Port Blair: Town of Statues

In the midst of this persistent Nationalistic project that is present day Port Blair, what are the feelings of the local community? How do they imagine themselves? Filmmaker Jayant Dasgupta chronicles the various degrees of dispossession by ‘Local Borns’ as against the original Andaman people and how one memory hides another.

On landing at the rather modest airport at Port Blair, the capital city of the Andaman Nicobar islands, the first sensory impression is tactile rather than visual. One feels immediately enveloped in the warm, moist air, which is quite pleasant really, heightening a sense of anticipation that one is about to embark on an exotic tropical holiday, an anticipatory feeling  that has not yet been borne out by sights and sounds but for a few glimpses of a blue sea and bits of land frothing at the edges, from the window of the banking aircraft. This feeling of anticipation and anticlimax stays with you as you walk into the terminal building which manages to look old and new at the same time, and walk out into the chaos of a provincial Indian town, with other nondescript people who could be government functionaries, petty traders, travelling salesmen, domestic travelers determined to get the most out of the LTC scheme, and the odd backpacking foreigner who is looking somewhat lost, perhaps wondering if it was a good idea to come here after all.

Later, after the visitor has dumped her bags at one of the many faceless hotels that outnumber the good ones ten to one, and has walked around the town a little or taken a ride in one of the ubiquitous auto rickshaws, and one has had her first encounter with the sea in Port Blair and has had a glimpse of the once majestic Cellular Jail, she is still not sure what to make of the place.

At the back of her mind is this lurking suspicion that this is just another South Asian small town, ‘ Not only unknowable, but not worth knowing’ [Ian Jack, Mofussil Junction].

But there is a difference from other small towns, one that asserts itself soon after ones arrival at Port Blair- that this is a place dedicated to Memorializing. The entire town, it seems, is a memorial. It would be simple to say that it is a memorial to that rather amorphous term ‘freedom movement’, but that would be simplistic as evidently, more is being celebrated or memorialized here. The number of statues that dot the rather limited confines of Port Blair municipal area indicate the desire to include as many elements of the nationalistic bandwagon as possible. It helps if there is an historical Andaman connection, but it would also appear at times that it did not hurt not to have one. Some statues are, of course, de rigueur. One cannot have a decent sized Indian town without a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in it.  Port Blair is no exception and the Mahatma’s statue stands in the middle of the eponymous chowk or cross roads, more or less in the geographical centre of the town.  And, within hailing distance from Gandhi, there is Indira Gandhi gracing the front of a government building.

As one walks towards the sea from here, through the quaint and bustling Aberdeen Bazaar, what unfolds before the eye besides the urban landscape is also a landscape dotted with statues.

Looking out to the sea at Marina Park, resplendent in his military uniform, is Subhas Chandra Bose. A little closer to Aberdeen near the jetty is Rajiv Gandhi in his characteristic kurta, pyjama, jacket ensemble, immortalized in the act of throwing a garland at the sea. The adjacent water sports complex is named after him commemorating his Prime Ministerial visit to the Islands in 1986. A little further up the road towards the South Point promontory, in the grounds of the sole college in Port Blair is a statue of Jawahar Lal Nehru. The college is also named after him.

You trace your steps back and as you walk the short distance from the marina and turn around the little traffic island most likely to be ‘manned ‘by a woman traffic cop in a smart uniform of trousers and shirt and walk up the gradient taking in the breathtaking panorama of the Marina Park, the sports stadium, the gentle hills beyond them dotted with picturesque little bungalows and the blue waters of Sesostris Bay, soon you come to the Cellular Jail, that holiest of holies which has come to be one of the most sacred symbols of the freedom movement in India and also the might of the harsh colonial regime that built it. A pale replica of its former self it is now the Cellular Jail National Memorial, and you can safely assume that ninety percent of the domestic tourists who visit the Andamans, do so with the sole purpose of seeing this single structure. Built on the lines of Jeremy Bentham inspired Panopticon, it originally had seven three storeyed arms radiating from a central observation tower , and with the locally available pink sandstone and convict labour, it was arguably the most awe inspiring symbol of the oppressive power of the colonial state. Allied bombs (dropped during the little known period of Japanese occupation during the Second World War) and earthquake related damage, both in the 1940s, have resulted in the demolition of four of the seven wings.

