John Allen Chau’s death puts focus on the ‘great Andaman tragedy’

FPJ BureauUpdated: Wednesday, May 29, 2019, 04:20 AM IST
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ANIRUDH CHAOJI explores the decline of the four Negrito communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The recent death of the American tourist in Andamans is actually a non-issue. It is widely felt in academic circles that Christopher Columbus should have actually faced the same reception party. However, fortunately for the sailing Europeans, the Native Americans and Caribbean islanders were very peaceful. Rest is all a sad history.

Something similar has been witnessed by the native communities of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Once the only humans on these islands for over 30,000 years, the four Negrito communities of Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawas and Sentinelese; and few thousand years old Mongoloid communities of Shompen and Nicobarese have been now reduced to last few remaining numbers. In the recent past, some like the Jarawas have been at the receiving end of highly inhuman ‘Human Safaris’.

The Danish East India Company reached Andamans in 1755 and later the British came in 1789.  These last 250 plus years have been the most pitiable years in the history of these original islanders. The Britishers came to make Andamans a penal colony and saw the forests as the most treasured heritage of the East. However, the only hindrance they saw was in the form of the local communities who lived in the dense forests as hunter-gatherers. There was no means of communication with people who lived off the forest and the sea and were determined to protect their forest home from the invasive sub-species of Homo sapiens.

Similar to Australia, the British had opened up Andamans as a faraway land for convicts. Only difference being that many ‘so called criminals’ had landed here for committing the crime of struggling for freedom from the British. As the British started to take control of more and more lands in the islands, they faced stiff opposition from the communities. The Great Andamanese who dominated the South Andaman Island and were believed to have been more than 5000 in numbers. They and the Jarawas often fought for control of the forests. However, thanks to many battles with the British forces, like the one at Aberdeen and other British ploys of disease, liquor and opium, today less than 50 of these Great Andamanese are all that remains. They too have been stripped of self-sufficiency and a sense of identity and now ‘civilised’ and thus dependent on food and aid from the Indian government, tucked away in a small settlement on the Strait Island.

Very similar is the case of the last hundred odd members of the Onge community that too survives on government support – thanks to poachers and loggers stealing their forest homes. Of the two Mongoloid communities of Shompens have managed to remain substantially isolated on the island of Great Nicobar and have also survived the impact of Tsunami. The Nicobarese on the other hand have been completely ‘civilised’, become horticulturists and traded their animistic worship for the Bible. Unlike the members of Onge community which moved to higher grounds on seeing the sea waters recede, Nicobarese became the single indigenous community to have been badly affected by the Tsunami — losing many members and homes to the tidal wave.

The Jarawas on the other hand fortunately have been living in the forests of South and Middle Andamans in sufficient isolation. There were random attempts to establish contact since the British times. But till around the 1970s, they managed to hold on to their lifestyle. Today their life is a story that went terribly wrong.

The Indian government in its effort to manage the waves of Hindu Bengalis of East Pakistan, who migrated into West Bengal in 1949, sent around 4000 able bodied families for the ‘Colonisation Schemes to cultivate and domesticate jungle covered parts of Andamans and Nicobar Islands’. Their population steadily went up and so did the demand for forest land for agriculture and homes. The interaction between the new settlers and Jarawas started happening immediately on the common lands. Jarawas were pushed back in the process. However, fortunately 1028 sq kms of land was reserved for the Jarawas and is what remains as their stronghold. The real challenge is to ensure that this last their remaining virgin rain forest is not de-reserved under the pressure of the settlers.

However, in 1970s another catastrophe befell the Jarawas. The opening of the Andaman Trunk Road mainly for transporting timber and settlers meant that their self-maintained isolation was now threatened. However, it was only in the recent past that the ‘real’ problem became more and more evident. The unclothed Jarawas soon became ‘items of human tourism’. The perverse safaris were banned by the Hon. Supreme Court, but completely disregarded by the local administration. Even today, swhen a sea route has been opened for tourists, their numbers passing through the Jarawa reserve has not diminished.

In all these negative stories, the only community that has managed to survive on their own terms and in almost complete isolation has been the Sentinelese. Today we don’t even know their exact numbers as there has been no peaceful contact with them. Every attempt has been received with a shower of arrows — including those received by the Indian Air Force helicopter that went to survey the damage of the Tsunami – in a way telling us that they were fit and fine and not to be bothered. They are a community that is living on their Sentinel island – completely in self-sufficiency as hunter-gatherers and fishermen. Thus, there was no need for John Allen Chau or for that reason anyone else to have attempted to change their lifestyle or even their faith. The policy being followed by the Indian government now has been that the Shompens, Jarawas and Sentinelese should themselves control their future with minimal intervention from the state – though there is a tremendous pressure to ensure otherwise.

(Explorer, wildlifer, trekker, scuba diver, sky diver, river rafter, birdwatcher and nomad for life, Anirudh Chaoji works as a Biologist and is involved in community-based conservation, Forest Department, Tadoha Andhari Tiger Reserve.)

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