Twenty years ago, I had gone to the Andaman Islands on a holiday. Like others of my age, soaked in the pop culture of 1980s Calcutta, my knowledge of the islands came from a single source: Tapan Sinha's 1979 film Sabuj Dwiper Raja (King of the Green Island) based on Sunil Gangopadhyay's book of the same name. Cinematically, it is awful. A scene depicting the Cellular Jail in 1924, for instance, shows a row of tube lights, under which the actors ham away as marching convicts. But what stuck to my head like a mutant piranha grabbing a purse was that the Andamans was populated by 'dangerous savages' called the Jarawas. Both the film and the movie described them, one of the islands' indigenous peoples, as being cut off from the rest of humanity and being 'tremendously hostile'. At last, I figured, we had our own 'savages', our desi deadly arrow-wielding Amazonians, our versions of Tintin in Congo or King Kong. And the best part was that we could never be accused of peddling any embarrassing, banal racialist-Orientalist-type 'primitivism'. Because – hey! – under Macaulay and Co. and all those proto-phrenologists and missionaries many of 'us' were victims ourselves.
I re-watched Shobuj Dwiper Raja this week after reading about the Supreme Court banning tourists from passing through the 35-km stretch of the Andaman Trunk Road (ATS) that passes through designated Jarawa forest area. The court ruling is to stop Jarawas from making any alien-like contacts with 'outsiders' – which essentially means gawking tourists who throw them packs of biscuits, snacks and trinkets in exchange for a dance for the video cam to be shown back home in Lajpat Nagar or Andheri (West).
In January last year, sections of the Indian media 'woke up' to a report in the British newspaper Observer that highlighted the "horrors of human safari" in the Andamans. Because of this trunk road, the "trusting, innocent and hugely vulnerable to exploitation" (Observer) Jarawas were "at risk from disease, predatory sex". The Observer didn't mention anything beyond tourist cameras pointing at semi-naked women. It didn't refer to genuine cases of diseases that had been contracted and recorded at healthcare units outside Jarawaland and treated at the initiative of the Jarawas. But India was suitably scandalised, even though no one bothered to stop their National Geographic subscriptions that depict indigenous folks much more – what's the word now? – 'sensitively', so what if tits are still shown but shown anthropoligically!
The trunk road has become a bone of contention among 'outsiders' about what is 'best for the Jarawas'. One side sees the ATR as a harbinger of 'modernity' that includes healthcare, easy access to food, and primary education. This side makes no bones about the 129-km road connecting settlers who hugely outnumber the Jarawas (the last census more than a decade ago records 240 Jarawas; experts estimate around 300 now).
On the other side are the Jean-Jacques Rousseaus waving the 'Save the Noble Savage' flags, demanding life in 'splendid isolation' for the Jarawas.
Thankfully, anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya who has been involved with tribal communities in the Andamans since 1983, and the Jarawas in particular since 1996, believes in something that's neither a cynical invitation to exploitation (poachers, settler encroachments etc) nor a call for an isolated 'musuem' full of Jarawas. In his 2007 essay, From Dangerous to Endangered: Jarawa 'Primitives' and Welfare Politics in the Andaman Islands, Pandya writes, "The Jarawa were exposed to the outside world and its pressures from the start of the colonial times in the mid-19th century. They coped with the pressures on their own terms.... It is facile to regard them as a community unable to cope with change, or to see them as an "unspoiled pristine society" that needs to be "saved".
Dropcap OnThe ATR, started in 1965 and covering a 35-km illegal stretch across land declared a reserve forest land in 1957 became fully operational in 1989. Richa Dhamju of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, in her 2003 study on the ATR, is clear that Indian law was allowed to be broken with the construction of the trunk road itself. Pandya points out a vital fact. The Jarawas – surprise, surprise! – can adapt to changing situations. They are not some alien race to be presented as an unchanging people to us so that the 'outsider-indigenous people' script doesn't becoming smoother without conflicts. With many Jarawas approaching the ATR for a while now out of their own volition (which doesn't, of course, prove anything as smoking cigarettes, too, can be seductive yet harmful), the ATR may have provided an additional source of sustenance. As Dhamnju points out, Jarawas have the same word for 'road' and forest' (pepeyh), leading to the question of whether "the road has become a contemporary food basket for some of them". If I don't hear howls of protest when 'item girls' perform at New Year's Eves or birthday bashes for some extra cash in the big and small cities, is getting goodies for a 'dance-and-a-pic', automatically horrendous if the performer happens to be a 'primitive' whom you have decided to mark as 'exploited', because it makes you sad?
In Shobuj Deeper Raja, a freedom-fighter who has been hiding in the forests with the Jarawas for the last 50 years is accused by the hero from Calcutta of "becoming uncivilized". "Who says the Jarawas are uncivilized?!" he thunders back adding, "No one steals here, everyone lives together holding hands, no one hates anyone, there is no greed, no disease. I had told them not to mix with civilized people." That a 'nationalist' is portrayed as clamouring to keep the Jarawas 'pure and innocent' tells you much about how our concern for others so many times sidesteps any information about what the 'poor tribals' may have to say. Does a Jarawa kid who wants to see more of the world exist? Who knows? Let's find out.