It is in the garden opposite the Cellular Jail building that the icon builders have gone to town. In the rather limited space of the garden there are no fewer than seven statues- of political prisoners housed in the jail between 1910 and 1926. Six of them, Indu Bhushan Roy, Pandit Ram Rakha, Mahavir Singh, Pandit Parmanand, Mohit Krishna Nama Das and Mohit Mohan Moitra died during their incarceration, either from injuries received during forced feeding to break a hunger strike or from beatings for insubordinate behavior. The seventh statue here, standing in a corner away from the others, is that of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar who, along with his brother Ganesh, was imprisoned in the Cellular Jail for ten years.

Small wonder then that to most of the visitors, particularly the ones from Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab and UP, a trip to the Andamans and especially the Cellular Jail, is a pilgrimage of sorts.

An interesting story was narrated to me by Dr. Rashida Iqbal, the Curator of the Cellular Jail Memorial. She is a somewhat unusual ‘ government servant’ in that she chooses to do without the gravitas and laughs a lot. She is also a ‘local’. This latter term is a little complex in the context of the Andamans, but I will come to that later. Once, taking a foreign guest around the complex, she came to the cell where, as the plaque outside informs, Savarkar was kept ‘from time to time’.  Inside, an elderly woman whom Rashida recognized as a member of a group from Maharashtra, was deep in prayer, eyes closed. She opened her eyes, saw these two interlopers and sternly asked them to leave as they had their footwear on.

Another incident that Dr. Iqbal narrates with great amusement and a hint of exasperation is when a gentleman from Bengal, aghast at something he found terribly amiss in the Picture Gallery, stormed up the stairs to her first floor office and in a state of great agitation, demanded an explanation why there were no pictures of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in the Gallery and was not completely mollified even when told that there was an entire section dedicated to Bose in another part of the building.

When asked what she felt about incidents such as these, both as keeper of the icons and a local of the Andamans, Rashida said that she admired these heroes as ardently as anyone else, but wished that people realized that this ‘monopolising’ somehow diminishes them from national to provincial figures. And, coming from an Andaman ‘local’ it makes the irony immediately evident that perhaps the only people who saw them in their true glory are the ones without a state. If I was looking for a hint of resentment at all this Hero Worship, I was disappointed. There is none. This is somewhat surprising because all these grand memorializing gestures do seem a little out of place in the middle of this lush tropical landscape hundreds of miles away from the Indian mainland. Again, it is not so surprising because she is a good Indian and like all of us, has been brought up on what has been called elsewhere as “ textbook nationalism” [Raza Rumi, Delhi by Heart]

But if not resentment, there is in the community at large a sense of bewilderment, disquiet even, as to where exactly do they, the Andaman local community, fit in, in this nationalistic scheme of things? And it has begun to manifest itself in not unpredictable ways.  But more of that later.

For the moment let the visitor leave the hallowed precincts of the Cellular Jail and walk down the slope towards Aberdeen Bazaar (oh, the romance and the incongruity of place names in the Andamans!) arriving at the spot with the smart traffic policewoman, another statue that one might have missed while going up, will catch the eye. Seeing an unfamiliar face moulded in plaster, the curious visitor will walk closer, read the plaque and learn that this is Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerji, of the erstwhile Hindu Mahasabha, the founder of the Jana Sangh, the ideological parent of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Comprehension dawns when one learns that the lone sitting Member of Parliament representing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is from the BJP. Up the road now, at the juncture of VIP Road and Lamba Line there is this huge statue of K. Kamaraj. The penny drops. There is a large Tamil population here. Again, at the entrance to the eponymous Gurudwara between Aberdeen and Gandhi Chowk, there is another statue. This one is of Dr. Diwan Singh in military fatigues. A member of the Indian Medical Service, he died of torture during the Japanese occupation. There are more.

