 1st of April 1859, when a section of the convicts attempted to assassinate me in office as a prelude to the massacre of the Naval Guard, and the seizure of the Store and Guard Vessels in the port, the Lalla acted with great presence of mind, bravery and devotion during which he was wounded in the shoulder by a blow from a felling axe aimed at his head, and had his hand transfixed by a fixed bayonet in parrying a thrust at his belly. This momentary repulse of the assassins saved my life from the most imminent danger when unconsciously I was being aimed at from behind with a loaded rifle of the disarmed European Sentry, and enabled me to defend myself and receive assistance from well-disposed convicts in the neighborhood. As it was the crowd around the Naval Guard Barrack on the neighboring hill, waiting for the concerted signal of my death, was only kept off by a threatened discharge of grape; and had my death happened, which was considered the sine qua non to the combination of the whole of the convicts; the result would have been serious. The contingency, however, humanly speaking, was averted by Lalla Mathura Das.”

Lalla Mathura Das is the only Hindoo, of any pretensions of caste that I am aware of, who has volunteered for service in the Andamans, and as might have been expected he was subjected to the obloquy of his friends and relatives for so doing, for on his return to Agra it was only after a successful defence before a Caste-Punchayut that he was able to enter his family residence. This useful precedence was obtained, however, at the cost of much anxiety and money.”

In conclusion, as regards qualifications, I may state that from being well versed in accounts, and from having been employed more or less in judicial proceedings during the last nine years, he appears to possess the qualification for becoming a good Deputy Collector.”

It was the killing of Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, by a Wahabi convict Sher Ali, in 1872, murderous attacks upon Portman in 1879 and RC Temple in 1896 that prompted the British Government of India to begin constructing a Cellular Jail in 1896, which was completed sometime between 1906 and 1910.

Such organized resistance of the colonial state continued throughout the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008




It is true that there is no other word in the human civilization which carries the depth and meaning equivalent to the word “Freedom”. This word closets a tale of intense physical torment and mental torture committed to suppress it. History has witnessed that those who were denied this right, registered strong resistance to achieve it. They were subjected to the worst barbaric brutalities, but it could never stop man’s endeavor for freedom.

Today let me tell you about the Herculean spirit of resistance of the convicts/freedom fighters who were sentenced and transported to the Andaman Islands by the British colonial regime in India. Let’s start with a little bit of insight into the very motive behind the penal settlement undertaken by the British Government here.

The idea of penal settlement had never been present in the minds of pre-British Indian rulers. It was an idea, which originated along with the beginning of colonialism in India; and abolished only after India achieved freedom from British imperialism. The sole purpose behind opening the penal settlement was to segregate the dangerous ideas detrimental to the very existence of colonial state.

The popular notion of the British colonial state of yesterday was that the hardened criminals, whether challenging the colonial state from within as colonial lawbreakers or from without as rebels, both, were not suitable for the well being of a civilized society, and therefore must be segregated and should be kept under strict vigil and surveillance. Even the colonial mindset of today’s India is not altogether different in their viewpoint while dealing with post-colonial criminals and rebels, the very creation of the society itself.

However strange it may appear, it is a fact that the society created by those so-called convicts is far better in comparison to the one created by the so-called civilized society, which ostracized them as outlaws. The Andaman society of today is completely free from the viruses of communal strife, caste divide and criminalization of politics, the evils vociferously eating the contemporary society of the Indian mainland. Unlike mainland, the people of Andaman & Nicobar Islands are by and large hardworking, honest, simple and helpful and strong believers in the values of equality of caste, creed and gender.

It is a pleasant surprise for any visitor from mainland to find such a strange society growing within the very territory of the Indian Republic mostly replete with the innovated culture of criminality, corruption, and disgusting values of inequality of caste, creed and gender.

It is also not to be forgotten that the penal society of Andamans was created by transportation of convicts from all parts and sects of colonial India. Now, after sixty one years of emancipation from colonial bondage one cannot get rid of the burden of responsibility by shifting it to the colonial policies.
Does it not provide sufficient ground for academicians, scholars, administrators and politicians to cater about the grounds of such discrepancies in the development of two societies?

It certainly prompts us to arrive at a conclusion that the popular philosophy behind crime and criminality, whether against a colonial state or an independent state and society, itself requires to be redefined in order to understand the difference between a society created by the so-called convicts and one created by their abhorrers.

Philosophically speaking, the actual objective of history writing is self-knowledge i.e. developing knowledge about the process of all round development of the society itself. The history of penal settlement in Andamans should be studied in order to understand the coming up of a society altogether different from the one that came into being in post-colonial Indian mainland.

The present day Andamans are a creation of the convicts, both criminals and rebels, transported during the colonial regime. The transported hardened criminals indeed had no vision of their own regarding an ideal society but without qualms, they were the products of the social and economic disparity of their own society; and the rebels naturally had a vision of a different society and state to which they belonged.

