On the boundaries

A collection of essays that looks at how the history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was shaped by colonial intervention.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

MANIFESTATIONS OF HISTORY is an interesting exploration of life in the Andaman archipelago, a region that continues to remain at the cultural, ideological and geographical boundaries of the Indian subcontinent. The volume, edited by Frank Hiedemann and Philipp Zehmisch, tries to provide new ways of understanding the history of places that are not in sync with modernity and whose histories have often been shaped by historical contingencies in the form of colonial intervention or the working of global capitalism in the non-European world. Moving away from the conventional methodological tools in the writing of history/anthropology, the volume seeks to explore the significance of social memories that are often negotiated through the working of power and knowledge within specific contexts.

The present volume engages with the ways in which the archipelago emerged as a penal outpost in the aftermath of the rebellion that shook the colonial state in 1857. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the region continued to receive people from diverse socioreligious and political backgrounds whom the state branded as criminals. The geographical location of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was, therefore, conceived by the colonial state as a no-man’s land that had no past, no history, and therefore no rights. Its primitive tribes were cut off from the present and were, therefore, far removed from civilisation. The rebels who were extradited to the “penal colony” by the colonial state were stripped of their rights as citizens within the emerging conceptualisation of a modern state in the subcontinent. The crossing of the kalapaani , or the black waters, also meant loss of social and individual identity within the traditional social system, where crossing the waters was considered ritually polluting and hence socially taboo.

The status of the Andamans within the colonial imagination and the manner in which places and people came to be constituted became a recurring trope through which the postcolonial Indian state recast the status of the island in relation to the mainland. The reification of the predominant conceptualisation of the Andamans either as a penal colony or as a space in which tribal people of antiquity could be traced and preserved often foreclosed the possibility of any critical and meaningful inquiry into the sociopolitical and cultural life of the Andamans. Thus for the Indian state, while tribal lands on the mainland were brought within the ambit of civilisation either through the intervention of the colonial state and Christian missionaries or through the development agendas initiated by the post-independent nation state, it was in the Andamans that tribal life in all its antiquity and simplicity could be located.

New ways of looking at history While there have been intense debates, particularly after the interwar years, on the ways in which the writing of history has to be rethought, historians in South Asia have criticised the manner in which places and people and their memories and emotions were overlooked within the grand narratives of the dominant historiographical traditions in India. An attempt at framing the history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands had to necessarily move beyond the standard methodologies that were adopted in framing histories through the colonial/nationalist binaries as the grand narrative of national consciousness and its emergence often submerged the local and the marginal within the mainstream historiographical thinking. The renewed academic interest in the last few decades in the Andamans coincides with the emergence of new ways of reading the history of the subcontinent. Manifestations of History belongs to this emerging large body of literature.

Shaping of history The volume brings to the fore the history of the Andamans through the specific historical contingencies and processes through which the region was shaped and structured. From being a “no man’s land” until 1856, the region became home to a penal colony for convicts from Burma and from the entire subcontinent. However, as the eventful 19th century came to a close, colonial priorities changed with the transformation of the islands into a major centre for procuring teak and timber for the world market. The migration of Ceylonese Tamils in the 1970s to work in the rubber plantations in the Nicobar islands and, finally, the demographic shifts caused by the devastation wrought by the 2004 tsunami further changed perceptions. Thus the book looks at history not through continuity, but rather through breaks as moments at which social memories are constructed and woven around specific events. It thus gives voice to those who have made the Andamans their home over the last one and a half centuries, breaking the conventional boundaries between the native and the other.

The social history of the archipelago had been structured around the fact that the British colonial administration chose to treat it as a group of virgin islands that could be used as a penal colony for political prisoners. This meant that people belonging to different social groups from across the Indian subcontinent came to live here. So the entry point in understanding the history of the Andamans is as a penal colony after the rebellion of 1857. But the narratives that are woven around the “rebel”, Fadl-e Haqq, who was sent to the Andamans from Delhi, are complex. It is not just a case of simple deification of a Muslim cleric. The social memories relating to him in contemporary Andamans bring to the fore how cultural meanings are reconstituted and sustained. Arabic poems written by Haqq in the prison cells of the Andamans were smuggled back into the subcontinent, where different Islamic groups reinterpreted the letters in accordance with contemporary politico-religious and nationalist concerns to renegotiate theological disputes between conservatives and reformers within Islam. Jamal Malik, in “Cultural Memory”, reminds us that what emerges as “cultural memory” is in fact shaped and structured by contemporary political and cultural concerns.

