PM Visit to Andamans: Rhetoric is not Enough!
The Islands need basic amenities that will cater to tourists as well local residents
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is poised for a visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands next month.
Many firsts will be added to the history of the Islands. A 150-foot high flagmast will come up at a location on the Port Blair coast commemorating the ‘first’ tricolour flown by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose on December 30, 1943, while the Islands were occupied by Japanese forces. The tricolour will have the Gandhian charkha on it instead of the 24-spoke chakra. The whole exercise has no relation to the lives of common people.
Going by the current trend in our country, which is caught in the frenzy of renaming places, a few new names will be attributed to newfound islands.
The Andaman administration had sought suggestions from the public, and a few enlightened citizens have already suggested the names of prominent citizens who contributed to the social milieu in various capacities. But names need not be about persons. They can be about events or incidents etched in the memory of the islanders. There are enough names in the Islands themselves, and there seems to be no need to search for them beyond.
Of late, after the right wing National Democratic Alliance coalition came to power, the fervor of jingoism has been blown to such an extent, that every word or deed is measured on the scale of an overblown balloon of nationalism. With 2019 fast approaching, there is an urgency to over-pump sentiments for maximum benefit. The demand for a relative of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose to rename the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Shaheed and Swaraj Dweep is the latest one. No doubt the local MP will fail a quiz on the Islands, especially on the ‘swaraj’ (autonomy) part of it, if he is made to take one.
The appropriation of people, places and events helps inflate nationalistic fervour and deflect attention from the real issues. Big press releases and huge advertisements boasting unprecedented development on all fronts don’t really show up on the ground. One of the recent writeups, a PR exercise in the government-run bulletin of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, brags about the state of urban and rural roads. Whether these roads are as smooth as the reams of newsprint carrying the ads is another issue.
The common man is bombarded with proposals and plans, instead of completed projects. News about proposals to switch from fossil-fuel based power to eco-friendly power generation is repeated on a daily basis.
Many projects and schemes of the central government carry no serious consequence for the Islands. Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao was one such scheme, dear to some government agencies and NGOs for glass casing their existence.
There is no unusual change taking place, but the new tendency is to go gaga over normal developmental activities. Nobody can clearly point out what is so ‘smart’ about Port Blair city, which ranks somewhere low on the national scale. The rainwater which used to clog city drains a decade ago still inundates the bazaar without any obvious change.
Taking credit for the yet to land undersea fibre-optic cable, which started its journey a decade ago, is no solace for the bandwidth-deprived digital service consumers overloaded by digital and online services launched every month.
The perennial streams flowing from the tropical forests quench our thirst. We are unable even to even tap these sources properly, but there is no scarcity in announcing new schemes and projects instead of executing them.
People have stopped ruing the lack of inter-island ship connectivity. They are shown shipyards where new ships are under construction every year.
The recent revelation that the Islands archipelago contains not 540 but 836 islands, including rocks, islets etc. is in itself seen as a great achievement by the present dispensation. Earlier, out of 540 islands, only 150 were named. The others remained unnamed and it did not create any national or international embarrassment. Now, the Andaman Administration has sought suggestions from the public for naming 20 unnamed islands.
But there has been a row every time the naming and renaming of islands was raised by various quarters. There is also a convenient selectivity to renaming, where Havelock Island is excluded for the reason that it already features on the world tourism map. The exclusion is obviously not a nationalistic decision but a market-driven one.
There was a demand in 2017 by a Rajya Sabha MP from the BJP to rename the island, which is named after the British General Henry Havelock who fought Indian patriots in 1857. The BJP MP, L Ganeshan termed it an insult to freedom fighters that the island had been named after an East India Company general. A list of the names of persons who fought the British for different causes, including independence from the foreign yoke, is always suggested.
Those who seek such cosmetic changes conveniently forget that almost all the Islands once belonged to the aboriginal tribes and had their own original names. But, every name change signifies a social, cultural or political struggle for control.