The common trait among both of them was the spirit of resistance burning against British colonial state and its policies. In the history of penal settlement, we find continuity and maturing of this spirit of resistance throughout the existence of the penal society in the Andamans.

The resistance began simultaneously along with the beginning of the settlement. Captain Henry Man took control of the islands of Andaman on 22nd January 1858 and the first batch of 200 convicts arrived at the Chatham Island of Port Blair on 10th March 1858 accompanied by Dr. JP Walker, the first Superintendent of Penal Settlement.

The original nature of resistance resorted to by them were attempts to escape at the cost of their lives, attacks on colonial officers and even rebellion against the existing state at the Settlement. At present, we have very few details available about their attempts to escape in which majority of them were either killed by local tribes or vanished in the death trap of the surrounding jungles or engulfed by the roaring waves of the Andaman Sea or hanged to death by Walker after being recaptured, as I’ve illustrated earlier.

However, comprehensive information is available in the records of India Office Records and Library, London, which provides a detailed account of the rebellion of 1st April 1859.

Thursday, August 21, 2008




In a solitary cell of the Robben Island prison, a tall, powerfully built man sat in front of his desk and gazed intently at the picture of a woman, nude except for a piece of red cloth tied round her neck. On the desk, neatly arranged, were thick books and writing materials. Behind him, on the wall were other photographs. The narrow cell had a barred door and a high ventilator typical of most colonial jails. The man has spent eighteen years in the cell. The man was Nelson Mandela.

Could there be a connection between Nelson Mandela and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands?

At the outset, it may appear preposterous. Mandela never came to the Islands. India was already a free country when he started the fight against the apartheid regime of South Africa. However, on second thought, some similarities do emerge.

Mandela, of course, was a freedom fighter of South Africa, much like the freedom fighters that were sent to the Andaman Islands. He too fought against foreign rule based on racial discrimination and exploitation of the majority by a small White minority regime. He too was exiled to the notorious Robben Island prison just as our own freedom fighters were sent to the Viper Island prison or the Cellular Jail. He too was subjected to the same kind of tortures meted out to our own freedom fighters – solitary confinement, hard labour, cruel punishment and humiliation.

But, did he, during his confinement on Robben Island, chance upon any reference to the Andaman & Nicobar Islands?

A reading of the epoch making autobiography of Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, throws up some interesting facts.

During the long years of incarceration on Robben Island, to beat the solitude and boredom, Mandela would read books, write letters, and fantasize about what he would do after his release from prison. Gazing upon the pictures of his loved ones and writing letters to them was one way of escape from solitude. In a letter to his wife Winnie, he writes:

Your beautiful photo stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. … Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond affection of such wonderful ladies?” - pp. 591-92


Nolitha’ was the name Mandela invented for the woman in the photo he kept on his desk. In a letter to his daughter Zindzi, Mandela writes:

By the way, has Mom ever told you about Nolitha, the other lady in my cell from the Andaman Islands? … She regards the pygmy beauty as some sort of rival and hardly suspects that I took the picture out of the National Geographic.” P.592


The National Geographic referred was the July 1975 issue that carried an exclusive photo feature on the tribes of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands by the famous photographer Raghubir Singh. In one of the photos, Raghubir Singh captures a Jarawa (one of the six aboriginal tribes from the A & N Islands) belle in moment of spontaneous merriment. It was this photo that mesmerized Mandela and made him give her a name, and also a place in his cell along with the photo of his wife.

Mandela’s sudden transfer from Robben Island, his release and election as the first black president of South Africa is history. Nolitha was forgotten, till she surfaced again in 2004. Between the pages of one of the two notebooks Mandela used for drafting the letters he wrote while in Robben Island prison was found the same picture.

A prison guard on Robben Island who used to censor the letters of the prisoners took away the books and kept them with him for about 23 years before returning them. He could have sold them and made a fortune but his conscience did not permit him. Mandela recognized the books as his own and Nolitha too. When asked why he kept the picture, Mandela said he saw in the exuberance of the woman a “celebration of life”.

What could have been on Mandela’s mind when on December 26, 2004, a couple of months after the rediscovery of the photo, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were devastated by the tsunami?

Monday, August 18, 2008




It was a golden opportunity to bring the oppressor and the oppressed together – and their families too. It would have been a rare opportunity to see them together in the changed circumstances. The experiences of surviving British Officers and their family members would have enriched our understanding of their mind and the policies pursued during that period. Impartial evaluation of history needs dispassionate understanding of both sides of the story.

Golden Jubilee Celebration of the notorious Cellular Jail was a golden opportunity to showcase the 100 years of its existence both as a penitentiary and a National Memorial. It was not a national but an international event that could have both sentimental and tourist interest.

