Andaman isles should've been given indigenous names: Anvita Abbi

Prominent linguist and expert on Andamanese languages says the Ross, Neil and Havelock islands should have been given names from the Great Andamanese tongue or named after Boa Sr, its last speaker, to uphold their ancient heritage 

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 25 December 2018
Indigenous people
 Wandoor Beach, Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Port Blair is named after Archibald Blair, the British naval surveyor who first surveyed the islands for the British East India Company. Credit: Getty Images Wandoor Beach, Port Blair, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Port Blair is named after Archibald Blair, the British naval surveyor who first surveyed the islands for the British East India Company. Credit: Getty Images

Prominent linguist and expert on the languages of the Andaman Islands, Anvita Abbi has expressed disappointment with the decision of the Union government to rename three islands of the archipelago.

Ross Island, Neil Island and Havelock Island will be renamed as Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Island, Shaheed Dweep and Swaraj Dweep respectively. The Union Ministry for Home Affairs has completed the formalities for changing the names of the three popular islands. The new names will be formally announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Port Blair on December 30.

“I am very disappointed and depressed at this decision,” Abbi told Down To Earth. “I am not at all against Netaji. In fact, like all Indians, I hold him in great reverence. However, this was an opportunity for us to pay tribute to the indigenous inhabitants of this archipelago. And we have lost it.”

Abbi has been at the forefront of the drive to rechristen islands in the archipelago with names given to them by indigenous peoples like the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge, Shompen and Nicobarese.

In June, Down To Earth had published an open letter by Abbi to the Lieutenant Governor of the islands in response to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Tarun Vijay’s proposal to rename Havelock Island to ‘Rani Lakshmibai Island’.

She had instead suggested that the island be renamed to ‘Thilarsiro’ (literally meaning ‘island of turtles’ in the Great Andamanese language).

In a table uploaded on her personal website, Abbi has given the names of the Havelock (‘Thilarsiro’) and Neil ('Tebishiro' meaning 'shores of the open sea') Islands besides a number of others as they are known by the Great Andamanese. Havelock Island is named after Major General Henry Havelock and Neil Island after Brigadier General James Neill, both of whom were top-ranking officers in the army of the British East India Company during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857. Both allegedly committed the worst military excesses against the native Indian population during the Mutiny, especially during the bid to take back cities in the United Provinces including Allahabad, Kanpur and Lucknow.

“The Andaman & Nicobar administration has been asking for suggestions to rename a number of islands, both inhabited and uninhabited, in the archipelago. This October, I had personally submitted a letter to the Chief Secretary of the Union Territory, requesting him to give indigenous names to the islands. Unfortunately, high level decisions in India are usually taken by people who do not consult experts working on the ground,” Abbi rued.

She also said the islands could have also been named after Boa Sr, who was the last speaker of the Great Andamanese language, and died in 2010.

She added that India should have taken a leaf from other colonised lands. “Look at Canada, the United States and Australia. Their (mostly white) governments take great pains to name rivers, mountain tops, waterfalls and streets after indigenous peoples to reflect the cultural heritage of the place. The headquarters of Microsoft is the city of Seattle, named after a great Native American chief who is well-known in environmental history. In India, we have these living tribes. Why can’t we name their land with names from their tongues?” she asked.

Abbi said there were no objections to naming places after national leaders. “The main airport of the archipelago is named after Veer Savarkar. You can also name colleges, hospitals and other institutions after them. But as far as islands are concerned, why not name them after indigenous people or with terms in their tongues so that when outsiders like you and me go there, we may not think that this is a Terra Nullius, an unexplored land, which it surely is not.”

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