Just came back from a short trip to the Andamans and thought will jot some things I saw. There are enough sites on the travel recommendations and site seeing so I wanted to stick to just a few observations which I did not find in the readings I did before I went there.
A friend had helpfully told me that Port Blair is much like any Indian town and I was much disappointed to find that it is true. There is no excuse that this practically virgin territory must have the same rotten urban planning that we have in rest of the country and it was just a sad reminder that we have some way to go before becoming city builders. I wish all town planners be made to play Caesar or Sims for 6 months before being put on the job.
Then I also had a chance to ponder a little more on the geography of the place. Its a mighty fluke that this bunch of islands has ended up with India. Andamans being closer to Burma and Nicobar being closer to Indonesia. Andaman, the local mythology goes, is named after Hanuman and this was considered an alternative route to attack the Lanka (a little far for that right?). Nicobar was probably named by the Cholas and has Tamil naming roots.
There is not much justification in lumping together Andaman AND Nicobar together also since they themselves are pretty far apart (Port Blair to Nicobar being 24hrs on a ferry) and with very different racial/cultural composition. Then there are couple of islands in the middle which are neither Andaman nor Nicobar. Kind of like Jammu AND Kashmir and then who cares about Ladakh. It seems there was a proposal by the British to convert these islands into a new country for the anglo-burmese and the anglo-indians but that didn’t (thankfully) materialize.
A big surprise for me was that everyone speaks Hindi there. The main population is Bengali followed by Tamil but Hindi is the lingua franca. This is probably the consequence of a central govt rule in the place. The central government rule by all local accounts is mostly about siphoning funds in the name of tribal welfare and subsidies for a remote area. Most of the foreigners who were living there for long also spoke conversational Hindi. A lot of population is Bangla refugees settled in the 60s when they were fleeing East Pakistan. There are quite a few Burmese who still keep trying to illegally settle in. Britishers had occupied the islands around late 1700s and used Andamans as a big jail (kind of like Australia) but seems there are not many descendants of the convicts.
The most famous landmark, cellular jail was formed after the assassination of the then Viceroy by a convict. It was built most intelligently and operated most cruelly. What I did not know was that the Japanese also ruled the islands and the jail for few years during the world war and surpassed the British cruelty by far. The most famous nationalist to be housed in the jail ‘Veer’ Savarkar is also honored with the local airport being named after him. His clemency appeal does make me wonder where the ‘Veer’ (brave) came from.
There are many different tribes on the islands. Primarily the Andamanese seem more Negroid (are negrito though) and the Nicobarese have features similar to Indonesian tribes. People in charge of the islands are torn between their dual roles of integrating the tribes and not accomplishing the task so that the money flowing to do it keeps flowing forever. I wish the only job the govt would do is to protect indigenous folks from unwanted contact. The Nicobarese were hated by all the local folks unanimously. They seemed to be the tribals who are most congenial with the government and hence have been showered with benefits (like reservations) must to the dislike of rest of the islanders. Incidentally, Nicobar is also off-limits for all Indians except residents and people with ‘some work’ over there.
Overall the islands seemed to me a place with immense potential and future. Its a new place with most people (except the tribals of course) having settled within last 50 years. That also robs the place from any ‘culture’ per se but also gives it the flexibility to become whatever it chooses to. Tourism is booming and european backpackers love the place with high end tourists also starting to flow in (Taj has leased land in Havelock and will start a resort soon). Unlike Maldives, the islands are big enough for meaningful agriculture/forestry to be done on them to provide alternatives other than tourism. The current settlers didn’t show enough industry (as in the trait) to me though. Imagine Islanders falling short of fishermen to supply fish to the teeming tourists. That is because these were not Islanders till a few decades ago and local skills are not acquired in a jiffy. The agriculture also seemed primitive and a total absence of tiled roofs was disappointing (how tough is it to make a kiln!). I think it is for more enterprising people from the mainland to settle in and make it a success that it is destined to be and for the government to get out of the way.