In fact, nobody disregards the contribution of the freedom fighters, who fought the British and other foreign powers including the Japanese, and it’s not a matter of a contest over who stands on top of the ladder. But when one enters the Cellular Jail, the focus is on one person named Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who was imprisoned in the jail like many other hundreds of political prisoners and later released after he submitted a mercy petition.
Satadru Sen in his book Disciplining Punishment wrote: “Thus, the structure of the prison both anticipated resistance from inmates, and provided for countermeasures. It is significant that the countermeasure suggested in this particular case involved moving disorderly prisoners central to the watchtower. The tower was the literal and metaphoric embodiment of the regime’s power within the Cellular Jail. The closer the prisoner was to the tower, the more secure was the regime’s control over him.”
Netaji Subash Chandra Bose is talso being appropriated by the present government. His visit to the Islands during the Japanese occupation, as the supremo of the Azad Hind Fauj, an ally of Japan in its fight against the British, needs to be looked at again from various angles.
The Islands were abandoned by the British before the Japanese landed. The islanders weren’t too cozy with the Japanese occupation as they were accustomed to the ways of the British. In fact, a colony had already come up there with mundane activities going on uninterrupted. While the notorious jailer David Barrie was tormenting the revolutionaries inside the Cellular Jail, his daughter, a soft-spoken woman, was teaching the local kids English in a school nearby.
When Netaji visited the Islands and hoisted a national flag declaring the territory free from British rule, the Islands were virtually under the occupation of another foreign power, the Japanese. The dummy administrator from the Azad Hind Fauj appointed by the Japanese was nothing but an eyewash, which the islanders vouch for. The Japanese had their share of torture for the islanders. The jail which used to lodge anti-British prisoners became home to anti-Japanese prisoners, who were Indians too. Netaji wasn’t taken to that part of the jail by the Japanese, where the islanders were imprisoned. Today, when we find modern allies, we try to connect them with history and appropriate them according to convenience. Why should one have a myopic view of foreign occupation by various forces? In fact, when Japan fell to the Allied Forces, and surrendered to the British, the people in the Islands lined up along the coast to welcome the British force back.
It isn’t yet out in the open whether the administration has any plans to rename the Islands. While there were marathon meetings on renaming Islands a couple of months back, it seems the proposal was later dropped for reasons unknown. In fact, the Islands have always been in the middle of such naming-renaming riddles, which seem to give a high to some.
It being an election year, everyone will be looking for an opportunity to attract some limelight. The warfare within the BJP between its president and the member of parliament is the talk of the town. The state president of the party won’t leave any stone unturned to undermine his rival, whereas the MP has already locked horns with both his adversaries in the party, as well the lieutenant governor, over trivial matters. What surprises await them both will be exciting to watch.
Undoubtedly, a Potemkin village will be erected soon around the spots the PM is to visit. Recces by various agencies to identify spots presumed to be safe and away from trouble have become common.
A visit by any VVIP is a matter of pride for the Islands. But aggrandisement will only bring more criticism and indifference. There is a genuine need to address the real issues – such as rising unemployment – and without jargon and acronyms like Standup India, Startup India, Make in India and the many others.
The Act East Policy remains on paper and is realised in official visits financed with public money. There is a serious need to look into the boundaries of the Islands, which were flawed from day one. China can be a poll plank.
If the government of India is serious about development of the Islands, it needs serious efforts towards the balanced and sustainable exploitation of resources, which as of now seems a far cry. There is no dearth of rhetoric about eco-friendly development, whether from the NITI Aayog or the Island Deveopment Agency. One needs to see it happening on the ground.
In short, the Islands need basic amenities that will cater to tourists as well local residents. Tourism should be a local affair, not a corporate one, which will only serve crony capitalism.
Hope the administration rises above the Potemkin schemes and brings real development to the Islands, going beyond mere words, keeping in view local sentiments, tribal concerns and foremost the pristine environment, which is a god-gift in fact.
(Zubair Ahmed is an Island-based journalist and researcher).