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Japanese Occupation of Nicobar Islands

Slavery, Espionage and Executions

Ajay Saini (writetoajaysaini@gmail.com) is at the Directorate, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Primarily based on archival research, especially an unpublished diary of Nicobarese stalwart leader John Richardson, this article gives a glimpse of the sufferings that the Nicobarese endured under the Japanese colonial regime during World War II. The regime exposed the indigenes to war, slavery, torture, and executions. At the same time it engendered leadership in the Nicobar Islands which consolidated these historically isolated people into a community and ended their prolonged economic and sexual exploitation.

The author acknowledges the support received from the tribal councils of Nicobar, the Andaman and Nicobar Archives (Port Blair), and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration.
 

 

“Always Tell the Truth,

Give Up Your Bad Habits,

Might is Right,

God Almighty,

Don’t Spit Here.”

— An inscription on the board of a local shop in Car Nicobar, 19471

This is good news to you. Our emperor is a lover of peace. He has stopped the war by his own effort, for he cannot bear to see any more sufferings to go in the world. We can carry on the war for another one hundred years more. As you see here our weapons are all intact. But the sole wish of our emperor is peace. (Richardson 1947: 26)

After the empire of Japan surrendered in World War II, the Japanese major general in the Nicobar Islands summoned Nicobarese chief headman John Richardson2 and read the above-mentioned text to him.3 Thereafter, the major general presented an old blanket, 40 pounds of rice and two yards of cloth to Richardson and thanked his community for rendering service during the war (Richardson 1947: 26–27). Later, Richardson, along with other Nicobarese, travelled to Singapore and proffered testimony in the Allied court against the major general and 15 other Japanese accused of war crimes in the Nicobar Islands (Rama Krishna nd). Despite their severity, the Japanese atrocities in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI), unlike elsewhere—the “Burma–Siam Death Railway,” “Unit 731’s medical experiments,” and the “Nanjing (Nanking) Massacre,” have remained lesser known (Dhillon 1998; Ling 2014). Since the Japanese incinerated all the documents before surrender (Rama Krishna nd), it is difficult to give a factual description of their regime in the ANI (Dasgupta 2002). Nevertheless, in their oral histories, the Nicobarese recount the Japanese colonial stint in the Nicobar Islands (1942–45) as a regime of slavery, espionage, and executions. Richardson spent substantial time in concentration camps, which he vividly narrates in his unpublished diary, “Car-Nicobar under Japanese Occupation 1942–45.” Primarily based on archival research, this work provides a glimpse of the sufferings that the Nicobarese endured during World War II under the Japanese regime. The Japanese period, despite being the shortest of all the colonial regimes in the Nicobar Islands, played a consequential role in the evolution of the Nicobarese society.

War and Slavery

In September 1939, when World War II started, Richardson and his fellow indigenes had no idea that their peaceable community in the remote Nicobar Islands would soon be entangled in the world’s deadliest conflict. The indigenes thought that the Nicobar Islands and its inhabitants, as it had happened during World War I, would remain unaffected. After Japan attacked Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong, and the British declared war on the Empire of Japan in December 1941, the tribal leaders realised that the war would be waged at their “very door.” The indigenes had learnt about the Japanese atrocities in Singapore and Burma (Myanmar). However, it was only in 1942, when Japan bombed Kamorta4 and Port Blair, that fear and trepidation gripped them (Richardson 1947: 1). On the night of 23 March 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy reached Ross and Chatham Islands and fired a shot, in response to which there was no shot, but a loud explosion. The British had enjoined their officers to blow up the wireless station and telegraph office at Port Blair if Japan occupied the islands (Krishna nd; Singh 1978; Sareen 2002). On 4 July 1942, a Japanese cruiser reached Mus village in Car Nicobar, and the landing party inquired about Scott (assistant commissioner), who, like other British officers, had already left the islands. The party planted a post on the beach to mark the day of the Japanese occupation of the Nicobar Islands. Following this, its commanding officer addressed the Nicobarese and announced the fall of the British Empire in the ANI and elsewhere (Richardson 1947: 2–3).

