In November 1947, a few months after India’s independence, its external affairs ministry received an unusual letter from the first secretary to the Burmese High Commissioner in New Delhi. Worded in the kind of bureaucratese that characterises such communication, the letter sought “facilities” for Burmese nationals on Andaman Islands to celebrate “the Burmese Independence Day on the 4th January 1948 in a fitting manner”. “The High Commissioner would feel most grateful if steps could kindly be taken as early as possible,” U Khyaw Khine wrote.

At that time, the Andaman Islands had a population of 14,500, according to the British parliament. Of these 2,440 were Burmese and the remaining Indians (indigenous people were not included in the figure).

Among the ethnic groups from Burma on the islands was a small community of Karens that was brought over by British Baptists in the 1920s. The community kept to itself and lived mainly on the Middle Andaman Island. The other Burmese – many of whom were originally sent by the British to the penal colony on Ross Island – lived in and around Port Blair. These non-Karens were considered Burmese nationals and it was for these people that the Burmese High Commission wrote to the Indian external affairs ministry about the independence day celebrations.

It is safe to assume that the letter must not have been received with unanimous enthusiasm. There must have been some elements in the Indian government who would have frowned upon the idea of allowing Burmese to mark Burma’s Independence Day in the Andamans, seeing as Rangoon had seriously lobbied in 1947 to claim the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as its own.

Momentum building

After Burma was separated from British India in 1937, the only administrative link left between them was six lighthouses along the southern coastline under the administration of the Indian government. No restrictions were placed on travel from Burma to any corner of India, including the Andamans. Of the Burmese who were sent to the islands as prisoners, some chose to stay back.

It was after the end of the Second World War and the Japanese occupation of Burma that voices grew for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to be handed over to the country. The Burmese press too began making the case for the transfer once it was clear that the British were going to leave India.

“Geographically the islands are Burmese,” the English-language daily The Burman declared on June 20, 1947, according to Reuters. “They were administered from Burma before transfer to the Government of India. We have a good number of Burmese living in the Andamans.”

At the time there were rumours in Burma that the British would keep the archipelago and use it as a naval base.

A month after The Burman editorial, another Rangoon newspaper, The Daily Herald, called on the Burmese authorities to include the question of the islands’ “restoration” in the independence programme, arguing that the islands were “vital to the defence of Burma”.

The topic was even discussed in the Burmese Constituent Assembly on July 12, 1947, says Reuters.

British debate

When the British parliament took up the Indian Independence Bill, legislators debated the future of the islands too. Earl Winterton, a Tory MP, insisted the islands were a part of India only because of the British. Labour MP David Rees-Williams suggested giving them to Malaya.

But Arthur Henderson, Under Secretary for India, clarified that the British government wanted the islands to be transferred to an independent India. “We are well aware of the strategic importance of these islands and this is one of the matters we propose to discuss with the future government of India in the general context of defence matters which will be a matter for discussion in due course,” he told the British parliament.

In the end, despite Burmese lobbying, the islands remained with India when the country attained freedom on August 15, 1947. The Burmese community in the Andamans stayed on since there was no pressure from the Indian government for them to leave. They were, however, not given the rations and subsidies that were provided to Indian citizens.

British governor Hubert Elvin Rance and Sao Shwe Thaik at the flag-raising ceremony on the Burmese Independence Day. Credit: Government of Burma/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

After some consideration, the Indian external affairs ministry allowed the Burmese in the Andamans to hoist their country’s flag in private areas on Burmese Independence Day. The rationale was that since Indians living in Burma were allowed to celebrate Indian Independence Day in 1947, the same courtesy should be extended to the Burmese. Besides, India was keen on maintaining friendly relations with its northeastern neighbour.

A newly-independent Burma soon imposed passport and visa restrictions on Indian citizens. Only the professionally qualified were given permits easily to live and work in the country. For its part, India agreed to hand over the six lighthouses it operated in Burma on March 31, 1949, severing the administrative last link with the country.

Once Burma became free, as most Burmese living in the Andamans chose to go back to their homeland, the Indian government began to resettle its citizens on the islands. These included people who were forced to flee violence in East Bengal, residents of southern Indian states as well as those who had left Burma for India during the Japanese invasion and after Burmese independence. Several financial incentives and subsidies were given to Indian citizens to move to the Andamans.

In March 1951, Indian Home Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel told the parliament that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had a population of 31,000, including 1,300 government employees. He estimated the indigenous groups numbered around 5,000, but added that the exact figures were unknown.

Retransfer of powers

The islands continued to remain a political issue in Rangoon years after Burma and India attained independence.

In October 1951, U Ba Hlaing, a former legislator, wrote an article in The Burman headlined “Whose Islands – The Andamans?” In it he noted that Burma had contributed heavily to the development of the islands and that many of the convicts exiled there were Burmese.

Hlaing argued the islands were geologically a part of Burma and blamed the British for adding them to India for administrative purposes. “But this does not mean that India should have grabbed them when transfer of power was handed over by the British to the leaders of India headed by Shri Nehru,” he wrote. “The British, when they were pushed out of India, and Pakistan, seemed to forget in a hurry to tell the Indian leaders that these islands were part and parcel of Burma.”

He suggested that the Burmese government should talk to India about ceding the islands. “I now presume that the powers that be and the Indian leaders would be convinced of the retransfer of the Andaman Islands back to our country as it looks simply ridiculous that another group of islands – the Cocos – should belong to Burma whilst another group – the Andamans – just 30 miles away – should belong to another country some 600 miles away,” Hlaing argued.

India never took the claim seriously.

Military coup

If the departing British had chosen to give the archipelago to Burma, it would have created serious security issues for India in the future and almost certainly meant the expulsion of Indians living there.

By 1956, just 3,700 of the 300,000 Indians living in Burma were given citizenship, and in 1962, military dictator General Ne Win ordered mass expulsion of Indians. Only those who operated barber shops, tea shops and pan shops were allowed to stay. Many others who stayed behind in rural areas did not get full citizenship.

After the military-backed coup in Burma in 1962, there were no recorded claims from the country for the islands. In September 1987, India and Burma, later renamed Myanmar, formalised an agreement on the demarcation of their maritime boundary, which runs very close to the Andaman Islands.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.