The picture that forms by now is–if not exactly conflicting, there are certainly alternative or sub nationalisms vying for space in this little town. And the question that begins to ask itself is that in the midst of this persistent Nationalistic project that is present day Port Blair, what are the feelings of the local community? How do they imagine themselves? If, as Foucault has pointed out, a people’s idea of who they are is also derived from school textbooks, popular literature, popular films etc. there is very little in all of this in the Indian context, which is exclusively ‘theirs”. Speaking on the depiction of the French Resistance in films he says,

Today, cheap books aren’t enough. There are much more effective means like television and the cinema. And I believe this was one way of reprogramming popular memory, which existed but had no way of expressing itself. So people are shown not what they were, but what they must remember having been. Since memory is a very important factor in struggle (really, in fact, struggles develop in a kind of conscious moving forward of history), if one controls people’s memory, one controls their dynamism. And one also controls their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles. [Michel Foucault, Film and Popular Memory]

Here, in the context of Andaman locals (I still haven’t told you who they are) there is not even that useful negotiation between history and popular memory that helps in a community’s location of Self. There have been, till very recently, no chroniclers of the Andaman Local community.

And, forces or influences that generate inquiry or search for meaning are curiously absent. The State machinery in all its manifestations, is all powerful here. It always has been- first the colonial state and then the nation state. Almost all the schools in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are government schools. So is the lone college in the region. Thus all the ideas and inputs that have gone into the making of their identity have come from the State. All education and personal ambition have been geared to the fulfillment of only one objective—to be able to become a part of the State machinery. The State is the biggest employer in the region, almost the only one.

Paradoxically, this land in the middle of Bay of Bengal, miles away from anywhere on the Indian mainland, has been the most ‘Indian’ of Indian States (or Union Territory), because there has not been the part of the Andaman Local population, or on the part of the ‘mainlanders’, any attempt towards finding a local identity. They have been content in the pursuit of State induced ‘progress’ and validation in the eyes of the State as ‘mini India’. But fissures have begun to appear.

Coming back to all those statues, I have often wondered what the local people really feel about them? Coming face to face with them on a daily basis in the limited physical confines of Port Blair, do they feel a connect with these men who did not live in this land, nor spoke the language (the Andaman Creole Hindi which everyone, irrespective of which part of India they came from,  acquired within a short time),  thought of the Andamans as merely a symbol-of colonial oppression, liberation, whatever, and their sojourn here merely a part in their struggle rather than a lived experience? The possible exception here is Dr. Diwan Singh who attached the suffix ‘Kalepani’ to his name as a gesture of solidarity with this land and its people and elected to stay back with the locals when most, almost all, of the ‘mainland recruits’ among the officials opted for evacuation on the eve of the Japanese occupation. And he died here.

The people in question are the ‘Local’ population. The quotes used are to indicate that the term connotes much more than the mere fact that these people belong to these islands and have no known ties with any region in mainland India. The term ‘local’ is a derivative of the earlier nomenclature of ‘Local Born’, a term applied to people who have been born on this island and can derive their origin in these islands from before 1942, many from convict parentage dating back to the times when the Andamans were a penal colony- the dreaded ‘Kalapani’ – set up in 1858. The British authorities, almost from the beginning of the settlement, encouraged convicts to settle down here on the completion of the mandatory period of incarceration, when some got their ‘Ticket of Leave’ and acquired the status of a settler. Families of convicts, if willing, were brought here on government expense and there were also marriages arranged between convicts, as female convicts formed an integral part of the settlement and the first batch of thirty six female convicts were brought here as early as in 1859, barely a year after the establishment of the colony and continued to be sent here till 1928. The penal settlement was abolished in 1945. The latter date also marks the culmination of a particularly harrowing period in the history of the Andamans and her people- that of three and a half years of Japanese occupation during World War II.

The term Andaman local therefore comprises the local born and some other groups that were brought here under deportation, or resettlement if you prefer the word. These other groups include the Moplahs or Mapillas from the Malabar region of Kerala who were sent here after the Moplah Rebellion of 1923, some five thousand people from the tribe of Bhatus from the then United Provinces, a notified ‘Criminal Tribe’, who were brought here in the late 1920s and some families from the East Godavari region of present day Andhra Pradesh for being a part of the Rampa Revolution, again in the 1920s. Other groups that were brought to the Andamans, not as punitive action, but nevertheless instruments in the process of state formation, were a contingent of the Karen tribe from Burma resettled in the Middle Andamans and a large number of tribals from the Chota Nagpur plateau to work as forest labour. Although from various tribes such as Khadia, Oraon and Munda and from various parts of the region, in the Andamans they were and still are collectively called ‘Ranchi Walas’ because they were all recruited in Ranchi.  These last two groups were also brought here in the 1920s. So, one can see that the 1920s were a watershed decade in the colonization and settlement of the Andamans. These groups and, of course, the Local Borns, can claim to have their origin in the Andamans before 1942, and are officially given the nomenclature of ‘pre 42’ settlers. There are some, very few, who came to the islands in search of jobs or business ventures and settled here before 1942.

