Mainland and Island Imaginaries of the Andaman Islands
Colonial and postcolonial imaginaries of the Andaman Islands have represented the islands as a natural prison, a terra nullius, a site of nationalist martyrdom in the Indian anti-colonial struggle, and a repository of indigenous “exotica.” The islands are both a “melting pot” and a “frontier.” Successive waves of migration since 1858 have created a multiethnic and multilingual mosaic referred to as “Southeast India” and “Mini-India.” Convicts incarcerated by the British were joined by partition refugees from eastern Bengal, Adivasis from Chota Nagpur, and Telugu- and Tamil- speaking migrants from southern India. The 500-odd remaining indigenous people of tribal ethnicity are confined to reserved territories, depend on government support, or refuse contact. Strategically located at the juncture of the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, the islands play a crucial role in India’s current military expansion with its aim of countering the Chinese naval presence in the Indo-Pacific. Once the site of British “civilizing” missions, a coercive penal system, violent Japanese occupation during WWII, and a formerly thriving but now outlawed timber industry, the Andamans are the location of conflicting postcolonial imaginaries. From environmentalists’ pleas to “save” the “fragile” islands, to marketing for tourists portraying them as a tropical paradise holiday destination, the Andamans are a poly-semiotic place at the friction point of center-periphery tensions.
I focus on three questions in this article: Firstly, how does the Indian mainland/center see the islands? Secondly, how do different islanders see, on the one hand, the mainland—both as it is today and in terms of memorialized places of family origin—and, on the other, “their” own islands and their internal divisions? Thirdly, how do marginalized subaltern islanders conceive of their position on the islands’ periphery—on the one hand vis-.-vis the political centers of Port Blair and Delhi, and, on the other, the politically dominant groups on the islands?