Thousands of freedom fighters were lodged in the infamous Cellular Jail in its history of 100 years. But the Andaman Administration and the Department of Art & Culture could not go beyond the Ex-Andaman Political Prisoners Fraternity Circle which has been in the limelight ever since the destruction of the jail was stopped in 1967. Questioned about the other prisoners of Cellular Jail, Ms Rashida Iqbal, a teacher of the Department of Education on perennial deputation to Department of Art & Culture had this to say: “We invited applications and waited for six months. None other came forward. There are only about 650 ‘enlisted’ freedom fighters incarcerated in the jail.”

What a pity! The applications were for grant of pension and other perks to freedom fighters. Those who had participated in the freedom struggle as a sacred duty towards their motherland are those supremely self-respecting sons of Mother India who abhor claiming or demanding any material gain for that sacred duty. I wonder how they could be expected to do so. Such people, quite obviously, did not queue up for pension and pelf. The state in its wisdom decided to strike their names off the list of freedom fighters. Those who claimed their pound of flesh for their real or imaginary involvement in the freedom struggle only stood in queue for hours to collect their shawls, plaques and certificates – and the attendant material gains.

There are people who had participated in such anti-British rebellions and uprisings that chose to settle down in the Islands, raised families and died in anonymity, never ever claiming any favour from the state. One such name is that of Pandu Padal Bonangi, a proud member of Alluri Sitaramaraju group of Manyam Rebellion fame. He was incarcerated during 1922-32 along with five of his brother rebels.

After his release, he settled down at Birchganj in South Andaman, lived a healthy life and died in late eighties. He is survived by five sons – Dharamraj, Kesu Ram, Arjun, Shivraj, Dhanush and two daughters Neela & Krishna. Bhimraj, another son and a daughter are no more. He was known simply as Pandu or Pandu Padal.

This is one name. There might be many more. Only a sincere effort is needed to trace them and accord them the pride of place they deserve.

There are the Moplahs from very recent history. They have made their presence felt in every sphere in the Islands life and culture. Their names are also available and the families too can be identified easily. They too were not considered by the Administration to be worthy enough to sit with the Fraternity Circle.

The history of Cellular Jail is incomplete also without the participation of those who managed and administered the jail during those tempestuous years. They might have been tyrants, sadists and psychopaths drawing pleasure out of human misery. But they too were inseparable part of the whole. No race can be condemned as a whole. There are good people as there are bad ones. If there are brutes, there are philanthropists, as well. There were also those who empathized with the prisoners, tried to help them out, stood by them. And some of them paid with their career for being soft to the prisoners.

We missed a rare opportunity. In fact, Centenary of the Cellular Jail was a gigantic canvas and pigmies were entrusted to paint it. What better could one expect? Their vision does not go beyond song and dance. It was a solemn occasion for deep contemplation. What should have been a pan-territorial affair with massive participation of the people, turned out to be a pure and unadulterated official function with rows reserved for very important and not so important persons, speeches, bands and felicitation!. They ended up insulting the freedom fighters and this must sound highly upsetting and irksome to all those who are true Indians and above all – true humans at heart and in deed.

During the Centenary of the Penal Settlement in the Andamans in 1958, India Republic was just born. Nobody even remembered it, perhaps. But with the kind of people at the helm of affairs, I was sure last year that the 150 years of the First War of Independence last year (2007) and the 150 years of the Penal Settlement this year would suffer the same fate. And right I was. In a nutshell, on both the occasions, whatever little the Administration could find time to do was nothing but a theatre of the absurd. Even normal birthday parties are celebrated with a better fervor and flamboyant memorabilia.

You need people with vision, a sense of history and a vivid imagination to conceive programs and events of such magnitude. And an undying faith too in what they do!

Friday, August 15, 2008




In his report in 1864, Sir Robert Napier recorded out of 8035 convicts at Port Blair 2900 died. 612 presumed dead. Describing the condition as “deplorable beyond comprehension”, he recorded that the situation could have been avoided by making better housing arrangements. They were accommodated in tents and exposed to elements. When huts were constructed, there was hardly any improvement. The sides were open. The torrential rain accompanied by winds of high velocity could easily penetrate inside. The civil surgeon’s record says, “During rains not even one third of the convicts could keep himself or his clothes dry.” Hospital was dirty and the patients clothes scanty and filthy.

Sir Napier further recorded, “the high rate of mortality was due to moral depression resulting from exile, the effects of a new and severe climate, malaria, bad and insufficient shelter, clothing and want of dry clothes to put on when they got wet from frequent heavy showers, want of proper cleanliness, want of conservancy about the dwelling”. He also found the subsistence of ‘one anna’ and ‘nine paise’ not enough to feed and clothe an able bodied man.

The mortality among the convicts during 1882-1883 was 569. The convicts suffering from respiratory ailments – 1268. There were as many as 296 chain-gang inmates housed in Viper Jail in the year 1892-1893. Maharaja Gajapathi Bir Kishore Singh Dev, the King of Jagannath Puri, Orissa, was transported to the Viper Jail for supporting the rebels in the First War of Independence (1857). He was put to hard work of extracting coconut oil from copra, wheat grinding etc. He used to be whipped on the slightest lapse in front of what used to be his attendant. He died within a month and was cremated near Dundas Point.

