Book review

This book tells us why we need to talk about the Andaman and Nicobar islands urgently

The little-known history of the islands is accessible and engrossing in campaigner Pankaj Sekhsaria’s ‘Islands in Flux’.

For over two decades, researcher and campaigner Pankaj Sekhsaria has been writing about the state of environmental, social and political affairs in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story brings together the bulk of his reportage since 2000 on key issues affecting the islands. Though this isn’t (as the author himself notes) a comprehensive history of the islands in that time frame, it is a solid beginning in understanding the unique conditions of an area whose complexities are largely ignored by the mainland.

Sekhsaria is quick to point out that the islands are misunderstood and underrepresented in the Indian media. He refers to the “marginalisation of the islands in the nation’s consciousness.” The original communities of the islands are the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa, and the Sentinelese. In the early years of India’s independence, the government devised a plan to colonise the islands. As a part of this plan, thousands of settlers from the mainland were incentivised with land and timber to settle in the island. The timber-rich forests were opened up to exploitation. In the last century, which has seen unprecedented population growth at the islands, approximately a 10th of the forested land has been wiped out.

Island in danger

The islands are home to unique flora and fauna which have been endangered by aggressive developmental policies. In one of several examples, the logging is noted to have threatened the populations of the saltwater crocodile and the endemic wild pig. We learn that the islands are an important nesting spot for turtles, including the giant leatherback turtle which is critically endangered, which is threatened by sand mining and a growing population of dogs.

The colonisation of the islands by mainlanders has also had the effect of drastically endangering and outnumbering the indigenous, tribal population. Sekhsaria notes in one example:

In the early 1960s, the Onge were the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman. Today, for each Onge, there are at least 120 outsiders, and this imbalance is rapidly increasing.

Of the first three tribes mentioned above, the Jarawa tribe survived the onslaught of forced development the longest. Sekhsaria narrates how their “hostility and self-maintained isolation in the impenetrable rainforests” insulated them from the changing times. But the construction of the Andaman Trunk Road in the heart of their territory forced them to slowly abandon their self-contained way of life.

One of the other themes explored in Islands in Flux is the role of naming in colonisation. He points out that a singular theory is popular on the mainland about the origin of the name Andaman – that it comes from the Hindu figure of Hanuman – even though historical accounts document various theories. He criticises the calls to rename the islands after freedom fighters as dismissive of the identity and history of the local tribes. The islands had already been re-christened by the British. Sekhsaria says: “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would be no more than a page and India could only be a paragraph.”

Sekhsaria takes us through the complex journey of the islands in the last two decades. In response to a distressing report on the state of the islands’ forests by a court-appointed commission, the Supreme Court ruled that sand-mining operations had to be phased out and the Andaman Trunk Road closed.

Outsiders versus insiders

But as we read on, we discover that economic and political interests led to a wilful non-compliance of these orders. Throughout the book, the author highlights how the tribes’ interests are not protected, their land and people exploited and how they are not consulted in policy decisions.

He narrates the conflicts over land between the settlers and the tribes. In particular, the story of the Jarawa people is told in animated detail as small groups of them begin to unexpectedly emerge from the territory they had earlier fiercely kept themselves to. No one was allowed to enter their land, and they did not venture out either until the late 90s. This tribe has dwindled to a meagre 250 individuals. As Sekhsaria puts it, for them it “is literally a struggle for survival and against extinction.”

The little-known history of the islands is accessible and engrossing in Sekhsaria’s sympathetic, painstaking prose. Sekhsaria is hopeful that if change arrives, even at this late juncture, it will save the tribes from extinction and the islands from complete decimation. This is an important book for its lessons on the environment, on India’s uneasy and problematic relationship with some of its territories and on the implications of forcing development and modernisation on indigenous communities.

Islands in Flux: The Andaman and Nicobar Story, Pankaj Sekhsaria, Harper Collins.

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