As part of the Bharatiya Janata’s party’s continued policy of renaming, the Narendra Modi government will give new names to three islands in the Andaman and Nicobar Union territory. Ross Island, Neil Island and Havelock Island will be rechristened Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Island, Shaheed Dweep and Swaraj Dweep respectively

The new names are a tribute to Subhas Bose. His Indian National Army, in alliance with the Japanese, had briefly captured the Andaman islands from the British Raj during World War II. The renaming, however, has a tinge of irony given that Bose was intensely disliked by the locals as a result of the brutal nature of Japanese occupation.

Theatre of war

While the Battles of Imphal and Kohima, when Allied troops drove back the Japanese army from India’s northeastern borders, are well commemorated, few people remember that Japan actually managed to capture one part of the country 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 delegation at the ceremony to mark the surrender of Japanese forces in the Andaman Islands in 1945
The Japanese delegation at the ceremony to mark the surrender of Japanese forces in the Andaman Islands in 1945

Brutal occupation

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.

A version of this piece was first published on Scroll here.