The trauma of watching one’s home turning into military base

by Dr Vaidehi Nathan


Island of Shame, David Vine, Princeton University Press, Pp 259, Price not mention (HB)

THE story is spine chilling. Only it is not fiction but the true account of the inhabitants of an island which became US military base almost overnight. ‘Island of Shame’ by David Vine is an account that leaves one wondering if there is anything called ethics and humanity in a world dominated by weapons and military expansionism. Another disturbing aspect is the mention of India as among the US military bases around the globe.

The island is Diego Garcia, a tiny spot in the Indian Ocean, then inhabited by around 2000 Chagossians. The term Chagossian refers to the people of the Chagos Archipelago, a group of 64 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, half way between Africa and Indonesia. To make it their strategic military base, the US military set up lied its way through the Senate and the Congress. The United Kingdom acted the facilitator by "acquiring" the island for the US, to overcome its own defence fund shortages.

According to Vine, the Chagos belonged to Mauritius, which was a British colony at that time (June 1965). When Diego Garcia became the ‘chosen spot’ the British government made a take-it-or-doom offer to the representatives of the Mauritius freedom struggle. "Accept the detachment of Chagos from Mauritius and £ 3 million, or no independence. Ramagoolam chose independence and the money." He went on to become the first Prime Minister of Mauritius. Much like the partition on no freedom offer to India.

The inhabitants of the island were removed like dead fish from the aquarium and thrown out without any compensation and care. When the base employed labour, it was ensured that no native got a job, however menial, as they did not want any trouble and claims. The entire military top brass of the US and the president were aware of the fact and conscious of what they were doing. It was the people and the Senate and Congress which were kept in the dark. The latter were told that the island was generally unpopulated and only a few, less than hundred hired labourers were there. The population of nearly 2000 people were loaded into overloaded cargo ships and ‘dropped’ in Mauritius and Seychelles. The Chagossians faced social discrimination here. Their children were teased in schools, isolated were the adults were not employed if it was revealed that they were from Chagos.

The US media that boasts of its freedom abided by the government instruction not to reveal the story. The author gives the instance of Washington Post and Economist which first deferred the story and then months later watered it down so much that no one took notice.

"Today, the United States has what is likely the largest collection of military bases in the world history, totaling more than 5,300 globally and an estimated 1,000 bases outside its own territory of the 50 states and Washington DC. Slowly, awareness has been growing about this massive deployment of US forces on the sovereign territory of other nations" says Vine. The book gives the map of the location of the bases and India figures in them. The book goes on to describe how these military bases and the strength are used by the US to force political decisions on the host countries.

A very well documented book that makes a disturbing reading. It scares one to think of what military might could do to human dignity. The book gives extensive notes and references. A must read book.

(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton,New Jersey -08540)

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