After Japan occupied the islands, the indigenes in the Nicobar Islands experienced slavery for the first time. On 24 December 1942, 500 Nicobarese, followed by 500 more in March 1943, were forcibly brought to Port Blair (Andaman) as “coolies” for the construction of an airstrip (Richardson 1947: 8–9). The Nicobar Islands, vis-à-vis the Andaman Islands, had more strategic significance for Japan. Therefore, while the latter was governed through a civilian governor, the former was kept within the strict jurisdiction of the Japanese Navy, which was only answerable to the headquarters at Singapore. Even the Provisional Government of India, which was permitted to participate in the administration of the Andaman Islands, had no access to the Japanese naval base in the Nicobar Islands (F No 601/7652 as cited in Sareen 2002). Japan wanted to develop Malacca in the Nicobar Islands as its base for attacking British India.

On 4 August 1943, the Japanese naval force landed on Malacca and its captain, Ueda Mytsharu, solicited the Nicobarese cooperation in the war by arguing that Japan was not fighting for land but for the freedom of people from the British rule, and if the indigenes worked for the Japanese, they would become rich after the war. Though the Nicobarese were not impressed by Ueda’s speech, the Japanese managed to collect about 1,000 “coolies.” While men were engaged in the construction of a jetty, women fed them and performed other household chores. After the construction of the jetty, humongous cargo ships started reaching the Nicobar Islands with shore defence equipment, guns, vehicles, tanks, troops, land-crafts, etc. The Nicobarese were forced to work as stevedores who continuously unloaded large amounts of cargo for weeks (Richardson 1947: 10–11).

A lieutenant was appointed as a civil administrator to redress the Nicobarese grievances and to oversee the teaching of Japanese language among them. Every Sunday, lectures were delivered to the indigenes to convince them that the Japanese emperor was a descendant of the goddess, the Japanese were a chosen race for the establishment of a new order in the world, and Japan, after conquering the greatest empires, had emerged as the world leader. Surveys were conducted in all the tribal villages for the identification of able-bodied people (12–50 years old) who were distributed as slaves among various units. Pig, yam, chicken, banana, coconut and so on were procured from the indigenes for supply to troops/units (Richardson 1947: 12–14). Generally, the Japanese picked up things without payment, but sometimes they would also give cigarettes, currency notes (Japanese) and other things in exchange (Sareen 2002). The soldiers often ill-treated the indigenes, against whom, even after receiving numerous complaints from the victims, the civil administration took no action. The indigenes were forced to report to work every day, and the absentees, despite sickness, were picked up from their huts. The ailing received no medical treatment and were deemed to be fit for work if they could move their limbs. During this period, the indigenes endured immense hardship. Sickness, such as dysentery, sore eyes, and pneumonia were common among them, because of which the death rate exceeded the birth rate in the Nicobar Islands (Richardson 1947: 13–14).

Espionage and Executions

On 3 September 1943, the Allied forces bombed a cargo ship anchored at a shore in the Nicobar Islands. The Japanese suspected espionage and apprehended all the English-speaking Nicobarese along with the key non-Nicobarese traders for interrogation. On 2 October 1943, the air raids caused heavy casualties in the Nicobar Islands, especially in Malacca and Lapathi villages, after which all the English-speaking Nicobarese and some traders were again rounded up. The headman of Lapathi village, Thomas, was brutally tortured and his hut was set on fire. Richardson, along with his fellow Nicobarese, who were suspected of flaring lights in the sky at night and assisting the enemy by directing it to the target, were taken to Tamaloo village and kept under observation in a concentration camp (Richardson 1947: 11–17).

