Today, Manipur chief minister Okram Ibobi Singh will be the chief patron at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, when Allied troops – mainly Indian – drove back the Japanese army from India’s borders. The battle was among the key events of World War II, helping change the fortunes of the Allies.
But though the Japanese were beaten back from the northeastern border, few people remember that the East Asian nation actually managed to capture one part of India and to hold on to it until 1945. As a result, seven decades after the conflict ended, WWII bunkers are still a common sight along the beaches of Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, the site of a murky episode in Indian history.
As it turns out, the Andaman Islands were the only part of India that was actually controlled by the Indian National Army, the liberation force headed by Subash Chandra Bose. But its administration over the islands was only nominal. In reality, power was exercised by the Japanese forces – so brutally that they caused the residents of the islands to develop a deep hatred both for the Japanese and Bose’s army.
The Japanese sailed into Port Blair in March 1942, shortly after the fall of Rangoon earlier that month. They faced little resistance from the small local garrison and enrolled the Indian soldiers into the INA. But things soon turned sour. As Jayant Dasgupta recounts in his book Japanese in Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Red Sun over Black Water, several residents were executed on charges of spying, local women were forced into sexual slavery and hundreds were rounded up to provide forced labour for an airstrip and other projects.
Bose visited Port Blair to raise the tricolour and technically take charge of the islands in December 1943, renaming the Andamans “Shahid Dweep” (Martyr Island) and the Nicobars “Swaraj Dweep” (Self-Rule Island). Locals are said to have told him about the atrocities that had been meted out on them, only to be ignored, earning him their wrath.
Anger with the Japanese grew more intense as the months passed and food became scarce. Starvation became widespread and hundreds of people are thought to have been deported to an uninhabited island to grow food. Many perished. It is estimated that 2,000 Indians died as a result of Japan’s occupation of the Andamans.
The Allies finally recaptured the islands in October 1945.