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Developing Terra Nullius: Colonialism, Nationalism, and Indigeneity in the Andaman Islands

  • Uditi Sen (a1)

This article explores the legal structures and discursive framings informing the governance of one particular “backward” region of India, the Andaman Islands. I trace the shifting patterns of occupation and development of the islands in the colonial and postcolonial periods, with a focus on the changes wrought by independence in 1947 and the eventual history of planned development there. I demonstrate how intersecting discourses of indigenous savagery/primitivism and the geographical emptiness were repeatedly mobilized in colonial-era surveys and postcolonial policy documents. Postcolonial visions of developing the Andaman Islands ushered in a settler-colonial governmentality, infused with genocidal fantasies of the “dying savage.” Laws professing to protect aboriginal Jarawas actually worked to unilaterally extend Indian sovereignty over the lands and bodies of a community clearly hostile to such incorporation. I question the current exclusion of India from the global geographies of settler-colonialism and argue that the violent and continuing history of indigenous marginalization in the Andaman Islands represents a de facto operation of a logic of terra nullius.

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1 Vaidik, Aparna, Imperial Andamans: Colonial Encounter and Island History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

2 Sandeep Joshi, “A Befitting Tribute,” Hindu, 24 Mar. 2012.

3 “Cellular Jail: National Memorial,” as advertised on The Official Website of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Tourism: (accessed 10 May 2017).

4 Ibid.

5 “Heritage Tours,” (last accessed 10 May 2017).

6 For a history of the penal colony, see Sen, Satadru, Disciplining Punishment: Colonialism and Convict Society in the Andaman Islands (Oxford University Press, 2000). For broader histories, see Anderson, Clare, Mazumdar, Madhumita, and Pandya, Vishvajit, New Histories of the Andaman Islands: Landscape, Place and Identity in the Bay of Bengal, 1790–2012 (Cambridge University Press, 2015); and Vaidik, Imperial Andamans.

7 Sundar, Nandini, “Laws, Policies and Practices in Jharkhand,” Economic and Political Weekly 40, 41 (2005): 4459–62; and Nilsen, Alf Gubvald, “Subalterns and the State in the Longue Durée: Notes from ‘The Rebellious Century’ in the Bhil Heartland,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 45, 4 (2015): 574–95.

8 For an alternative reading of the Andaman Islands as terra nullius, see Vishvajit Pandya, “In Terra Nullius: The Legacies of Science and Colonialism in the Andaman Islands,” paper presented at Science Society and Nature, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library Public Lecture Series, 22 May 2013.

9 Frost, Alan, “New South Wales as Terra nullius: The British Denial of Aboriginal Land Rights,” Historical Studies 19 (1981): 513–23; and Banner, Stuart, “Why Terra Nullius? Anthropology and Property Law in Early Australia,” Law and History Review 23, 1 (2005): 95132 . On the changed legal landscape after the landmark Mabo ruling, see Attwood, Bain, ed., In the Age of Mabo: History, Aborigines and Australia (Allen and Unwin, 1996); and Strelein, Lisa, Compromised Jurisprudence: Native Title Cases since Mabo (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009).

10 For scholarship privileging the legal aspect of the doctrine of terra nullius in global history, see Banner, Stuart, Possessing the Pacific: Land, Settlers, and Indigenous People from Australia to Alaska (Harvard University Press, 2007); and Boucher, David, “The Law of Nations and the Doctrine of Terra Nullius,” in Asbach, Olaf and Schröder, Peter, eds., War, the State, and International Law in Seventeenth-Century Europe (Ashgate Publishing, 2010).

11 A growing body of scholarship maps the transition from colony to nation-state in India. Both the nationalist assertion of liberation and the postcolonial critique of the nation-state as a neocolonial entity have given way to more careful studies of the specificities of the transformation of patterns of governance. For examples, see Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, “Customs of Governance: Colonialism and Democracy in Twentieth Century India,” Modern Asian Studies 41, 3 (2007): 441–70; Sherman, Taylor C., Gould, William, and Ansari, Sarah, From Subjects to Citizens (Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Corbridge, Stuart, Williams, Glyn, Srivastava, Manoj, and Véron, René, Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

12 Sen, Satadru, Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean (Routledge, 2010), 2 .

13 For details of these divergent accounts, see Portman, M. V., A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese (Office of the Superintendent of Government, India, 1899).

14 Ritchie's Survey of the Andaman Islands, 1771; Alexander Kyd, Report to the Government of India, Minutes of the Governor General, 1792; and Archibald Blair, Survey of the Andamans, 1793. In this paper I have largely used the liberal extracts from these reports republished in Portman, History of Our Relations.

