EXACTLY fifty years ago, MV Jarawa, an Indian navy ship, set out from Kolkata with 100 retired soldiers from Punjab for the Andaman and Nicobar islands. Among them were several veterans of World War II with their families, many of who had never seen a beach before. But they were setting out to build new homes and begin life anew on the densely covered Campbell Bay island, which housed Indira Point, the southernmost tip of India until the December 2004 tsunami destroyed and submerged it.
Located more than 140 km away from the Sabang island in Indonesia and 640 km away from Myanmar, the Campbell Bay is a strategically important island located at least 1,250 km from the Indian mainland. However, in the mid-1960s, poachers from Myanmar started frequenting this Great Nicobar Island (GNI), worrying then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
“The fear of intruders, smugglers and poachers visiting and permanently occupying this strategically important island existed. In order to set up a powerful presence of Indians here, the retired brave soldiers from Punjab were offered a resettlement,” former naval chief Arun Prakash told The Indian Express.
As a result, Indira launched the pilot Resettlement Programme in 1969, in which the government offered 14.5 acres of land and free ration up to three years for the family of every soldier who volunteered to shift to Campbell Bay.
Accordingly, all the Punjabi families gathered at Ludhiana station and took a train to Kolkata. There they were supplied with vessels, mosquito nets and other basic amenities required to set up a house. “Upon completing a 10-day-long journey in seven to 10 days, tinned houses after forest land was cleared was awaiting them at Campbell Bay,” said Rekha Bhatia, author of Ek Prayaas Dharthi ki Chhor Par, which featured the lives of the first 60 migrant families who settled on this island.
Bhatia (69) got a first hand account of their lives during her stay with husband Brig Ranbir Kumar Bhatia (Rtd), who was appointed the first Chief Staff Officer of the Joint Command in 2001.
Upon reaching the southernmost island, a langar welcomed these families, who were soon given a five-acre plot and seeds of some vegetables to begin cultivation. However, the many dangers of this life deep in the Indian Ocean included facing wild animals, unpredictable weather and frequent rains, and above all, the tribes — the Shopai and Onges, who were ever armed with bows and arrows to kill.
While some lucky families, who grew vegetables, corn and wheat, flourished during the formative years as they were allotted, through lottery, fertile lands, others struggled on their rocky and salty land. The administration even shipped labourers from Bihar to assist these families in their farming activities.
Parashuram, who shifted to Cambell Bay from Uttar Pradesh in the early 1970s, is a satisfied man as his family is settled and earns a decent living from farming. “I do not miss Varanasi as I have made my life here. But I am visiting my hometown next month to attend a wedding in my family,” Parashuram told The Indian Express.
Bhatia, who stayed on this island for at least three months, visited the homes of more than 60 migrant families from Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and some from the southern states, and got closer to discovering their lives on this island.
Narrating an incident involving the Shopai tribes, Bhatia said, “The head of a Punjabi family was once seated outside his house but was being watched by two Shopai tribes. He offered the duo some drinks and daal-rice from a distance and later went inside his house. Next morning, to the Punjabi family’s surprise, all the food was well consumed and as a mark of gratitude, the Shopai duo had in return gifted the Punjabi migrant couple with bananas, lemon and berries outside their home.”
The Indian administration, Bhatia said, would every month send across chickens, goats, cows, buffaloes for these newly settled families and life on the island began to take better shape. While some women took up the business of selling chole-bhature, flour mills and wood-cutting centres took birth for the first time on these coral islands. Soon, weekly local markets mushroomed and they became the amalgamation point for the migrants and tribals, who now resorted to barter system involving crops, vegetables and tools.
Living in close-kit circles, the interactions between the families across cultural boundaries grew as the years went by. Bhatia, during her stay, encountered several couples who had married into inter-communities. She said, “They now celebrate all festivals together. This is the best real-life example of unity in diversity.”
Five decades have gone by and the third and fourth generation of those original migrants now live in Campbell Bay, said Bhatia, who completed her book in 2017 after spending five years there.
With the elections currently under way, the grand golden jubilee celebrations will have to wait, but the local gurudwara will have a special prayer ceremony on Tuesday.
Balwant Singh is a proud man as he is among the planners for the mini-celebrations to mark the day on Tuesday. He was barely two when he arrived on this island.
“We will felicitate some of the veteran resettlers, including widows, who were among the first to relocate to Campbell Bay in 1969. The administration has requested that all celebrations be postponed until the elections are over and has offered support later,” said Singh, who is the president and secretary of the gurudwara on Campbell Bay.
With Andaman and Nicobar comprising 576 islands of which a few have inhabitants and fewer have military presence, safeguarding these tiny floating lands is no easy task. The Myanmarese, said admiral Prakash, easily mingle and some have even settled with the Indians here.
He said a similar threat from neighbouring island nations persists even today. “The threat still looms as poachers and smugglers come seeking Sea Cucumber and fish, which they sell for high prices in their countries. Remaining isolated, it is easy for the outsiders to take shelter for short duration, but our Coast Guard is safe guarding these islands.”