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Uniting against a tsunami

January 08, 2005 12:25 IST

But for the tsunami, the four Sumatrans whom an Indian coast guard vessel rescued near Great Nicobar's Campbell Bay would have been arrested and thrown into jail. The wrath of wind and wave had dragged them 140 km from Indonesia to trespass in Indian waters.

Not unexpectedly, New Delhi's refusal to allow international aid agencies in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is causing comment.

We have always been sensitive about the 572 islands of the two archipelagos, separated by a 150-km strip of sea.

The defence outpost at Campbell Bay is one reason; another is said to be protecting aboriginals. But suspicion needs no rationale in India, and American ships and aircraft patrolling from Diego Garcia, followed by Australian vessels, did nothing to allay fears about our sovereignty.

Chinese fishing trawlers in the Bay of Bengal were said to be fitted with astonishingly sophisticated instrumentation. Hackles rose again when China set up a listening post on Burma's Coco Island, barely 100 km across the Andaman Sea.

Perhaps circumspection reflects uneasiness about Indian ownership. Lakdasa de Mel, the last head of South Asia's Anglican Church when refused permission to visit the islands, told Jawaharlal Nehru that he would revise his designation to "Metropolitan of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon excluding the Andaman and Nicobar Islands".

Nehru relented in his case but restrictions remained. I remember a Hong Kong Indian consortium that wanted to start a casino being turned away with a flea in the ear.

Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, then World Wildlife Fund president, was allowed to inspect rare animal life in the Andamans rainforest, but a Thai proposal for a growth triangle including the Bay islands, as the Met office calls them, didn't get off the ground.

British ambivalence at the time of partition lies at the heart of Indian nervousness. Some British officials thought the islands were not an "organic part" of India and should be retained by Britain or entrusted to the United Nations.

A Nicobar clergyman wrote to Lord Mountbatten saying the Nicobars (which Britain annexed in 1869 after spells of Danish and Austrian control and where the Royal Air Force had a staging post for some years after independence) should become a Crown Colony.

Mountbatten handed the letter over to Nehru. After independence came Sukarno's claim that the Nicobars, only 159 km from Sumatra, epicentre of the tsunami, were an extension of the Indonesian archipelago.

Charts explaining how disaster struck when the India and Burma plates moved invest that argument with geological logic. The Bay islands are part of a chain stretching from Burma's Arakan hills to Indonesia's Mentawai islands.

Another indication of a Southeast Asian identity was available some years ago when sailing in a friend's cargo boat among the Nicobars, we gave a ride to some cheerful Nicobarese youths.

Their only ethnic label was Holchu, which means friend or person in Nicobarese (like Chechen, Ingush and Bantu), and they had no language in common with Indians from the mainland. But the coastguard told us the Holchus had little problem chattering away with the crew of fishing boats from Java and Sumatra.

The youths were Mongolian in appearance, and later I learnt that the 12 Nicobarese communities are descended from migrants of Burman and Malay stock. Great Nicobar's 250 Shompens are a different matter. Like the Onges, Jarawas, the nearly extinct Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese, they go back to the Mesolithic and Upper Palaeolithic era. Silly local officials and social workers will try to tell you that these pre-civilisation folk, not more than 800 souls in all, are really devout Hindus.

As we know, many aborigines were thought to have been among the 10,000 tsunami victims. Fears about the Sentinelese were set at rest when they tried to bring down a relief helicopter with bow and arrow.

Nature sent its own warning signals to these ancient human beings through changes in marine and avian life, allowing them to fly to safety.

Indian sensitivities about the Andamans and Nicobars were more than reflected in the concern of others about India. Australia's defence minister, Kim Beazley, was alarmed when Rajiv Gandhi planned a blue water navy with round-the-clock capability.

Other members of the 1971 Five-Power Defence Arrangement also saw Gandhi's rhetoric about putting the Indian back into the Indian Ocean as hegemonic. An admiral at US Pacific headquarters in Hawaii told me it was directly aimed at their military installation at Diego Garcia.

Things have changed since then. The US applauded Indian intervention in Sri Lanka and in putting down an attempted coup in the Maldives. Indian warships escort American vessels in the Indian Ocean and engage in joint exercises and anti-piracy operations with regional navies.

As the West discovers the message of the Mahabakya Upanishad that the universe constitutes a single family -- Vasudaiva kutumbakam -- India is reminded of its ancient links with the lands of the Sri Vijaya and Majapahit empires.

Indian air force helicopters can fly to tsunami-battered Port Blair in shorter hops via Yangon in Myanmar. The mainland is farther away from Pygmalion Point, now Indira Point, India's southernmost point, than stricken Aceh in Sumatra.

No wonder the exclusion of aid agencies is unpopular. I know NGOs can be intrusive and volunteers are sometimes a nuisance. Even the United Nations has described counter-productive help as "the second disaster."

But aid organisations and workers also have a symbolic value. Keeping them out can imply a return to pre-globalisation blinkers.
Sunanda K Datta Ray
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