Integrated Histories of the Andaman Islands
ESRC Research Grant (£110,934)
October 2009 - March 2013
This 3-year ESRC funded research project was a UK-India collaboration with the anthropologist Prof. Vishvajit Pandya and the historian of science, Dr Madhumita Mazumdar.
Tucked away in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman Islands are a relatively marginalized part of the Republic of India. In recent times, the catastrophic tsunami of December 2004 brought the Islands under the glare of the national and international media. As a region that suffered some of the worst damage unleashed by the earthquake, the Islands acquired new forms of visibility and attracted unprecedented interest in both mainland India and across the rest of the world. News reports driven by both humanitarian and commercial interests, for instance, sought to generate new forms of appreciation of the Islands as a tropical paradise replete with forests, beaches, and 'exotic natives' that desperately demanded conservation. However, despite post-tsunami national and international interest in the Andamans, little has been done to change or even question the enduring stereotype of the Islands as the home of 'tropical exotica' and little else. The larger historical, social, and cultural context of the Islands has remained quite apart from debates on Island tourism, conservation, and development.
The aim of this project was to correct this partial image of the Islands and 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 sought 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, Moplla 'rebel' deportees from south India.
Departing from the tenor of the existing literature, the project aimed to reveal and to interrogate two sets of historical, social, and economic interconnections: (1) between Andamans communities, and (2) between the (Andaman) Islands and the (Indian) mainland. It tried to understand the historical legacies of how indigenous peoples and settlers of various kinds, with their distinctive historical experiences, relate to each other - and how the social structures of the Islands relate to the Indian mainland. This historical understanding is of enormous interest and relevance to issues faced in the Islands today. Thus the project was of relevance to our understanding of the contemporary history of the Andaman Islands, and also raised issues of culture, identity, human rights, and social conflicts that have immediate relevance in multi-cultural societies all over the world.