Sept. 17: To many in the Andamans, Viper Island is hallowed land where hundreds of freedom fighters from the days of the 1857 revolt to the 1905 Swadeshi movement were chained up, tortured and hanged from gallows atop a hillock.
They are up in arms over a tourism project aimed at attracting foreigners on pleasure cruises, shuddering at the thought of topless tourists drinking and sunbathing on beaches soaked in the memories of martyrs.
The 31.34-hectare (0.3sqkm) Viper Island is a white speck off the Port Blair harbour, known for its dreaded Penal Settlement Jail where freedom fighters were sent before the Cellular Jail came up in Port Blair in 1906.
A 30-minute motorboat ride from Port Blair’s Phoenix Bay Jetty, it attracts over a hundred domestic tourists every day during the October-February season. The island’s only residents are four caretakers who look after the ruins of the jail, gallows, a hospital and some crumbling colonial buildings.
Bereft of hotels, resorts or adventure sports, the pristine and stunningly beautiful beaches hold no attraction for foreign tourists, uninterested in the history of the Indian independence struggle.
So, in April, the Andamans administration announced a Rs 52-crore plan to build a hotel and a 50-berth marina for yachts. A marina is a specially designed harbour with moorings for pleasure craft and small boats.
Since then, a furious row has erupted with Andamans MP Bishnu Pada Ray of the BJP writing to the Prime Minister and Lok Sabha Opposition leader Sushma Swaraj, asking the project be scrapped and the buildings preserved as national monuments.
He has found support among many of the retired government and military officials settled in the Andamans and journalists in Port Blair, where the Press Club has organised a sit-in against the project.
Ask the critics how the arrival of foreign tourists can harm an island or its monuments, and it becomes clear that the issue is one of nationalistic sentiment.
“The tourism project is a disgrace to the freedom movement and the sacrifice of our freedom fighters,” said Ray, the MP.
“We know what marina resorts do to islands. Foreign cruises loaded with foreign tourists will anchor there for the night. They will enjoy the sea and indulge in merry-making as in Thailand’s Jomtien or Pattaya,” said D.K. Mandal, a Port Blair journalist.
Part of the island’s nationalistic lore is a visit by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on December 31, 1943, after the Andamans fell to the Japanese. It’s here that Sher Ali, the Pathan who assassinated Viceroy Lord Mayo on February 8, 1872, was hanged.
The Andamans administration has issued a statement saying the project, conceived by the Planning Commission in 2006 to revive tourism “after the unfortunate tsunami” of 2004, will not insult the memory of the martyrs or damage the island’s history.
It detailed how a feasibility study was carried out and the project received successive clearances from the Andaman and Nicobar Joint Defence Command, the tourism ministry’s expenditure finance committee (February 2010) and eventually the ministry’s standing finance committee, headed by the Union tourism secretary (January 2012).
But the protesters are far from placated. The temperature heated up further when local media reports said the hotel-and-marina contract had been given to a Malaysian firm. The administration’s elaborate statement, issued by Andamans tourism director Amit Satija, clarified the point.
“The contract was not given to a foreign company but a consortium of Indian company Reacon Engineering (I) Pvt Ltd and Malaysian company Pembinaan Megah Mutiara Sdn,” his statement said. It added that the project would take up just two hectares and generate local employment.
“We wouldn’t have minded if the project was set up at any other place,” said retired army major Satish Pillai, 70, who settled in Port Blair a decade ago.
“The yacht marina will ruin the silence and sanctity of the gallows.”
The island apparently derives its name from the vessel Viper, in which Lieutenant Archibald Blair of the British army arrived in 1789. An alternative theory is that it was named after its large population of vipers.