15 Kyd, Report, quoted in Portman, History of Our Relations, 93.

16 Ibid., 94.

17 Hopfl, H. M., “Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment,” Journal of British Studies 17, 2 (1978): 1940 .

18 Locke, John, Two Treatises on Government, 1690 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).

19 Ibid.

20 Portman, History of Our Relations, 80–84.

21 India Board to Governor General and Council at Bengal, 9 Apr. 1785, PRO FO 41/1, cited in Borch, Merete, “Rethinking the Origins of Terra Nullius,” Australian Historical Studies 32, 117 (2001): 222–39, 229–30.

22 Portman, History of Our Relations, 84.

23 For details, see Vaidik, Imperial Andamans, 36–43.

24 Banner, “Why Terra Nullius?” 105–10.

25 For details, see Vaidik, Imperial Andamans, 43–60.

26 Mouat, Frederic J., Adventures and Researches among the Andaman Islanders (Hurst and Blackett, 1863).

27 Ibid., 39.

28 Ibid., 3–4.

29 Ibid., 2.

30 Foucault, Michel, “Governmentality,” in Burchell, Graham, Gordon, Colin, and Miller, Peter, eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (University of Chicago Press, 1991), 87104 .

31 For details, see Murthy, R.V.R., Andaman and Nicobar Islands: Development and Decentralization (Mittal Publications, 2005).

32 Chattterjee, Partha, “Development Planning and the Indian State,” in Byres, Terence J., ed., The State and Development Planning in India (Oxford University Press, 1994). For debates on the meanings and processes of postcolonial development in India, see Bardhan, Pranab, The Political Economy of Development in India (Oxford University Press, 1991); Chakravarthy, Sukhamoy, Development Planning: The Indian Experience (Oxford University Press, 1987); and Zachariah, Benjamin, Developing India: An Intellectual and Social History, c. 1930–50 (Oxford University Press, 2005).

33 The planned increase in the population of the Andaman Islands is detailed below. For a discussion of how agricultural colonization in the Andaman Islands gained momentum and funds from India's Grow More Food campaigns, see Uditi Sen, “Refugees and the Politics of Nation Building in India, 1947–1971” (thesis, Cambridge University, 2009).

34 Through the accounts and actions of M. V. Portman, the mid-nineteenth-century romantic trope of the dying or vanishing savage and its concomitant practice of salvage anthropology came to be a dominant trope in the Andaman Islands. For details see Sen, Savagery and Colonialism.

35 Any tribal group displaying any one of these features—low and declining population, pre-agricultural technology, or very low literacy rates—was characterized as a Primitive Tribal Group. For details, see Chaudhuri, Sarit Kumar and Chaudhuri, Sucheta Sen, eds., Primitive Tribes in Contemporary India: Concept, Ethnography and Demography (Mittal Publications, 2005).

36 In the Indian context, the parameters of what constituted a tribe, as opposed to a caste, emerged out of colonial ethnography and remained notoriously vague. See Béteille, André, “The Concept of Tribe with Special Reference to India,” European Journal of Sociology 27, 2 (1986): 297318 .

37 Several scholars have explored the complicity between colonial knowledge production and the domination of the aboriginal tribes of Andaman Islands. For the Jarawas, see Pandya, Vishvajit, “Jarwas of Andaman Islands: Their Social and Historical Reconstruction,” Economic and Political Weekly 37, 37 (Jan. 2002): 1420 . For the Onges, see Venkateswar, Sita, Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, 2004); and for the Great Andamanese and Jarawas, see Sen, Savagery and Colonialism; and Pandya, “In Terra Nullius.”

38 Mukhopadhay, K., Bhattacharya, P. K., and Sarkar, B. N., eds., Jarawa Contact: Ours with Them, Theirs with Us (Anthropological Survey of India, 2002).

39 For the Andaman administration's reliance of convict labor, see Vaidik, Aparna, “Working the Islands: Labour Regime in Colonial Andamans, 1858–1921,” in Linden, Marcel van der and Mohapatra, Prabhu, eds., Labour Matters. Towards Global Histories: Studies in Honour of Sabyasachi Bhattacharya (Tulika, 2009), 189253 .

40 Shivdasani, H. R., Report on the Possibilities of Colonization and Development of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Government of India, 1949), henceforth, “Shivdasani Report.”

