ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE’S The Sign of Four, first published in 1890, stands out for the characterisation of Tonga, the loyal associate of the main villain in the Sherlock Holmes novel. Depicted as a fierce and primitive creature, Tonga is an Andamanese tribal adept at blowing poisoned darts that barely leave a mark on the victim. The perplexing murders are, predictably enough, solved by Holmes but in later years Tonga’s representation attracted adverse comment. It was said to reflect Victorian ignorance about the Jarawa and other Andaman tribes who were viewed as exotic creatures. In the decades that followed Independence, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were administered directly by the Union government but the tendency to see the tribes as museum pieces persisted. The need to preserve the fragile ecosystem and tribal customs was a reason to limit, if not entirely stall, the progress of modernity in the islands. Over time, this came to be self-fulfilling, an inviolable dogma that ensured the islands remained out of bounds and a distant spot in the national imagination.
It took time for the official thinking in New Delhi to change and the first indication that the importance of the islands was being recognised was the setting up of India’s first tri-service command in 2001. To date, it is the only one with a commander overseeing air, naval and land assets. The crucial role of the island chain as a staging base for a force to protect India’s territorial interests in the Bay of Bengal and ensure free and safe navigation through the Malacca and Singapore Straits was finally recognised. The 2004 tsunami that resulted in the deaths of thousands, including several Air Force officers, underscored the need to develop resilient infrastructure and place responsible planning at the centre of government policy. Yet, the lessons were only partly learnt as a bureaucratic web and a maze of environmental clearances ensured the islands progressed sporadically. One of the first decisions taken by the Narendra Modi government in 2014 after assuming office was to order an urgent review of pending defence projects. Senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Prakash Javadekar recalls that after he assumed charge of the environment and forests ministry, a list of 200 such projects was placed before him. The proposals relating to the Andamans needed careful consideration as they involved clearing forest areas. “There cannot be a zero-sum game. Development and strategic interests must go hand-in-hand with protecting ecology,” says Javadekar. The recent decision to open 30 islands to foreign tourists by removing the restricted area permits was taken after several official surveys and is seen as a belated, but much needed, effort to generate revenues that will fund local development. Officials said the particular interests of tribal groups that lead an isolated existence and remain hostile to external intervention are being taken into account. They also point out that blanket orders preventing tree cutting and pruning are problematic as forest cover can need management to ensure healthy regeneration.
Prime Minister Modi’s announcement on January 22, naming 21 islands after recipients of India’s highest military decoration, the Param Vir Chakra (PVC), is much more than symbolism. Read with initiatives taken since his first term, the decision is intended to strengthen the connection with the mainland and provide an emotional anchor in the remote islands that is imbued with patriotic sentiment. It fuses the strategic importance of the island chain with a political-cultural project to promote nationalism. The British-era history of being a penal colony where freedom fighters were cast along with criminals has been deeply associated with the Andamans and this is an important part of BJP’s and the Sangh Parivar’s ideological vision and beliefs. The bitterly contested legacy of Vinayak Damodar “Veer” Savarkar best exemplifies BJP’s ideological roots as well as the faultline that divides it from its opponents. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s disparaging remarks about Savarkar having sought pardons from the British—which he has not repeated after criticism from ally Uddhav Thackeray’s Shiv Sena—are not a one-off incident. They reflect a consistent effort by a section of scholars and historians to deny Savarkar’s status as a freedom fighter, a portrayal contested as selective by the saffron camp. The severe travails suffered by Savarkar at Port Blair’s infamous Cellular Jail, his long incarceration, and his advocacy of Hindutva are part of BJP’s folklore. Since becoming prime minister, Modi has argued about the need to “correct” misrepresentation of historical figures and this includes the alleged calumny of Savarkar, where his fortitude is questioned and he is accused of offering craven apologies and abandoning his co-conspirators. A fresh appreciation of Savarkar and a restoration of his image are not a directly stated link to the naming of the islands, but these are part of BJP’s nationalism project that is inseparable from the history of the Andamans.
In most cases, the PVC has been awarded posthumously, in recognition of extraordinary feats of valour whereby military personnel charged the enemy, climbed ice walls, and defended positions in the face of impossible odds. India was birthed amid violence and it required acts of great courage to defend the hard-won freedom. The newly minted islands serve to refresh the sacrifice of earlier generations. Major Somnath Sharma’s citation says he led his company to fight the enemy with “extreme bravery” as he kept rushing across open ground to reach his troops in Budgam on November 3, 1947, leading them until a mortar shell exploded near him. Earlier in the same war, Lance Naik Karam Singh desperately defended Richhmar Gali in Jammu and Kashmir even as Pakistani forces launched eight separate attacks in a single day. Each time Singh encouraged and pepped up his comrades while fighting the enemy before the Indian troops finally charged their positions with bayonets. Second Lieutenant Rama Raghoba Rane was an extraordinary solider. Charged with clearing mines on the Rajouri-Nowshera road, he crawled alongside an Indian tank and directed its movement by a rope tied to the tank driver. In this manner, reads his citation, he succeeded in securing a safe lane for advancing Indian tanks. Naik Jadunath Singh of 1 Rajput was a post commander at Tain Dhar near Nowshera when, on February 6, 1948, his post came under successive waves of attack. Soon, of the 27 men at the post, 24 were killed or severely wounded. Despite grievous injuries, armed with a Sten gun, he single-handedly charged the enemy who scattered in the face of the act of raw courage.
