Jarawa Excursions: An Excerpt from Pankaj Sekhsaria’s “Islands in Flux”

26 March, 2017

Pankaj Sekhsaria is one of the few journalists to have consistently reported on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, or ANI. For over two decades, he has been writing and reporting on the indigenous tribal communities of the islands, as well as the environmental and conservation concerns in the region. He is also the author of several books on the subject, including Troubled Islands, a collection of essays on the ANI, as well as The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier, a 2010 report by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation on the Jarawas—an ancient tribal community that has resided on the islands for thousands of years.

Islands of Flux is a collection of Sekhsaria’s reports from the ANI. The articles included in the book chronicle the ecological and environmental threats faced by the islands and its original inhabitants, especially due to development- or tourism-oriented interference from the Indian government, which is a relatively new presence in the islands. “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph,” Sekhsaria writes in one of the pieces included in the anthology. In the following excerpt from the book, a report titled “Jarawa Excursions” that was originally published in the magazine Frontline in July 1998, Sekhsaria discusses an unusual occurrence: an excursion by members of the Jarawa community, seemingly to establish contact with the mainland.

In October 1997, settlers in the Middle Andaman Island were witness to an unfamiliar sight: a group of unarmed Jarawas had ventured out of the forest and into modern settlements on the fringes of the forests. This was among the first recorded instances of Jarawas voluntarily seeking to establish contact with the settlers from mainland India. It was particularly puzzling given the fact that Jarawas have for long been hostile towards the settlers. To them they have lost large swathes of their forests, and the tribal people have fiercely defended what is left of their traditional lands.

Over the next few months, there were several more reports of Jarawas coming out of their forests. Some of them, it was reported, were seen to point to their bellies: this was interpreted as an expression of hunger and in the belief that they had run out of their traditional food resources in the forests and were facing starvation, the local administration, led by Lieutenant Governor IP Gupta, arranged for food relief.

Packets containing dry fish, puffed rice and bananas were air-dropped from helicopters into Jarawa territory. The natural resources that the Jarawas have had access to have vastly diminished over time for a number of reasons, including widespread deforestation to accommodate settlers and to feed the flourishing timber industry. Even so, the theory that starvation is driving the Jarawas out of the forests appears to be flawed. They have sustained themselves on forest produce for centuries, and there is no reason to believe that they have suddenly been pushed into starvation. In any case, eyewitnesses say that the Jarawas who were sighted recently appear to be healthy, robust and agile. Moreover, in February and March 1998, no person from the tribal community approached the settlements for extended periods, that is, for more than two weeks. And when they did show up, it was often in small groups of five to ten people.

Anthropologists, however, have another explanation for the Jarawas’ curious ‘coming out’. It relates to the experience of Enmey, a teenaged Jarawa boy who was found with a fractured foot near Kadamtala town in Middle Andaman last year. The local residents, most of them settlers, arranged for his treatment at the G.B. Pant Hospital in Port Blair, where he was looked after well. When Enmey recovered, he was sent back to Middle Andaman, where he promptly disappeared into his forest home. Since October, it is Enmey who has largely been responsible for bringing his people out.

Anthropologists explain that Enmey developed a cultural affinity to the outside world: in their view, Enmey perhaps wanted others in his community to experience the settlers’ hospitality that he had had a taste of. It is this, and not starvation, that had drawn them out of the forests, they reason. This is, perhaps, in addition to the pressures that the Jarawas are experiencing from multiple sources. Today, there are only about 250 of them and vast expanses of their rainforest homelands have been cleared to accommodate settlers and to feed the huge timber industry on which rests the economic foundation of the Andamans.

In order to protect the Jarawa way of life, a Jarawa tribal reserve was established initially in 1957 and then extended to over a 1,000-sq km area in 2004; the objective was as much to keep the tribal population confined to the reserve as to prevent settlers from encroaching upon it. Along the periphery of the reserve, forty-four bush police camps were established with about 400 policemen. Over time, however, several encroachments were made and the function of the police force has become one of confining the Jarawas, who once roamed the length and breadth of the island unhindered, to the reserve area. Over the years, the area of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve has gone on shrinking.

The 340-km-long Andaman Trunk Road, which slices through the heart of the Jarawa Reserve, has opened up more areas for settlement. Right from the beginning, the Jarawas had protested against the construction of the road on the grounds that it would endanger their way of life. They set up road blocks, demolished bridges and even attacked—and occasionally killed—the workers. Work came to a halt in 1976, but was resumed soon. Traffic on the road, which was completed recently, has grown enormously.

