On January 7, 2012, The Guardian reported a very disturbing story about semi-naked Jarawa tribal women being forced to dance in front of tourists in return for food. The Jarawas are a hunter-gatherer tribal community of about 400 members who live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India. The very idea of tourist operators offering ‘human safari’ to tourists visiting these islands is an insult to the indigenous population.
How ‘modern’ is a person who exploits the poverty of the tribal population to satiate their baser instincts? Money seems to be the only thing that makes a tourist who does such atrocities ‘modern’ and ‘civilised’. And it is the lack or absence of money that is forcing the tribal women to commit to actions that undermine their dignity. The lack of sensitivity on the part of law enforcement agencies is best illustrated in the news story which says that a police officer was ordering the tribal women to dance in front of the tourists. However, the Union Territory (UT) administration was quick to rebut saying that there was no policeman involved in the scene.
Following the hue and cry generated by the news report the Central government has demanded a report from the UT administration on the issue.
Tribals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are already suffering a great deal owing to the modernisation process that is forced upon them. A lot of controversy was generated earlier when the government built NH 223 aka the Great Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through the Jarawa territory and connected Port Blair with Mayabunder. A 2002 Supreme Court decision ordering the closure of this road was ignored by the administration. In 2010, BBC had reported that the last speaker of the ancient Indian language of Bo died in the Andaman Islands. Languages in Andaman Islands are believed to originate from Africa with some languages estimated to be up to 70,000 years old.
The Jarawa were in the recent past been regarded by non-tribals as dangerous but now they are regarded as endangered. Policy makers are still split on the approach to follow while dealing with tribal population – isolation versus integration. While recent government initiatives suggest a growing inclination towards integrating tribals with the mainstream population what is important is not to miss the voice and consent of the tribal communities themselves.
The scant regard that ‘modern’ Indian society gives to its invaluable heritage is seen in all spheres starting with the manner in which most of our historical monuments are conserved. Sadly, the tragedy of the Jarawas in the Andaman Islands is just one aspect of the big picture.
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