Leave Us Alone

By: Anvita Abbi

Far away from mainland India, the Andaman Islands, a cluster of 250 islands in the Bay of Bengal, are home to one of the oldest and earliest human settlements on the earth. According to geneticists, the Andamanese are remnants of the first migration that took place out of Africa around 70,000 years before present —surviving several tsunamis, earthquakes, holocausts and invasions. These tribes are the world’s most significant environmental protectors and their languages are storehouses of ecological information. But over the last 200 years, human intervention has endangered their very existence.

As of today, the Andamanese population consists of four ancient tribes belonging to two distinct genealogical branches, the Great Andamanese and the Angan. Originally, the former comprised of ten different tribes, each speaking a distinct language. But most of the languages and their speakers became extinct in the 1930s. The present Great Andamanese community is constituted of four northern tribes, viz. Sare, Jeru, Khora and Bo, and speaks a mixed language drawing words from all the four languages of the constituent tribes. With the loss of the last speakers of the Khora and Bo recently, the Great Andamanese community, as well as their language is on the edge of oblivion. The Angan family of tribes and their languages are those of Jarawa and Onge. While the Onges, merely 100 in number, live in the Little Andaman, the Jarawa’s home is the Middle Andaman and are the most threatened tribe. The world knows very little of the Sentinelese, who live on Sentinel Island and have succeeded in protecting themselves from outside intervention till now, although attempts to intrude into their forests from the British and the Indian administration have been numerous. The Andamanese tribes are hunters and gatherers; however, the Great Andamanese have been living a sedentary life for the last 50 years and are now completely dependent on subsidies from the Government of India. The indigenous name for the Andaman Islands is marakele, i.e., ‘our islands’. The Great Andamanese call themselves thotarphuch ‘we people’.

The history of the contact of the Andamanese tribes with the Indian administration is marked by hostility and friendship. The Great Andamanese were sceptical of any foreigners approaching the Andaman. Time and again, they engaged in fierce battles with the British, to ward them off their islands. They did not savour success every time, incurring much human loss in the face of modern artillery of the British. When the British established a penal colony on the islands in 1858, they employed a strategy of appeasing the tribes—giving them gifts of coconuts, pigs, iron scraps, red cloth, plantain, yam and fish. Homes for Andamanese were built to settle the Andamanese, but thousands of children died in them. The government recruited the Great Andamanese to help capture run-away convicts and Jarawa, the arch enemies of the Great Andamanese. There are several tales of these escapades relating how the Great Andamanese could only manage to catch Jarawa women with small children or pregnant fishing by the sea as the men were too fast and quick in fleeing away into the forest.

The history of contact with the Andamanese tribes began in the middle of the 19th century. Chronologically, the first tribe to come into contact with the mainlanders were the Great Andamanese, followed by the Onge and finally, the Jarawa. The Jarawa came to be known to the mainlanders recently; the first contact, as is generally believed, was established in 1998. The demographic scale of these Islanders is inversely related to the period of contact with the mainlanders; the longer and deeper the contact, the smaller the population. An estimated population of 3000 to 3500 Great Andamanese in the early part of the nineteenth century was reported to have reduced to 625 by the twentieth (Census 1901) and further reduced to 37 in 2001. The main reasons for such a decline had been a disturbance in the ecological balance resulting from cutting down of their forest, stealing their land and killing their game. A high instance of diseases caused by the contact with non-tribals and a high infant mortality rate hastened the decimation of the population.

