Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Discourses on Island History

 Discourses on Island History

A colloquium on Island history by researchers from abroad and Islands brings forth various aspects of the history of the colonial and contemporary Andamans.

By Staff Reporter

In a colloquium on Andaman history organised at National Memorial Cellular Jail on 9th December, historians and academicians from United Kingdom, Germany and ANI working on different aspects presented a wide perspective of their study.
Speaking on the occasion, Prof Claire Anderson, University of Leicester, UK who has been a frequent visitor to these Islands informed the small gathering about her work on the Anglo Indians of the Islands. She has been working on the history, anthropology of the Islands and sociological insights. She said that her study divides the Anglo Indian into three categories - Anglo Indian Convicts, Developmental Schemes and post independence era. She observed that this community were very important for the success of British colony in the Islands. In 1858, Eurasians came from Calcutta and Madras on tickets of leave to work with different skills. They were also employed as overseers. Many of them remained in the Islands and worked here for more than 20 years. Her work took her to various archives throughout the world - Amsterdam, Manila and Ceylon. She said that there was close mixing of the British and the Anglo Indians in the Islands and the composition of Anglo Indians and British during the penal settlement was matter of interest. There were about 71 Anglo Indians and about 240 Europeans in the Settlement.
Prof Claire Anderson's present study is about the integrated histories of Andaman Islands. It aims to bring into focus the story of the complex multi-cultural society encompassed within its territorial bounds. Situated along the sea routes to Southeast Asia, the Islands have long attracted a whole range of people including traders, pirates, colonizers, and settlers from various parts of India, Burma, and Malaysia. The British settled the Islands permanently as a penal colony in 1858, displacing their indigenous peoples to devastating effect, and transported tens of thousands of convicts there through to the 1920s. They worked on a range of developmental projects. The British also shipped so-called 'criminal tribes' , other forced migrants, and anti-colonial 'rebels' to the Islands, and employed them in various 'rehabilitation' schemes and in forest labour. Although the Islands acquired notoriety under the British colonial regime, the stigma attached to them perhaps wore off sooner than expected. In the aftermath of Indian Independence and Partition, refugees fleeing the communal violence that broke out in the subcontinent readily agreed to be rehabilitated into a region they had hitherto feared. Indeed, they came to make their homes in a place they perceived to be free of the social hierarchies, prejudices, and conflicts of mainland India. This project seeks to bring together the investigators' previous research - on indigenous peoples (known locally as 'tribals'), Indian convicts, and Bengali refugees - with a new series of historical studies of the lives and experiences of convict descendents (known as 'local-born') and three groups of forced migrant settlers: First, the so-called Bhantu 'criminal tribes' from north India; second, Karen and Ranchi forest labourers from Burma and India respectively; and, third, Mopilla 'rebel' deportees from south India.
Dr Frank Heidemann, Social Anthropologist from University of Munich is doing his research among the Ceylon Tamil Repatriates in Tamil Nadu and this led him to Andaman Islands where a small settlement of Sri Lankan Repatriates exists in Katchal and Little Andaman. About 70 families preferred to settle in Andamans in 1974. In Katchal there are about 48 families and 22 families in Little Andaman. The community has very well amalgamated into the Tamil community and there are no clear cut boundaries to distinguish them. However, he said that they have certain constraints like their Ceylon background sometimes create problems for them. The Sri Lankan Repatriates in these Islands have not prospered socio-economically, felt Prof Heidemann.
Speaking about his work about Contemporary Negotiations of the Colonial Legacy in Andaman Islands, Philipp Zehmisch, Munich University said that Cellular Jail can be called the University of Indian Independence Movement. He said that the representation of the local population is not to be seen anywhere. He felt that in the shadows of Cellular Jail, Chatham and Viper Islands have lost their place and significance. The most constant features of the Andaman society over the last 150 years have been consistent growth in population and increasing social complexity. Different culturally hybrid and creolized communities manifested due to a variety of historical migration processes and (post)colonial social engineering policies. State-directed convict transportation, the settlement of refugees, repatriates and landless people under colonization and rehabilitation schemes, as well as independent, autonomous migrations of labourers, traders, soldiers and government servants in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, have given shape to a distinct island society, called Mini-India. This widely used local synonym indicates that the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse population of Andaman migrants depicts the diversity of the Indian subcontinent.
The coexistence of several (re)constructed overseas communities, the indigenous people and the administrative staff from mainland India, must be seen as a dynamic process of constant negotiations of identity, status, privileges, rights and duties. Political competition for recognition by the state and access to its sinecures, for example through quota reservation, caused reifications of group identity with reference to the history of migration. Here, it is the present and the future that are at stake, but arguments are usually located in the past. Group rights, identifications and senses of belonging are linked to the place of origin, birth and the period of settlement in the islands.
In the Andamans, immaterial as well as material objects gain a historical dimension in public debates through their appropriation, reinterpretation or even destruction. The notion of history engenders ideas and objects and gains a specific quality in a rather young social system. In demotic and dominant discourses of the past, words and objects are used to manifest claims and to reinterpret rituals and bodily practices. History is a process in the making, and a field of contested interpretation. Discourses of history are made manifest in the names of groups and places; their imprints can be found in maps, texts, laws and regulations, as well as in the layout of public spaces, in statues and other monuments. Moreover, not only official, hegemonic versions of history matter, but also contesting, and often silenced, subaltern voices. From this perspective, a hereditary occupation of an individual, or a settlement of a minority group next to a creek, stands for an idiosyncratic or emic view of history. Such histories become manifest through the ascription of meaning in the here and now.
The many views of the past are expressed and found in a variety of manifestations. Administrative categories of settlement such as "pre-42", "settlers" and "ten-years of continuous education", which indicate the duration of stay, turn out to be highly politicized vehicles for social mobility among the communities. Japanese bunkers not only embody the bygone strength and endurance of the Axis powers, they have also turned into objects of local myths that are spun around mysterious hoards of gold supposedly buried underneath them. The Cellular Jail, a symbol of colonial oppression, martyrdom and sacrifice in 'kala pani', has been transformed into a contemporary national icon and an attraction for domestic tourists. Moreover, the resettled Ranchi village Birsanagar has been named after the Adivasi freedom fighter Birsa Munda. This very process of historicization is the focus his study.
Prof Francis Xavier, JNRM presented a paper on the Historical Perspective on the Strategic Importance of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. From Ancient period to the recent Chinese incursions to Andaman waters, he said that the Islands had been a launchpad for defence purposes since long.
Dr. Rasheeda Iqbal read from a paper on the Role of Cellular Jail in India's Freedom Struggle. Zubair Ahmed, Editor , The Light of Andamans made a small presentation on the History of Moplahs in the Islands. There was a group discussion too on the subjects presented by the speakers.
The programme commenced with the welcome address by Dr Rasheeda Iqbal and concluded with the vote of thanks proposed by Prof Claire Anderson.

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