Andaman and Nicobar Islands #2

Above the law, below the law: the trials of the tribals

This is the second post in an occasional series about the future of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which sit at the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal facing Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. The open sea to the south gives these strategically important islands access to the Indian Ocean (next stop Australia) and onto the vastness of China’s wished-for sphere of influence in South Asia. It’s a perfect spot for an armed check-point and border control for all traffic travelling westward out of the Malacca Straits and a platform for defence that can vastly magnify India’s military footprint in the region.

India has scandalously neglected these utterly beautiful islands, already home to a tri-services base (the old ‘Project Yatrik’) and an under populated, underdeveloped local economy. In truth the Andamans are key to India’s future as an influential regional political power, not to mention an economic one (see Indian Ocean and India’s Security, Raj Narain Misra, 1986). If Goa is India’s California then the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are its Hawaii – it has the navy, not just the beaches, and the beaches are superior to those in Thailand, across the water.

If the Andamans are developed in a technological and ecologically-sensitive manner into a new Hong Kong – a beach resort, commercial deep water port, naval and military complex, modern city and financial hub, nature wonderland, duty-free zone and entre-pôt – it would be a vast multiplier in soft power, financial and economic heft and military-strategic influence for India. It would dwarf Dubai in significance. At the very least, the vital need to defend the islands should be uppermost in the minds of Delhi’s mandarins and politicians as China amplifies its ambition and bellicosity in the South China Sea.

My bet is that in 20 years the Andamans will indeed be the new Hong Kong (the old one by then having been thoroughly neutered), and there are many reasons for believing this, so long as Delhi resists the urge to retreat once again into historical and political slumber. One impetus must be to check-mate China’s vainglorious move through Pakistan (specifically, through the land of the poor, crucified Balochs) to develop the deep-water port of Gwadar as a means of throttling India. Enlarging the Andamans’ thriving Port Blair into a world class, Panamax-class deep-water harbour must be uppermost as a project for the near future.

The point of this post, though, is not to enlarge on the geo-politics but to concentrate on a matter more local to the Andamans and their heritage. This is the problem facing the native, still largely post-stone-age tribes that have lived in the islands for anything up to 60,000 years. Specifically, I want to talk about the Jarawa, who number only about 300-400 souls, but who exist precariously on the west coast of the main South Andaman Island (Port Blair is on the east coast, but barely a stone’s throw away in reality).

There is another tribe, genetically and linguistically distinct, a hostile remnant, on North Sentinel Island further West in the Bay of Bengal. These Sentinelese people are uncontactable, deeply hostile. At one point they acquired some steel and fashioned it into arrow-tips, making them extremely deadly to anybody landing on the beaches of their island (which is illegal in any case). Some years ago a commercial ship was stranded not far off shore and the crew radioed frantically for a drop of firearms to defend themselves after they spied the natives constructing canoes on the beach to come and capture them. Death would have been inevitable, and luckily the crew was saved by an Indian navy helicopter after several lucky days of heavy weather kept the attackers away from the ship.

The Jarawa on the other hand are mostly friendly and tractable, having emerged from the jungle in 1996. A highway has since bisected their territory, and like wild Nevada mustangs, they are becoming used to begging for tidbits from tourists passing through (for although stopping to make contact is supposed to be forbidden it of course happens more and more often).

As with all aboriginals everywhere who come into contact with modern society, their intact and separate culture will degrade and disappear unless, like the Sentinelese, they remain utterly aloof, and it is already too late for that. What instead must happen is for the Jarawa to be accorded their full rights and status as Indian citizens. Only in this way can their health and education (if they wish to exercise their legal rights and obtain these things) be guaranteed. Unfortunately at the moment, thanks to India’s old-fashioned, western-conditioned code regarding native tribes, the Jarawa are simultaneously placed above the law, and yet also beneath it, without any rights to justice. For a harmonious civil society to be developed in Andaman which includes the Jarawa, and in the cause of natural justice for the Jarawa as well, this must change.

A recent murder tragically highlights the dilemma faced by the law and the Jarawa themselves. In November 2015 a drowned infant, the child of a young Jarawa woman, was found on the beach. It had been abducted the previous evening after a local tribal member had been drinking with an Indian Andamanese islander who should not have been in Jarawa territory. The mother was unmarried and the baby was lighter-skinned (the Jarawa retain African characteristics from their earliest emergence from that continent). This was evidence that a non-tribal lover was the father; it certainly convinced the murderer. The Jarawa occasionally commit infanticide in the cause of tribal purity where a father is suspected of being from outside the tribe, and it appears this was such an instance.