Sher Ali who assassinated Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, on 8th February, 1872, was hanged on 11th March, 1872 at Viper Island.

By this time, besides mutineers the British regime had also started sending convicts involved in seditious activities and hardened criminals. The idea was to use them for spying on revolutionaries.

My dear friends,

History of Andamans rich in courage, bravery, sacrifice and patriotic spirit is being blacked out. It is forgotten that from 1858 to 1947, it is these people and their descendants who protected and preserved the Andaman Islands and the quintessence of Indian culture and tradition.

Now the focus is solely on the political prisoners incarcerated in the Cellular Jail by the turn of the century. But those people who were sent to the Andamans as a punishment for taking part in the First War of Independence of 1857 and to die in exile; those revolutionary convicts and their descendants who built the Andamans from scratch; those banking on whose strength Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose decided to choose Andamans as the seat of his Provisional Government and Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru could convince that the islands should come to India – are pushed in the background and forgotten. No place, no road, no building or any infrastructure is named after any of them. Nor are they remembered by erecting statues or suitable monuments in places sanctified by their presence. Why this ungrateful discrimination?

I appreciate my fellow brethren of Andamans for their capacity for patience for all the insults to the memories of their forebears.

Why full-throated voice is not raised to demand suitable monuments at Chatham, the scene of the first landing of the 200 revolutionary convicts on 10th March 1858?

Why Ross Island is depicted as “Paris in Andamans”, built for the comfortable living of British Administrators and officials! Why not the truth is told that in 1858 one half of the island was used to detain patriotic convicts? From there only the first attempt to escape was made. Those places also need a monument to mark a notorious chapter in the history of Indian Independence.

Thanks to the efforts of a few handfuls of spirited locals like Shri Madan Mohan Singh, at least after 150 years, 10th of March is now being remembered as “Andaman Day” and a simple function is organized at Port Blair every year in memory of the landmark date.

The first jail was built on Viper Island with gallows nearby.

All attempts should be made to preserve these historic monuments on the island that was once hell for the patriotic convicts.

All the VIPs must be told about the historical importance of these places and they must be asked to first visit these places in their chronological order of historical importance and pay obeisance in the same manner as is done in case of the Cellular Jail.

Let’s vow today on this auspicious “Independence Day” to return the honour of the unsung Patriots who made supreme sacrifices unconditionally and ensured the most prized independence for us to celebrate.



Most Barbarous Murder”

Public memory is short. With the passage of time people have forgotten that these Islands had first reverberated with the footsteps of those who had challenged the might of the British Empire in 1857 – the First War of Independence. They paid heavily for the daring. They paid with their lives. An ungrateful nation has wiped the Islands clean of their memories. They deserve to be resurrected and honoured.
Dear friends,

I’m compelled to write this post as India celebrates the 61st Independence Day today on 15th August, 2008 because these beautiful Islands of Andaman & Nicobar have witnessed almost an entire century of unimaginably extreme brutality and innovative torture that has ever been endured for the sake of freedom in the history of humanity. And by having done so, these now-serene Islands with pristine beaches and abundant natural goodies, have registered one of the most significant and indelible chapters in the Indian Freedom Movement.

But unfortunately, there is a systematic and deliberate distortion of the history of Andamans, that too under the patronage of Andaman Administration. An impression is being created that all the patriots made great sacrifices during their incarceration in the Cellular Jail only. But the fact is that the history of Andamans in its relation to the Indian Freedom Struggle did not begin after the construction of the Cellular Jail in 1906.

The greatest and the bravest part of it began in 1858. The great revolutionaries, who took part in the gargantuan uprising of 1857, when captured, were transported to the Andamans for life imprisonment. It was intended to make them forget their motherland and the burning dream of freedom from the British colonial regime. But such was the resilience of the great patriots that as they realized it would not be possible for them to go back to the Indian mainland, they turned this British Penal Colony into a Model India by sub-planting themselves here.

A brief history of their trials and tribulations, hardships and supreme sacrifices made in these islands is worth reading a thousand times. Here’s a synopsis of the action-packed saga of those unsung heroes that gives goose bumps to the most hardened of souls.

Captain Henry Man hoisted the British flag a second time in the Chatham Island of Andamans on 22nd February, 1858 in the name of Her Majesty the Queen of Britain and the East India Company. (The Union Jack was hoisted first on October 25th, 1789. The settlement was abandoned in May 1796)

Dr. JP Walker was appointed the first Superintendent of Port Blair. He arrived with the first group of revolutionary convicts on 10th March, 1858 by frigate HMS Samiramis and established the Penal Settlement at Chatham. He had also brought an Indian Overseer Multan Das, two doctors, Nawab Khan and Karim Baksh, a guard of 50 men of old Naval Brigade under an Officer of Indian Navy.

