India’s obsession with “mainstreaming” tribes has never gone this far.
As the country nears the end of its staggered elections lasting over a month, candidates of both parties have kicked up a row in the Andaman Islands, a district of India in the southeastern Bay of Bengal, on the issue of primitive tribes – including the Jarawa, who number just a few hundred.
The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate has promised to “mainstream” these tribes – in other words, to force them to integrate into mainstream society. Meanwhile the ruling Congress party candidate has promised to do away with a buffer zone that protects tribes from intrusion by settlers from mainland India.
“I will work to bring the Jarawas into the national mainstream if I am elected again,” Bishnupada Ray, Andaman’s lone legislator in parliament, told rallies during the poll campaign.
From poaching animals to illegal logging, from sexually exploiting the local tribes to getting them addicted to alcohol, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are facing a crisis that few on the Indian mainland are noticing.
This has met with severe criticism from campaigners who seek to protect the indigenous tribes on the island – believed to be the first humans to inhabit South Asia.
Though Ray, a Bengali refugee who settled on the island, did not quite elaborate, his supporters say the legislator plans to modernise the Jarawas by giving them education and teaching them agriculture to wean them away from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The population of Jarawas has been dwindling and today, they number just a few hundred. Exposure to communities from the Indian mainland has led to diseases like measles which caused many deaths.
Environmentalists and anthropologists working on indigenous groups have long opposed any attempt to mainstream these tribes, recommending such communities have minimum contact with outsiders.
“Mainstreaming Jarawas is a preposterous idea. It will destroy them completely,” Madhusree Mukherjee, author of The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders, told Al Jazeera.
“From poaching animals to illegal logging, from sexually exploiting the local tribes to getting them addicted to alcohol, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are facing a crisis that few on the Indian mainland are noticing,” Mukherjee said.
Removing the buffer zone
When local journalist Denis Giles tried to expose a racket involving settlers from the mainland soliciting Jarawa girls for sex by offering them drugs, he was harassed and intimidated with threats of legal action by the local administration.
Policemen and soldiers on the island have been accused of shooting videos of naked Jarawa men and women and circulating them via mobile phones.
Tourists regularly go on ‘human safaris’ [Survival International]
“The administration has moved against some of them, but let them off when the controversy subsided,” Giles said.
Recently Indian President Pranab Mukherjee opposed efforts to assimilate tribes such as the Jarawas, arguing that it could destroy them completely.
But that has little effect on the local politicians campaigning for the lone parliament seat in the island that is now headquarters of India’s first integrated services military command.
Both BJP’s Ray and Congress member Kuldeep Rai Sharma, contesting the island’s single seat, have promised they would remove the protective buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve and build bridges on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that passes through the reserve.
Environmentalists have long tried to push the local administration to close down the ATR because it passed through the Jarawa reserve and was used by tour operators to organise “human safaris”.
“Our tour operator took us around the good spots on the islands and then drove us into the Jarawa reserve so that we could catch a glimpse of the ancient tribe,” said Kolkata tourist Shelley Bhowmick, who just spent a week in the Andamans with her family.
Open human zoo
It is an open secret in the Andamans that most tourists are offered a tour of the Jarawa reserve – pitched as a rare experience of witnessing primitive naked tribes people, almost like visiting an open human zoo.
“These safaris are destroying the Jarawas. They eat the food the tourists give away and that leads to diseases,” said Samir Acharya, convener of the Society for Andaman-Nicobar Ecology (SANE).
Acharya has been at the forefront of legal battles to close down the ATR to protect the Jarawas – but with little success.
“The local administration keeps the road open flouting court orders, so what can we do?” Acharya told Al Jazeera.
Local journalist Giles worries that more settlers from the mainland will push into the Jarawa reserve, trying to exploit their women for sex and forests for resources.
The London-based Survival International, an organisation that campaigns for tribal people’s rights, echoed such sentiments.
“These pledges by the politicians are regressive and would put back the Jarawa’s rights by decades,” said the organisation’s director, Stephen Corry.
“The Jarawas already face degrading intrusions into their forest home by hundreds of tourists travelling along the Andaman Trunk Road each day intent on spotting members of the tribe,” Corry told Al Jazeera.
Currently, no commercial or tourist companies are allowed within a buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve.
But what worries Corry most is Ray’s election pledge to mainstream the Jarawas.
This whole business of mainstreaming is obnoxious. It pre-supposes one major strand of Indian civilisation and expects all the rest to fall in line.
“Bishnupada Ray’s scandalous proposals show utter contempt for the Jarawas’ survival – attempts to force the tribe to integrate will destroy them. The very notion of mainstreaming is rooted in a colonialist attitude and the outmoded conviction that governments know best. In fact, this approach is always disastrous,” Corry said.
He said the policy of mainstreaming other tribes on the island, pursued by both the British colonial rulers and those in post-colonial India, have led to disastrous consequences.
The Great Andamanese tribe has been reduced to just 53, whittled down by disease and alcohol.
Other tribes such as the Onges also suffer from dwindling numbers, now down to a few hundred. Only some, such as the Great Sentinelese who fiercely oppose human contact and fire arrows at approaching coastguards, have preserved their numbers.
Neither Ray nor Sharma were available for comment, having gone off for a rest period after polls on the islands closed on April 10.
But India’s efforts to mainstream tribes in the country’s northeast have already led to much unrest and violence.
“This whole business of mainstreaming is obnoxious. It pre-supposes one major strand of Indian civilisation and expects all the rest to fall in line,” says sociologist Uddipana Goswami, who has worked on ethnic conflicts in the country’s northeast.
India does not have to fear unrest in the Andamans, because the primitive tribes neither have the numbers nor the wherewithal to resist mainstreaming.
But, as SANE’s Samir Acharya says: “If we destroy the Jarawas by our lack of sensitivity, India will have to answer to its conscience,” says SANE’s Acharya.