As of today, the Great Andamanese live a pathetic life. Most men suffer from impotence and liver problems due to heavy alcoholism. The women of the community are sexually exploited and, not surprisingly, a large number of the Great Andamanese children are fathered by men outside the tribe. A senior officer was heard of approving this state of affairs as the practice was helping to increase the ‘tribal population’. The present Great Andamanese is a confused lot. They can neither adjust to the modern world of hierarchy and corruption, nor can they go back to their old world of hunting and gathering. While the government can applaud the first ‘mixed race’ Great Andamanese boy clearing the 10th Board exam, a majority of the children suffer from an inferiority complex at school because of the unkind behaviour of the local children. They have lost their indigenous language and, with it, the plethora of knowledge about the local flora, fauna, environment, navigation, hunting in the sea and in the jungle, boat building skills and ways of becoming self-sufficient. Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Bo language once commented “our children are lost and useless. They can neither hunt for themselves nor do they speak their language. Instead they sing only Hindi film songs”. The entire knowledge-system that the Great Andamanese community had about their environment, people, history, and worldview is lost with the loss of their jungles and their heritage language.

Each Great Andamanese adult laments the process of making them a part of the ‘mainstream’. Once asked, a male adult reacted vehemently about being brought into the ‘mainstream’, by a counter question “Why should I go to school? Why do you want to educate me? So that I am subservient to you and one day I get a job of a peon and bring vegetables from the market for the ‘babu’? No way. I am happy to be my own lord in the jungle and to roam around naked”. Alas, no jungle or land is left for the Great Andamanese to claim as their own except the tiny Strait Island, 53 nautical miles from the city of Port Blair. The tsunami of 2004 had left the houses (eight in all) half submerged; the water marks and the broken roofs standing witness. Despite the generous aid, the government has failed to rebuild eight one-room cottages for the Andamanese. So much for the welfare of the tribes!

Sophie Grig, the Senior Campaigner with Survival International in her recent statement made it very clear that “The impact of imposing ‘development’ on self- sufficient tribal peoples has had catastrophic results around the world. When tribal peoples have their rights to their lands and way of life denied, their rates of disease, addiction and suicide soar. This awareness must inform the government’s approach to tribes like the Jarawa in the Andaman Islands”.

The most threatened community today is the Jarawa who are destined to meet the same fate as those of the Great Andamanese. There has been an unprecedented increase in pressure on their land and resources. The Andaman Trunk Road or the ATR, which was built in the 1970s, connects South Andaman Island with the northern tip of the Middle Andaman, cutting through the Jarawa reserve, forcing the tribes to the eastern coast of the Island. Instead of developing alternate sea routes, the authority insists on using the ATR.

The ATR has been a source of sexual exploitation, corruption, transmittance of diseases and vices of various kinds. The Supreme Court, duly acknowledged this threat to the survival of the tribes and ordered sections of the Andaman Trunk Road to be closed in 2002. Eleven years later, the road is still open. Human safaris shamefully exhibiting naked Jarawa have been in the international news recently. Moreover, political leaders of the area still opine that the best way to save the Jarawa is to bring them to the mainstream and ‘educate’ them. Save them from what? Educate those who are already educated in their own way and have survived on the Islands for the last 70,000 years? Instead of focusing all administrative efforts toward educating the Jarawa, it is highly desirable that indigenous environmental knowledge from tribal and endangered cultures should make a part of the regular curriculum for school going children all over the country.

From an economic point of view, the Jarawa have already reached the point of equilibrium of demand and supply. Their tropical forest gives them more than they need. Not many city dwellers would ever comprehend that the Jarawa are living in opulence, the way once upon a time their neighbours, the Great Andamanese did. The Jarawa reserve, known as the ‘last tract of the Great Evergreen Rainforest left on the Andaman Islands’ will go dry as the freshwater rivers and rivulets which are abundant with fishes will disappear if the so called ‘mainstreaming programme’ by the government succeeds. The ‘development’ or ‘mainstreaming’ will not only force the tribes to go begging on the ATR but will expose them to alcoholism, contagious diseases, mental depression, suicides, and will force them into an alien environment. They should be given freedom to choose the kind and the amount of contact with outsiders. Let the Jarawa decide for themselves, without any fear, pressure, and seduction whether they want to leave their forest and amalgamate with the locals. It is their land and their forest. Their rights to the land, forest, and its resources should be protected and respected. Who are we to decide what is good for them? Who are we to deprive them of their age-old tested way of life?

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