It is this community precisely that is most affected by the development process. The unending stream of fortune seekers has swamped the local community and they are alarmed at the imminent danger of their society and way of life being subsumed by the sheer numerical preponderance of outsiders.

The alarm or disquiet felt by the Locals is not new. It was expressed, perhaps not in an organized, political way, soon after independence when the development process began. The observations made by Shri SK Gupta, Deputy Commissioner in the Andaman administration and Superintendent of Census Operations, in the Census Report of 1961, are quite significant. Under the heading Special Groups: Andaman Indians he writes-

The main basis of the population is what in the old days, was known as ‘Local Borns’ signifying thereby the convicts settled here and their progeny. This terminology with a rather humiliating connotation has since been changed and in this census all permanent residents of the Andamans who have made these hospitable islands their home have been recorded as Andaman Indians, be he a new settler from East Bengal, a naturalised Karen from Burma or a person born here out of convict ancestry…

The artificial creation and nurturing of a special community as ‘Local Borns’ were obviously due to the social disabilities to which the early convict settlers were subjected to in those days. But it certainly has created a fissiparous tendency that is very undesirable in the present political climate of the country… An impression was painfully apparent sometime ago that these islands belong to the ‘Local Born’ people only and the new settlers are interlopers. But this is gradually dying out. In fact, the term settler used to denote only displaced persons settled here, is a misnomer, as all non-tribal people in the Andamans are settlers- the difference is only in the point of time of settlement. [Gupta, 1961]

Whatever else one might feel on reading the lines above it is difficult to deny the sense of inevitability that they represent. How else will officialdom think about these issues, however well intentioned it may purport to be? Let me try and address some of the more obvious fallacies in the above line of argument.

One, the ‘humiliating connotation’ of the term Local Born is only the perception of the mainlander. Two, the Andaman local community cannot be equated with other settlers merely on the ground that they are ‘non tribal’, and I am talking only of the local born community here as they had no real choice in the matter. If they did not agree to settle down here, they had nothing to go back to. The world they had left behind would never accept them.  Their forefathers had been uprooted from their native soil and transplanted here when the land was far from ‘hospitable’. They had to bear the rigours of an oppressive penal regime, difficult terrain, an unhealthy climate wherein malaria, gout and beri-beri were rife, and the periodic attacks of the original tribal people who were hostile and continued to be so throughout the days of the penal settlement.  They cannot be called pioneers, again because of the all-important element of choice. They just tried to make the best of a bad deal, and they were pioneers only in the sense that they made this inhospitable land hospitable with their sweat and blood. Also, this official record seems to gloss over the fact the ‘Local Born’ community had suffered an injustice and also the fact there have been women who have suffered as much as the men and worked just as hard at building this community and this place.

Let me try and make one thing clear. The original tribal people mentioned earlier are the Jarawa, Onge, and Sentinalese of the Andaman Islands. They were the original people. Historically they have been hostile to outsiders coming to these lands and attacks by them on ships’ crew when forced to take shelter here from storms was one reason why the colonial government wanted to set up a colony here, penal or otherwise. These people have suffered from their coming in contact with the ‘civilised’ world. Even today they are paying a heavy price for ‘development’. But their story, important as it is, is not the one I am trying to tell here. Others have addressed their plight. But the Local Born people are also the victims of a historical wrong. There are degrees of dispossession.