Chatham Island was cleared of the impassably dense forest debris. Due to scarcity of water on Chatham, the headquarters was established on 90 acres of Ross Island, a kilometer away. The island was divided into two parts by a wall running from East to West. To the west of the wall on hill top, were officers’ quarters and soldiers’ barracks. The convicts’ and the Indian soldiers’ barracks were in the South.

The convicts had come from all corners of India. Soon they started making attempts to escape thinking Burma (Myanmar) was very near. Many who escaped were presumed to have died due to starvation or killed by the aboriginal tribes. Those captured were dealt with heartlessly. In one such attempt, 80 revolutionaries were hanged to death in a single day on Chatham Island by JP Walker. They were buried with their shackles and fetters on in what is described as “most barbarous murder”. They suffered from pneumonia and malaria because of exposure to heavy rains.

Just three months after the establishment of the settlement the reports show the position of the convicts on 16 June, 1858, as follows:

Total No. : 773

Died in hospital : 64

Escaped/dead : 140

Committed suicide : 1

Hanged : 87

The number of convicts was steadily increasing. Viper Island, 1 km away from Chatham was occupied on 8th October, 1858 and convicts were kept in open camp at night while the naval brigades-men slept on the ship at anchorage.

JP Walker’s was a dreaded name. Viper Island was known for its severity. In 1864 there was no jail. The convicts lived in the open. Later huts were provided. They were bound with chains and lodged at different locations in barracks at night.

The jail in Viper Island was completed in 1867. Viper Jail was considered a place of discipline. The convicts there were put to hard labour and severe physical and mental torture. A new convict was sent to Viper Jail compulsorily for one month or more to demoralize him mentally and physically. There was chain-gang where convicts were bound in chains. They were deployed on hard work during the day with fetters on. At night they were chained with other convicts. The works assigned to them were earth-cutting, tree felling, oil extraction, husk pounding, brick making, blanket making, wheat grinding etc.

Convicts at work with fetters on

Wednesday, August 13, 2008



After attaining independence from the British colonial regime on 15th August 1947, the indigenous Government of India soon began constituting a well defined administrative structure for the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.


The centre did provide for the Islands’ representation through a nominated Member of Parliament. Late Lachman Singh and then Lala Niranjan Lal were the members till 1967. Neither anything was expected of them nor did they contribute anything much significant.

Late K R Ganesh (standing third from right)

In 1967, late KR Ganesh, darling of the masses, was elected to the parliament with a thumping majority. People had very high hopes and expectations from him. But he was too preoccupied with his own ambitions. He did scale new heights in his career, first as a Deputy Minister and then as Minister of State in the Finance Ministry of the central government of India. He resigned as the emergency was lifted and contested as a candidate of Congress for Democracy, a Babu Jagjivan Ram outfit, and lost to Manoranjan Bhakta of Congress I. (See picture below)

Manoranjan Bhakta continues his marathon race till date but for a brief aberration during 1999-2004, when Bishnupada Ray of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) was elected as the Member of Parliament. Like KR Ganesh, he too pursues his personal agenda. He has well for himself. There is no reason to believe that he has a vision for the development of the Islands. At least, since 1977 he has never spelt it out.

There was a semblance of power to the people for a brief period from 1982 to 1994 with a 30 member Pradesh Parishad. It was quietly abolished for no apparent reason. It was a tactical move to scuttle any competition at the top. It was a congress monopoly those days and hence there was no voice of protest.


Different people have different definitions of development. In A & N Islands, it is a central grant driven economy and hence, what one finds is – roads, bridges, buildings – too many of them, ships and harbours, schools and colleges, healthcare and all that goes with it. The quality of services rendered by these agencies is anybody’s guess.

Administration is the largest employer, the largest buyer and the largest construction agency. There is no industry. There were some plywood industries that packed off as a curb on tree felling was introduced. The economy revolves around traders and contractors who control the politics also. The money earned in the islands is invested in the mainland; consequently there is very little private effort to spur the economic activities.


Ostensibly to increase the pace of development, on August 01, 1974, the territory was divided into two districts by creating a new district of Nicobar comprising of all the islands in the Nicobar Group with its headquarters at Car Nicobar.

Similarly, a third district of North and Middle Andaman was created on August 18, 2006. But in spite of 33 years of its existence, the Nicobar district is a second grade entity. Apart from a deputy commissioner and a superintendent of police, there is nothing to distinguish it from other parts of the Islands.

The condition of North and Middle Andaman district is still worse. It rarely had a full time deputy commissioner for three months. Most of its brief existence, it shared its deputy commissioner and the superintendent of police with its big brother South Andaman district. It is a hoax played on the people of those flimsy districts. All the decision making powers are concentrated in the South Andaman district.


The administration for sometime past has been making noises in the national and international media about tourism as the mainstay of the Islands’ economy. It spends 2-3 crores of rupees on advertisement but is yet to evolve a transparent and practical tourism policy.