The Eastern Fleet adopted a vigorous hit-and-run policy and intensified raids on the Nicobar Islands, especially Car Nicobar and Nancowry islands. In July 1945, the Nicobar Islands suffered intense air and sea strikes, in the aftermath of which many Nicobarese and the non-Nicobarese were put to death. The Japanese also took around 300 people as prisoners and kept them in a concentration camp where they were forced to dig wells, build air-raid shelters/huts, collect bamboo, and fell coconut trees. In his address to the Nicobarese, captain (naval), Ueda accused them of conniving with the enemy. He alleged that every night rocket fires were seen in the islands whereby signals were sent to the enemy for raids on the Japanese strategic locations. Ueda called Richardson a British spy, with whom, he argued, Scott had left 300 rockets. While threatening the indigenes, Ueda said (Richardson 1947: 18–25):

If the English land (on the islands), not a single Nicobarese will be left alive. Trees, animals, even a single leaf, will not be left on the island. It will be laid waste and bare. You will bring this upon your own head.

Such accusations baffled Richardson and other Nicobarese as none of them were involved in espionage. Neither did the Nicobarese see rocket fires in the sky, nor were any of them ever caught while firing rockets. In an attempt to execute Richardson, the Japanese ordered the headman of Kakana village, Ku-chat, to supersede him as the chief headman. However, Ku-chat not only declined the order but also warned the Japanese that such a move would trigger an uprising in the Nicobar Islands. It forestalled Richardson’s execution. Later, on the pretext of food scarcity, many prisoners, including several family members of Richardson, were removed from the camp and allegedly shuffled to various units where food was available. However, all these people were clandestinely executed, and none of them were seen again (Richardson 1947: 23–25).

The Post-war Nicobar Islands

The detonation of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to Japan’s abrupt surrender in World War II on 15 August 1945. Subsequently, the Japanese Red Cross visited the tribal villages in the Nicobar Islands for providing medical aid to sick people. However, the indigenes had developed so much distrust for the regime that they even eschewed medical treatment (Richardson 1947: 27). After the formal surrender ceremony on 9 October 1945, the British reoccupied the ANI and completed the disarmament of the islands by the end of the month. Around 18,846 Japanese troops were held in custody for evacuation and 186 (later reduced to 112) were accused of war crimes5 (Singh 1978; Mathur 1985). On 22 October, a British ship visited the Nicobar Islands, and the indigenes were eventually liberated and succoured. While the indigenes were happy to be free, they were also sad for the loss incurred during the Japanese regime that had murdered 105 educated Car Nicobarese6 and destroyed a lot of precious indigenous resources. In the beginning, the Japanese had asked the Nicobarese to keep a record of their material/livestock loss, which the community maintained until it realised its futility. As per this partial record, the indigenes incurred the following losses—coconuts (3,05,363), coconut trees (1,20,000), pigs (25,000), bananas (18,610), chickens (2,491), and cattle (1,535) (Richardson 1947: 27–28).

While the Japanese regime enslaved and tormented the indigenes, it also helped them terminate the exploitative trade relations that the outsiders had developed with the community. Before the Japanese occupation, traders, especially from Minicoy (Lakshadweep), Malabar, and Bengal visited the Nicobar Islands and bartered general merchandise with the indigenes for copra (smoke-dried coconut) and areca nuts. The traders had established exploitative economic relations with the indigenes through a “credit” system, whereby petty loans, in terms of merchandise, were extended to them that they had to repay by supplying copra and areca nuts. As the Nicobarese was a pre-monetary society and solely dependent on the barter system, the indigenes were unaware of the commercial value of the merchandise/produce, which that led to their exploitation. Most of the indigenes, even after supplying surplus quantity of produce, remained in perpetual debt; while the traders earned an average monthly income of ₹144 to ₹180 and lived an easy life on the islands. The outsiders not only exploited the indigenes economically, but sexually as well. Many traders married the local Nicobarese girls, who, along with the children born out of such marriages, were generally abandoned by the traders, who left behind uncared for women and children in the islands (Richardson 1947: 31).

