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Hands off but eyes on

Portents of ‘White man’s burden’ in Andaman & Nicobar Islands

Hands off but eyes on

Sent as the Administrator responsible for the Relief-and-Rehabilitation in the immediate aftermath of nature's fury following the 2004 Tsunami that had claimed over 2000 lives and led to an unaccountable trail of destruction, my soldiers-instinct had made me marvel at the better-faring of the tragedy by our indigenous tribes. The Andaman and Nicobar is an anthropologist's delight, a curious quirk of nature that accounts for an unmatched diversity of four 'Negrito' tribes i.e., Jarawas, Great Andamanese, Onge, Sentinelese, and the two 'Mongloid' tribes i.e., Shompen and Nicobarese. Though living in relatively close proximity by modern standards, these groups are ethnically, linguistically, and culturally very independent of each other with virtually no inter-mingling, spare the 'mainstreaming' of the Nicobarese, the still-shy Shompens, a small number of Great Andamanese and Onges. The Jarawas still retain their hunter-forager-fishermen ways of existence, the building of the Andaman Trunk Road led to an inadvertent interaction as it cut through their settlement jungles – but, the 'uncontacted' Sentinelese estimated at around 100-200 numbers, on the 14700 acre Sentinel Island have maintained a historically unbreached isolation, that often elicits curiosity, myths, and concerns by not having reached the Paleolithic advancements.

Living cheek-by-jowl with the later-day settlers or 'civilians' (many of whom are progeny of freedom fighters incarcerated to the infamous Kala Paani, pre-Independence), within which the potpourri of diversities include Bengalis, Tamils, Biharis, Punjabis, etc., the utopian ideal of 'Mini India' is alive and kicking with a quaintly antiquated dialect of Hindustani becoming the lingua franca of the mainstream. Infrequent fissures, intrusions, and instances of hostile-foraging on the fringes of the 'buffer-zone' separating the protected zone of the Jarawa settlement do lead to occasional civic disturbances, but nothing serious. The isolation is accepted as a reality and evolutionary 'modernity' of metallurgy, medical care, and semi-permanent habitations have crept in the Jarawa realm – no such natural, enforced or collateral connect with civilisation was established with the Sentinelese. The local administration has since enforced the 'hands off but eyes on' approach. Undoubtedly and unfortunately, an occurrence of the abhorrently voyeuristic phenomenon of 'Human Safaris' has occurred despite the official notifications regarding the tribal affairs and their lands. Though the principle and spirit of ensuring their protection were, and are, never in doubt.

To engage further or not to engage with our vulnerable tribals is not a simple question to answer, with compelling reasons on both sides of the argument. A sudden and forced engagement can indeed be catastrophic, as indeed, a complete 'disengagement' given the natural and man-made vulnerabilities in today's day and age. There are other complexities pertaining to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands emanating from its strategic location that overlooks the 'chokepoint' of the Chinese juggernaut (Malacca Straits) that hosts the only Tri-Services Command of the Indian Armed Forces, as also, the civic-political-socio-economic interest of the nearly 400,000 Islanders who seek to improve their quality of life. Pressures on the limited lands are also inevitable given the 94 per cent forest cover, the highest in the country. Often the interests of the NGO's, Social Workers, Tribals, Agencies and the bulk of the Islanders is at cross-purposes given the conflicting aspirations and priorities – the Administration has the onerous task of taking a holistic view on the development, progress, protection and 'inclusion' of its citizenry, including it most vulnerable tribals.

Records of Portuguese, Danish, German, French and later the English missionaries, since the seventeenth century are documented. Before the penal settlement of the British Raj, these indigenous tribes with their own ethnological practices as opposed to any formal religion, made them attractive to these missionaries as sanctified by the various European colonisers (especially in the Nicobar Islands). Unbeknownst to many, Port Blair was the first place to be declared 'Independent' from the British Rule in 1943, as Subhash Chandra Bose (in alliance with the Japanese who occupied it briefly in WWII) flew the national flag and called the Islands Shahid and Swaraj. Later Andaman and Nicobar Islands became the 'Shining Outpost' of the Indian mainland that was at least 1200 kilometres away.

Since then, constitutional provisions made to protect our vulnerabilities, diversities, and fragilities have been enforced in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with local specificities and rulings. A protective and inclusive impulse of India has managed the unmatched complexity and diversity of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with a calibrated mix of governmental, societal and NGO-led initiatives. The various domains, limitations, and restrictions are defined and often recalibrated after deliberations with all stakeholders, however, the final sovereign edict is respected. Sadly, the recent case of the US national and missionary John Aleen Chau, who violated multiple laws and regulations to reach the protected Sentinel Island, ended up getting killed by its wary and hostile Sentinelese. Chau was clearly aware of contravening the laws of the land and had bribed the local fishermen to take him to the Island, out of a clearly misplaced sense of religious righteousness and missionary zeal that can never justify overriding the laws. Portents of the modern 'white man's burden' are obvious in Chau's admittance of his mission to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity, by describing the place as 'Satan's last stronghold'. His diary notings are full of religious invocations and allusions to morally contextualise his mission – this, unfortunately, undoes the good work that missionaries have undertaken in these remote places, albeit, in accordance with the laws of the land. Such actions also feed the restive political narrative that is susceptible to the religious angularities that were relatively unknown in these Islands.

The sovereign has its own noble agenda and approach of protecting its citizenry – often these need further debate and even 'course-corrections', however that right cannot be surrendered to vested interests who may have their specific and limited agendas that can militate against the foundational and constitutional spirit and tenets of India. Such regrettable incidents are a wake-up call to readdress our concern of protecting our vulnerable tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, with their own interest and that of the nation, solely and above-all considerations.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views are strictly personal.

Bhopinder Singh

Bhopinder Singh

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