How a statist vision of development has brought Andaman's tribals close to extinction

Visions of massive industrialisation have placed the local population on the brink.

The history of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is today a conveniently comfortable one: of the British, Kalapani and the Cellular Jail, of World War I and the Japanese occupation, of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Veer Savarkar, the first hoisting of the Indian national flag, and of a modern mini India where all communities and religions live in peace and harmony.

But like all histories, this one too is incomplete. It is the story of the victors, of the people who have today come to dominate these islands. The vanquished, as they say, have no tales to tell. The history of these islands as we tell it, as we are told it is, is silent in many parts.

There are gaping holes that are conveniently allowed to remain as they are.

This history says nothing of the past, the present and the future of those people and communities that originally belong to the islands. For that matter, the islands belong to them, but ironically, the people who write the history are we, the citizens of the modern democratic Indian state. The people in question are the ancient tribal communities that live here in the Andaman Islands – the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. These are communities that have lived and flourished here for at least 40,000 years, but the end could well be round the corner.

Just 150 years ago, the population of these tribal communities was estimated to be at least 5,000. Today, however, while the total population of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands has risen to about 0.4 million, the population of these four communities put together is not more than a mere 500.

These communities of thousands of individuals with a living lineage going back thousands of years have been brought to this sorry state in a mere 150 years. It definitely began with the British and their policies, which have been kept up with clinical efficiency by modern, independent India. Independent India was only about a couple of decades old, a young thriving democracy as it would have been called then.

But this vibrant democracy was already on course to becoming a coloniser itself.

From a colony of the British to the coloniser of the Andaman Islands (and many other places too), the transition for India was an amazingly easy one; almost, it would seem, a natural one. In the late 1960s, an official plan of the Government of India to “colonise” (and this was the term used) the Andaman and Nicobar Islands was firmly in place.

The forests were “wastelands” that needed to be tamed, settled and developed. It did not matter that these forests were the home of myriad plants and animals that had evolved over aeons. It did not matter that ancient tribal peoples were living here for centuries, neither that they were physically and spiritually sustained by these forests. The idea that forests could mean more than just the timber the trees provided had not even taken seed in the national consciousness.

The Nehruvian dream of massive industrialisation was calling and the rich evergreen forests of the islands promised abundant timber to fuel it. The tribals too had to be civilised, brought into the Indian mainstream. There was no question of inquiring, let alone trying to understand and factor in, what it was that the Onge, the Andamanese or the Jarawa themselves wanted.

Tribal cultures the world over are intricately linked with the forests they live in. The story, or should we call it the “history” of modern civilisation, is largely one of the taming and destroying the great forests of the world and the innumerable tribal communities that lived therein.

The Andaman Islands is a good example. By various means, both intended and unintended, the tribal communities have been constantly alienated from their forests, their lands and their very cosmos that is built around all these.

One of the subtle but classic examples is the Hinduisation of the name Andaman itself and the attempt to pass it off as the only truth.

The standard and universal answer to the question of the origin of the name is the well-known Hindu god Hanuman. That the state too conveniently believes this is evident from the fact this is the story that goes out in the sound-and-light show that plays every evening at the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. No one is bothered that there are many other explanations as to why the Andamans are called so.

Researches on Ptolemy’s Geography of Eastern Asia, a book written by Colonel G.F. Gerini in 1909, makes incredible reading in this context, but obviously, not many have bothered to read it. It is hardly surprising then that we care even less to know what the tribals themselves call these islands.

The repercussions of this dominant mindset are all too evident when one looks at what is happening to the forests and the tribal communities. The Great Andamanese have been wiped out as a viable community: only about fifty members of that community survive today. The Onges of the island of Little Andaman (they call it Egu-belong) today number only 100. The 1901 census estimated their population to be 601.

Till a couple of years ago, the Jarawas were extremely hostile to the outside world. This hostility and self-maintained isolation in the impenetrable rainforests of these islands had ensured that their community, culture and forest home remained intact and unharmed. But it was never our intention to let them be.

The Andaman Trunk Road was constructed through the heart of the very forests the Jarawas call home. It destroyed precious forests and brought in various developments that are proving to be disastrous for the Jarawas. As a result of a combination of such factors, most not known or understood, the Jarawas recently shed their hostility and have begun to come out from their forests “voluntarily”.

It could well be the first step on the route that the Great Andamanese and the Onge were forced to take many decades ago. A huge epidemic of measles hit the Jarawas in 1999 and a number of them were, reportedly, affected by other ailments too.

Its distance from the Indian mainland has not saved Andaman from forest-destroying industrialisation.
Its distance from the Indian mainland has not saved Andaman from forest-destroying industrialisation.

The lessons of history have not been learnt. Maybe they are being deliberately ignored.

It could well be worth our while to get these tribals out of our way. Only then can the precious tropical hardwoods that are found in their forests and the very lands that these forests stand on be put to “productive” use. Little Andaman is a classic case. In the 1960s and ’70s, thousands of settlers from mainland India were brought in and settled here. The forests too were opened up for logging in the early 1970s as part of the “colonisation” plan. An Onge tribal reserve was created, but for more than a decade now this reserve has been violated for timber extraction.

The attitude of the settlers who today live on the land that belongs to the Onge only reflects that of the powers that be. They ridicule the tribals as uncivilised junglees. Vices like alcoholism were introduced; the addiction is now used by the settlers to exploit resources from the forests. Poaching and encroachment inside the Onge reserve too are ever on the increase.

In the early 1960s, the Onge were the sole inhabitants of Little Andaman. Today, for each Onge, there are at least 120 outsiders here, and this imbalance is rapidly increasing. What more needs to be said?

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