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A road runs through it

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:24 IST

Hindustan Times
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Rajiv Gandhi will be remembered today by many people for many things.

For his family, the 20th anniversary of his going will bring memories that can't be put in words. Those who were with him on the fateful day, and lived to witness the tragedy flash in front of their eyes, will recall it with a pang of incomprehension. His close friends, not in politics, will remember him for a hug that was strong, a handshake that gripped firm. His colleagues in politics will recall him for the voltage with which he lit them up, his adversaries for the civility that made opposition to him go dim. Officials and diplomats who worked for him will remember the man who made strategy serve ideas, not the other way about.

But one group of human beings won't recall him today. Because it can't. It doesn't know him. Nor does it know of him. Or of his mother. Or of his grandfather.

And yet this is the group that is inextricably linked to all three of them — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. In numbers little more than 300. But in what Nehru might have called its sifat, its essential state of being, 'the quality of character'.

The world calls them Jarawa because the Great Andamanese call them that, meaning in their speech, 'stranger'. Only the Jarawa know what they call and think of those who have been coming into their forest-homes, first with guns, then with gifts, and now with schemes for their good. Like the Sentinelese living on the tiny square-shaped island by that name, who number less and remain largely, incredibly uncontacted by the world outside, the Jarawa have traditionally been regarded as 'hostile', a premature typification for 'unknown-uncommunicative'. Their lives on the western, wooded flanks of south and and middle Andaman islands have been a struggle for self-protection against three sets of people 'from the outside' — British colonisers, Japanese occupiers and Indian 'developers'. The British and the Japanese believed Higher Purpose called them to lands not their own to make them their own. They made these islands their own. India has had a different view, a different attitude. India has had Nehru. And Nehru had advisers like Verrier Elwin.

From the time he first saw the Bhil, the Santhal and the Gond in the 1930s, Nehru felt our tribals had "their own genius" and that "we should not over-administer these areas or overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes". But by the mid-1970s ideas changed about what was 'over-administration' and what wasn't 'over-administration'. The Jarawa had to be contacted, they had showed signs of 'coming out', they were 'responding'. And so boats with gifts went and left those marvels of civilisation 'near about' where the Jarawa lived. They were, delight of delights, actually taken.

Then, with traumatised migrants and needy refugees coming in, settlements on the eastern flanks of the south and middle Andamans became inescapable. With Port Blair, the A&N headquarters lying to the south, and Maya Bunder, the entrepot, to the north, it was inevitable that the planner's paradigm, the developer's dream, the contractor's craving be raised to the level of a collective demand: the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR).

Indira Gandhi, it is said, was not impressed by the ATR idea. But development has strong interests. They outlast even strong prime ministers. The ATR has cut a path for itself right through those two islands and has become both an artery and a safari, the life on wheels being India's and the life on view being the Jarawa's. There are expectations, pleas, urgings, assumptions, that the ATR will be 'developed'. These are natural and at one level entirely understandable. But a road in a place like these islands can't lie inert on the soil without acting on the area around it. Satellite pictures of the ATR show how it has cleft the island, not just connected two ends of it. And how it is defining its future, by dividing its present.

Whether as a pilot Rajiv Gandhi ever flew his plane into Port Blair or not I do not know. But within a year of his becoming the pm, he set up the Island Development Authority under his chairmanship, to chart a calibrated, environment-sensitive, approach to development on the islands.

Would Rajiv Gandhi have cleared a widening, expanding, black-topping of the ATR, leading to its progressive escalation into a two-lane or three-lane expressway? Honestly, I can't say. But this I do not doubt: he would have tried to find a via media that does not endanger the rare to facilitate the many.

Roads are a solution for some tribal areas, even the solution. But they can be a problem in some others, even the problem. Such are the exquisite ironies of a democratic republic. Ours is not a glued-together Republic where roads and dams, are set up mechanically by 'headquarters diktat' and where tribal communities have to be 'mainstreamed', their foot-paths 'road-rollered' and their persons covered by assembly-line attire except at national carnivals where diversity acquires viewer value. We are supposed to get to know their thoughts, their sifat.

An anniversary such as today's could well pass the Jarawa or the Sentinelese by, for they are innocent of India's or any country's history, indeed, of countries and states, for maps and boundaries have not entered their minds. They don't know of India's celebrations, her mournings. Do they have the shikayats and arzis we hear on the mainland? I wonder. We can assume what they do not know, what they may not want. But do we know what they do know, what they do want?

Before we begin to teach the Jarawa the value of roads that bring into their forest air diesel fumes, chips, gutka and film songs, and the word 'lo', may we not want to learn from them their word for 'na'? And why a road can intrude rather than help? Before we can know that or find that out, to introduce the synthetic and irreversible in an ambience that is organic and self-renewing is to do wrong. It is to rob the Jarawa of choice and change their lives for all time. It is to do something a republic is not meant to do, certainly not the Republic of India.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor. The views expressed by the author are personal.