A controversial video displaying the endangered Jarawa tribal women being coaxed by local policemen to dance for tourists visiting the Andaman Islands has generated an intense debate over the necessity of mainstreaming this nomadic community thriving in the deep forests for more than 55,000 years.
The Jarawas are dark skinned hermetic tribes settled in the Bay of Bengal archipelago, resisting direct interaction with colonisers for centuries and have even braved the Japanese onslaught on their territory during the Second World War. Perfect in harmony with nature, their unparallel physical agility and an in-depth knowledge of flora and fauna makes them an invaluable physical asset in one of India’s vital strategic corridors. Additionally, they have been subjected to genocidal attacks leading to a gradual shrinkage in number over the years.
As the Indian government grapples with the issue, the Courts in India through various judgments have upheld the isolation of the tribes and the National Advisory Council chaired by the ruling Congress President Sonia Gandhi wants the Jarawa views to be accommodated in shaping their future.
However, the Prime Minister led Andaman & Nicobar Island Development Authority has already made up its mind to reverse the policy of protection and isolation vis-à-vis one of India’s most primitive jungle dwellers.
A parliamentary Standing Committee has also recommended a policy revision to facilitate a slow yet smooth transition of the Jarawas into modernity.
But whether the Jarawas themselves are ready for this plunge into the mainstream has not yet been ascertained appropriately. The reasons are manifold, most important being the society’s inability to comprehend the tribal instinct and language adequately.
Engaging the Jarawas in a productive dialogue is virtually impossible. Stray anecdotal accounts from members of the tribe chasing tourist vehicles along the Andaman Trunk Road and accustomed to speaking in the national Hindi dialect are accepted as a representative view of the entire Jarawa community.
Though the young males are gradually exhibiting openness by interacting with outsiders, tribal elders are not yet subscribing to the reformist approach.
Some argue that depriving this pristine tribal population of the opportunity to savour the fruits of modernization is nothing short of an assault on their basic rights, claiming that after all, mainstream people too had their roots in the jungles before settling down as farmers and subsequently fitting into an urban model.
However, the Jarawas does not seem to be eager to abandon their present status in a hurry as they lead a satisfied and peaceful life in the deep forests of Andaman.
Moreover India has an abysmal track record of tribal assimilation with a devastating impact on their indigenous lifestyle and culture. The very process has often end in a terrible exploitation of life and resources. Above all, the same society which shows no inhibition in crossing the limits of decency and indulging in voyeurism can hardly be expected to be a charitable benefactor. From local policemen, tour operators to the higher ups in the administrative echelons, an endless list of individuals and institutions responsible for shattering the Jarawa dream of having a dignified existence stare at us unabashedly.
In reality India has never made any serious attempt to dissect the tribal psyche and accommodate their sentiment or examine their unique lifestyle. The hoopla over integrating tribal identity within the national framework is often incited by the lust for rich natural resources and assets that the tribal people have for centuries considered an inalienable part of their culture. The present turmoil in India’s tribal belt has its precise origin in this conflict of business interest with cultural sentiment.
The Jarawas are confronting a peculiar crisis today as their future is hotly debated in the public sphere without a formal attempt to understand their cultural pattern or embracing their feelings.
True, this resilient tribal people needs empowerment and freedom to enjoy the benefits that the Indian constitution has reserved for every citizen of the State especially the tribal folk. But rushing through the process of assimilating them within the non-indigenous mainstream will only ensure the famous natives of Andaman ending up living on government doles with their unique culture getting a quiet burial.
This will ultimately lead to an identity crisis that the Jarawas might not be able to withstand.
Since gradual inclusion at the end of the day is inevitable, it would therefore be prudent for the government to restrain from imposing an alien system overnight while continuing with the vigil to arrest any attempt of transforming the fast receding tribe into an amusement object. One must remember that taking ad hoc legal action against offenders is just a superficial balm that might soothe the pain temporarily, but not help us reach the roots of the crisis.