Manifestations of History

Sanjukta Das Gupta

The book under review addresses two interrelated issues: what constitutes history and how references to the past enable the present to acquire new meanings and legitimacy. Challenging the dominant trend of the rationalist, post-Enlightenment linear conceptualization of history, the two editors, Frank Heidemann and Philipp Zehmisch, aim at presenting alternate understandings by highlighting complex, entangled, and contested counter-narratives. Arguing that history can be space-bound as well as time-bound, the editors make a bid for the recognition of spatiality as a framework of history. On the basis of their field experiences in the Andamans the editors argue that perceptions of the past there tended to be built on localized memories where sites and regions were more significant markers than time. Through their focus on space, the editors also hope to bridge the gap between the disciplines of history and anthropology. Moreover, although the book reappraises Eurocentric explanations of indigenous pasts, it does not remain confined to the discussion of an East–West dichotomy, but seeks to underline the relational positions of the multiple actors in history.

The outcome of a seminar concerned with locating the Andaman Islands within the historiography of British India, the book evaluates the diverse histories of the Andamans reflecting the different ethnic groups, classes and nationalities residing within the space. Regarded as a penal colony under British rule, the Andamans today are seen as a protected reserve for the indigenous population and as a popular tourist centre. Heidemann and Zehmisch have identified three structuring patterns that can be identified in the eight  contributions, hinging on time, space, and community. So far as time goes, the history of the Andamans is viewed as belonging to five generalized time-periods: precolonial, colonial, Japanese occupation, post-colonial, and post-tsunami.

The second chapter by Jamal Malik provides an insight into an entirely overlooked aspect of Andamanese history: the narratives of Muslim prisoners exiled to the penal colony of the Andamans after the uprising of 1857. Malik draws attention to Fadl-e-Haqq Khairabadi, a Sufi scholar who wrote several Arabic poems on the penal colony to record information for future generations. Khairabadi today is remembered as Mazar Baba, symbolizing Hindu-Muslim unity and thereby acquiring a prominent space in the composite contemporary Andamanese culture. In contrast, the third chapter by Clare Anderson concentrates on the texts and material evidence left by a British family, the Warnefords, associated with the colonial administration of the island. The following chapter by Claire Wintle also focuses on colonial depictions of the islanders as savage and primitive, which contributed to the construction of the notion of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a marginal and peripheral space, which continues to inform post-colonial understandings and depictions in various ways.

Satadru Sen’s chapter focuses on the post-colonial situation and critically assesses the governmental policy towards the aboriginal population which has resulted in the ‘zooification’ of the islands and the islanders. As a result, the indigenous people are still viewed through evolutionist prisms as adeem janajati (primitive people), which insulates them against modernity and prevents their assimilation within the mainstream body polity.

The following chapter by Heidemann, focuses on Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates at Katchal and Little Andaman who were rehabilitated in these spaces by the Indian government following the Indo-Sri Lankan agreements of in 1964 and 1974. While they gained a state, they lost their distinct identity and became socially invisible, being identified together with Tamil repatriates from Burma and the Indian mainland. Zehmisch, on the other hand, discusses the life of the ‘Ranchis’, i.e. the coolies who were brought by the British from Ranchi in Chotanagpur region in Jharkhand to Andaman and who today are concentrated around Baratang which is locally known as ‘mini-Chotonagpur’. The Ranchi Adivasis, the third largest community in the Andamans, were highly regarded for their adaptive skills in a hostile environment, as a result of which the practice of Chotonagpuri migration was continued by the post-colonial government.

Kanchan Mukhopadhyay discusses the pre-42 communities in the Andamans and analyses how colonial social engineering policies affected their contemporary sense of identity. The 9th chapter by Manish Chandi, based on extensive fieldwork in the Nicobars, analyses the local histories through legends and folklores of these ‘uninhabited’ islands.

A complaint I have is that the book should have been more carefully edited: for instance, the same sentence is repeated twice in the introduction in very close proximity. I also wonder why there is no article from any Andamenese writer. This leaves an entirely fallacious impression that the Andamanese still lack a sense of history which have to be written for them by the Western academia. While the editors do a commendable work focusing on the Andamans which is often overlooked in historical research, a doubt remains as to whether the notion of spatiality such a very novel concept as the editors appear to imply. Are not all histories necessarily space-bound in various ways?

Nonetheless, this is a very important and scholarly volume which raises thought-provoking issues and push us to reconsider the age-old concern with the subject matter of history and its utility in the contemporary world. Theoretically sophisticated, and bearing evidence of detailed empirical research, the book needs to be read by anyone interested in the multiple voices of Indian history.