It was year 2004, before Tsunami, when I visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At that time, there was less tourism. We visited all the islands including South Andaman island, home to aborigines, Jarwas. Human safaris were the main attraction on the island, where tourists like us took a tour in the bus, accompanied by policemen, watching the tribe and their settlements from the window. Tribesmen who came around the bus were offered some fruits and clothes by the tourists. Though, as a ten year old it was exciting for me to see a living example of neolithics, but now going down to the memory lane I find myself in place of dilemma that whether my visit for few minutes benefitted their lives or threatened?
Earlier this month, a news flashed all over the world where Sentinelese, one of the four indigenous tribes of the island, killed John Allen Chau, an American who tried to enter North Sentinel Island for preaching Christianity. Questions sparked about the survival of uncontacted and isolated tribes and their right to remain free from interference from the outside world.
The coral-fringed island harbors one of the planet’s most isolated hunter-gatherer societies, known as the Sentinelese. They live in North Sentinel, which is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Island. They are one of the last remaining uncontacted indigenous groups, who are known for aggressively protecting their island from the rest of the world. They have been living on the island for centuries. They are not the only tribe continuing to live in the region, but Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese also live. Unlike Sentinelese, these tribes have made contact with the outside world. The 2011 census says that there are ten households in North Sentinel Island with fifteen individual, but no one knows for sure that how many tribesmen live there because of lack of accessibility.
Onges were one of the first tribes to come in contact during the colonial period. Today, Onges are protected as scheduled tribes and are given access to basic amenities such as health and education. Later Great Andamanese and Jarawa came in contact, except Sentinelese who remain hostile and aloof. Although, records state that in the later 20th century they were offered coconuts and some toys, which were happily accepted by some tribesmen, but after that outsiders have always been welcomed by bow and arrows.
The Sentinelese and other aboriginal tribes of the archipelago are protected under The Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956. Also, under the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, 1963, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands are a “Restricted Area” in which foreigners with a restricted area permit (RAP) can stay on 13 islands, and make day visits to another 11.
But in recent years, the Andaman Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Andaman Association of Tour Operators have pressed to have the RAP restrictions relaxed. In August 2018, the Home Ministry dropped the RAP requirement for visiting 29 inhabited islands until 2022, even though separate approvals continue. Following criticism that the move compromised the safety of the tribes and ecology of the islands, the UT Administration clarified in October that Indian nationals would continue to require a pass issued by the Deputy Commissioner for entering a tribal reserve, and foreigners would need prior approval from the Principal Secretary (Tribal Welfare).
Basic amenities such as schools and special wards at hospitals have been provided to these tribes especially Onge, human safaris began in the forests of Jarawa. This interaction of the external world with the lives of tribes might have given scope for their development and welfare but have left some negative scars on them and the ecology too. For example, Ome Onge tribesmen, have left their native practices such as hunting and gathering and are totally relying on the incentives given by the government. Due to the reduction in physical activity, they have become vulnerable to many diseases which earlier got cured naturally. Not only this, few years back, due to regular human interference, a chunk of Great Andamanese wiped out after contracted measles and influenza. A large chunk of the population of the 10 Great Andamanese tribes was wiped out after the indigenous peoples caught syphilis, measles, and influenza on an epidemic scale following contact with the early settlers.
From eating wild pigs and crabs, they have begun eating rice. Linguistic and cultural diversity are getting extinct due to less population and frequent deaths. Due to an increase in tourist activities, they are exploited and harassed as well. Two years ago, a video was circulated on social media, which sparked an outcry where few Jarawa girls were forcibly made to dance. Also in some cases these tribes have been treated with cruelty. In one such instance, one of the boy lost his arm when a tourist threw food out of the moving bus.
All uncontacted and recently contacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their land is protected. When NH 223, Andaman Trunk Road, was being built, the Jarawa repeatedly attacked workers. The state power-fenced the construction site, and several Jarawa were electrocuted. In 2002, the Supreme Court ordered that the road be closed, and the 2004 Jarawa Policy called for a supplementary route to reduce traffic. A sea route was scheduled to start by March 2015, but the highway remains open. In January 2014, eight Jarawa girls were abducted by settlers, and local media quoted a Jarawa youth as naming offenders who allegedly often entered the reserve to lure Jarawa women.
In a world, where we have landed on Mars and crossed the interstellar space in search of livable planet and homo sapiens, does it make a necessity to contact aborigines, not only in India but across the seas, to make them part of that world who itself is trying to find out ways and means to live a better life, that world who’s fighting global warming, climate change and pollution, that world who’s living in an era of violence everywhere, that world where people are fighting over religion and region?