41 For the specificities of the refugee experience in the East, see Chatterji, Joya, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947–67 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

42 Chowdhury, Sabyasachi Basu Roy, “Exiled to the Andamans: The Refugees from East Pakistan,” in Bose, Pradip Kumar, ed., Refugees in West Bengal: Institutional Processes and Contested Identities (Calcutta Research Group, 2000), 106–41; and Sen, “Refugees.”

43 File 8/8/53-AN, Ministry of Home Affairs, Andamans Branch, 1953, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

44 Sen, “Refugees.”

45 These figures are taken from Economic Survey of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, 2007–2008 (Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Andaman and Nicobar Administration, 2008).

46 Colonization, in this context, means agricultural expansion carried out under the aegis of the state through the establishment of new villages. See Farmer, B. H., Agricultural Colonization in India since Independence (Royal Institute of International Affairs by Oxford University Press, 1974).

47 Shivdasani Report, Appendix I, Questionnaires A and B.

48 Ibid., 2.

49 Skaria, Ajay, “Shades of Wildness: Tribe, Caste, and Gender in Western India,” Journal of Asian Studies 56, 3 (1997): 726–45.

50 Shivdasani Report, 3.

51 Ibid., 5.

52 de Vattel, Emer (new edition by Chitty, Joseph and Ingrahm, Edward D.), Principles of the Law of Nature Applied to the Conduct and Affairs of Nations and Sovereigns (T & J. W. Johnson, 1883 [1758]).

53 Shivdasani Report, 5.

54 Wolfe, Patrick, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, 4 (2006): 387409 .

55 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team on Accelerated Development Programme for Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Ministry of Rehabilitation, Government of India, 1966), 1 .

56 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 14.

57 Ibid.

58 This was achieved through the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation of 1956 and is detailed in the next section.

59 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 19–20.

60 Office of the Chief Commissioner Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Extraordinary Notice No. ANPATR/3 (1)/1, in the Andaman and Nicobar Gazette, Port Blair, 1957, republished as Annexure I: Anadaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) 1956 including all amendments until 2004,” in Sekhsaria, Pankaj and Pandya, Vishvajit, eds., The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities in the Andaman Islands (UNESCO, 2010), henceforth, Jarawa Dossier.

61 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 25.

62 Ibid.

63 Venkateswar, Development and Ethnocide, 129.

64 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 25.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid.

67 Rao, Mohan, From Population Control to Reproductive Health: Malthusian Arithmetic (Sage Publications, 2004).

68 Venkateswar, Development and Ethnocide.

69 Sen, Savagery and Colonialism.

70 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 24.

71 Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism.”

72 Regulation No: 76/56, promulgated by the President of India under clause (2) of article 243 of the Constitution, published in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part II, Section I, 14 May 1956, in Sekhsaria and Pandya, Jarawa Dossier, 86.

73 Sekhsaria and Pandya, Jarawa Dossier, 88.

74 Pandya, “In Terra Nullius,” 22.

75 Chandi, Manish, “Colonization and Conflict Resolution in the Andaman Islands: Learning from Reconstruction of Conflict between Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Islanders,” in Sekhsaria, Pankaj and Pandya, Vishvajit, eds., The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities in the Andaman Islands (UNESCO, 2010), 13.

76 See Schedules V and VI of the Constitution of India.

77 For details, see Venkateswar, Sita, “The Fate of the Jarawa: Some Lessons across Space and Time,” in Behera, Deepak Kumar and Pfeffer, Georg, eds., Contemporary Society: Identity, Intervention, and Ideology in Tribal India and Beyond (Concept Publishing Company, 2008), 131–46; and Pandya, Vsihvajit and Mazumdar, Madhumita, “Making Sense of the Andaman Islanders: Reflections on a New Conjuncture,” Economic and Political Weekly 47, 44 (Nov. 2012): 5158 .

78 Quinquennial Report for the Period 1934–35 to 1938–39 on the Forest Administration in the Andamans (Government of India, 1939).

79 Sinha, Surajit Chadra, Report on the Possibilities of Further Resettlement of East Pakistan Refugees in Andaman Islands (Anthropological Survey of India, 1952).

80 Pandya, Vishvajit, “Hostile Borders on Historical Landscapes: The Placeless Place of Andamanese Culture,” in Sekhsaria, Pankaj and Pandya, Vishvajit, eds., The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities in the Andaman Islands (UNESCO, 2010), 20.

81 File 8/2/1950- AN, Ministry of Home Affairs, Andamans Branch, 1953, National Archives of India, New Delhi.

82 Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Publication Division, The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Government of India, July 1957).

