IMPORTANCE OF ANDAMAN AND NICOBAR ISLANDS IN POLITICAL AND STRATEGIC TERRITORY
During the 17th and 18th centuries, the Bay of Bengal became a busy shipping lane with the arrival of the British, French, Portuguese and hosts of other European powers." Commercial rivalries were often settled with the help of arms. As experienced sea powers, they realized that in order to keep the sea lines open and safe for the passage of their own ships they needed a strategic place in the middle of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Islands became the natural choice. Many expeditions were organized, mainly by the British, during the 18th century but none could really establish a settlement. Scarcity of drinking water, Malaria, hostile tribes and a host of other problems afflicted these expeditions. A suitable place for a harbour and settlement could not be found till 1796. Captain Archibald Blair, a brave young Captain from the Royal Navy sailing with a Flotilla of three ships established a base for the first time at the present site of Port Blair in October 1798. A small island called Chatham was cleared and a settlement was established. The Dutch on the other hand came and established themselves in the southern group of islands. They established their Headquarters on an Island called Nancowry.
It was easy to find a place for settlement but difficult to establish and sustain for a longer period of time. The problem became more acute when the settlement was situated in the middle of the sea, near the home of the hostile tribes, frequently visited by dangerous and fatal diseases and where it rained for 10 months a year. A large number of Captain Blair's companions succumbed to the hazards of the Andamans. It was indeed difficult to find volunteers for making the trip and more so to find people ready to settle in these alien and forlorn islands. Due to this, the British Indian Government decided to inhabitants these Islands with convicts who were considered dangerous or undesirable in the Mainland of India.
The closure of the Penal Settlement of Penang (Malaysia) gave the British Government a good excuse to open a new penal settlement for settling the undesirable convicts. For this, the Andamans were perhaps the best choice. The inhospitable climate ensured that the convicts would never be robust or healthy enough to do mischief. The surrounding sea ensured that no convict could ever escape. Their status as prisoners was used to force them to work as free labourers for clearing the jungle and establishing the settlement. From the early years of the 19th century, prisoners who were considered dangerous or unwanted in the mainland came by shiploads to work as slaves in this territory and helped the government in establishing a base where ships in distress could find shelter. Prisoners died by hundreds but the settlement grew and prospered. As the place began to develop, it slowly became less inhospitable.
The prisoners were encouraged by the administration to bring in their families or marry the local women convicts. In the course of time, a system was introduced where a prisoner after spending a certain number of years in confinement and with a record of good behaviour could settle down permanently as a free settler. Such prisoners were called free ticket holders. They were given some land and some cash advance to start agricultural production. The idea was to have a permanent settlement of people. Thus, Pathans from North-West Frontier Province, Bhatus from M.P., Mopla rebels from Kerala, Burmese rebels from Chingurin (Upper Burma), Afghans and a host of others became the compatriots of this natural prison house and eventually settled down in the various settlements around Port Blair like Chhouldalogy, Humphregunj, Neyagac, Aberdeen etc.
The Penal Settlement progressed in this manner till the beginning of the Second World War. It may be mentioned that between 1909 and 1936 political prisoners were also brought to Andamans in two batches. In 1942, due to the defeat of the Allied Forces in the Eastern Sector, these Islands were occupied by the Japanese. Symbolically, these were handed to the Azad Hind Fauj under Netaji and named as 'Swaraj' Islands. However, Azad Government had very little say in the actual administration of the territory. According to the accounts of the survivors of that period, the Japanese perpetuated a reign of terror. It went on increasing as the Japanese started losing in the war. Life was really hellish till the reoccupation by the British in 1945. Byrd, the British Chief Commissioner before the Japanese occupation, was beheaded publicly in Aberdeen Bazaar. Flogging and torturing of the people was the order of the day under the Japanese Government.
After the Independence, for the first few years, Andaman was neglected by the Government of India. The penal settlement was abolished sometime after independence but the Government of India used the islands to settle many of the refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and Ceylon. Some ex-servicemen were also settled in this territory. During the seventies, the Government realized the strategic importance of these Islands as advanced sea bases for our Navy and also its importance in the global strategic situation. Thus, Naval bases were established in different parts of the Islands and an Air Force base was set up at Car Nicobar. Satellite Training Stations were set up and a joint military command was established for more effective use by the defence forces. The Faulkland War made the Government more conscious of the importance of these Islands in light of the defensive strategies of the country. The availability of oil and natural gas in the Andaman Sea forced the need for establishing an effective defence. The development of the Andaman Islands is intimately related to their strategic location. The Bay Islands, in particular, are extensive enough to be developed as a strong naval base and also the centre of naval and associated industries. Deep sea fishing can be launched from these locations and related industries can be set up to enrich the economy. In any programme of development of these Islands, improvement in their linkage with the mainland through more frequent steamer service is the sine qua non. The present services are proving too inadequate. The efficiency of the distribution channels of goods and services from Port Blair to the different Islands also needs improvement and strengthening. In the Bay Islands both agriculture, including the plantation of coffee and coconuts, and forestry offer ample scope for augmenting and intensifying economic development. Tourism could be encouraged by improving the beaches and other infrastructures including subsidized transport from the mainland. A continuous attempt has to be made to bring the tribal people into the mainstream of development. The British had tried hard to retain control over Andaman and Nicobar Islands at the time of granting Independence and later Mohammed Ali Jinnah made a fervent bid to get the Islands for Pakistan.
The situation of Andaman and Nicobar, mid-way between South Asia and South East Asia, has a unique strategic value that our country can ill afford to ignore. The need to keep them free from social, economic and political tensions will have to be a paramount consideration for the Government, perhaps even more than it is in the case of the mainland. The territory consists of innumerable islands scattered over five latitudes and the task of creating a sense of involvement among the islanders living in small communities presents peculiar problems which have to be treated with imagination and sympathy.
The value of these islands should not be measured in terms of their population, which is no doubt small but has to be assessed according to the strategic significance they command in the areas of the Indian Ocean. For all practical purposes, the Indian Territory extends up to these Islands and the Bay of Bengal provides the route for communication. The Islands have perennial, sea routes which could be maintained with less expenditure unlike the expensive roads government have to build in the Himalayan region and maintain them at considerable expense.
In the context of its importance, the need for integrating the tribes of Andamans with the mainland Indians has been very acutely felt. These Islands are geographically isolated from the mainland which brings in a sense of alienation. The economic backwardness of the people and the role of those who try to take advantage of this situation for narrow personal gains can possibly make the tribes hostile to the Union of India. This danger is real and the example of some of the tribals of North East is a grim reminder of this fact. It is, therefore, essential that the integration of these tribes with mainland of India should be given a top priority. This is important from social, economic and political viewpoints. Once the separatist tendencies become manifest, as has happened in the case of Mizoram, Nagaland and the Tripura tribal, there could be a danger of these being exploited by the powers inimical to India. Therefore, there is a paramount necessity for promoting political and national consciousness among the tribals as well as the locals in order to promote national integration.