The Threat to the Andamans' Jawara Tribe

Is the life of a primitive child on an isolated island in the Andaman Sea, in the words of the

British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, likely to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short? Or is it

idyllic and peaceful?

Bishnu Pada Ray, an Indian member of parliament representing the Andaman and Nicobar

Islands, is proposing that children aged six to 12 of the Jawara tribe, perhaps some of the most

isolated people on the planet, be taken away from their parents to be “kept in a normal school

atmosphere, trained in personal hygiene, use of clothing and basic reading and writing skills” for

six months, then returned to the tribe to civilize the rest of them.

That has stirred outrage among representatives of indigenous peoples across the world, who

say it “echoes the much-criticized policy of the ‘Stolen Generation’ in Australia, and similar

policies in North America.” Michael Cachagee, executive director of the National Residential

School Survivors’ Society in Canada, said in a press release by Survival International that his

organization “cannot comprehend or fathom that any nation in today’s world would consider

interning any of their citizens, especially children, in a ‘residential school’, given the horrific

history associated with these types of schools in Canada and other parts of the world.’

The islands are a series of specks with the Andaman Sea on one side and the Bay of Bengal

on the other. Only 38 of the 550-odd islands are inhabited. They are thought to have been

populated by some of the first human migrations out of Africa. The Jarawa were totally isolated

until about 1998, when some tribespeople began to emerge from the forest to visit towns and

settlements created by several hundred thousand ethnic Indians, who now vastly outnumber

the tribes, encroaching on their land. The Jawara have resisted civilization, famously shooting

at helicopters with bows and arrows during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Although nearly

6,000 people died in the tsunami, most of the aboriginals survived because oral traditions passed

down from generations ago warned them to run for high ground from large waves that follow

large earthquakes.

The Indian government adopted a policy of isolation for the aboriginals, requiring permits

to contact them. But what Ray called “friendly interaction” is resulting in “inculcation of

undesirable knowledge and habits as well as injection of race impurity.” Therefore, Ray said,

the isolation policy has failed and “if the current policy and treatment continues, it will not take

much time for the total annihilation of the Jarawa entity.”

A road was built in the 1970s by the Indian government through the primary area the Jarawa

inhabit, bringing settlers, poachers and loggers as well as diseases to which they have no

immunity. They have become kind of inhabitants of a zoo, with tour operators driving through

the reserve every day in the hope of spotting members of the tribe, according to Survival

International, which is leading a campaign to keep the tribe in isolation.

On the other side is Ray, who said in a press statement that the Jawara are “dark skinned, short

structured men and women akin to their African cousins. They live in the forests of the South

and Middle Andaman islands in mysterious isolation, stuck in time somewhere in between the

stone and iron age.”

He proposes “quick and drastic steps…to bring the Jarawa up to the basic mainstream

characteristics,” pointing to children of two tribes in the Indian state of Jharkhand who were

removed from the tribes and “exposed to eating habits of simple mainstream people and modern

amenities such as television and motor vehicles.”

After six months, Ray said, the children were returned to their tribes. Within a month, they were

observed to have lost some of their clothing and mainstream habits, but the tribes themselves had acquired some characteristics such as personal hygiene and use of clothes. The children were

removed again and schooled over a longer period.

“Over time, trainers were able to infiltrate into the main pockets of tribes and inculcate skills of

personal hygiene, wearing of clothes and their maintenance, partaking of cooked food and basic

agricultural and horticultural activities. The final result was training the entire population into a

village identical with any other (similar) village in Jharkhand.”

Ray argues that the population must be given some advantages to ensure their survival against

the adverse effects of unregulated contacts with the mainstream.

Unfortunately, at the same time the MP is advocating that restrictions on development in

the Jarawa reserve be lifted, which would bring considerably more contact to a people who,

according to Survival International, could survive on their own if contact were to be stopped.

He is asking that a national highway and railway be built, passing through two Jawara tribal


'These scandalous proposals are contemptuous both of indigenous peoples' rights and

the UN's standards for their protection,” said Stephen Cory, the director of Survival

International. “Attempts to force the Jarawa to abandon their way of life will simply destroy


“With all sympathies for the Jarawa, one finds it not very logical to halt development of facilities

and amenities for 400,000 people to provide resource domain to merely 300 individuals in a

primitive stage of development. Even otherwise, the current policy of isolating Jarawa adopted

by the A&N Administration does not seem to be doing any benefit to the Jarawas,” Ray said. “It

is high time that realization dawns on the policy makers to adopt the correct policy for the

survival of Jarawa tribals and not go for the fashionable option.”

That is nonsense, Survival International said in a 59-page report on indigenous people around

there world titled “Progress Can Kill.” After the government resettled another tribe, the Onge

of Little Andaman Island in 1976, “the Onge have become dependent on nutritionally poor

government rations, with a drastic impact on child health. Between 1978 and 1985, the infant

mortality rate doubled, with the most common cause of child deaths being from diarrhea,

dysentery and malnutrition. The Onge population fell from 670 in 1900, to 169 in 1961, to 76 in

1991. ‘This “resettlement” has set in motion the biological, social and cultural death

of the Onge.

By contrast, the report said, the Jarawa have maintained their independence and have suffered

less from disease and loss of land. “They are mostly still nomadic and self sufficient, but they are

at increasing risk from poachers and settlers.”