Clare Anderson’s “In search of the black rock” draws attention to the manner in which the Andamans becomes the site for the articulation of the European self within a non-European context where intimate personal relations between individuals become extensions of the relationship forged between Europe and the new geographical location, the Andamans. Anderson engages with a set of letters written by Rev. Thomas Warneford to his daughter where objects and collectibles from the Andamans speak of the parts of the unknown world. However, Anderson engages with the letters and collectibles in conjunction with an interesting site, a black rock from southern Andamans on which the name of the missionary had been inscribed. For Anderson, the rock represents a longer and enduring relationship between Andamans and the colony.

Claire Wintle’s “Material histories” highlights the manner in which material objects and goods used primarily by the aborigines moved from the Andamans to museums in mainland India, in Europe and in the United States. The exhibits not only become artefacts through which the life of the other can be understood but also reflect the manner in which tribal life in the Andamans was perceived in accordance with the changing notions in a multi cornered relationship between Asia, India and Europe. Claire Wintle cogently argues that the exhibits and artefacts do not just reflect Andamanese tribal life but also open up an interesting link in the changing perceptions of Europe in relation to the non-European world.

Satadru Sen in “Race, aboriginality and the adivasi” brings to the fore the relationship between the settler, a perpetual outsider, and the tribal person whose life gets confined to the geographical boundaries of the tribal land. Thus while social and geographical spaces were defined and marked as fixed and unchanging, the Andamans remains an unchanging space within time and is denied the process of historical transition. However, while Sen locates the concern of race and aboriginality in the writings of Benoy Kumar Sarkar, it is not clear how Sarkar’s understanding of tribe and his concern with race can be read in conjunction with tribal life within the Andamans.

Plantation settlers Frank Heidemann’s work on the settler Tamils from Ceylon on Katachal and Little Andamans weaves together the social history of the Ceylonese Tamil who migrated to the Andmanans. It is an interesting narrative of displacement of the Ceylonese Tamils in the place of their origin (mainland India), then in Ceylon, and their final displacement to the Andamans. Hiedemann highlights how the Ceylonese Tamils get caught between contesting national politics, ethnic identities and the larger tensions between India and Ceylon. The paper also brings to the fore the interesting narrative of liminality, memory and consciousness torn between societies primarily defined by linguistic identities.

Aboriginal migration Philipp Zehmisch’s work on aboriginal migration from Ranchi engages with the manner in which the aboriginal people from the Indian mainland in the early decades of the 20th century emerged as a social group that was deemed fit for clearing forests for the timber industry catering to the global market. The Andamans became a space where tribal people such as the Kols and the Mundas could be transformed as enterprising citizens through their work of clearing forests. Aboriginality, therefore, came to be defined through racial attributes, where the lowest rung in the social hierarchy came to be defined in accordance with the demands of the labour market. This was also because the thin boundary that separated the convict from the aboriginal underlined the social categorisation which, in colonial contexts, stemmed from a certain degree of marginality as far as civilisational advancement was concerned. Thus the resettlement of the Bengalis and other people from the Indian mainland during the colonial period and afterwards strengthened racial profiling on the basis of civilisational advancements. In the Andamans, no longer are the tribal people of the Chhotanagpur region located in primitivism. They are, rather, positioned within a global economic order where wage labour has come to be seen as the benchmark for civilisational advancement. Such a conceptualisation, therefore, redefined the social status of the tribal people even after they migrated to a different geo-social context.

Kanchan Mukhopadhyay, in his essay comparing the pre-1942 communities of Andamans with those who settled in the islands after 1942 highlights how the distinction between the local-born and the settler reshapes the notion of territory and defines the relationship with the mainland in social and community consciousness. Manish Chandi’s article on the “ethno-history of uninhabited Nicobar Islands” tries to locate the social history of the local communities through memories. The article provides interesting insights into how concepts of space and access to resources are understood in popular memory.

The book concludes with an afterword from Sita Venkateswar. While the volume offers interesting accounts of the Andamans and tries to present intimate voices through social memories, detailed descriptions that highlight the social memories and testimonies are missing.

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