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Before we change their lives forever

india Updated: Jan 27, 2012 00:51 IST
Vishvajit Pandya

The widespread outrage following the telecast of video footage of Jarawa men and women dancing for tourists is both heartening and disappointing. Heartening because the media made a rather unusual attempt to address the existential challenges of a people known to us as 'primitives' and disappointing because it failed to generate a nuanced debate. The 30-second TV slots accorded to 'experts' and stakeholders served to polarise opinion on the incident around two basic points. First, the Andamans Islands administration was complicit in the abuse of the Jarawas. Second, the future of these people must be decided once and for all. The Jarawas had either to be mainstreamed or left in isolation.

What was left unacknowledged in the debate was the fact that the future of the Jarawas is contingent upon State intervention. A policy of isolation, for instance, does not necessarily mean a completely 'hands-off' approach. It requires physical and human infrastructure to sustain it. It is here that the question of the future of the Jarawas is integrally tied to the ideology and practice of State welfare in the Islands.

It is seldom recognised that the practice of 'governing' the Jarawas or the other indigenous communities on the islands, is marked not merely by instances of corruption and sloth, but by the uncritical perpetuation of colonial models of rule. Tribal welfare here has often meant the selective recuperation of a series of colonial arrangements with a clear objective: the containment of the 'hostile tribes', the exploitation of its forest resources and the expansion of the penal colony. The practices of containment, however, led to fatal consequences including the near decimation of groups like the Great Andamanese. Some like the Ongees put up a strong resistance but eventually yielded to the forces of colonial aggression while others like the Jarawa continued to subvert the strategy of containment.

With the introduction of a new tribal welfare regime under the aegis of the independent India, the colonial strategy of 'containment' was redefined in terms of 'protection' and the practices put in place were more humane. There was, however, little attempt made to either question the political and intellectual premises of the colonial strategy nor think of new ways of imagining and addressing these communities. Condemned to live under the sign of the 'primitive', these communities soon became objects of either zealous humanitarian concern or voyeuristic pleasure. The colonial 'gaze' upon the islanders and the islands was perpetuated through nationalist frames. Yet it is perhaps one of the many ironies of history that the islanders who were periodically brought to Calcutta by their British masters to be paraded and photographed naked as colonial trophies now find themselves patronised by the British media as victims of post-colonial insensitivity and neglect.

The Jarawas are certainly victims of State negligence, and prurient 'outsiders', but let it not be assumed that they are unable to articulate these conditions on their own terms. There is enough evidence to suggest that they are capable of communication with authorities and social workers. Speaking on behalf of the Jarawas thus needs to be complemented by 'hearing' them more often. While the objective of tribal welfare is to ensure their survival, this cannot mean 'bare survival' without dignity. Tribal welfare policy needs a paradigm shift from one of mere protection to one of empowerment.

For those arguing for isolation, this may seem to be a euphemism for 'mainstreaming' or 'integration', but in reality it means making the welfare machinery more accountable and responsive. The Jarawas today are no longer isolated in the strict sense of the term. The State has a pervasive presence in their lives. It is this presence that needs to be monitored and made accountable. This accountability cannot be demanded by 'outsiders' alone, it has to be commanded by an empowered community whose voice is heard and respected.

Those arguing for the closure of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) and the 'isolation' of the Jarawas or those arguing for policies of 'mainstreaming' must bear in mind that both are likely to unleash new forces of change not merely within the Jarawa community but on the lives of the non-tribal settlers at large. It is at this point that one needs think of the future of the Jarawas in tandem with the larger developmental agenda on the islands.

With visible strains on its fragile ecosystem and the social and economic problems of its expanding settler population the Andaman and Nicobar Islands today are perhaps as vulnerable to 'mainland' encroachment as the Jarawas themselves. It is important reassess the developmental needs of these islands rather than push through models that endanger the lives and habitats of the Islanders.

The arguments against the ATR are in large measure arguments against a model of development that is unsustainable in the context of a small island ecosystem with a precariously positioned population.

Policies to protect the Jarawas and the other indigenous communities thus need to be premised on a radical revision of the ways in which we 'view' the islands from the 'mainland'. The more we exoticise the islands as a 'tropical paradise' and project its inhabitants as 'objects' of 'scientific curiosity or commodities of sexual pleasure, the less are we able to appreciate the argument that the Jarawa need to be heard before we take the next big step to change their lives forever.

Vishvajit Pandya is an anthropologist and the author of In the Forest: Visual and Material Worlds of Andamanese History (1858-2006)

The views expressed by the author are personal