Survival is the only organization making money out of the misery of tribal peoples’ rights worldwide. The case of the Jarawa is a great example of how Survival works. While donations pour in, the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.
Say no to Survival!
Last Island On The Left – The Enduring Mystery Of The Andaman Islands
So you are looking for tropical paradise? Are you on a hunt for an unspoiled piece of earth, where the monkeys still swing in the trees, the crocodiles snap at your legs when you wade through jungle rivers, where obscure hunter-gatherer tribes roam the land in search of prey?
These days Shangri-La isn’t that easy to come by. The white spots on the map have shrunk down to microdots, playing with our imagination, appearing on the horizon of our collective desires. But ask anyone today what they know about the Andaman Islands….
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, situated in the Bay of Bengal, more than a 1000 km off the east coast of India are beautiful, remote, mostly uninhabited and surrounded by turquoise waters and coral reefs. Marco Polo wrote about the islands of headhunters and even the Romans were aware of the Andamans. The Andaman Sea is home to rays, sharks and dugong. The 570 or so islands are covered in rainforest and populated by unique fauna. You can get a fisherman to drop you off on your own island and pick you up again a week later. You can sit on more postcard picture beaches than you’ve got time for. Even the capital, Port Blair, is positively relaxed compared to other Indian towns.
At a casual glance, this is it – paradise, the adventure of a lifetime, a sentiment felt by the increasing number of backpackers, travelers and hippies that flock to the islands. Lalaji Bay on Long Island and the beaches of Smith Island have become temporary backpacker colonies. Travelers sleep on the beach, try their hand at fishing and generally try to recreate the heady hippy days of 60s Goa. Mellow out man – chillums and sandy dhal for dinner, cooked on an open fire, dolphins in the water, no electricity or infrastructure of any kind, acid under a full moon. After a week you’ll feel like Robinson, or if the substances are strong enough, you’ll invite the ‘primitive’ into your heart, enroll as a weekend noble savage, a kind of Defoe-esque Friday, Saturday and Sunday rolled into one. Just watch out for the sandflies.
But paradise for one person may be a living hell for the next.
Ropu is an Onge. He lives on Little Andaman, a large island south of Port Blair.
There are six tribes indigenous to the islands surviving – just. Their numbers are falling.
The Andamanese now number less than thirty and have forgotten most of their heritage, while the Jarawa are beleagured and set upon by settlers, exposed to tourists and maltreated when they enter the capital (one Jarawa woman was recently raped in Port Blair Hospital). Nothing much is known about the Shompen who are confined to forests in the Nicobar Islands.
The Sentinelese fiercely resist contact with anyone and remain a mystery on North Sentinel Island. No one knows how many Sentinelese survive but one suspects that they know that contact with India and the world beyond means death.
Only the Nicobarese have adapted well, but they are horticulturalists, related to the Burmese and have adopted Christianity.
The Onge repulsed several attempts by the British in the 19th century to subdue them and plundered a number of vessels that sunk off Little Andaman. The British in turn sent an expeditionary force to the island and wiped out most of the Onge. Though there were occasional hostilities between the tribes before the British annexed the islands, the indigenous people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands lived isolated and peacefully for thousands of years.
Ropu thinks there are about 90 Onge left in the world.
The British ran a penal colony for Indian dissidents and criminals in Port Blair (same architectural design as Pentonville Prison in London) from 1858. The Raj brutalized thousands of convicts who lived under appalling conditions and wiped out several tribes altogether, by ejecting them from their home territories and bestowing on them the white man’s diseases– syphilis, TB, mumps, measles, hepatitis.
The tribes died like flies, their immune systems totally unequipped to deal with strange viruses and bacteria. The Indian prisoners, numbering some ten thousand by 1873, called the islands Kali Pani or Black Water.
Since then things have been getting worse for the indigenous inhabitants. Today there are officially 300.000 settlers on the islands, from Bengal, Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu. In reality numbers probably run to more than half a million people and because of inept organization and wide spread corruption, thousands more arrive every month and allegedly bribe the cops for plots of land. There are less than a thousand tribals left.