83 Sen, Uditi, “‘Dissident Memories': Exploring Bengali Refugee Narratives in the Andaman Islands,” in Panayi, Panikos and Virdee, Pippa, eds., Refugees and the End of Empire: Imperial Collapse and Forced Migration during the Twentieth Century (Palgrave, 2011), 235.

84 Pandya, “Hostile Borders,” 20.

85 Weizman, Eyal, “Legislative Attack,” Theory, Culture & Society 27, 11 (2010): 1132 .

86 “Annexure I: Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) 1956 Including all Amendments until 2004,” in Sekhsaria and Pandya, Jarawa Dossier, 87.

87 Ibid., 91–106.

88 Ibid., 116.

89 This particular form of “contact” with the Jarawas is of relatively recent provenance and became an issue only after 1997–1998, when the Jarawas started regularly venturing out of the forests to accept gifts. This sudden change in Jarawa behavior created a rupture in established policy, which focused on befriending and containing them. For details of debates on formulating new policies for this new situation, see Venkateswar, “Fate of the Jarawa”; and Pandya and Mazumdar, “Making Sense of the Andaman Islanders.”

90 Zehmisch, Philipp, “A Xerox of India? Policies and Politics of Migration in an Overseas Colony,” Working Papers in Social and Cultural Anthropology, vol. 2 (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, 2012).

91 Gethin Chamberlain, “Andaman Islands Tribe Threatened by Lure of Mass Tourism,” Observer, 7 Jan. 2012, (last accessed 13 Aug. 2014); and Zubair Ahmed, “Jarawa Dance Video: Army Personnel Involved,” Light of Andamans 35, 24 (13 Jan. 2012), (last accessed 28 May 2016).

92 Chandra, Uday, “Liberalism and Its Other: The Politics of Primitivism in Colonial and Postcolonial Indian Law,” Law & Society Review 47, 1 (2013): 135–68.

93 Bardoloi, Gopinath, Final Report of the Excluded and Partially Excluded Areas (Other than Assam) Sub-Committee (Government of India, 1947).

94 At: (last accessed 14 Aug. 2014).

95 Ibid.

96 Sekhsaria and Pandya, Jarawa Dossier, 108.

97 Ibid., 121.

98 Ibid., 120.

99 Ibid., 114. This patch was re-notified in 2004.

100 Pandya, “Hostile Borders,” 18–29.

101 Chandi, “Colonization and Conflict,” 13.

102 For a summary of the literature arguing for “Andamanese exceptionalism,” see Pandya and Mazumdar, “Making Sense of the Andaman Islanders.”

103 For a survey of the diversity in approaches of studying “tribes” in India, see Uday Chandra, “Towards Adivasi Studies: New Perspectives on ‘Tribal’ Margins of Modern India,” Studies in History 31, 1: 122–27.

104 Béteille, André, “The Idea of Indigenous People,” Current Anthropology 39, 2 (1998): 187–91; Karlsson, Bengt G., “Anthropology and the ‘Indigenous Slot’: Claims to and Debates about Indigenous Peoples Status in India,” Critique of Anthropology 23, 4 (2003): 403–23; and Xaxa, Virginius, “Tribes as Indigenous People of India,” Economic and Political Weekly 34, 51 (1999): 3589–95.

105 For an exploration of the specific form of liberal governance that seeks to govern the “prior,” see Povinelli, Elizabeth A., “The Governance of the Prior,” Interventions 13, 1 (2011): 1330 .

106 Ghosh, Kaushik, “Indigenous Incitements,” in Kapoor, Dip and Shizha, Edward, eds., Indigenous Knowledge and Learning in Asia and Africa: Essentialism, Continuity and Change (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010).

107 For details, see Karlsson, “Anthropology and the ‘Indigenous Slot.’”

108 See Sen, Savagery and Colonialism; and Vaidik, Imperial Andamans.

109 Anderson, Mazumdar, and Pandya, New Histories.

110 For a critical discussion on how notions of development can lend themselves to practices of genocide, see Lal, Vinay, “The Concentration Camp and Development: The Pasts and Future of Genocide,” Patterns of Prejudice 39, 2 (2005): 220–43.

111 Povinelli, Elizabeth A., The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (Duke University Press, 2002).

112 Report by the Inter-Departmental Team, 1966.

113 For details, see Chaudhuri, Sarit Kumar and Chaudhuri, Sucheta Sen, Primitive Tribes in Contemporary India: Concept, Ethnography and Demography (Mittal Publications, 2005).

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