Power to the Native

The Jarawas in the Andamans need to be protected as well as empowered to choose their own modernity. A new, more imaginative policy framework might help.

 By Zubair Ahmed


There are two thousands square miles of country teeming with food for the Jarawas and unoccupied by any human being. Why must they keep coming over to our hundred square mile settlements and keep killing our wretched convicts?

Lt. Col. Michael Lloyd Ferrar
Chief Commissioner (1921-33) 
Andaman Islands, writing in March 1926

The advent of the British colonialists in 1858 to set up a penal settlement in Andaman Islands posed a challenge to the tribals inhabiting the islands. The Jarawas resisted attempts to colonise their land and lives. Even after Independence, Jarawas were seen as a threat to settlers. To keep the tribe at bay, bush police forces were engaged until the Jarawas themselves realised their vulnerability and shed hostilities, and came out of the forests in 1998. The hand of friendship they extended towards the outside world has proved to be disastrous for the tribe, who lived in the forest for the last 50,000 years or more and now number around 400.

A policy of “isolation with minimal intervention” was brought into force in 2004, an important contemporary watershed. With the passage of time, and an ineffective implementation of the policy, the Jarawas remain caught between two worlds — and secure in neither.

While the murder of a Jarawa child by a fellow tribesman in Tirur and the associated legal conundrum is making headlines worldwide, one pertinent question not being dealt with is the ongoing sexual exploitation of the Jarawa women by outsiders. It obscures the fact that first, a crime has been committed by someone who breached the reserve and sexually exploited a Jarawa woman.

In all these years, the state has failed in securing the reserve against poachers, who exploit the tribe as well as prey on forest resources. More unfortunate has been the inability to sensitise the settlers living along the fringes of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve and even the islanders about the rich “human heritage” and the particular vulnerabilities of the Jarawa community. This has been an opportunity missed to rope in the large settler population of the islands as the protectors or at least well-wishers of the tribe.

In contrast, the level of illicit contact has increased manifold in all three sectors —  Middle Strait and Kadamtala in Middle Andaman and Tirur in South Andaman, where several cases of sexual exploitation of women have been reported. With poachers becoming the contact points for the Jarawas, alcohol and drugs have made inroads into the reserve. Several poachers have been charged with luring the Jarawas with alcohol and food to part with forest produce.

The changed realities and the bad press the Andaman and Nicobar administration got from across the world, particularly after a video of Jarawas dancing for tourists in lieu of food surfaced in 2012, did force a re-look into the policy. A committee of experts set up in 2011 went on to make the rules, regulations and laws governing the tribal reserve more stringent to ward off “undesirable” elements. An overenthusiastic administration tied itself up in knots in creating an unrealistic 5-km buffer zone for the tribal reserve. It turned the settlers firmly against the administration and also the Jarawa community.

The appointment of anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya as the director of the Port Blair-based Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI) in 2013 was a significant one. Pandya not only convinced the reluctant and over-cautious administration of the islands to look beyond the existing policy framework, but he also played an important role in bringing drastic changes in the tribal welfare agency, the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), and in empowering and re-orienting the grassroots workers who deal with the Jarawas on a daily basis.

Earlier, the trained social workers of AAJVS, fairly competent in special tribal languages, were only meant to do the bidding of bureaucrats. Under Pandya, they went back to listening to the Jarawas and implementing policies with their informed consent. For instance, though the Jarawas preferred to be in their “traditional attire, when they are assisted by the AAJVS to move from one place to other by jeep or boat, they are keen to cover their body. It is, perhaps, a way of resisting the tourist experience and expectation of the Jarawa as a “naked exotic” people.

An educational project, ang-katha, was also implemented inside the tribal reserve for Jarawa children, primarily aiming to prepare them for a bi-cultural future, where a Jarawa child could operate in the “mainstream” but also be able to retain her own identity with pride and dignity.

Two additional points also need to be made here. The first is about the Indian media, which in the case of the islands and the Jarawas, always seems to be taking a cue from what the foreign media publishes. It needs to play a far more pro-active role, including that of a watchdog. The second is the lacuna in the local education system where there is little, if anything, about the local geography and history of the indigenous people. When what is proximate is made so alien from the very beginning, a long-term and meaningful resolution is not going to be easy to come by.

Looking at the current incident in a larger context will also help to identify that which is more important and relevant. We have miserably failed in dealing with the honour killings by khap panchayats of Haryana and the Dalit killings in Tamil Nadu despite a whole gambit of laws and constitutional protection. So, instead of discussing the honour killing by a Jarawa, a tribe that occupies a very special position due to its geographical, historical, cultural and social condition, the focus should be on a policy framework, where the Jarawas are protected from the evils of “civilization” and be allowed the time and space to decide their own future.

The writer is a Port Blair-based journalist and researcher.