It is common knowledge, in India at least, that the Andaman Islands and particularly the Cellular Jail were a place where a fair number of Indian revolutionaries served out their sentences for waging a struggle against the colonial government between the years 1910 and 1938. It is also remembered, with not so great a reverence, that criminals were also sent here. What we have forgotten or never knew is that the very purpose of forming a penal colony here was, among other things, to house those who had actively participated in the Rebellion of 1857. The very first lot of convicts who were brought here were 200 men, rebels whose original death sentences were commuted to transportation for life and who were from as diverse places in the subcontinent as Satara and Nasik in the Bombay Presidency and Oudh, Kanpur, Allahabad and Rampur in the north. Some of the local communities of the Andamans have descended from those original two hundred.

Some of the Local Born community can therefore stake a claim to the Nationalism project. In fact that is the new voice that is beginning to be heard- in the small platforms in the bazaar, sometimes emerging from moving jeeps with a party flag fluttering, a strange, metallic, disembodied voice proclaiming the rights of the community vis a vis the outsiders and officialdom, which is almost always the same in the Andamans.  But what about those who cannot? It is time that the issue of convict ancestry is addressed here and be given its place in history.

The colonial administration had always maintained a distinction, from the very beginning of the penal colony, between Rebels, Mutineers and Convicts. So has nationalist historiography in its use of ‘political prisoners’ and ‘ordinary convicts’ as separate categories.  Even the accounts of their incarceration in the Andamans by some political prisoners have very self-consciously maintained this distinction. This is perhaps unavoidable but, to my mind, there is need for a historiography that does not privilege one over the other. History has to deal with facts and analyses and tends to elide feelings and states of mind, but it would be worth the effort to understand the feelings  of dread, hopelessness and bewilderment in the most ‘hardened’ of criminals brought here. There have to be stories here of great sacrifice, love and honour and, given the colonial state’s understanding of native crime and the lower strata of a crumbling feudal order in the places where most of these men and women came from, there have to be stories of grave injustice as well. Even in dry, matter of fact official reports one suddenly comes across a story which makes you think of crime and punishment in a different light, like the story of an eleven year old girl from Pabna in Bengal who was sentenced to transportation for pushing a playmate into a well. This made even the then Commissioner D M Stewart angry and he wrote to the authorities that women below eighteen were not to be sent here and if they were sentenced to transportation, should be held in Indian jails till they turned eighteen [Aparna Vaidik, Settling the Convict: Matrimony and Domesticity in the Andamans].

Even among the ‘pre 42 settlers’, it was only the ‘Local Borns’, who have had to deal with the issue of convict ancestry and the prejudice that comes with it. To a lesser extent the Bhatus have had to face this as well but they had the advantage of numbers with them, of group solidarity which ensured that they brought along with them a little of what they had left behind and which must include their social practices, their speech, their songs etc.  The same is true of the Moplahs and certainly of Karens and ‘Ranchi Walas’. And they (the Bhatus) were deportees or migrants and not convicts, even if their migration was ‘assisted’. And the injustice of the colonial construction of their criminality has been challenged in postcolonial historiography. That, in their obsessive need to categorize, document and codify the native population for the purpose of governance and revenue collection, and therefore the mistrust of the itinerant, the pastoralist and the nomadic, the British colonial government had come up with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1879. There is an opposing view that these perceptions of the criminality of certain sections of the native population already existed in the society in pre-colonial times and the British only codified it.  Shail Mayaram, in her discussion of the Meos of Mewat talks about their desire for autonomy and how it came in the way of measures taken by successive regimes towards “state formation” and which led to their criminalization in Indo-Persian historiography. In her critique of postcolonial historiography (she is a postcolonial historian herself), Mayaram says that it tends to equate all Orientalism with Western Orientalism and does not take into account pre colonial and non Western imperialisms.

“Thus it is important to recognize that there are several concentric circles of orientalism.              

The West produces the “Orient” but parts of the “Orient” produce other parts.

 [Mayaram, 2006]

In this context the experience of the Bhatu has not been very different from that of the Meo. And if we take the Local Born community of the Andamans into account, we can perhaps say that sometimes the mode of this “production” is silence.