Setters have shot tribals and tried to electrocute them with live wire fencing. The Jarawa in return stop buses on the Great Trunk Road and rob anyone on board. Not for much longer perhaps as several Jarawa have been diagnosed as HIV positive. The presence of AIDS among the Jarawa continues to be officially denied but several sources have now unofficially admitted that the number of AIDS cases among the general population and among Jarawa are increasing. Crew members of Burmese and Taiwanese boats illegally fishing in Andamanese waters were blamed. Up to 50% of Jarawa are said to have Hepatits B now. On top of that the Indian government has recently sent up to 90 researchers into the forest to determine how to help the Jarawa. That’s one scientist for every three tribals. All these middle-class academics travel with servants, have not disposed of rubbish properly and use the beach as a toilet.
But Ropu knows nothing of this. All he knows is that his territory is gone, and with it his life, livelihood, culture and religion. He cannot hunt for wild pigs anymore, the settlers have killed them all. He cannot hunt for turtles anymore, they are on the verge of extinction. He cannot follow his animist faith and customs anymore, which include frequent relocations in the forest, change of diet etc. He will not work in the coconut plantation near his reservation, part of the government’s efforts to civilise the ‘primitive’. He doesn’t see the point to do the same monotonous activity day in, day out. He doesn’t want money, or clothes and he doesn’t want to eat rice and dhal. He will not adapt.
Settler immigration to the islands since 1947 and the Indian government’s policy of forced assimilation and erosion of tribal territory have driven the Onge to the point of extinction, both mentally and physically. The Indian government flew a group of Onge to Delhi and Calcutta a few years ago. Upon return to their villages, the travelers spoke excitedly about the metal bird they had flown in and the cities they had seen. After a week, conversation was exhausted, their fellow Onge showed no further interest, the event became a story, the story slid towards obscurity.
Ropu is on his way to Port Blair, along with two Onge couples and their children. They are being packed off to the local hospital there for fertility tests. The Onge have stopped reproducing.
Two thirds of Little Andaman has been taken over by the Forest Department. The two small Onge communities in the far north and south of the island have lost contact with one another. There are tarmac roads and small towns with thousands of settlers in between. There’s a match factory and the forest is disappearing rapidly. The Indian government is spending considerable amounts of money in its efforts to ‘save’ the Onge. All Onge are housed in concrete and wood shacks. The smaller settlement is home to only 17 tribals. The Onge here look totally dejected and refuse to communicate. They have built their traditional huts next to the government sponsored buildings. They use the new buildings to store their tools and occasionally sit in the shade underneath. They wear rags because the government is still acutely ashamed of the ‘primitive’ on Indian soil. As the Onge have managed to do without clothing for the last 50.000 years or so, they look uncomfortable in cast-off T-shirts and are apparently more prone to sickness and temperature swings.
Ropu too looks funny in a marine blue cotton shirt and pants. The Onge are a very ancient pygmy people, the last remnant of the oldest anatomically modern population of Asia, possibly among the ancestors of many Asian and Australian people. They are part of the Negrito family of people, a term used to denote the short-statured, peppercorn-haired, dark-skinned people found in small surviving pockets all over tropical Asia and perhaps beyond. Their DNA may even give us new clues to the origin of man, but both the Indian government and the anthropological community at large have chosen to ignore this. It doesn’t fit into established programs and teachings.
For Ropa and his companions, the farewell at Dugong Creek jetty is a moving affair. All the Onge living in the southern reservation, around 70 in all, have gathered to see their friends loaded onto a small boat headed for Hat Bay, the main village on Little Andaman. From there the Onge will be transferred to Port Blair on the regular passenger ferry. The atmosphere is electric on the jetty. The Onge stand silently, some with their faces caked in a white paste similar to that worn by Burmese and Andaman sea gypsies. Some hug each other. Even the kids are quiet. Clearly this is an auspicious moment. Perhaps they are not sure whether they will see their compatriots again.
