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Jesudas M Athyal

The Lost Tribes of Andaman
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By Jesudas M. Athyal

As the day lights dimmed outside, the Sound and Light show began at the Cellular Jail of Port Blair. For an hour, the spectators were taken to the pre-independence era, to the horrors and miseries that unfolded within that courtyard. The programme of the show outlined, in a most poignant manner, the hardship the freedom fighters had to endure, and their grit and the depth of their conviction. Even as several of them faced the gallows - still prominently exhibited at the Jail - the slogans of liberation and swaraj were on their lips. The light and sound show narrated the inhumanly cruel pace set by Jail Superintendent David Barry and the other British officers that added to the misery of the situation, and claimed the lives of several freedom fighters. It is indeed the story of grit and determination of a proud people in the face of the onslaught of the conquerors - a chapter of history no Indian should miss.

The Sound and Light show concluded on a happy note celebrating the victory of the freedom struggle. Independent India has honoured the freedom fighters and the Jail itself has been made a National Monument. There are however no monuments or sound and lights programmes marking the conquest of another people - the indigenous people of the Andaman islands (in the Government parlance, the Scheduled Tribes). Their role in the anti-imperialist movement itself is not insignificant. In 1859 - that is, barely two years after the first struggle of independence and just one year after the British set up a Penal Settlement in Port Blair - the Great Andaman tribals led the Battle of Aberdeen where the indigenous people, in three battles, fought the British with mere bow and arrows - in all probability, the second war of independence. The 'war' was a largely one sided affair. Scores of people perished there. There is no national memorial because there was no ultimate victory for them, as for the freedom fighters. For the tribals of Andamans, it is a story of conquest, conquest and extermination.

The Andaman Nicobar islands are home to at least six major indigenous groups who fall into two distinct groups. There are four primitive tribes in the Andaman group of islands namely, Great Andamanese, Onges, Jarawas and Sentinelese, all of Negrito origin, while the tribes of Nicobars are the Nicobarese and Shompens, both of Mongoloid stock.

Downhill all the way - that is the only way to describe the life of these indigenous people. Their recorded population during the last one century show a steady decline - all the way. Authentic statistics are available only after the British set up a permanent settlement at Port Blair in 1858. During the four decades between the first settlement and the census of 1901, there was a drastic fall among the tribal communities of Andaman - from 73% to 14% of the total population. While in 1800, 100% of the Andaman population consisted of the tribals, by 1995 their numbers had dropped to a meagre 0.1%.

There is difficulty in gathering accurate information, and hence a certain amount of ambiguity about the exact number of the indigenous people. The Onges confined themselves to Little Andaman. The Jarawas of South and Middle Andaman remained distinct as they were separated by geography and remain unmixed to this day. The Great Andamanese tribes merged and then melted away to become mere traditional shadows. There were formidable practical problems in estimating - let alone counting - the number of tribals and therefore, numbers often turned out to be 'guesstimates' at best. Various anthropologists and governmental sources themselves have come up with varying figures of the number of tribals over the decades. What is clear, however, is their rapidly dwindling numbers. There is little doubt today that, with the exception of the Nichobarese, all the other tribal groups of the Union Territory have been reduced to mere two digit or three digit numbers.

As one travels from Port Blair to Mayabunder in the north by bus - a day long drive - the tragic scene unfolds with all its poignancy. After two hours of drive, the bus stops abruptly, just outside the "Jarawa Territory." The next convoy is only ninety minutes later. At the appointed time, a convoy of buses and private vehicles, carrying hundreds of passengers, with police escort, move into the forest area - reserved area for the Jarawas. "Close the windows", the conductor orders. Fearing an attack from the 'wild people' the passengers oblige and peep out from behind closed windows. Half an hour later, there is sudden excitement. "There", several people whisper together in hushed voices, pointing fingers. Outside by the side of the road, stood a dark young man - a lone figure - waiting for the convoy of vehicles to pass. As the vehicles moved on, the passengers settled back in their seats. Several of them had been to tiger safaris and lion safaris in the past; here is one more story to tell the grand children. What is not clear is whether all this paraphernalia is required to save the passengers from a tribal group - total population numbering a little over two hundred - or the other way around.

The inability of the "mainland" people to distinguish between wild animals and an indigenous person who legally are entitled to all the rights and privileges of a citizen of India is matched only by the lop-sided developmental programmes of the authorities that is contributing in a substantial way to the marginalisation and eventual extermination of the Andaman tribals. The history of the re-location of people from the mainland goes back to several decades. During the partition of Bengal, a large number of people from the mainland were rehabilitated in the islands. The released prisoners from the Cellular Jail too were encouraged to settle down there. Due to a variety of factors, the population of the indigenous people dropped drastically over the decades. There were devastating epidemics that swept across the islands, affecting especially the tribal groups that came in contact with the outside world. There were other factors too. According to George Weber, following the devastating epidemics, there seems to have been a psycho-cultural collapse with the will to survive severely impaired among all tribes in contact with outsiders.

Often Andaman islands make the news for the wrong reasons. The Hindu of January 13, 2008 has two articles on the islands. One is on the recent visit of President Pratibha Patil to Andaman and what it meant to the delicate eco-system of the region. It seems that nearly 400 tress had to be chopped down across the islands for the visit. At Wandoor near Port Blair alone, at least 60 full grown trees that included casuarinas and other local species were chopped down to facilitate the President's visit there by helicopter. The tourists too had to pay their share for the high profile visit. It seems that during the time when the President was in the islands, for several days, locations such as Havelock and Wandoor were out of bounds for the tourists.

The second news item in The Hindu, on Survival International's recently released report titled, 'Progress can kill', is more disturbing. In a hard hitting analysis, the report has found that 'progress and development' has led to the virtual annihilation of several indigenous groups across the world. The report goes on to say: "India's Great Andamanese are one tragic example. The British brought 'progress' to them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by forcing them out of their forest and into a 'home' in Port Blair, where 150 babies were born and every single one of them died before their third birthday. Overall, 99% of the tribe died, leaving just 53 people alive today."

Survival International's report point towards a deeper malaise. The people affected most by the modernisation projects of progress and development are those traditional communities such as the tribals who have been living close to nature and live by the resources of the forests and sea. Since this section of society has had little participation in the traditional or modern power-structures, they are being systematically alienated from their traditional habitat and work, in the name of development. Even the 'welfare measures' initiated by the authorities alienate the people. The question is whether these are the solutions that the people want or those that are imposed on them. In the southern island of Little Andaman which was devastated by the Tsunami of 2004, even after two years, most people live in temporary shelters. In Harbinder Bay of the island, we visited the local Nicobarese community. In that earthquake prone area, people have traditionally lived in thatched houses erected on polls so that their pigs - the mainstay of their livelihood - can live underneath. The permanent houses being built by the government officials for them, however, are modern concrete structures. We asked the contractor who accompanied us where the Nicobarese will house their pigs. "They will have to learn to live like other human being", he replied. Asking the weak and vulnerable to fall in line: what else is development?

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(Dr. Jesudas M. Athyal is Associate Professor of Social Analysis at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Chennai. He had recently visited the Andaman islands)

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