The other sunrise sector is touted to be fisheries and high value agriculture. But nobody in the administration has a clue how to go about it. Andaman Sea is the only sea in the world where fish die of old age whereas the administration spends millions on catching, prosecuting, feeding and transporting back the poachers from neighboring countries. About high value agriculture, the least said the better.


Till 1952, people entering A & N Islands were required to have an entry permit. But a free India could not restrict the free movement of its people. As a result, the population that stood at a mere 33,000 in 1951 leapfrogged to 3, 56,152 as per 2001 census. Unofficial estimates peg it at 5, 50,000.

Encroachment is the law in the territory. Anybody can encroach upon land anywhere he likes, be it revenue or forest of any description. People generally, are not stinking rich yet they manage. There is no grinding poverty per se. but all the poverty alleviation programs are implemented. Poor people from mainland flock to grab free land and the benefit of such programs. Politicians swell their vote bank and the bureaucrats look the other way.

Those 11,000 people who were left behind by SS Norilla on March 11, 1942 have been overwhelmed by the economic migrant. They have lost their identity. They don’t count in the scheme of things anymore.


On balance, things were not too bad if not very encouraging. Come December 26, 2004 and the entire equation changed. The devastating earthquake combined with the killer tsunami waves took heavy toll of lives and properties. Parts of the Islands were swallowed by the earthquake.

Thousands died and many more thousands simply disappeared from the face of the earth. The shock was too much, the pain too severe.

The tribal people of the Nicobar district had to suffer the most. Their world has changed forever. They are still living in temporary shelters. Life would not be the same again – not for the people of the Nicobar district.

The livelihood of old inhabitants is threatened in South Andaman. But nobody has any tears to spare for them. They don’t form the major vote bank anymore. They still live in a tunnel of despair waiting for the messiah who would deliver them.

Monday, August 11, 2008



A quick recap-

“History of Civilization in Andaman”

“Chequered History of Civilization”

Now, dear friends, the haunting unfinished script about the chequered history of civilization in Andaman continues ahead-


The Japanese take over the Islands in the early hours of March 22. And another saga of human sufferings and endurance starts unfolding.

Reign of terror would be an understatement for the three-and-a-half year ordeal that the left out people had to undergo during the Japanese regime.

First, as is customary, the invading army plays havoc with the masses to create psychological pressure into subjugation. Individual houses were raided and cash, ornaments, automobiles and other valuables looted. Even good cloths were not spared. Thereafter the cattle, goats and fowls were taken away.

In such an incident only Zulfiqar Ali (incidentally, my father-in-law’s own maternal uncle) pulled his gun on a Japanese soldier. But he was overpowered and executed in public at Netaji Ground (presently at Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair). His tomb till date tells the tale to anyone who cares to listen.

There was acute shortage of food. The Japanese soldiers suffered equally badly. The local people were put to hard work to raise sweet potato, tapioca and other edible crops. The local inhabitants were put to the ignominy of spraying human excreta as organic manure. They were producing for the Japanese soldiers but they themselves were going hungry. Clothes had become a luxury. People used gunny bags for clothes, had to eat yam and other leaves and barks. There was no sanctity of life.

As the weeks and months progressed the old and infirm became a liability on the new masters. They were rounded up, put in a vessel, taken to Havelock Island, and thrown overboard to drown and die. The lone survivor of the incident, who later came to be known as ‘Saudagar’ is reported to have eaten human flesh for survival.

Incidentally, he stayed for the rest of his life up to 1994 beside the mosque in the neighborhood of the quarter that we stayed in at Supply Line, Port Blair, while my father was operating as an Assistant Secretary in the A & N Administration. Hence, we children had ample opportunities to interact with him and hear the details of his ghastly experience from the horse’s mouth. I shall share the details in my ensuing posts.

Meanwhile, the British were targeting every ship that tried to approach the port with pin-pointed precision. The Japanese military administrators had a nagging feeling that somebody was spying for the British. They tried to catch hold of the spy. In the process, the old human weakness took its toll. Those who were close to the Japanese started naming those they had an account to settle with. It started a chain reaction. One would name the other to save his skin.

A shiver runs through the spines of those who underwent the torture in the hands of the Japanese just at the mention of those days. Their fingers do not grow normal nails till date.

Red hot pins were forced under their nails. Knee, shoulder, elbow joints used to be hit with rods, testicles were crushed, penis burnt with cigarette butts.

Incidentally, one such victim of the Japanese’ inhuman treatment was Dr. Fred Meshack, my own grandfather-in-law, who was one of the very first veterinary surgeons of the Islands and a citizen of noble repute. He was also taken into their dreaded custody on suspicion of spying for the British and tortured atrociously by piercing his nails with red hot pins. Fortunately, my grandfather-in-law was soon released due to lack of any evidence against him, whatsoever.

The process went on and on and on. Public executions were held at Duggnabad and Humphreyganj.