Yet the mother did not consent to the death of her child and was utterly distraught, being found ‘silently weeping’ the next day. What to do? The murderer was apparently a Jarawa man but the policy – with the best intentions – is for the police to keep their noses out of tribal affairs. But the intrusion into the forest (and probable rape of the young woman) by a non-Jarawa outsider is illegal: there is a 5km buffer zone that is supposed to be an absolute cordon sanitaire around the tribe but in reality it is very porous and often breached in the cause of sexual exploitation of Jarawa girls.

The Jarawa man who drowned the child is beyond the reach of the law at this point in time; his Andaman Indian accomplice is in jail back in Port Blair along with the man thought to be the baby’s father (and who it is believed was also present on the night of the murder). But with the murderer free, where is the justice here? Where is justice for the baby and for its stricken mother, who remains at the mercy of the man everybody knows killed her child?

There will be no justice because the government policy of ‘protecting’ the Jarawa and thus placing them above the law – the murderer cannot be arrested and can kill with impunity – denies human rights and justice to the victims, who are then below the law and beyond its protection.

The only hope for the Jarawa not to suffer the worst depredations of victimhood as the modern world closes over their primitive hold-out is to sensitively integrate them with the rest of Andamanese society. At the moment they can be treated in hospital, but only in an isolation ward – and it is not about cross-infection so much as cultural taint. Not to offer integration to the Jarawa is evidence only of cognitive dissonance, of not wishing to confront uncomfortable truths.

India’s tribal policy was dictated to a grateful and admiring Jawaharlal Nehru by an English bishop’s son, Verrier Elwin, back in the 1930s. Elwin went to India as a Christian missionary but converted to Hinduism (if indeed one can do such a thing), became an anthropologist and fell in love with tribal India – literally so, taking a wife, Kosi, from among the Gond of central India and living the native life. The fact that the wife was only 13 years old (and a pupil at a school where Elwin was teaching) and he was over 40 was no matter, although she divorced him as soon as she was old enough to have a voice – Elwin had insisted in detailing his sex life with her as part of his published studies; perhaps she resented that.

Anyway, in the patrician and colonialist manner of the time (but with the best intentions …) Elwin had decreed that the policy towards the tribals should be one of separation, protection and non-integration – except, of course, where he was concerned. The primitive tribes were to be a decorative ornament hung on the glory of the country and Elwin’s career; a living museum where the often immisserated lives of the tribes-people would provide study material for academics.

In a way the Second World War, with its influx of troops, camp-followers and carpet-baggers to the tribal regions near the Burmese border, put paid to the reality of that; but officially the fantasy persisted. Even today the poverty and backwardness of the tribal areas of North-East India can be traced back to the vanity of keeping the tribes intact and free of contact with the modern world – instead of protecting and nurturing the people and giving them a chance to lead fulfilled modern lives if they so wished.

The situation in the North East is now revisited upon us in South Andaman as the modern world inevitably encroaches on the Jarawa. They are smart people and they know what is happening to them. They like their culture and wish to retain it, but they also want medicine and education – maybe some would wish to go to university or start businesses. Why not? The key is to allow them to do what they want to do, and that means bringing them within the law and therefore granting them rights which as citizens they deserve. Not merely the ‘right’ to be kept separate, which is a fantasy in any case, as the drowned baby proves.

5 thoughts on “Andaman and Nicobar Islands #2”

  1. hi it is a nice blog about things to do in andaman.It is a tropical paradise in the truest sense of the term, the archipelago of islands is located about 1,000 kilometres off the eastern coast of India in the Bay of Bengal. With a rich flora and fauna cover, Andaman and Nicobar Island is sure to blow your mind away with its serenity.I would like to get things to do in Andaman from experienceandamans.

  2. Last year, I have been to Andaman with a recommendation from my friend. I must say that the place is BEAUTIFUL!. Andaman sea food is amazing and we get a variety of food there. I have opted Dekho Andaman for andaman honeymoon package and their travel guide, hospitality, and amenities were as exact as I have asked. I would like to visit it once again in my life.

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