On the subject of convict ancestry in Australia Tranter and Donoghue have found that as an issue it is senescent although they feel that it is an important element of the Australian national identity [Tranter and Donaghue, Convict ancestry: a neglected aspect of Australian identity]. It would be interesting to compare this with the Andaman situation because there are interesting parallels and significant deviations from that model.  Maybe not enough time has passed for it to become senescent. The last batch of convicts was brought to the Andamans in 1942 while Australia ceased to be a penal settlement in 1868. Also, the fact of a convict ancestry in the Andamans has never been an element of the national identity because it is a small part of the nation state and it does feature in the nation’s consciousness and if it does, it is not because of the Local Born community.  Their past- that of thousands of men and a few hundred  women- has been subsumed by relatively brief episodes in the past of less than five hundred men. The sites of their suffering are no longer theirs. Even the objects of their physical pain are celebrated only in the context of those others.

The prominently displayed instruments of punishment, the Kolhu or the oil press, the fetters on the feet of convicts in chain gangs, the massive iron caning stand called tiktiki (the Bangla word for a lizard because that’s how it is shaped), even the gallows-are all viewed by wide eyed tourists as having been used only on political prisoners. Even if the Cellular Jail and all the exhibits it contains have acquired an iconic status as symbols of oppression, it would be good to remind those tourists that the penal establishment in Port Blair was in existence for about half a century before the Cellular Jail was built and that the jail housed other categories of prisoners. But what about the local born community itself? Do they want to remember or do they want to forget?

One observation of Tranter and Donoghue could very well apply to the situation in the Andamans. They write,

The resonance of convict identity in Australia is linked to what Hughes calls the “twin pressures to forget and mythologise”  [Hughes (1987) quoted in Tranter and Donoghue (2006 )].

But one can look into ones past without taking recourse to one of the above binaries. I had mentioned earlier that there have been recent exceptions to the fact of no chroniclers of the Local Born past. These are, as far as I know, the only instances where someone from within the community has raised the issue of their convict ancestry.  One is Dr. Rashida Iqbal. In an article in the local newspaper  “ Light of Andamans” she has written about her father who came to Port Blair as a convict from the then North Western Frontier Provinces in 1936. Having lost his father to a clan feud linked assassination, so endemic in those times and to that region (Peshawar around 1920) six year old Ainullah Khan and his ten year old brother were taken away to a different village by their mother so that they did not meet the same fate. The brothers waited fifteen years to avenge their father’s killing, when they returned to their old village and the elder brother killed the man responsible and both surrendered at the nearest police station. After deliberating through the night the younger, Ainullah, decided that he had to take responsibility for the act, as the elder brother was better placed to look after their mother. And so he bid farewell to his mother and came to Port Blair with only two personal possessions- a copy of the Quran given to him by his mother and a driving license in the shape of a metal plaque issued in Peshawar. He never went back. Anyway, soon after his sentence was completed, his home would have become part of another country. He chose to settle down here, found a job as a driver with a government department and acquired a family. The copy of the Quran and the metal plate license are with Rashida now, her prize possessions. Her article ends, “Like many others, I too have this proud identity-daughter of a convict”.

But this was an individual’s quest for her roots and identity. Expanding the scope of the subject and including the entire community, is a delightful book by the local historian Shakuntala Shivram. She has written about individual histories of people from the community and also that of the community itself [Shakuntala Shivram, Andaman ke Itihas ka Safar]. There are interesting snippets of recollection from her childhood- like how men from the community who had come to the settlement at the same time referred to each other as ‘Challani Bhai’ or ‘Jahazi Bhai’ depending on whether they had featured in the same charge-sheet (challan) or had been brought here on the same ship. Or that the women, both Hindu and Muslim, covered themselves with a white chador when they went out of the house and that Bhatu women looked different from others on account of their colourful, wide flowing skirts and silver jewellery. Or that the Korean ‘comfort women’ brought over to Port Blair by the Japanese during the occupation liked to wear white flowers in their hair. As regards her recollections of the Japanese soldiers here during the War, hers is the only account of the occupation, by the locals or others, that mentions their human side. She remembers that they were fond of children and gave them sugar candy.  Even her description of the latter part of the occupation when suspicion of spying for the British, shortage of food, relentless Allied bombing raids etc. made the Japanese desperate and the occupation a veritable reign of terror, is different from other accounts in being about small things like what it was inside the narrow lanes of the bazaar and inside the houses in those turbulent times.