Ropu is first in the boat, followed by the social worker assigned to look after the Onge. This man, based in Hat Bay, shares the government’s conviction that the Onge are primitive people, who don’t what is good for them.
“These people, they have nothing. No religion, no faith. They don’t like to work. The Indian government is spending enough on each of them to keep them in a fine hotel in Delhi and still they don’t accept our help. Now we try to help them again, test them in Port Blair to see why these ones,” he points at the two couples on board as if they were cattle, ” why they don’t have children. They are the right age. But the women no longer get pregnant. We will conduct tests.” The expressions on the Onge’s faces are grim.
Later in Hat Bay I walk down the main road with Ropu. Foreigners are rarely seen here, Onge even less so. To have two of them together walk into a chai shop is a sensation. The shop owner hands both cups of tea to me and eyes Ropu suspiciously. He can’t imagine this strange small black man drinking chai from a glass.
The Onge are housed in a special Onge transit home, a concrete structure on the edge of the village. They sleep on a bare concrete floor and are fed cakes and bananas. In the evening I visit them and Ropu and the two other men present sing several songs. They sing about fishing, hunting for turtles and wild pigs, they sing about their culture that is being taken from them. The social worker is present but does not understand what they are singing. Ropu who speaks some Hindi explains. The women sit in the background, silently. The atmosphere is oppressive, the social worker has affections of cultural arrogance that seem to reflect his government’s policies.
“Socio-economic forces are at work here. There is simply no space left for the Onge. India is a poor country and we need the Andaman Islands.”
He fails to see that there are some 400 or so uninhabited islands out there, some of which at least would be suitable for settlement. The social worker, the one man representing the Onge in their relations to the outside world, thinks of them little better than animals, a nuisance.
“In twenty years, without a doubt, the Onge will be gone.”
This year Port Blair experienced severe water shortages, 20 minutes of running water every three days in fact. This in a region with three and half metres of rainfall a year. The settlers continue to multiply like locusts and the authorities cash in on it.
Last year the Supreme Court of India endorsed a string of recommendations, four years after the appointment of a commissioner to look into the plight of the tribals and environmental degradation on the islands. The Supreme Court passed orders that a section of the Andaman Grand Trunk Road be closed permanently and that all settlers were to have ID cards within six months. The Court also ordered the closure of all saw mills by 2003, to regulate further entries to the islands and to immediately stop felling trees on Little Andaman. Other islands were only to be logged for household consumption, monocultures such as oil palm, rubber and teak were to be phased out and sand mining was to be suspended.
In Port Blair general strike was called and the sand mafia and other business contractors with strong links to politicians protested vehemently. They had all the political parties on their side as well as the local MP, Bishnu Pada Ray. Only the Bengal Assocation Andaman Nicobar Islands (BAANI) and Local-Borns Association (LBA) (descendants of penal settlers) agreed with the Supreme Court recommendations. The BAANI announced, “…The fears expressed are either out of a vested interest or an incorrect reading and interpretation of the recommendations.”
It remains to be seen whether the court orders are adhered to. Port Blair is a long way from Delhi, the chain of command is not always clear. India is riddled with corruption on all levels as well as inter-communal strife, currently fired up by a fundamentalist Hindu government which doesn’t appear to have the plight of the Onge or indeed the environment very high on its agenda.
Ropu laments that the Onge have not been able to perform their most sacred ritual, Sena Garu, for years now. An Onge youth becomes a man when he hunts down a pig. The settlers have killed all the pigs.
Perhaps it is not the so-called ‘primitive’ people who are not ready for us, who are too simple to catch up with all our sophistication and obsession with progress and development. Perhaps it is us who are not ready to interface with people like the Onge.
I lose sight of Ropu and his companions the next day. They are shipped to Port Blair where they will be locked into a ward and tested. Doesn’t that send shivers down your spine? Welcome to paradise – lost.
This essay was originally published in my book Beyond the Pancake Trench in 2004.
For more information on the Andaman Islands and their original inhabitants, check out this excellent website: Andaman.org