In the 1962 war with China, Major Dhan Singh Thapa of 1/8 Gorkha Rifles was in command of a forward post in Ladakh. On October 20, his post was attacked by a large number of Chinese troops after intense artillery and mortar bombardment. The third Chinese attack, with infantry supported by tanks, saw the post being greatly reduced. Major Dhan Singh killed several enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat before he was finally overpowered and fell on the battlefield. The story of the indomitable Major Shaitan Singh has inspired generations of soldiers for sheer guts and glory. Commanding the Charlie Company of 13 Kumaon at Rezang La in Jammu and Kashmir at a height of about 17,000 feet, he found himself under severe attack from Chinese troops on November 18. The handful of survivors who lived to tell the tale said the action would have been over very quickly but for Major Shaitan Singh’s valour and acumen. He dominated the scene of operations and moved from one platoon post to another at great personal risk before falling. He refused evacuation and his ‘samadhi’ is still honoured by a diya.
In the 1965 war with Pakistan, Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid was serving in 4 Grenadiers, an outfit that has repeatedly covered itself with glory, in Khem Karan Sector when on September 10 Pakistani forces launched an attack with Patton tanks. Manning a jeep-mounted gun, he destroyed two enemy tanks before being targeted himself and led his troops to destroy more enemy armour. Lt Colonel Ardeshir Burzorji Tarapore commanded the Poona Horse in the Sialkot sector when he came under attack from the enemy’s heavy armour. He refused to leave the battlefield despite injuries and his forces destroyed several tanks and the regiment captured the Wazirwali, Jassoran and Butur-Dograndi areas of Pakistan.
ON DECEMBER 15, 1971, during the India-Pakistan war, Major Hoshiar Singh of 3 Grenadiers was ordered to capture the “enemy locality of Jarpal”. His force came under a fierce counterattack and the shelling killed an Indian machine gun crew. Realising the importance of the position, Major Singh manned the guns to deter attacks. In a story that has been retold many times, on December 14, 1971, Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon took off from the Srinagar airfield after it was bombed and strafed by six Pakistani Sabre aircraft. In spite of the immense risk to his life, Sekhon flew his Gnat against the intruders and shot down one jet and was engaged with the second before he was targeted by the other aircraft.
During the bloody peacekeeping operations in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s, Major Ramaswamy Parameswaran of 8 Mahar was returning from a search operation when his column was ambushed by a group of militants but did not lose his presence of mind. He engaged them in deadly hand-to-hand combat that inspired his troops even though he died in action. The Bana Post is named after Naib Subedar Bana Singh who volunteered to clear the Quaid Post held by the Pakistan army at Siachen in 1987. “Siachen’s extreme climate with intense blizzards, temperature of nearly -50 degree C and shortage of oxygen were the biggest threat to survival,” reads his citation. Indian troops scaled a 457-metre wall of ice and destroyed the enemy bunker by lobbing grenades. Bana and his team charged with bayonets, killing a few enemy soldiers while the rest jumped off the cliff.
At a time when the conventional wisdom was that World War II-style fighting was over, the Kargil war saw Indian soldiers climb sheer mountain faces and expel Pakistani intruders. Captain Vikram Batra, despite sustaining grave injuries, led from the front and achieved the virtually impossible task of leading his men before dying of his wounds. “Inspired by his courageous act, his troops annihilated the enemy and captured Point 4875,” the Army statement said. During the same Operation Vijay, Lieutenant Manoj Kumar Pandey of 11 Gorkhas was tasked to clear Khalubar Ridge in Batalik. On July 3, 1999, as his company was advancing, it came under heavy fire. He assaulted the enemy, killing four, and destroyed two bunkers. Wounded in the shoulder and leg, he engaged in fierce hand-to-hand fighting. In a separate action, Grenadier Yogendra Singh Yadav of 18 Grenadiers was part of the Ghatak Platoon tasked to capture Tiger Hill Top in Drass. He and his team scaled a snowbound vertical cliff face and “silenced the bunker” and though hit by three bullets, he charged the second bunker.
The naming of the islands after military heroes came on the birth anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose—another act of political signalling as Modi has often accused Congress of shading his contribution. Earlier, Ross Island was renamed Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep, and Havelock and Neil Islands became Swaraj and Shaheed Islands. It was in Port Blair that Netaji had hoisted the Indian flag in 1943. In September last year, Modi unveiled the granite statue of Netaji at India Gate while the eternal flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti was merged and now burns at the National War Memorial which has granite tablets to commemorate fallen military personnel. The naming of the islands in the Andamans is another significant link in a series of actions to embrace India’s history.
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