119 Years of Trust


Saturday, November 27, 1999

This above all

regional vignettes
For children

When Britain tried to keep the Andamans
A slice of history
By K.R.N. Swamy

ONE of the onerous tasks the Indian Navy has to perform is to guard the trade routes and strategic ports of the peninsular India. The way China and the USA have bracketed our country with Chinese electronic, surveillance stations in the Cocos islands in the Bay of Bengal and the US atomic weapon outpost in the Da Garcia island in the Indian Ocean has made it doubly necessary for us to be alert. In the context, it is interesting to note that the British had planned to separate the Lakshadweep Islands and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from Independent India! And what’s more, Pakistan had claimed the islands!

In 1947, as the final days of the British Raj in India approached, the imperialists were keen to sabotage the emergence of a strong India. From the confidential records of the British Government released a few years ago, we are able to piece together the drama behind those crucial days. The chiefs of staff of the British army examined the question of keeping their hold over parts of India, which were not in the mainland. The report dated June 13, 1947, by the Joint Planning Staff of the British Army stated: "The Lakshadweep Islands, which are sparsely inhabited coral strips, assume strategic importance from the airport of view if we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances they would be essential for our air reinforcement and the support route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. British Navy cannot use the islands as they are only open anchorages. If we cannot assume that the successor states in India will give us these facilities then we will have to rely on Ceylon, provided we can exclude the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from the transfer of power". The same day, the Indian and Burma Committee of the British cabinet considered the report of the chiefs of staff. In their minutes they stated, "The claim by Pandit Nehru is that Hindustan will automatically succeed to the position of India as an international entity... and Pakistan is merely a seceding minority".

They added, "This claim, is naturally enough, contested by Mr Jinnah!" Sure enough on July 5, 1947, Jinnah wrote to the secretary of state for India. "Clause 2 of the India Independence Bill allots Andaman and Nicobar Islands to the Dominion of India. These islands have never formed subject of discussion or agreement between parties any time. Their sudden inclusion in India raises a very grave issue. They are not part of India, historically or geographically. They were British possessions administered by Government of India and are not in the same category as other chief commissioner’s provinces, being reserved to Governor General under Constitution Act of 1935. Majority of population consists of tribes who are not connected with peoples of India by ethnical, religious or cultural ties. Pakistan’s claim to these islands is very strong since the only channel of communication between eastern and western Pakistan is by sea and, these islands occupy important strategic position on sea routes and provide refuelling bases. Dominion of India has no such claim. They should form part of Pakistan."

By August 4, 1947, the Government of Australia also wanted to know if the Andamans and Nicobar Islands would be retained by the British as "full consideration could be given to the vital concerns of Australia". Keeping back Andamans and Nicobars would be particularly useful against an aggressor which was "strong in land but weak in sea and airpower." Australia felt that the minimum Britain could do, if they could not retain the islands, was to secure long term leases for naval and air facilities. But Lord Mountbatten, the Viceroy and Governor General of India, felt that "there could be no question of raising this controversial subject at the present delicate stage of our political negotiations. It was a matter on which Indians felt deeply. Any attempt by His Majesty’s Government to separate the islands from India would probably provoke violent opposition from all parts of India". Faced with his opposition, the chiefs of staff requested the British cabinet to see if Britain could secure its defence requirements by negotiation by pointing out that Burmese interests in the strategic area of the Indian Ocean might be recognised by a tripartite agreement for the strategic use of the islands. They wanted to ensure that on the day of India‘s Independence, the islands should not become part of free India, but should be governed by a commissioner under the Governor General of India till agreement was reached about their future disposal. It was opined that the Governor General should tell the Indian leaders that the islands would belong to the two new dominions jointly pending agreement.

In due course, Lord Mountbatten sounded Pandit Nehru informally on the subject — namely lease by India to Britain of these islands for communication purposes. He reported on July 19 that he had spoken to Nehru, who was quite friendly, and had said that there was no objection to an official approach being made, though he could not commit himself until all implications had been considered. Following this talks, an official request to make the proposed arrangements was sent to Government of India, who agreed to it "without prejudice". But soon it became apparent to the British government that they would lose not only the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but also the goodwill of the renascent India if they persisted in the matter and the proposals were quietly dropped.

As far as the Lakshadweep Islands were concerned, it was found that as they formed part of the Madras Presidency, and they would become part of India on August 15, 1947. But still the islands were not safe. It is said that during the last days of the British in India, Sardar Patel, the Indian Home Minister, made arrangements for a frigate of the Indian Navy to be anchored at the capital island of the Lakshadweeps on Independence Day. Soon after the Indian Naval ship reached there, another frigate —a Pakistani one — appeared on the horizon.... Jinnah was not slow to plan to take over this 100 per cent Muslim populated district of Madras Presidency from India! But seeing that India had already taken over the island, the Pakistani naval vessel left the place quickly. — MFback

Home Image Map
| Good Motoring and You | Dream Analysis | Regional Vignettes |
Fact File | Roots | Crossword | Stamp Quiz | Stamped Impressions | Mail box |