In India, as elsewhere, the bad news never ends. Among the more prominent horrors of last week’s papers were two startlingly gruesome reports. One was about the slaughter by day (captured on CCTV) in Udumalaipettai town, Tamil Nadu, of Sankar, a young Dalit man who had recently married a woman of an “influential” higher caste. The other, a front-page anchor, syndicated from the New York Times, concerned the alleged murder of a nameless, and apparently mixed-race, infant born to an unmarried young woman of the Jarawa tribe, a tiny (some 400-strong) indigenous community of India’s distant Andaman archipelago.

While Sankar’s brutal murder will have shocked many readers, it will also be absorbed with some resignation. Such “honour killings” (or “dishonour killings” as recent etiquette has it) spatter the news with dismal regularity. The prejudices that instigate them are all too familiar to most of us in India. The Andaman infanticide, meanwhile, will register on the more distant metronome of a perennial but hopelessly exotic tale of dark-skinned “Palaeolithic tribes” (in the NYT’s unfortunate coinage), their strange rituals and inevitable doom. Yet underneath this carapace, it is surely also another narrative of honour killing.

Or is it? In an open letter to the NYT, two prominent academics, Vishvajit Pandya and Madhumita Mazumdar, who have worked extensively on the predicaments of the indigenous people of the Andamans, rightly identify “the ethical and legal conundrum arising out of the case” as the true focus of the piece – before going on to express their disappointment at its sensationalism and other inadequacies. While I share many of their concerns, I’m also struck by a depressing sense of déjà vu: a western journal scoops a seemingly scandalous but dated and imprecisely reported story on the Jarawa. Said journal crosses a few semantic and ethical lines in the process (which in the NYT’s case includes purchasing a picture taken by the photographer Thierry Falise on an irresponsible and illegal encounter with a Jarawa facilitated for him by a poacher), but does a quantum of good by reminding the world of the chronic catastrophe facing the community. The outcome is a short cycle of hand-wringing before the road roller of Andaman ethnocide resumes its steady work.

Territorial assault

Yes, ethnocide: forgive me if my attention strays from the moral dilemma of whether the alleged Jarawa baby-killer should be apprehended. Either way, a much more terrible crime seems likely to follow. Another story that has happened before. “In May, 1880,” as EH Man, a civil servant then posted in the Andaman capital Port Blair recounts, “an Andaman youth was hanged at Port Blair for the murder of one of his countrymen. He had previously, in 1878, been sentenced to imprisonment for the murder of two children of his tribe, and he committed his last crime soon after his discharge. This has hitherto been the only occasion on which any of these savages has suffered the extreme penalty of British law.”

Well, hooray for modern justice. Too bad no one from the Great Andaman tribe to which that serial killer (his name was Bia Lola) belonged is around to enjoy its comforts. They numbered once in the thousands. Today you’d have to scour Strait Island, a remote desert-isle institution run by the AAJVS (Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti – an agency charged with the welfare of the island’s tribal population) to meet the last few (some 50) descendants of that culture. And no, the Great Andamanese didn’t exterminate themselves. They were decimated through a long process, which began with simple violence but was more effectively achieved through “protective confinement” in administrative institutions and by the incursions into Andamanese land, culture and bodies of a burgeoning settler and convict population, facilitated by the colonial state.

The conduct of the independent Indian state has differed only in the increased scale of the demographic and territorial assault (notably in settling tens of thousands of refugees from Bengal and by constructing a highway through Jarawa land even in the face of legal injunctions from the nation’s Supreme Court).

India has, of course, discontinued the practice of externing convicts to the islands. But it continues to countenance a rising tide of criminal trespasses against the Jarawa. In a telephone conversation with Vishvajit Pandya, the audibly exasperated professor tells me that “the judiciary in the Andamans is inadequately sensitised to the complexities of the tribal situation and often ends up endorsing pro-settler/pro-mainstream positions”.

“The state loves its patronising colonial idea that they are there to ‘serve and protect,’” Pandya continued. “Those days are gone – the Jarawa have not been ‘isolated’ for a long time. Now you have to empower them.” Yet paradoxically and perversely, the protective cloak that the state has thrown around the Jarawa seems to serve most effectively to shield its functionaries and preferred citizens – those of mainland descent – from scrutiny and to allow their worst impulses or simple incompetence to go unpunished.

Continuum of brutality

Particularly troubling is the mounting evidence of sexual abuse and exploitation of tribal women and children in the islands. A recent report Sexual Oppression and the Andamanese by the journalists Madhusree Mukherjee and Denis Giles details a hair-raising catalogue of sexual assault and brutality perpetrated and condoned by government servants, unparalleled since… well, since the colonial administration that preceded it. Indeed, the infanticide itself appears to be tied to an instance of sexual exploitation from its inception to its brutal conclusion: the non-Jarawa alleged father of the infant is accused of instigating the killing. “Sexual exploitation is happening,” the Port Blair-based journalist Zubair Ahmed said. “We need an action plan to stop it, especially in Tirur sector, where the surveillance mechanism as well as AAJVS is ineffective. Any intervention among the Jarawa needs to be in the public domain. But the administration is very secretive.”

Even in the best of circumstances, or at least in the heart of the Indian capital, the State struggles for coherence over issues of sexual violence. Earlier this month, in Parliament, the Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi, voiced her government’s unwillingness to countenance the criminalisation of marital rape, because the concept “cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs… etc”. If cultural relativism makes the State throw up its hands on this issue, one wonders how it could hope to address the ethical and legal conundrums of the Jarawa case with all its own inflections of “myriad social customs and values”.

Yet given the complex nature and sub-continental scale of Indian society perhaps we should also allow the beleaguered Indian State some leeway. Certainly the fact that despite decades of secessionist insurgencies in the subcontinent, and even in the current context of hypernational hysteria in our cities and the geopolitical pressures of Chinese expansionism in the Indian Ocean, the government of India is willing to behave with restraint towards the last redoubt of virtually uncontacted Andamanese indigenes on Sentinel Island is remarkable. These are people who have never flown the national flag or even been informed of their nationality. Perhaps it’s just inertia (and their own vigilant hostility) that has spared the Sentinelese but this remains a heartening example for India and for the world.

We know more, of course, about the Jarawa (or at least about what has been done to them) than we do about the Sentinelese, but we still know vanishingly little. And yet the sad and perplexing story of this unknown baby’s death can tell us much more about ourselves than the murder of young Sankar in Tamil Nadu. Perhaps we could begin to do justice to the drowned child by a frank examination of our terrible conduct with his tribe. More importantly, the Jarawa must be allowed a more prominent and public voice in decisions and debate surrounding the management of their interaction with the settler population. “It’s not as if tribal communities can only dance and play drums,” said Pandya. “The fact is that if they are allowed to, they can take care of their own lands too, something which is very troubling for the state.”