Today, many more settlers live in the areas bordering the reserve, thereby increasing manifold the possibility of interaction and conflict between them and the Jarawas. Instances of people trespassing into the reserve to hunt wild boar and deer, and to poach forest produce such as honey and timber, are common. At times, the trespassers destroy the rudimentary settlements of the Jarawas. In addition, many illegal encroachments have also come up in the reserve area with political patronage.

Over the years, the island administration has tried to establish friendly contact with the tribal communities, including the Jarawas. In 1974, a contact party comprising administration officials, members of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), anthropologists and police officials, established friendly contact with some members of the Jarawa community along the western coast of Middle Andaman. The party approached the Jarawa territory by sea and left behind gifts—bananas and coconuts—hoping to win the confidence of the tribal people. Critics, however, liken this to the practice of scattering rice in an attempt to ensnare birds. They argue that the official policy vis-à-vis the tribal people is aimed at making them dependent on the administration. The pattern of the Jarawas’ recent behaviour appears to bear this out; increasingly, the Jarawas who emerge from their jungles do not leave unless they are gifted bananas and coconuts.

The Jarawas have never allowed anyone access to their territory by the land route. Nor, until October 1997, had they ever emerged voluntarily and unarmed from their forest homes or initiated any interaction with the outside world. The October 1997 development is, therefore, very significant, but the administration has not always responded with sensitivity to the Jarawas’ needs. An incident which this writer witnessed on 9 April 1998 illustrates this point.

At 8 a.m. that day, about sixty Jarawas, the largest group yet to emerge from the jungle, arrived at the Uttara jetty near Kadamtala. Among them were several children and women with babies. It is, of course, true that the administration has no way of knowing where and when the next group of Jarawas will turn up or just how many of them will be there, but even so, there appeared to be little evidence of planning for such contingencies. Until such time as coconuts and bananas could be arranged for the Jarawas, they were herded into a small waiting hall at the jetty and made to wait on that hot, sweltering day without food or water. The only people at the jetty who seemed equipped to handle the situation were a policeman and three boatmen who knew some of the Jarawa people. But after a while, when the Jarawas grew restive, even the boatmen ran out of ideas. Things got a bit rough, and there was a fair bit of shoving and pushing around, which the Jarawas resented fiercely.

The consignment of coconuts and bananas that the local police had organized arrived around 2 pm. Each person in the Jarawa group was given two coconuts and a bunch of bananas. The entire group was then put on boats and, escorted by armed policemen, taken back into Jarawa territory. At the other end, however, more trouble was in store. Just as one of the boatmen was about to return, some of the Jarawa youth, who were evidently incensed by the way they had been treated that afternoon, seized the boatman’s bamboo pole as he was pushing back his boat and tried to haul him ashore. The shaken boatman said later that evening: “I have interacted with the Jarawa people for twelve years, but for the first time in my life I was afraid. I did not know what they would do to me.”

However, some of the older women of the tribe, who had known the boatman for long, admonished the youth and forced them to let him go. Had any bodily harm been done to the boatman, the consequences would have been unpredictable. The settlers, already restive over the constant “intrusion” by Jarawas, might well have retaliated violently.

Administration officials admit in private that they are unable to do anything to ease the tension between the tribal communities and the settlers. The two groups are locked in a tussle over land rights, and the atmosphere has been vitiated by administrative policies of the past. The Jarawas, as the original inhabitants, have the first right over this land, but not many people are willing to concede this. The tension can be eased if the settlements of the outsiders are removed from in and around the Jarawa territory. But this requires tremendous political will and understanding, which is absent.

If anything, the weight of political support is on the side of the settlers, as is evident from a statement made in 1990 by the Congress (I) member of parliament from the islands, Manoranjan Bhakta: “... Job-seekers [settlers] who have come (to) the island are now serious contenders for allotment of house sites and agricultural land. Since the political system goes with the number, no political party is in a position to contradict their demands.”

The numbers, clearly, are working against the Jarawas. After all, 250 individuals do not count for much in the political system. For the Jarawas, however, this battle is not about political power; for them, it is literally a struggle for survival and against extinction. And if their land rights and other needs are not respected, they might very soon go down as another of the lost races of humankind.

Note: This was an estimated figure; the actual Jarawa population based on a complete count and as reported in the 2011 census is 380.

This is an excerpt from Islands in Flux by Pankaj Sekhsaria, published by Harper Litmus, HarperCollins Publishers India. The excerpt has been condensed.