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Andamans and elections

As India goes to polls in April, many stone age tribes of Andamans will not be party to them. Untouched as they are from civilisation, they will remain in isolation, say authorities.
PTI | By Agence France-Presse, Port Blair
PUBLISHED ON APR 05, 2004 01:55 PM IST

When India begins the world's largest elections in April, the canoes it sends to count votes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands in the Bay of Bengal will be rowing clear of indigenous tribal folk.

They have lived in seclusion from the world for millennia. And electoral authorities do not believe polls for parliament in New Delhi are a good time to disturb them.

Most of the lush stretch of rainforested islands will be untouched by the ballot boxes on April 20, when the territory votes on the first of five polling days scheduled across India.

"The elections will be held in 36 of Andaman's 572 islands as the others are not inhabited," said Sunil Kumar, the deputy election chief here.

"And besides, the aborigines are kept out of the process because of fears of bacterial contamination."

The longest road in the archipelago stretches for 340 kilometres (210 miles) from the capital, Port Blair, to the Andaman's northern tip, slicing through the land of the hunter-gatherer Jarawas, one of six Stone Age tribes here.

Most of the tribespeople have had little contact with the outside world, let alone with Indian poll authorities who steer their way across the territory on small locally built canoes.

Election officials say they are banned from even visiting a reserved island of the Shompen aborigines, who have lived for up to 60,000 years without being touched by modernity.

Political parties are, however, openly wooing the Nicobarese, who account for a quarter of the archipelago's population of under 400,000 and who are the most integrated of the tribes.

The tightly-knit Nicobarese community is known to vote en masse for a single candidate.

"Nicobarese are a dominant force in local politics. The other indigenous groups add up to 500 or so and they don't matter," said Prafulla Das, an activist of India's main opposition Congress party in Port Blair.

The Congress has long dominated Andaman and Nicobar, just as it held a pre-eminent role throughout India for decades after independence from Britain in 1947.

The Congress spearheaded the independence movement and some of its leaders were imprisoned on Andaman and Nicobar by the British, who took control of the isolated territory in the 19th century.

But in the last parliamentary election in 1999, India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party broke through and wrested the territory's sole seat in parliament.

While the one seat in the 545-member parliament is unlikely to swing power in New Delhi, critics here say the principle of democracy is being violated by not reaching out to the tribespeople.

The Society of Andaman Nicobar Ecology, a private group, said India was depriving aborigines of the basic rights accorded to the country's 675 million eligible voters.

"We have no right to impose anything on anybody. How can we and who are we to decide whether the Jarawas should or should not vote?" asked the group's secretary, Samir Acharya.

Andaman anthropologist S.S. Barik argued that New Delhi had failed by keeping tribal groups barricaded in the rainforest.

"Before we decide on anything about the Jarawas and the other primitive tribes who are not on the electoral list, we should see to it that they understand Indian society well," Barik said.

But election officials such as Kumar say they have headaches to consider before vanishing tribespeople.

"Like many remote areas in India, Andaman has difficult areas as far as moving ballot machines are concerned," Kumar said.

Added Akshay Gupta, an official from the territory administration: "The situation can get hairy when there is a swell in the water, and these dinghies loaded with voting machines toss around like matchboxes."

str-pc/sct/lpo

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