Educated male members of the society had to suffer the most. Those who were the cream of the society became paupers. Their gold, ornaments, cash, cattle – everything was snatched away by the Japanese. No one has ever tried to fathom the pain, the agony, the sufferings, the deprivation and the sacrifice made by this small population of 11,000 people.


The Nuclear holocaust caused by atom bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crushed the Japanese dreams of a trans-national empire. The Japanese forces surrendered before the British on October 08, 1945 at Andaman Club near Gymkhana ground. When the British Government reclaimed the Islands in 1945, those lucky ones who survived the ordeal were only a shadow of their previous selves. A devastated lot of unfortunate people who had to start everything from scratch again! Like those in 1858.


The British Government wanted to retain Andaman and Nicobar Islands under the Crown. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru strongly argued that the Islands should go to India as the inhabitants are almost all Indians. His counter argument was that the British had deported the English convicts to Australia and only Indian convicts were sent to the Andaman Islands.

Thus, the 11,000 odd famished, emaciated, devastated and hapless ex-convicts and their descendents won the argument in favour of the Indian Union.

Life limped back, slowly to normalcy again. The Indian Government declared the Andaman & Nicobar group of Islands a union territory administered directly by the central government at New Delhi. Chief Commissioner, an ICS (Indian Civil Services) and later IAS (Indian Administrative Services) officer, continued to be the head of the administration.

Thursday, August 7, 2008



Hi, Folks,

So you must have already started feeling the goose-bumps after reading the first part of my illustrations about the “History of Civilization in Andaman”. Let me tell you, here, that it’s going to be an unfinished script about the chequered history of human settlement in Andaman. Let’s go further, now. Read on…


The convicts serving life term were not likely to go back to their home and hearth as the crimes they had committed were heinous and unpardonable from the moral standards of those times. Many of the convicts did try to go back and resume normal lives with their families in the mainland. But in a very large number of cases, they were not accepted by their families and they had to come back to the only other place they knew on the face of the earth.

The British government also wanted a permanent settlement to come up in the islands. To this end, it was necessary to bind the people to the land.


The female convicts after satisfactorily serving a term of 5 years and males after similarly serving a term of 10 years could opt to settle down with family. They had to apply to the District Officer with their intent of marrying a woman convict. Upon which, on a given date a parade of the convict women would be arranged where the “groom” could select his bride. They were afforded a chance to familiarize themselves by talking to each other under the watchful eyes of a warden or jailor. Thereafter, the consenting couple would be declared man & wife after due registration. The male convicts were advised to treat their wives fairly, take proper care and desist from ill treating them.

The couple was then allotted a piece of cultivable land on lease basis and some assistance in cash or kind to build a shelter and settle down.

In the meantime, the construction works were going on in full speed. Ross Island was developed into a capital housing the bungalows for the high officials and offices for the administration of the islands. A settlement was also started in Nancowry Island of Nicobar district. The Jail at Viper Island was completed, various village settlements, named after the Chief Commissioners and other officers of the time, were established. Free entrepreneurs also started arriving and setting up small trades to cater to the government officials and the departments. Roads were laid, medical facilities etc. were created.

The mutineers followed by the revolutionaries from Bengal and other parts of the country were not put to labour outside the jails. They too were put to impossibly hard work but the emphasis was more on humiliating them to the extent that they broke down mentally and morally. Finally, all the political prisoners were released and sent back to mainland in 1938.

1923 – MOPLAHS

There was a huge Moplah uprising in the Malabar district of the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin state in 1921. The rebels were tried and imprisoned in the Presidency Jail in the state of Madras. In 1923, they were deported to Andamans. They also became an inseparable influence in the evolving social fabric.

The confluence of various cultures, languages, religions, customs and traditions from Maharashtra to Assam and Afghanistan to Kanyakumari wove a unique cultural matrix.

Everything was going on fine. A new civil administration was in place. People were pursuing their business in peace and harmony and their children were looking forward to a bright future.

But destiny had its own designs. The condemned convicts and their descendents had some more dues to pay.

The rumblings of Second World War started shaking the countries and continents. Japan also joined the fray. Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had his own plans to wage a war against the British Raj (regime) in collaboration with the Japanese Government. Andaman and Nicobar Islands provided the ideal springboard to launch an attack against the mighty British Empire on the mainland India. The Japanese Bombers started making sorties. The British forces were engaged in theatres that were more important to them. To the British, it was neither important nor necessary to spare any tears for the islands having a population of just about 30,000. The evacuation process was set in motion. All those who wanted to leave the Islands were free to do so.


The fateful date recurs with equal horror. Eight-four years ago, almost on the same date, the same month the British Raj had forced a batch of reluctant Indians to land on the inhospitable Island. And now the same British Raj was forcing another batch of reluctant Indians to board the last ship leaving for the mainland – to the safety of motherland. But they were not enthusiastic about boarding the ship this time either. A large population of about 11,000 people had nowhere to go. No state, no land, no home, no relations to look up to.

The last ship slides past the jetty, a huge crowd of condemned people – subjects of the British Crown – are left behind to fend for themselves.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008



Hey friends!

