The mid twentieth century is fondly recollected in India as the time when she realised nationhood, freeing herself from the reigns of European power. However, the time at with the country was overflowing with the ripe forces of nationalism, an East Asian country had also forced its exploitative control over one of the country’s territories, much to the astonishment of both the natives and the British. The Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Eastern shores of the country is the only part of India to have been occupied by a non-European power, that being the Japanese.
The Japanese occupation of the Andamans is perhaps one of the least talked about episodes of the Second World War. Japanese forces landed in South Andamans on March 23, 1942 and in the next three to four hours gained complete control over the area. Japanese control over the Andamans coincided with the Indian National Army (INA)’s occupation over the area and the internal understanding between the two, ensured that the Japanese faced no resistance while trying to take over the Andamans.
The Bose-Japanese alliance
An important fact to be noted about nationalism in any colonised country, is that it was never a monolithic force. Internal divisions and disagreements among the nationalist leaders was a general feature of the anti-colonial uprisings anywhere in the world. In India, the Gandhi-Bose dichotomy is the best example of the conflicts present among the leaders regarding the precise route to be taken for achieving independence. While for Mahatma Gandhi, non-violence was the necessary strategy that would lead the country to the doors of freedom, for Subhas Chandra Bose, independence could never be achieved without resorting to revolutionary forces. The other aspect in which Bose differed from Gandhi, was in the faith he held in acquiring help from international powers for expelling the British from Indian soil.
From the beginning of the Second World War itself, Bose had reached the conclusion that supporting Britain’s enemies would be the most definite way of ensuring the exit of the European power from India. Accordingly, he reached out to the Axis powers for assistance in getting rid of the British. Historian T R Sareen notes that Bose was neither interested in Nazism or Fascism. However, he believed that support from the Fascist regimes would be the best opportunity for overthrowing imperial hegemony.
By the early 1940s, Japan had made significant victories in Southeast Asia and Bose realised that it would be most appropriate to take their help. The Japanese on the other hand were interested in collaborating with the INA on account of the fact that Indians could provide valuable information about British Indian troops stationed at the Thai-Malay border.
With Japanese victory over Singapore and Burma, the Axis power came remarkably close to Indian shores. When they made their way to the Andamans, the islands served as a penal colony with a cellular jail where the British sent its prisoners. The Japanese were able to take over the islands from the British with much ease and then asked the prisoners to join the INA which most of them did. Once freed from the British, Subhash Chandra Bose convinced the Japanese to hand over the islands to him and consequently hoisted the tricolour there on December 30, 1943. He also named the islands Shaheed (martyr) and Swaraj (self-rule).
The alliance between the INA and the Japanese ensured that the latter could occupy the Andamans with little or no resistance at all. Soon after, however, things turned bitter as the East Asian force erupted over the island’s population with the kind of barbarity unheard of before. Consequently, while the administration of the islands was known to be in the hands of the INA, real power came in the hands of the Japanese once they managed to make their way there.
The barbarity unleashed by the Japanese in Andamans
Since the time the Japanese set foot on the islands, they went on a rampage, killing and looting whatever they could lay their hands on. One of the first victims of Japanese savagery was Zulfiqar Ali who happened to have fired an air gun at them. In response, the Japanese went about killing, raping and burning whatever came before them till the time the villagers could produce the young boy the following morning. On being found, Zulfiqar was dragged out, beaten, kicked and tortured till he died. The memorial to the bravery and sacrifice of Zulfiqar still stands on Port Blair, reminding the world of the Japanese atrocities in India.
The Punjabi poet, Diwan Singh was in the Andamans during the period as member of the INA. When he tried protecting the local population from the wrath of the Japanese, they arrested him and he was beaten up and tortured for close to 82 days before he died on January 1944. During the same period, 44 others were also shot dead by the Japanese for allegedly being the spies of allies. The incident, referred to as the Homfreyganj massacre is widely considered to be the harshest atrocity incurred by Indians under the Japanese.
Despite the scale of atrocities carried out by the Japanese, not a single record exists of intervention on the part of INA leader, Subhash Chandra Bose. While some historians are of the opinion that Bose did not pay heed to the miseries of the local population, there are others who believe that he was not made aware of them due to the efforts of the Japanese to stop complaints from reaching his ears. Whatever was the case, Bose clearly earned disrepute among the residents of Andaman due to his lack of initiative to help them out.
It is estimated that close to 2000 Indians in the Andamans died as a results of Japanese brutality. Finally, the islands were captured by the British in October 1945.