On December 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the Andaman and Nicobar islands to commemorate Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s visit to the archipelago during World War II, on the last three days of 1943. At that time, the islands were under the occupation of the Imperial Japanese Forces, a little-known fact of Indian history.

During his visit, Modi announced that three small islands in the South Andamans would be renamed. While Ross island has been renamed after Bose, Neil Island has been christened Shaheed Dweep (Martyr’s Island) and Havelock Island is now officially known as Swaraj Dweep (Self-Rule Island).

The three islands were renamed purportedly to honour Bose’s memory. A perfectly valid reason, one might say. But what if that memory itself is fraught with contestation? What if the national memory of Bose’s visit is at variance with the local memory?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on December 30, 2018.

Japanese occupation

Bose had been invited to Port Blair in 1943 by the Japanese government in his capacity as the leader of the Indian National Army, which was in alliance with the Japanese. Here, he expressed the wish that the Andaman Islands should be renamed Shaheed Dweep and the Nicobar Islands be named Swaraj Dweep. His wish has finally been fulfilled, albeit on a much reduced scale.

It is unknown if there was a popular demand to rename these three islands, which, incidentally, are the three most popular destinations for tourists in Andaman. But if there was such a demand, it was not the first one to be made.

In the late 1960s, the socialist leader Samar Guha, who represented the Praja Socialist Party in Parliament and was a close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose, raised the matter of renaming the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Shaheed Dweep and Swaraj Dweep. This was opposed forcefully by KR Ganesh, who was the MP from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and was responsible for bringing the archipelago into the political map in India.

Ganesh pointed out to the House that the local people of the Andamans were imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese in the same Cellular Jail in Port Blair where Netaji Bose raised the flag of a free India for the first time in December 1943. Guha was unaware of this, as were most other members of Parliament. He wanted to know if the atrocities by the Japanese occupation forces on the local people had taken place before or after Bose’s visit. Ganesh’s reply was, “Before, during and after.”

But most people who suffered during the Japanese occupation are no longer around, and the memory of those troubled times has become faint over the years.

The Japanese had occupied the Andaman islands for three-and-a half years, between 1942 and 1945. During that same period, another territory was also under their occupation – the Dutch East Indies or present-day Indonesia. It was seized on March 9, 1942, just a day before the Japanese wrested control of the Andamans from the British. The occupation of both territories ended on the same day in August 1945, with the unconditional surrender of the Japanese.

But though the story of the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies during World War II is quite well known, very few know about the occupation of the Andamans.

An article about the occupation of the Dutch East Indies has this line: “The occupation was not gentle.” This could have well been written for the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The article goes on to say:

“Japanese troops acted harshly against local populations. The Japanese military police were especially feared. Food and vital necessities were confiscated by the occupiers causing widespread misery and starvation by the end of the war.”

The situation was the same in Port Blair and surrounding villages and nearby islands such as Neil Island and Havelock Island. I have come across many stories of the fear of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police – of the arrests, the beatings, the hunger, the fear and anxiety that had gripped the people with hundreds in jail for suspicion of spying for the British.

The local residents would have known that their near-starving situation during the war was caused mainly by the fact that Allied submarines and aircraft were bombing ship after Japanese ship laden with food and essential supplies, some of which sank within sight of people waiting at the docks. Yet the local population lined up to welcome the returning British colonial forces and administration after the Japanese surrendered.

Memory is a strange thing. It reappears at the strangest of moments and in the strangest of places, sometimes on the side of a bus. The place names on the bus in the photograph below could be a veritable history of this island, of stages in its colonial past. But the last named destination – Japan Nallahis new, not more than two years old. The place is so new that most people, even in Port Blair, are not quite sure where it is. But the reference to Japan is old. Some memories will just not go away.

The place names on this bus could be a veritable history of this island. But the last name is quite new.

Jayant Dasgupta is the author of Japanese in Andaman & Nicobar Islands: Red Sun over Black Water.