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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Isle of contention

How Mountbatten resisted all the wily British plans to hold on to the Andaman and Nicobar islands...

Written by Raja Menon | Published: September 29, 2009 12:02:41 am

Ever since Jaswant Singh dug up Jinnah to rediscover our history,he seems to have excited our young population. This is not surprising since half of them are below the age of 25 and have no knowledge of how differently things could have turned out in 1947. For many of us who lived through Partition or who heard unpleasant stories about those days,much of what is being rediscovered is passé. Give any one of us an opportunity and time to visit a good library,or even better,the British Public Records Office in Kew,and we could pull out a few stories that could astonish our young society.

Since I was due to address a conference in the Andamans,and had heard anecdotally that we were almost cheated out of those islands during Partition,I went back into the records of the transfer of power. Even to my amazement,this is what the research revealed.

The time is around April 1947 and Mountbatten has already frightened his staff into believing that he and Edwina are booked on a flight to London on August 16. The first missive is written by the India office in London (L/P&J/10/140:ff 445). It suggests that since Indians seem to have no opinion or objections to the British determination to retain the Maldives,Seychelles,Diego Garcia and Mauritius as part of the British Indian Ocean strategic setup,why don’t they also leave the Andaman and Nicobar islands out of the draft bill on the transfer of power. True,Nehru might object,but “since we are giving them everything else… What can they do about it?”

Perhaps the Viceroy should be approached on how to deal with the Indians on this. A couple of months later,news of the British intention to retain the Andaman and Nicobar islands is leaked to The Times of India. This brings about a ‘sharp rejoinder’ in the Hindustan Times the next week,saying that if the British actually raised this issue with Indians,‘it will be summarily rejected’. The note is written by General Ismay of the Higher Defence Organisation fame,and he adds that if “we raise the question now of being allowed to use the islands as a naval or air base… we would ruin our chances of success”.

But the wheels of government grind slowly,and although information of the British intention to retain the Andaman and Nicobar islands is common knowledge,it has raised no public outcry. So,the chiefs of staff committee figure in London,why not retain the Laccadive (Lakshadweep) Islands too? “These islands are sparsely inhabited coral strips and would be essential for our air reinforcement route to Australia,New Zealand and the Far East”. Assuming that the Andaman and Nicobar islands are retained and not given to the Indians,the problem still remains: navigating the distance from Masirah (Oman) to Ceylon — assuming that ‘we’ cannot use India as a transiting base,after having diddled them out of all their islands. Therefore,the chiefs of staff committee (COSC) feel,both the Andaman and Nicobar,and Laccadive islands are necessary to His Majesty’s government.

In conclusion,they say,they cannot assume that India,even if it agrees to remain a dominion,would agree to allow the British government,perpetual use of these islands. Therefore,they suggest that the Laccadive islands be transferred immediately from the Government of Madras to London. Things are actually getting quite hot,both climatically and figuratively,since the time is now July 1947. The chiefs of staff now hand over a minute to the British government stating that first,the A&N islands and Laccadives be simply left out of the bill on the transfer of power,and secondly to tell the Viceroy that ‘using’ the islands is not adequate,because it is “essential to retain our sovereignty over them.”

So,does the Viceroy have other opinions? Even if the Indian agriculturists in Delhi are unfamiliar with maritime power,and unsure what would happen if India didn’t get any islands on power being transferred to them. But clearly,Mountbatten,as a naval officer,and friend of India,knows exactly what is being put over the Indians,and will not cooperate. So: a missive to the Secretary for India,Mr Alexander,that the COSC are “worried about the line being taken by the Viceroy” and think the matter cannot be left open for negotiation at some distant date.

Fortunately,Mountbatten holds firm. After all he was the Supreme Commander Allied Forces,South East Asia Command during the recapture of Burma from the Japanese,so he should know what the islands are for. The British government,in their long and final minute,finally gives up. They have given Mountbatten the task of ‘getting us out’ by August 15,and he’s boss. London has to seek Delhi’s approval,not the other way round. So,in clause 16,they agree that ‘the viceroy had come to the firm conclusion that no provision be included… About the A&N Islands” and “leave our interests to be dealt with by negotiations with the new Dominion of India alone”.

And that is how I swam in the islands last week without showing my Indian passport to the immigration in Port Blair. Surely there is a good case to rename these islands the Mountbatten Islands. The RSS may be quite reasonable about this.

The writer is a retired rear admiral

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