The Japanese cracked down on the traders, many of whom were executed or expelled from the islands (Roychowdhury 2004). Whatever the traders had “looted” from the indigenes was further “looted” from them by the Japanese. Despite being exploited, the indigenes supported the traders in their trying times, which Richardson expressed as follows:

During the Japanese occupation, the traders were all fed free of charge by the Nicobarese, yet they were too proud to say “Thank you” for everything received from our people; whom they compared to beasts. Well, we have done our duty; expecting no reward from the ungrateful friends. We have been rewarded evil for good. In all their lives here, they have not (done even) a single charitable work, but grabbing. They built grand houses at Minicoy with Mangalore tiled roofs out of the Nicobarese money and live like millionaires, but unable to pay back their debts. These will go to their graves with them. (Richardson 1947: 28–31)

After Japan’s surrender, the traders fled from the Nicobar Islands in fear, and the land that the Nicobarese had mortgaged to them was retrieved for the community (Singh 1978). Therefore, as Richardson argued, the “only gain,” which the Nicobarese had from the war was that they got rid of the traders—the “parasites,” “selfish,” and “ungrateful people” whose “soul idea was to keep the Nicobarese always under their thumbs,” so that they “should not be enlightened, else the traders will lose their trade” (Richardson 1947: 28).

A Heroic Leader

In the post-war phase, Richardson emerged to be a heroic mass leader, who, despite the executions of his son, brother-in-law, son-in-law, nephew and other relatives, had kept the Nicobarese morale high. Under his leadership, the indigenes had exhibited unparalleled resilience and survived the war (Roychowdhury 2004). Richardson was also a major witness to the Japanese atrocities on the islands. Along with other Nicobarese, he travelled to Singapore and proffered testimony in the Allied court. Consequently, out of the 16 Japanese accused of war crimes in the Nicobar Islands, except for one, all were shot, hanged, or imprisoned for various terms.7 Richardson not only played a crucial role in delivering justice to the Nicobarese, but also organised these isolated islanders into a community and catalysed social change in the Nicobar Islands. Historically, the Nicobarese had lived in absolute isolation with occasional cross-cultural contacts. Scattered sparsely in numerous pockets of the Nicobar Islands, the indigenes formed various small communities with distinct geographical features, territorial identities, and sociocultural milieus.8

It was only after colonisation and the spread of Christianity on the islands that these hunter–gatherer people started experiencing sociocultural change. Since the 15th century, the Portuguese, French, Danish and Italian missionaries attempted conversions in the islands, but failed until a British agent—Vedappa Solomon was posted in Car Nicobar Islands in 1859. Though Solomon succeeded in introducing Christianity to the Nicobarese, it was Richardson who propagated it across the islands after World War II (Kloss 1971; Tamta 1992; Saini 2016). Before the war, the Nicobar Islands only had 1,000 Christian Nicobarese (1941 Census as cited in Sareen 2002) whose number increased exponentially immediately after the war, the reasons for which, as Thompson (1951: 648) argued, are as follows:

Richardson had restarted the schools, restored the old church and built many new [ones], spread the Gospel to many once heathen villages, and baptised hundreds of converts. Car Nicobar itself was now almost wholly Christian; the other islands were asking for evangelisation. The martyrs had indeed proved the seed of the church. In 1949, 750 more candidates were ready for confirmation.

The common sufferings of the war and the introduction of an organised religion unified the indigenes. It also led to a sudden emergence of indigenous leadership which ushered sociocultural change within the Nicobar Islands that the superintendent at Port Blair (as cited in Thompson 1951: 647) expressed as follows:

Many more of the islanders have been led to abandon their savage customs, to cultivate vegetables and fruit for their own consumption, to drink tea instead of tari,9 to sew, to carpentry. Their former customs of infanticide, devil murders,10 falling coconut trees on the death of the owner, dragging about the bodies of deceased persons, burying them with live animals and so on, have altogether been given up.