Particularly inspiring are the stories of a group of women who arrived here as convicts together in the late 1890s, married locally or had their husbands join them here and went on to found some prominent families among the local born community, families that had invested well in education and had seen their men and women hold important positions in society and the government. It can be argued that this community has the distinction of being the only casteless society in India.

This article does not intend to raise questions of the rights of the Local Born community which have been addressed, to an extent ,through affirmative action by the state by way of reserved seats in professional  educational institutions, and also the granting of Other Backward Class status to them and to other  ‘pre 42’ settlers in the Andamans  with respect to job reservation etc. I am trying to address the much more intangible issue of Memory and Cultural Memory with respect to them, their own memory of themselves and the nation state’s memory of them.

There is, admittedly, a speculative element to the argument of this article. What if there is no conflict? What if the erstwhile Local Born community has internalized the nationalistic discourse to the extent that it does not see its own past and the past commemorated in the monuments all around them at variance? I do not know, as I have not carried out a detailed survey of that. But I have a feeling that there is also some possibility of truth, however indeterminate an entity it might be, in the speculation. Memory is a persistent thing. It is also many layered.

It has been said that a peoples’ cultural memory is transcendental in nature. Assman and Czaplicka feel that:

Just as the communicative memory is characterized by its proximity to the everyday, cultural memory is characterized by its distance from the everyday. Distance from the everyday (transcendence) marks its temporal horizon. Cultural memory has its fixed points; its horizon does not change with the passing of time. These fixed points are fateful events of the past, whose memory is maintained through cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and institutional communication (recitation, practice, observance). We call these “figures of memory”. [Jan Assman, John Czaplicka: Collective Memory and Cultural Identity]

But what about a place like Port Blair where the intended transcendental is also in the nature of the everyday? And given the nature of the visible presence of the state and its cultural arms, the sites of cultural formation (texts, rites, monuments) and the regularity of occurrence of institutional communication (recitation, practice, observation) which is essentially of the state sponsored variety here , one tends to agree with Foucault-‘So people are shown not  what they were but what they must remember having been’.  Again I may have erred in assuming that all this is confusing, if not insensitive to the Local community. After all they are Indians, even if officialdom, perhaps unwittingly, granted them the somewhat ‘hyphenated’ status of ‘Andaman Indians’ in the Census Report of 1961.

And the Cellular Jail, even in its diminished size, is still the most prominent structure in Port Blair. You cannot ignore it or forget about it for a day. How is that for a site of Memory? Marita Sturken, in commenting on the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C., writes:

Public commemoration is a form of history making, yet it can also be a contested form of remembrance in which cultural memories slide through and into each other, merging and then disengaging in a tangle of narrative.

And, then,

I would like to focus the discussion of public remembrance on the notion of a screen, in its many meanings. A screen can be a surface that is projected up; it is also an object that hides something from view, that shelters and protects [Marita Sturken, The Wall, the Screen and the Image: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial ].

Given the fact that the American memory of the Vietnam War is contested and that the Indian nation’s   memory of the Cellular Jail is relatively uncontested, it can still be argued that the metaphor of screen with the meanings read into it by Sturken, is good for the Cellular Jail, especially in its present form as the Cellular Jail National Memorial. The names of all political prisoners who were held here are displayed on a wall. The wall or rather the entire Memorial is a screen on which the stories of sacrifices of the freedom fighters and the idea of a strong nation whose freedom was won through sacrifices made by them, is projected. That memory is projected, sheltered and protected. But there is another memory associated with the structure that it neither shelters nor protects.  That – it just hides.

One memory

Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,

The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities.

[Kenneth Koch, One Train May Hide Another, quoted in Mayaram 2006,].

In Port Blair, it is difficult to remember that till as recently as 1979, the Cellular Jail National Memorial was just a jail. It functioned as such. And most of the statues in the town had not been built.




Sources Cited.

Assman, Jan and John Czaplicka. Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, New German Critique, No. 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies, (Spring/Summer, 1995), p.129

Foucault, Michel. ‘Film and Popular Memory’, Foucault Live, Semiotext(e), New York, 1996, pp. 123, 124

Hughes, R. The Fatal Shore, Knopf, London, 1987

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