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Row over 'mainstreaming' of India's tribes

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 01/05/2014 Subir Bhaumik
Candidates contesting polls in eastern archipelago of Andamans kick up row by promising to 'modernise' primitive tribes. © Row over 'mainstreaming' of India's tribes Candidates contesting polls in eastern archipelago of Andamans kick up row by promising to 'modernise' primitive tribes.

India's obsession to 'mainstream' tribes has never been carried this far.As the country nears the end of its long, staggered elections lasting for more than a month, candidates of both national parties have kicked up a row in the eastern islands of Andamans on the issue of primitive tribes, including the Jarawa, who number just a few hundred.While the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate has promised to 'mainstream' these tribes, the ruling Congress party candidate has joined him in promising to do away with a buffer zone that protects the tribe from intrusion by settlers from mainland India."I will work to bring the Jarawas into the national mainstream if I am elected again," Bishnupada Ray, Andaman's lone legislator in parliament, told rallies during the poll campaign.This has drawn severe condemnation from activists who seek to protect the indigenous tribes on the island, believed to be the first humans to inhabit South Asia.Though Ray, a Bengali refugee settled in the island, did not quite elaborate, his supporters say the legislator plans to 'modernise' the Jarawas by giving them education and teaching them agriculture to wean them away from their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.The population of Jarawas has been dwindling and they number just a few hundred now. Exposure to the communities from Indian mainland has led to diseases like measles which led to many deaths.Environmentalists and anthropologists working on indigenous groups have long opposed any attempt to 'mainstream' these tribes, recommending minimum contact with outsiders."Mainstreaming Jarawas is a preposterous idea. It will destroy them completely," Madhusree Mukherjee, author of "The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders", Madhusree Mukherjee, a Journalist, told Al Jazeera."From poaching animals to illegal logging, from sexually exploiting the local tribes to getting them addicted to alcohol, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are facing a crisis that few on the Indian mainland are noticing," Mukherjee said. Murky administration When local journalist Denis Giles tried to expose a racket involving settlers from the mainland enticing Jarawa girls for sex by offering them marijuana and drugs, he was harassed and intimidated with threats of legal action by the local administration.Policemen and soldiers on the island have been accused of shooting videos of naked Jarawa men and women and circulating them by mobile phones."The administration has moved against some of them, but let them off when the controversy subsided," Giles said.Recently Indian President Pranab Mukherjee opposed efforts to assimilate tribes such as the Jarawas, arguing that it could destroy them completely.But that has little effect on the local politicians campaigning for the lone parliament seat in the island that is now headquarters of India's first integrated services military command.Both BJP's Ray and Congress' Kuldeep Rai Sharma battling for the island's lone parliament seat have promised they would remove the protective buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve and build bridges on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) that passes through the reserve.Environmentalists have long tried to push the local administration to close down the ATR because it passed through the Jarawa reserve and was used by tour operators to organise 'human safaris'."Our tour operator took us around the good spots on the islands and then drove us into the Jarawa reserve so that we could catch a glimpse of the ancient tribe," said Kolkata tourist Shelley Bhowmick, who just spent a week in the Andamans with her family. Open human zoo It is an open secret in the Andamans that most tourists are offered a tour of the Jarawa reserve - a rare experience of witnessing primitive naked tribes people, almost like visiting an open human zoo."These safaris are destroying the Jarawas. They eat the food the tourists give away and that leads to diseases," said Samir Acharya, convenor of the Society for Andaman-Nicobar Ecology (SANE).Acharya has been at the forefront of legal battles to close down the ATR to protect the Jarawas - with little success."The local administration keeps the road open flouting court orders, so what can we do," Acharya told Al Jazeera.He is worried that the politicians intend to close down the buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve and build two bridges on the ATR."That will lead to more of this nonsense of Jarawa tourism. This will destroy the tribe," said Acharya.Local journalist Giles worries that more settlers from the mainland will push into the Jarawa reserve, trying to exploit their women for sex and forests for resources.The London-based Survival International echoed his sentiments."These pledges by the politicians are regressive and would put back the Jarawa's rights by decades," said the Survival's director Stephen Corry."The Jarawas already face degrading intrusions into their forest home by hundreds of tourists traveling along the Andaman Trunk Road each-day intent on spotting members of the tribe," Corry told Al Jazeera.He said that the island administration had promised an alternative route to the ATR by March 2015 which would remove tourists from the road."But new pledges by both the Congress and the BJP candidates to build two new bridges along the existing route inside the Jarawa reserve make the opening of an alternative route increasingly unlikely," said Corry. Controversial proposal Currently, no commercial or tourist establishments are allowed within a buffer zone around the Jarawa reserve.But what upsets him most is Ray's poll pledge to 'mainstream' the Jarawas."Bishnupada Ray's scandalous proposals show utter contempt for the Jarawa's survival - attempts to force the tribe to integrate will destroy them. The very notion of mainstreaming is rooted in a colonialist attitude and the outmoded conviction that governments know best. In fact, this approach is always disastrous," Corry said.He said the policy of 'mainstreaming' other tribes on the island , pursued by both the British colonial rulers and those in post-colonial India, have led to disastrous consequences.The Great Andamanese tribe has been reduced to just 53, whittled down by disease and alcohol.Other tribes such as the Onges also suffer from dwindling numbers - down to a few hundred. Only some like the Great Sentinelese who fiercely oppose human contact and fire arrows at approaching Coastguards have some numbers left.Neither Ray nor Sharma were available for comment, having gone off for rest after polls in the islands ended on April 10. India's efforts to 'mainstream' tribes in the country's northeast have led to much unrest and violence."This whole business of mainstreaming is obnoxious. It pre-supposes one major strand of Indian civilisation and expects all the rest to fall in line," says sociologist Uddipana Goswami, who was worked on ethnic conflicts in country's northeast.In Andamans, India does not have to fear that kind of unrest because the primitive tribes neither have the numbers nor the wherewithal to resist 'mainstreaming'."But if we destroy the Jarawas by our lack of sensitivity, India will have answer to its conscience," says SANE's Acharya.

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