Post-independence, the Government of India extended its administrative apparatus in the remote Nicobar Islands and the indigenes were provided numerous modern amenities, such as electricity, clean water, healthcare, schooling, transportation, communication, etc. The President nominated Richardson as a member of Parliament (MP) to represent the ANI in the first Lok Sabha (1952–57). As an MP, Richardson’s primary agenda was to find a permanent solution to the menace of outsiders who were manoeuvring to return and re-establish their business in the islands. He lobbied the government to declare the Nicobar Islands as a tribal reserve. Consequently, in 1956, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation (ANPATR) was promulgated, which recognised the entire Nicobar Islands (except for few pockets) as a tribal reserve and proscribed the entry of unsolicited outsiders.11 The enactment of the ANPATR not only put a permanent end to the economic and sexual exploitation of the Nicobarese, it also helped them evolve as a self-reliant community. With the support of the government, the indigenes adopted horticulture on a large scale and formed village cooperative societies for the management of their common resources. The adoption of modern horticulture techniques streamlined the Nicobarese livelihood, and the sale of produce through cooperatives ensured a fair price to all the indigenes, which rapidly ushered economic and social prosperity in the Nicobar Islands.12

Conclusions

The post-World War II phase in the Nicobar Islands marked the dawn of a historic era wherein the indigenes inhabiting these remote islands experienced rapid social change and modernisation. As evident in this article, the change was intricately linked with the conditions that prevailed in the Nicobar Islands from 1942–45, an epoch, when Japan occupied the ANI. The Japanese regime, despite being the shortest of all the colonial regimes in the Nicobar Islands—the others being those of the Danish,13 the Austrian14 and the British15—has played a momentous role in the Nicobarese evolution. While the regime exposed the indigenes to war, slavery, torture and executions, it also engendered leadership in the Nicobar Islands, which consolidated these historically isolated people into a religious community and ended their prolonged economic and sexual exploitation. Under Richardson’s influence, the indigenes not only espoused Christianity,16 but also started identifying themselves as a single community—the Nicobarese17—spread across the Nicobar Islands. The indigenous leadership institutionalised itself into tribal councils that provided a political platform to the indigenes and strengthened their agency. The social, cultural, economic and political reconfiguration of the Nicobarese community ushered rapid social change in the Nicobar Islands, which the Government of India catalysed further through its modernisation drives. While the government showed keenness in integrating the indigenes into mainstream society, the tribal councils—which acted as a bridge between the government and the indigenes—actively negotiated the trajectory of development and modernisation in the Nicobar Islands. Therefore, unlike the rest of the indigenous communities in the ANI,18 the Nicobarese thrived and evolved as a unique community, blending both traditional and modern cultures.

Notes

1 Noted by Sir Compton Mackenzie who visited the Nicobar Islands in 1947 (as cited in Singh 1978: 277).

2 John Richardson (1888–1978) was the first educated Nicobarese who completed higher education from a Christian missionary school in Myanmar. After returning to the Nicobar Islands in 1912, he started working as a teacher/catechist at the only mission school in Car Nicobar. During the Japanese regime, Richardson was twice condemned to death. In recognition of his selfless services to the nation, Richardson was awarded the Padma Shri (1966) and Padma Bhushan (1973) awards. He is fondly remembered as the father of the modern Nicobar Islands.

3 The original text was read in Japanese, which was translated to English by Richardson.

4 An island in the Nicobar Islands archipelago.

5 Sir Compton Mackenzie visited the ANI on 23 February 1947 and confirmed the Japanese war crimes: forcible drowning near Havelock Island (700 deaths), Homfreyganj massacre (45 deaths), Tarmugli massacre (300 deaths), forcible prostitution of women and brutal torture such as beating, water/electric/sitting treatment, piercing the finger nails, chilly and salt on wounds, sprinkling petrol and setting bodies on fire, son asked to beat mother/father, etc (Rama Krishna nd; Singh 1978; Mathur 1985; Roychowdhury 2004).

6 Of which, 12, 90, two and one were murdered in Port Blair, Car Nicobar, Teressa, and Nancowrie, respectively.

7 Japanese Major General Itzuki Toshio, Lt Commander Ogura Keiji, Captain (Naval) Ueda Mytsharu and 13 others were accused of war crimes in the Nicobar Islands. The trial began at the “Military Court for the Trial of War Criminals” in Singapore (11–16, 18–23, 25–26 March 1946) which featured four charges: (i) Between 1 July 1945 and 31 August 1945, the civilian residents of Car Nicobar were tortured and ill-treated which resulted in the death of six civilians; (ii) On 28 July 1945, in an unjust trial and judgment, 49 civilian residents of Car Nicobar were condemned to death and executed; (iii) On 6 August 1945, in an unjust trial and judgment, 22 civilian residents of Car Nicobar were condemned to death and executed; (iv) On 12 August 1945, in an unjust trial and judgment, 12 civilian residents of Car Nicobar were condemned to death and executed.

