To Protect Andaman Island’s Jarawa Tribe, We’ll Have To Curb Our Curiosity About Them

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on August 11 2015. We’re republishing it today, March 17 2016, as a man named Tatehane from the Andamans’ Jarawa Tribe is in the news for the alleged murder of a child. According to news reports, the police are torn between pursuing the case and their duty to respect a long-standing government order protecting the tribe from external interference. In light of this conflict, it seems fitting  to learn more about the Jarawas as this case progresses, since very little is known about this remote tribe and their way of life.

Ignorance is bliss, argued Thomas Gray in Ode On A Distant Prospect Of Eton College, a contemptuous statement in the 21st century where curiosity and knowledge are the daily diet. We can’t deny that this innate resistance to ignorance has furthered scientific thought and radically changed modern life more than anyone could have ever imagined, helping us understand our past and future. But, it is this very curiosity that may threaten the existence of one of the world’s oldest tribes.

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are presently home to six tribal groups – the Shompen and Nicobarese in the Nicobar Islands and the Jarawa, Onge, Great Andamanese and Sentinelese in the Andaman Islands. The tribes of Andaman belong to the Negrito ethnicity, significant populations of which are spread across the Pacific Ocean in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Solomon Islands to name a few. They are physically characterised by short stature, dark skin and peppercorn hair, largely resembling the African Pygmies. The residents of these islands formed one of the most isolated parts of the world, with rare friendly outside contact being formed until the British colonisation of the 19th and 20th century. The resulting contact and settlement had devastating consequences on the local tribal population however, which radically altered the island’s identity. 
Contact with the outsiders brought diseases to which the locals had no immunity, leading up to the complete extinction of the Jangil or Rutland Jarawa Tribe. Simultaneously, the rampant use of alcohol and opium in the early days was seen as a means of disrupting and removing the locals of the islands and friction between the British and the tribals, which ultimately saw the tribes being driven out of their traditional homes.


Image Source: Wikipedia

The Great Andamanese, a term used for a large collective of indigenous people whose identity is unknown, now rely on government aid and shelter. Rajesh Patnaik, an anthropologist who has studied the tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told Homegrown that only 29 members of the Great Andamanese now survive. The Onges, another tribe, which suffered massively due to contact with British and Indian settlers, now live on the Little Andaman Island with a population of 94-95 according to Patnaik, a sharp decline from 670 in 1900. The Sentinelese and Jarawa have been able to maintain their independence, with the former viciously isolating themselves from the mainland. While extensive protection has been provided for the Island’s largest population group, the Jarawas now face the possibility of extinction due to circumstances which appear to be completely man-made.

An estimated 400 Jarawas reside in the Andaman Islands in groups of 40-50 in homes that they call chaddhas. They hunt pigs, turtles and fish as well as gather fruits, wild roots, tubers and honey as part of their traditional dietary requirements. They are even said to have detailed knowledge of more than 150 plant and 350 animal species too. “The Jarawa of the Andaman Islands enjoy a time of opulence. Their forests give them more than they need,” says Anvita Abbi, a professor of linguistics at the Jawaharlal National University.

Image Credit: © Survival International

Image Credit: © Survival International

The Jarawas used to reside at Port Blair and the adjoining regions before the arrival of the ‘outsiders’. The growth of the British and Indian settlement saw them retreat to the forest with the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation Act, 1956, shielding them from any human contact. The once-friendly Jarawas now preferred living in hostile isolation, with the Island Police or the ‘Push Police’ protecting what came to be known as the Jarawa Reserve. The isolation ended in the early 1970s when Bakhtawar Singh, a police officer, was able to establish friendly contact with the Jarawas. He would leave gifts for the Jarawas, which lead to 11 of them making contact with him and agreeing to accompany him to a ship. The contact was hailed as a major breakthrough in Jarawa-mainstream relations, with Singh considering Jarawas to be his friends. But in one of the last recorded statements before his death in 2005, Singh rued the poor tribal policy of the government, saying it lacked ”dedicated people with a spirit of service.” something which can be attributed to the Andaman Trunk Road.

Highway to hell? 

© Ariberto De Blasoni/Survival International

Image Credit : © Ariberto De Blasoni/Survival International

The Andaman Trunk Road, or National Highway 223 is a 360 km road, running south to north covering multiple towns and villages. The road has been mired in a string of legal controversies as it passes through the Jarawa Reserve with activists and anthropologists calling for its closure. While the Jarawas started making friendly contact in 1998 without bows and arrows, visiting nearby towns and villages, a restriction in contact with them has continued due to their low immunity and fear of their exploitation, besides the legal protection provided by the 1956 Act.

