One of the few people to have researched and written about the Andamans is Madhusree Mukerjee, author of The Land of the Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders. She spoke to India Currents during a recent trip to New York.
What is the current situation in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, post-tsunami?
The damage is of very different kinds depending on where you are on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. The Nicobar islands are tremendously affected and 10,000 or more have died. (The Indian government has since reduced the estimated death toll to about 3,000 dead or missing.) Nicobarese coconut plantations are all salinated.
In the Andamans there was mostly earthquake. The tsunami killed perhaps 3,000 people and did a lot of other damage as well. So it’s a big mess right now.
You were afraid at that time that the Shompen people in the Nicobar would be hit especially hard.
Not just I, everyone was. It’s still not clear what happened to the Shompen. Some of them can’t be spotted. But the thing is they are so remote we don’t really know where they are, don’t know their habits. I don’t personally know how many Shompen there are though I have seen reports that say 300.
But it seems the tribes on the Andaman islands are safe.
I read that the knowledge of nature saved them?
The kind of reports we were originally getting talked about how some of them said they knew what would happen if they were hit by the quake from their grandfathers’ stories. The Onge talked about how they were afraid when they saw the waters recede.
An anthropologist who talked to the Onge described their knowledge of the environment as coded in mythology. They believe this happens when the spirits throw a big boulder into the sea.
Is there resentment from other people who lived on the islands that so much attention is being paid to the tribals?
Yes, but the local settlers are also getting a lot of attention. It’s not like the tribals are getting a lot of things. But the aboriginals are adept at dealing with island environments. Settlers need the help; they don’t know how to live in a sustainable way.
The tsunami washed away a lot of the homes the welfare department built for the Onge. Maybe we should not rebuild them. Maybe they should go back to the forest.
Is there an idea that they would be better off in a forest lifestyle?
Take the Onge, of whom there are about 100 left. They suffer from a kind of sadness. They know that they are dying out and they cannot deal with the world. Their territory has been taken away from them.
The welfare system can be very insensitive and exploitative. Supposedly it’s there to do good but they exploit the tribals by pushing alcohol on them. The tribals have access to honey and ambergris, which have value in the mainland market. By getting them addicted to alcohol people can make them give things like honey for cheap.
The Jarawa have been isolated forever. Now you have instances of state government employees raping and exploiting their women and there are no real ways to deal with it. A woman was recently accused of exploiting teenage boys. She was just transferred.
With the addiction to things like alcohol, is it possible for people to go back to a forest lifestyle?
We don’t know with the Onge. The Jarawa came out of the forest in 1998 and immediately started to have epidemics. The Jarawa stay away from the outside world and the tsunami reinforced that.
How did you get access when you were writing the book?
It’s very difficult to get access and that’s understandable because you don’t want everyone going in there. But I found that the access problem is really limited to journalists. If you have connections … anyone whose uncle or nephew is an employee on settlements can easily get access. So in principle, access is very restricted. In practice there are no rules for government employees.
That said, the babus in Port Blair do not take the trouble to go into the tribal settlements. And when they do, it’s all announced beforehand and everything is cleaned up before the helicopter lands and it all looks good.
When you went to the settlements, were people eager to talk?
It depends on who you talk to. The Great Andamanese have had a lot of contact with outsiders since British times. And they are quite comfortable talking with outsiders. They will tell you about their troubles, but you have to be careful because like any human beings with an audience they can spin their own tales.
The Onge don’t like outsiders. The Jarawa, when I went there, were just coming out. They were very, very curious about the outside world. They were first really excited and thrilled and everything was wonderful. Then come the germs, illnesses, and addictions that have enfeebled them. I couldn’t speak their language but it was mostly physical exploration and touching to see what kind of human I was.
In the Amazons the fight with indigenous people is over resources like oil. Is there a fight in the Andamans?
Sure, there is a fight. The fight is over territory with the settlers. Contractors want timber, sand. Settlers want fish and shellfish. There are incredible satellite maps of the Andaman islands that show that the only pristine rainforests left are in the Jarawa reserve. I have never seen the inside of the Jarawa forest. I know it’s dank and dark and full of all kinds of species. People are just craving to get their hands on the resources, whether it’s the settlers or the forest department. There has been a ban on selling resources from the Supreme Court but after the tsunami that order was lifted in order to raise revenues to rebuild.
What can isolated tribes like the Jarawa do in this kind of David vs. Goliath situation when even these tribes themselves are not connected with each other?
Even the Great Andamanese, who have some idea of what the outside world is like, and there are only about 45 of them, they are very adrift and torn from their community. A lot of the men are alcoholics. A lot of the women don’t really like their own men and have children with outsiders. Some of the younger children are getting better education. So maybe there will be somebody coming up but right now there is no strong personality.
Is that sense of sadness palpable?
With the Onge, yes. They don’t like to talk about it but it’s a generalized sense of our world is being destroyed. And it’s the actual physical world where settlers have come on to it and burned up acres of forests. I know of a story about this little girl who died while playing when she hit her head on a rock. When people commiserated with the family, they said, “What does it matter when our god has died.”
What do you say when people say it’s interesting that these people have been isolated for so long, but it’s a matter of evolution and that these people will eventually disappear and there is not much we can do about it?
It’s a complex question to ask what value do they have as a culture. I feel their way of life is so special, it’s almost an example to the rest of us. The way they live now is the way a lot of our ancestors lived. If you look at their moral codes, it’s the same in a large part as ours—don’t kill, don’t be cruel, take care of the sick. When you look at them you see how these codes work.
Even I missed that lifestyle at times. There, when someone has a baby, everyone, male or female, takes care of the child. I have a child and I know how hard it is to be alone with a child. They have learned over thousands of year how to live in a sustainable way. The beliefs they have actually protect the resources. When they extract a tuber, they make sure they don’t kill the plants. I think their very low birth rate, which is a problem, actually evolved so as not to overpopulate the island. I think we have a lot to learn from them and I called my book Stone Age Islanders not to denigrate them but to show how different they are, yet how viable they are.
Can some good come out the tsunami and the attention?
I think the administration has become a lot more attentive to aboriginal rights. And they were really astonished at the focus on the Andamans after the tsunami. But there are still a lot of firefights to be fought, for example, there are a lot of concerns about tourism development. The tsunami at least gives people pause to consider things like coastal zone regulations.
What do people need most now?
Primarily their territory needs protection. The welfare system needs a complete overhaul. There should be the least number of outsiders dealing with them. People interacting with the tribals need sensitivity. You can’t go around telling them don’t do it your way, do it my way. And there should be accountability. People should not just be trained well, they should be punished if they abuse them in any way. And the territory needs to be protected from poaching, which is very damaging to their culture.
What memories of the Andamans stick with you the most?
My book is a sad book. The Jarawa are a very regal people. They meet you and touch you like they are equals. There is no social hierarchy—it’s a completely egalitarian society.
I met this boy, Raja, the first time in 1998—he was so bright-eyed and self-possessed. I met him a year or two later when he was hanging out at the local hospital and he said, “I want to learn the ABC.” Then I last met him in 2002 and he was much older. The mischievous spark had gone out of his eyes. He looked dull. It looked like he had lost something. An autoricksha came by and yelled at him to sing a song. Raja sang something and he started making these obscene gestures as if he was the local clown. And it was so sad, the transition of this beautiful boy into a laughing stock, the monkey on the road. And that’s the tragedy of what has been lost in their coming out.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a newsmagazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New California Media.