Genesis of the Conundrum

The entire Kamorta Island, except the port area, has been recognised as a tribal reserve by the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR 1956). The Nicobarese tuhets (extended families) have traditional ownership of the land which is governed by their customs and norms. Despite having no written documents the indigenes never had any dispute over the ownership of the land. After the annexation to India the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were declared a union territory in 1956. To control and secure the remote islands the government requested the Nicobarese leadership to donate some land to set up the administrative apparatus. The queen of the Central Nicobar, Rani Lachmi, was reluctant to part with a piece from the limited common land. However, after being assured of infrastructural development in the remote islands she agreed to donate some land upon consultation with the village chiefs. It was thus that the INS Kardip (33 acres) in Kamorta was established and commissioned in 1973. 

It was only post the tsunami that the Nicobarese and the defence authorities had a serious disagreement over the ownership of 317 acres of land in Kamorta. Traditionally, the Nicobarese of the nearby villages had plantations on this land. Post tsunami, the government constructed temporary shelters for them on the same land and also planned construction of permanent shelters. However, the construction was prevented by the objection raised by the INS Kardip which claimed ownership of the land. It argued that an area of 109 acres at Kamorta was allotted to the Army vide Revenue Case No 3/1978, and 208 acres to the Navy vide Revenue Case No 15/1978 of the assistant commissioner (AC), Nancowrie which was approved by the deputy commissioner (DC), Nicobar. The land was handed over to the representatives of the Army and INS Kardip in 1978 and 1979, respectively by the AC, Nancowrie. Later in 1993, the Government of India/Ministry of Defence transferred 20 acres of land from the Navy’s allotment (208 acres) to the Coast Guard for setting up a Coast Guard Station in Kamorta. 

The possession of the land (317 acres) was handed over only on paper and without proper land demarcation or payment of monetary compensation to the affected tuhets. For decades no infrastructure was developed by the defence forces on the land. It was only in January 2009 that the survey team started on the demarcation of the land. The Nicobarese remonstrated with the Navy that the land had always belonged to their community especially the inhabitants of Sanuh, Banderkhari and Changhua villages who had plantations on the land since time immemorial. The tribal councils of the Central Nicobar also reasoned that the allocation of land to the defence authorities by the AC and the DC was null and void as it contravened Section 6(1) of ANPATR, 1956. However, the Navy argued that the land was donated by the late queen who had signed the no objection certificate (NOC) on 25 September 1978 followed by an allotment order issued by the DC on 15 November 1978. The Nicobarese, on the other hand, argued that the queen took all decisions in consultation with the village captains. The NOC did not bear witnesses from the community or her councillors and the village captains had not heard anything concerning the donation of 317 acres of land to the defence authorities.

The tribal leaders took up the matter with the island administration at Port Blair. In February 2009, a delegation from the community also went to New Delhi and met the defence minister, the minister of tribal affairs and the chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes. The tribal leaders were reassured that no injustice would be done to them and positive action would soon be initiated to address the issue.  In its communication with Outlook magazine concerning the Kamorta land dispute, the Ministry of Defence said, “The defence minister has ordered that the issues raised by the delegation be examined expeditiously, because of the nature of allegations made against the Navy, so that the factual position can be ascertained.”  However, despite numerous discussions and negotiations in Port Blair and New Delhi, the land dispute could not be resolved and has reached an impasse. The arguments put forth by the Navy and the Nicobarese while substantiating their claims on the disputed land have merit on both sides. The only person whose version would have been decisive was Rani Lachmi who passed away in 1989.


The disputed land at Kamorta has always been the ancestral property of various Nicobarese tuhets who lived in socioecological harmony and supported the local civil and defence administration. The community lost almost everything during the tsunami in 2004. On top of this loss of family members, plantations, livestock, settlements and material equipments, large tracks of cultivable land were permanently inundated. Land is the most precious possession of the community which is not merely a livelihood imperative but also holds immense spiritual value. The disputed land at Kamorta is the joint property of 400 Nicobarese families spread across 15 villages. Their livelihood is dependent on this land and the sea surrounding it. Due to their sociocultural milieu, the Nicobarese have almost negligible opportunities for alternative livelihoods. If this land is taken from them, a large number of them would become landless and even starve. 

The two Nicobarese villages of Changhua and Banderkhari will be severely hit as the accessibility of the Nicobarese to these villages will be obstructed once the defence land is fenced in. The coastal area and the sea surrounding the disputed land is an important catchment area for the Nicobarese where they can safely navigate in their hodies. With the development of defence infrastructure in the area, their inland and coastal mobility will be severely curtailed and that will adversely affect their livelihood and well-being. The land dispute has already strained the cordial relations between the government apparatus and the local population. The dispossession will cause irreparable damage to the mutual trust and the harmonious relations that the government has developed with the local people over a long period of time. The lack of cooperation from the Nicobarese will derail the governmental modernisation drives in these isolated territories. Such a rigid stance could also jeopardise the defence manoeuvres in these isolated, yet strategic spaces.


There is no denying the fact that the islands are strategic and defence establishments are necessary for maintaining peace and countering any untoward incident or external threats posed to the security of the nation. These islands are a key for the success of India’s Look East Policy enunciated in the 1990s. However, the livelihood, mobility and well-being of 400 Nicobarese families cannot be ignored. It is because of their sensitivity to these concerns and faith in the government that the Nicobarese, who had once adapted themselves to the brutal colonial regime of Japan, have been peacefully expressing their discontent against the Navy. It is also worth contemplating whether the de facto regime of Rani Lachmi had the authority to donate a large track of land without consulting the tuhets to whom it actually belonged. The Nicobarese say that they are not in a position to part with their land as it is the only resource they have. It is for the reasons mentioned above that the Nicobarese rightly compare the Kamorta land dispute with the tsunami of 2004, and call it “the second tsunami.” It was painful and at the same time intriguing for me to read the large number of letters that the Nicobarese had written to the authorities requesting them to settle the land dispute. These letters, which the Nicobarese call, “the Letters of Sufferings” peculiarly end with four words, “In Protest,” and beneath it, are followed by two more words, “Respectfully Yours.” While concluding this discussion, I could not help thinking of an excerpt from a letter (dated 10 February 2009) of the Nancowry Tribal Council which is addressed to the Lieutenant Governor of the Islands:

…The Tribal Council recognises and appreciates the role played by the defence services including the Navy during tsunami. The Council admits that National security must take priority. But in a country of 110 crores, should the burden of National security be placed on 400 tribal families alone?...

In Protest

Respectfully Yours

Therefore, the Kamorta land dispute demands extreme caution and a visionary approach from those who are in a position to settle it. It needs a solution which meets the realistic land needs of the defence forces and also does not undermine the well-being of the local population. Such a solution would not only settle the dispute permanently but also restore the harmony and mutual trust between the defence forces and the Nicobarese. 

Author: Ajay Saini (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) is a Doctoral Research Fellow and Teaching Associate (Research and Development) at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This article is a modified version of a discussion note first published by Economic and Political Weekly on 21 February 2015. This article has been republished in the Andaman Chronicles on the demand of the Nicobarese community.