For more, see the “Legal Tools—Database Record” of the “International Criminal Court” (for charge sheet, see file title “Itzuki et al, Charge sheet” [Database Record No 202358] https://www.legal-tools.org/en/doc/d9acc4/) (for judgment, see file title “Itzuki, et al, Judgment” [Database Record No 202359] http://www.legal-tools.org/en/doc/9a3772/).

8 Based on the cultural and linguistic features of its indigenous population, the Nicobar Islands are split into six divisions: (i) Car Nicobar,
(ii) Chowra, (iii) Teressa and Bambooka,
(iv) Katchal, Nancowry, Kamorta and Trinket, (v) Little Nicobar, Kondul, Pulomilo and Great Nicobar, and (vi) the Shompen area of Great Nicobar.

9 Tari (toddy) is a sour beverage made from coconut sap.

10 The practice of killing a person considered as a menace to the community.

11 As per the Section 6(1) of the ANPATR (1956), “no person other than a member of an aboriginal tribe shall, except with the previous sanction of the Chief Commissioner, acquire any interest in any land situated in a reserved area or in any product of a crop raised on, such land, or shall, except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a license granted by the Chief Commissioner, carry on any trade or business in any such area.”

12 Field notes, Nicobar Islands, October 2014.

13 After the arrival of Danish settlers in the Nicobar Islands on 12 December 1755, it was renamed as “New Denmark” and made a Danish colony on 1 January 1756 (Cahoon 2016).

14 Austria occupied the Nicobar Islands on 1 June 1778 (annexed on 12 July 1778) and renamed it as “Theresia Islands” (Cahoon 2016).

15 After the Danish rights to the Nicobar Islands were sold to Britain, it became a part of the British India on 16 October 1868 (Britain had a nominal possession of the Nicobar Islands from 1807–14) (Cahoon 2016).

16 Except a few Muslim families, the indigenes either fully accepted Christianity or blended some elements of it with animism.

17 Barring a small group—the Shompens (219)—all the indigenes in the Nicobar Islands are called as the Nicobarese.

18 Except for the Nicobarese (27,686), the rest of the five indigenous communities in the ANI—the Jarawa (425), the Shompen (219), the Ongee (112), the Andamanese (57), and the Sentinelese (50, estimated)—are on the verge of extinction and have been recognised as the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) (population as on 31 December 2013, Directorate of Tribal Welfare, ANI).

References

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Dasgupta, Jayant (2002): Japanese in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Red Sun Over Black Water, New Delhi: Manas Publications.

Dhillon, Mohinder Singh (1998): “The Unknown Massacre at Andamans: A Slice of History,” Tribune, 12 December, viewed on 10 January 2017, http://www.tribuneindia.com/1998/98dec12/saturday/head4.htm.

Kloss, Cecil Boden (1971): Andaman and Nicobars, New Delhi: Vivek Publishing House.

Krishna, Rama (nd): “The Andaman Islands under Japanese Occupation 1942–1945,” unpublished diary, Andaman and Nicobar Archives, Secretariat (Central Records Section), Andaman and Nicobar Administration, Port Blair.

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Roychowdhury, Rabin (2004): Black Days in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, New Delhi: Manas Publications.

Saini, Ajay (2016): “The Southern Nicobar Islands as Imaginative Geographies,” Social Change, Vol 46, No 4, pp 495–511.

Sareen, T R (2002): Sharing the Blame: Subhash Chandra Bose and the Japanese Occupation of the Andamans 1942–45, New Delhi: S S Publishers.

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Tamta, B R (1992): Andaman and Nicobar Islands, New Delhi: National Book Trust.

Thompson, Henry Paget (1951): Into All Lands: The History of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1701–1950, London:
SPCK.

Updated On : 4th Jun, 2018

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