Recently, PM Modi visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on a renaming spree, bunched three most important islands in the cluster and loosely renamed them as Netaji Islands. The RSS holds the Cellular Jail as their own symbolic monument of freedom struggle, merely because VD Savarkar graced the haloed environs of the jail.
It is important though to remember he wrote to the British imploring them to release him on the condition that he will abide by them. On my visit to this interesting yet complicated political space in Indian history, I dug out a few clues to try and complete the puzzle.
February 11 is also recognized as Martyrs’ Day in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and this event has no connection to the political prisoners in the Cellular Jail. The Islands have their own history of a freedom struggle, not against the British but against an oppressive Japanese occupation which unleashed inhumane torture and terror on the people of the Islands.
Being a history buff, it had been my long time urge to know what really happened in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands during the Second World War. Especially because the Indian National Congress which was at the forefront of the freedom struggle and the Indian National Army, an organization led by Netaji was mobilizing people to wage war against the British with the help of the Axis powers, namely Japan, Italy and Germany.
How this played out in these islands can be considered more gripping and heart wrenching than when the Cellular Jail was filled up with political prisoners fighting for freedom. The Japanese occupation of the Andaman Islands was far more torturous than how political prisoners suffered because they were put to hard labor (and most of them were not from the working class).
Many like VD Savarkar could not bear the punishment of hard labor, so wrote apology letters or letters promising to be pro-colonial pacifists. The real history of resistance and victory was the one fought by the residents of Andaman and Nicobar Islands against Japanese occupation rather than a jail that held prisoners who conspired and threw bombs at the British in mainland India.
The British Empire had invaded and gifted themselves the Andaman and Nicobar Islands long before the two World Wars. The main island namely Port Blair was swept clean of the aborigines who moved into other wilder, more secluded islands. The East India Company after having established itself firmly in Calcutta, began trading in wood and spices from these islands which were strategically positioned nearer to the British Presidency.
Therefore, a fair bit of Bengali populace existed in these islands, which already included influential Muslim families, and Tamils from the earlier Chola period of trade and commerce.
The island was well organized to suit every whim and fancy of our colonial masters. The water treatment equipment (rusted yet standing, for clean drinking water on Ross Island), a church, a club and a ball room, all of which are now in shambles. Ross Island itself has eroded on all sides, the roots of ancient trees lays exposed to sun and rain. It may not remain standing for long. The sight of peacocks and deer on this ravaged island appears pathetic. The tiny museum displaying a dozen photographs of erstwhile colonial families once residing does not evoke any emotion.
The Cellular Jail and its occupants during India’s freedom struggle need to be saluted, without doubt. They did endure hardship, labor, torture, scarce food, sickness and death. Most were from Bengal, a substantial number from Punjab, just three from Maharashtra; one of whom was VD Savarkar who did no memorable deed, except to write to colonial masters for release, offering them complete loyalty and faithfulness. The rest of the prisoners suffered, endured, some repatriated, some were released, others died.
Andaman and Nicobar history is not just about the Cellular Jail, it has written its own story of resistance against a brutal Japanese occupation and how they eventually won due to their endurance, perseverance and sacrifices. This story needs to be told lest we forget the real heroes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
The Japanese soldiers and officers appear to have had an unbelievable appetite and ability to torture and kill people. Their methods were cold and merciless; how can we continue to negate this from our history only because we need to accommodate Mr. Bose as a leader of our freedom struggle movement? They brought in poor Korean women as ‘comfort wives’ while harassing and abusing local women!
This is where Zulfiqar Ali legend pops into the picture. The Japanese soldiers soon after their arrival, looked around for women, and tried to assault a Muslim woman, a relative of Zulfiqar Ali. Fear spread about these barbaric soldiers from Japan.
The next day the soldiers wandered around the same place again. Seeing them and knowing their intentions, an incensed and enraged twenty-something Zulfiqar, ran into his brother-in-law’s house, returned with a fire arm and shot at the soldiers injuring one. He then went into hiding and the residents of Aberdeen avoided helping the Japanese soldiers in tracking Zulfiqar. That is when all hell broke loose.
The Japanese threw bombs and opened fire engulfing Aberdeen, several lost their lives. Zulfiqar’s relatives decided to hand him over to the Japanese. They tortured him and shot him in full public view in the center of a playground. He came from an influential family of Muslim traders, who continued to work relentlessly against the occupation.
A symbolic monument stands at the Aberdeen market bazaar today as a mark of respect to all who died under the reign of terror of Japanese occupation.
There was more to come. The Japanese lured local people with jobs and put them into boats only to throw them into the sea and drown them. More than seven hundred locals died this way. Two men who swam to safety returned months later to tell the tale of all the innocent men who were thrown into the sea. Mr. Bose had no power to control Japanese excesses against innocent men and women.
Another hero is a native Andamanese chieftain who acted as an undercover agent for the British Army even as he played his native role of chieftain. His knowledge of the islands, seamanship skills and trustworthiness among natives helped him spy on the Japanese and deliver strategic information to the British stationed miles away. His name was Loka.
His invaluable assistance in the Second World War to the Allies in defeating Hitler and his friends in Japan and Italy should be engraved on stone. The airport should be named after him or a surrounding island should be named after Loka. Any other history of heroism in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is bullshit.
The most brutal, inhumane, gut wrenching things happened on these islands during the Japanese occupation. The people of Andaman and Nicobar Islands paid a huge price and many lost their lives. Some eminent residents, who were forced to support the Japanese because of their loyalty to Subhash Chandra Bose, were jailed and executed at the end of the Second World War for treason by the British.
Recently, we heard of a young foreigner, who forayed into the wilderness with a mission to spread Christianity and met with a bad end. How much of it is true, nobody knows. Then we had the PM grouping a few of these Islands and casually calling it the Netaji Islands.
It is sad that Netaji was in cahoots with the Japanese oppressors who unleashed terror on the residents, and could not and would not do much to save them. Today, we also hear that these islands have been let out to private parties to fly sea planes, endangering not only the precarious geography but also posing great danger to the fast disappearing indigenous tribes.