"The Islander” is back with you all after a month-long break. In fact, I was on a comprehensive tour to the Tsunami affected Nicobar Group of Islands, here, in connection with the implementation of a Disaster Risk Reduction Awareness project assigned to me by an affiliate of the renowned NGO – “Save the Children”; and the internet connection is yet to be made available in those extensively restricted tribal areas. Hopefully, this scenario would stand altered in a couple of months’ time, as the agencies are working their guts out to ensure the availability of the net there.

Well, I’m sure you all would like to know about the advent of civilization in this present-day tourists’ paradise. Let me today take you on a cruise through the long and the short of it all. Be ready to feel goose bumps all over yourselves.

Born in the tumultuous year of 1857, the Andaman and Nicobar settlement have had a chequered history all through. Whenever things seemed to settle down, something or the other would disturb the equilibrium and plunge the Islands into a bottomless pit.

The first attempt of the British Government to establish a Penal Settlement in 1789 was aborted in 1796. The actual story of a modern Andamans starts on –

MARCH 10, 1858

HMS Samiramis carrying the first batch of mutineers and other convicts lead by Dr. James Patterson Walker, anchors in the strait between what would later come to be known as Hope Town and Chatham Island. The deep and dense tropical rain forest surrounding the anchorage point is staring at the intruder with apprehension, suspicion and a nagging premonition. No human being has ever set foot on these Islands covered on top with a thick canopy of dark green foliage and the ground about a foot thick cushion of layers upon layers of fallen leaves and debris of dead trees accumulated over centuries. The sun rays barely, if ever, kiss the floor of the forest. It is all so damp, sticky, smelling of decaying vegetation.

The mutineers look at the site with awe and despair as a life raft is lowered and the 200- odd captive mutineers in shackles are made to jump into the raft one by one. When the raft is full, it is rowed to waist-deep water where the prisoners are made to disembark on slippery rocks covered with barnacles. They wade through it cutting their bare soles. When they reach the shore, their feet are bleeding profusely. All the mutineers are huddled to the top of ‘Chatham Island’ in chains and fetters.


Soon second and subsequent batches of convicts and freedom fighters continued to be disgorged at the Chatham Island. Mosquito infested inhospitable forest, hostile weather, creeping reptiles and almost round the year torrential rains were the elements that greeted the newcomers into the islands. They had to brave it all apart from hunger and disease to build ‘prisons’ for themselves, roads, and residential quarters and other amenities for their tormentors.

The life in those days was not one of meek surrender and uneventful monotony. In 1858, itself 288 convicts escaped into the jungles out of which 88 were recaptured and 66 were executed, one was pardoned and one was spared because of ill health. The fate of the rest is a mystery till date.


An ambitious conspiracy was hatched by about 200 Punjabi convicts to kill James Patterson Walker and capture the settlement. Walker was appointed superintendent in place of EH Man. He was brute and a perverse personality. But Mathura Das got wind of the conspiracy and reported the matter to Walker.

As the attack started around noon, Walker with his men was ready to face it head on. The soldiers and the guards finally overpowered the conspirators and quelled the revolt. The entire planning and execution was done by the criminal convicts. The political prisoners did not participate in it.


The local aboriginal tribes never took the intruders kindly. Small skirmishes used to take place regularly between the members of the tribes and the neo-settlers. But what prompted about 2000 of them to attack the convicts clearing the jungle near Aberdeen Jetty (a part of the present day Port Blair, the capital of Andaman & Nicobar Islands) is a matter for another chapter. Suffice it to say that Doodhnath Tiwari, a convict who had escaped into the forest, given food, shelter, protection and a permanent place in the tribe, stabbed them in the back by informing the British forces about the impending attack. Needless to say the tribe was badly massacred by the superior fire power of the British soldiers. This incident and the treachery of Doodhnath further alienated the members of the tribes from the neo-settlers. The mistrust still continues.


Lord Mayo, the Viceroy of India, on a visit to the Penal Settlement on February 08, had expressed a desire to visit the picturesque Mount Harriet. While coming back to his yacht at dusk, he was stabbed at Hope Town by Sher Ali, a Pathan convict from Afghanistan. The Viceroy was immediately shifted to his yacht anchored off Hope Town. But he succumbed to his injuries. Sher Ali was later hanged in Viper Jail. He, however, never repented for his act, as he had fulfilled the wish of his mother by way of assassinating the Viceroy.


The British Government decided to send women criminal convicts also to the new settlement. The barracks now known as the “fisheries barrack” housing government employees at South Point along with the old building of Govt. press was the women’s prison. This barrack was used as such till 1921 when it was converted into a high school. The women prisoners were put to light works like stitching, mending, making brooms with coconut leaves, sifting coconut husk etc. The work was light but the regimen was as tough as for men.

Aaaah… well, allow me a short break, friends. I’d tell you much more about this spine-tingling saga tomorrow. And that’s a word.