Island Kings turned to Beggars

By: Sulagna Chattopadhyay
Life Tribes

Death is certain—slow or otherwise. Here are the Jarawa, ebony lords of the island realm of Andaman, losing one thing after the other—their land, their forests, their waters, their kinsmen and now even their little left dignity. Reduced to beggary, the naive tribes people are a willing bait for the ‘developed’ society. The argument that I raise here is why does India needs to follow a much loopholed protectionist policy towards the Jarawa? It is imperative to mainstream them if we really want to ‘save’ the people, not as a common Indian—but as the alpha, the topmost ruling class of Andaman.

The history:Before the 19th century, the Jarawa homelands were located in the southeast part of South Andaman Island and nearby islets. With the establishment of the initial British settlement, these are suspected to have been largely depopulated by disease shortly after 1789. The Great Andamanese Peoples were similarly decimated by disease, alcoholism and alleged British government-sponsored destruction, leaving open the western areas which the Jarawa gradually made their new homeland ( Though their ancestors are said to have been part of the very first human migration out of Africa, the Jarawa made contact with ‘outsiders’ for the first time only in 1998. Why the Jarawa voluntarily broke their circle of isolation and sought peaceful interactions with the settler communities remains a puzzle—but it certainly gave the impression that there was not enough food in the forests. Nonetheless, the feared and mysterious Jarawa suddenly became a subject of intense curiosity with tourists travelling to the margins of the Jarawa land to catch a glimpse of the ‘animal’. Gradually an industry was created, for an attraction that was vile in its very essence.

The ATR: The Andaman Trunk Road, (built during 1970-1989) that takes the tourists directly through the Jarawa Reserve is today a contentious issue, with the Supreme Court in May 2002 directing to completely shut it down. Movement was then restricted to eight convoys a day—but no action was taken to shut it down as arguments about affecting the economy of the local people overrode the ‘need’ of the Jarawa. In a report submitted to the Calcutta High Court in 2004 RK Bhattacharchaya, former director of the Anthropological Survey of India, observed “The ATR is like a public thoroughfare through a private courtyard… In the whole of human history, we find that the dominant group for their own advantage has always won over the minorities, not always paying attention to the issue of ethics. Closure of the ATR would perhaps be the first gesture of goodwill on the part of the dominant towards an acutely marginalised group almost on the verge of extinction” (‘Because Andaman’s forests are Jarawa infested’, published in The Hindu, January 19, 2012). In 2006 the Jarawa suffered an outbreak of measles—seen as the result or the negative impact of the increasing contact of the outsiders. James Woodburn of the Department of Anthropology in the London School of Economics and Political Science points out that “when a previously isolated community with low population density (like the Jarawa) comes into contact with one of high density (like the settlers), they are particularly vulnerable to diseases like measles against which they have not acquired any immunity in childhood.” Also, the legal mechanisms to protect the Jarawa are all in place—poaching and entry into the Jarawa reserve is illegal. In fact the local administration’s own policy states that the Jarawa must be allowed to live ‘according to their own genius’. However, despite such provisions to secure the Reserve poaching for wood and animals is rampant. The Observer in January, 2013, revealed a shocking video in which the Jarawa women and children were treated like ‘circus ponies’ as described by Stephen Corry, Survival International’s director. In fact the outrage that was brought on by the recordings by the British journalist Gethin Chamberlain in his article, “Safaris threaten Jarawa tribe’s fragile existence” published in The National, January 8, 2012, confirming the notorious human safari—which is nothing but a violation of human rights. In January 2013, the Supreme Court took one step further by formally banning all tourists from using the highway without exception. But then, soon after the recent ruling, the regional government announced a watered down version of a ‘Buffer Zone’ that would allow access to the limestone caves and mud volcano. Clearly this ongoing legal and moral battle showcases how the Andaman administration enjoys their fiefdom—all subjects towing the line with police and forest officials offering the most depraved of entertainment to pleasure visitors.

The debate of inclusion: Now, to address the perennial debate about whether such tribes should be aggressively encouraged to join the mainstream or be allowed to live by themselves with minimal contact with the outside world. As per a report, ‘Leave the Jarawas alone: Survival’, published in The Hindu Business Line in January 15, 2013, calling for the inclusion of Jarawas into the mainstream the Tribal Affairs Minister, Mr. V. Kishore Chandra Deo observed, “As far as my personal view is concerned, it would be totally unfair to leave them (Jarawa) in a beastly condition forever…”.

From the beginnings of interaction the Indian government failed to take the Jarawa into confidence in decisions directly related to them. For example, the tribal reserve—a 1,021 km2 reserve in the Baratang region of South Andaman, was created without any consultation with the Jarawa, who remained ignorant about their specific territory. Ironically, even in the present context when the idea of integrating the Jarawa is gaining shape, policy makers have failed to acknowledge that the right to decide rests with the Jarawa. Social activists suggest that the Jarawa should be the final arbiters of their fate. However, it calls for a great deal of sensitivity and careful treading. The Economic and Political Weekly editorial titled ‘Human Safari’ in the Andaman Will the near-extinct Jarawa tribe survive the greed and insensitivity of the “mainstream?”, published in February, 2012, rightly observes that before any decisions are taken, the local administration and the centre must show that they are capable of creating an environment for the Jarawa that will make it easy for them to participate in processes where they can decide their own future. Treating them like an ‘exotic’ tourism attraction is hardly the way to do so. In the millions of years in isolation the Jarawa as well as the other tribes in the region, have developed a unique culture of sustainability—but interaction with the ‘outside’ is an imperative now. The building and maintenance of the ATR, the settler communities in the buffer zones, the escorted convoys, poachers—all point towards dialogue, which is bound to escalate, as unconfirmed reports of non-tribal children being born amongst the Jarawa creep in. In another example, En-mai, who was found in July 1998 with a broken leg and treated back to good health in a hospital in Kadamtala, returned with his sick wife Jalla in December 1999—showing an enduring example of love and faith among humankind. What astounds me, is that unlike the Sentinelese, who still shun contact with the ‘outside’—and fiercely so, the Jarawa have laid down their arms and have reached out in more ways than one—pointing towards their plight, but we remain oblivious to it, choosing instead to ‘debate’ their fate.

The Jarawa till date do not receive any formal education and many are of the view that so vast is their traditional knowledge system that formal education, as we know it would be unnecessary. Also, social scientists argue, if education as we know it is provided, what would we make out of them—janitors perhaps? The Santhals in India, the Maoris of New Zealand or the Aborigines in Australia were first granted formal education, before they rose to assume offices at the highest levels of policy making. Why can’t a similar path be forged for our island kings? The Jarawa population even by official estimates hovers between 300 and 400 and is said to be consistently dropping. At best isolation will prolong the misery of these people, to die a slow and painful death, absolving the Indian government and its gamut of ‘advisors’, the guilt of genocide. But genocide it is—and no, isolation is not the answer, giving back the tribes their land and restoring their respect as kings of Andaman—that is the answer.

The tree dwelling Jarawa today inhabits thatched hutments, a learning that they have acquired from the ‘outsiders’; they accept the fruit and meat kept at the margins of their forest land by the administration; and, in some instances also wear clothes to perhaps look like the rest of us. They are humans, it is time we stopped hoping to ‘see’ one as the convoy moves, peering at them from behind the tinted glasses of AC cars, being warned over and over again by the driver not to lower the window pane or attempt talk with them—it is sad. These are fellow countrymen, beautiful brothers of but one mother, our India.

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