Fear of mainstreaming and exploitation

Image Source: Climate Message

Image Source: Climate Message

Survival International, a global tribal rights advocacy group, has been fighting for the rights of Jarawas for self-determination and protection by lobbying for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road since 1993. Survival International has alleged that there is a viewpoint in Andaman civil society of ‘mainstreaming’ the Jarawas, a policy first placed in 1990. The swelling Indian settlers from the mainland, including ex-servicemen, present a strong functional use of the Andaman Trunk Road. A major victory for Survivor International and other lobbying organisations came in 2002 when the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the road in order to protect the Jarawas. But 13 years after the original judgment, the road continues being operational.

If these could be dismissed simply as skirmishes or tourist problems, which were plaguing Andaman Tourism, the recent revelations make it hard for any Indian to turn a blind eye. A Guardian investigation in 2012 found rampant impropriety and corruption in local police force as well as the ‘human safaris’ in which Jarawa women were being ordered to dance by a policeman as voyeuristic cameras recorded them.

Imaage Credit: © Survival International

Image Credit: © Survival International

“This kind of video is the trophy tourists dream of when they set off into the jungles of the Andaman Islands on safari. The beauty of the forest functions merely as a backdrop. The goal of the trip is to seek out the Jarawa, a reclusive tribe only recently contacted, which is taking the first tentative steps towards a relationship with the outside world’ the article states, a fact sadly corroborated by scores of distasteful videos put up on YouTube and the internet on Jarawa and other elusive tribes. Signs at the entrance warn them of the rules; no pictures, no contact, nothing to disturb the tribe members. Tourists threw bananas and biscuits to the tribespeople at the roadside, as they would to animals in a safari park.”

The journalist also came across an exploitation nexus where contact with Jarawas was being promised for money. The article continues, ‘Rajesh Vyas stood behind the counter. He was happy to lay out the price of a day out with the Jarawa: up to 15,000 rupees (£185) to buy off the police, another 10,000-15,000 rupees on top of that for a car, a driver, gifts for the Jarawa, and biscuits and snacks. Contact is guaranteed, he promised.’

In fact, the first public interview with Jarawas since they first started making contact in 1998, was by a young man from the tribe who came to complain about the encroachment and abuse meted out to the tribe.“The girls say the outside boys press them lots. They press them using hands and nails, when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol. They f**k the girls. They drink alcohol in the house of girls. They also sleep in the Jarawas house. They chase the girls after smoking marijuana,” the tribal told Andaman Chronicle as he complained against the abusers and the other Andaman residents who he alleged had introduced bad habits of alcohol and marijuana in the tribe.

If the combating of diseases, vices and exploitation wasn’t enough, the Jarawa are also sought after for their unique ethnicity itself. While their DNA has been tested based on old hair samples and corpses, Mr Patnaik believes that various attempts are being made to procure their DNA by big pharmaceuticals and projects such as the Human Genome Project. “How can you extract DNA from someone who doesn’t understand that they are giving his/her DNA? It’s unethical,” argued Mr Patnaik, as he protested any forceful attempts to procure DNA from the tribe. He fears that in secret, many such instances of foreigners entering and procuring Jarawa DNA might have occurred, in violation of many rules and regulations such as the procurement of a court order seeking permission for the DNA. The Foreigners Restricted Area Order of 1968 also requires obtaining a special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs for a visit to any area farther than Port Blair.

Ignorance is survival

French filmmakers Alexandre Dereims and Claire Beilvert have been booked by the Andaman Police for illegally entering the Jarawa Reserve to film a documentary. The filmmakers are said to have procured the support of the tribals for shooting them by offering them rice, cooking oil and biscuits and bribed two people from a nearby community to get them into the reserve by boat. In a Facebook post, the filmmakers who returned to their homeland, have defended their actions by saying that their film, ” ‘Organic Jarawa,’ will show people their reality, beauty, smartness, kindness, happiness to be free and happy in spite of poachers, despite police and tourists.” Will it really? Did the filmmakers forget the risks they were exposing the tribe to? Or even the unethical approach of giving them treats, akin to how one might coax a pet animal?

Image Credit: © Survival International

Image Credit: © Survival International

“If you think they are human beings, and we think that they are human beings, their consent is equally necessary for them to interact with us,” believes Rajesh Patnaik as he vehemently opposes any contact with the Jarawas unless the community makes the first effort themselves. This would require an environment where our greed and curiosity learns from the island’s past, and seeks to provide protection to this vulnerable populace.

An ongoing campaign has amassed support from over 12,300 people from around the world, who have vowed to boycott Andaman Tourism until the treatment of Jarawas is improved. An alternative sea route to the Trunk Road has missed its deadline with no concrete plan of action being placed, as outside contact threatens Jarawas, akin to the manner meted out to the Great Andamanese and Onge.

Perhaps it’s time for the Indian government, bureaucracy, civil society, and foreign tourists to learn from the island’s past and accept that sometimes, ignorance truly is blissful for humanity’s continued survival.

Words: Devang Pathak 

All The Images of The Jarawa Have Been Sourced From Survival International With Their Explicit Permission


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