By Nikita Rajwade:
“So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.”
–Â Roger Nash Baldwin
India has always been a country of astounding diversity and surprisingly easy cohabitation. The years have seen this country mature and grow from strength to greater strength, fumbling at times, yet drawing conviction from its past errors- a conviction to move ahead.
Earlier this year, my faith in the above belief dwindled, when the newspapers were flooding with the news of the mistreatment of people of the Jarawa tribe. The Jarawa people belong to an indigenous Indian tribe, and have inhabited the Andaman Islands for thousands of years. The tribe is extremely small, its population limited to not more than four hundred people. While the Jarawa people seem to have shunned any contact with outsiders, and had shown no inclination to be integrated with mainstream Indian social life before the late 1980s, the decades since then have seen their participation growing better (like sending some children to school). In spite of this quiet involvement, the tribe is supposedly receiving protection from the state, with tourists and other persons barred from interfering in their activities under theÂ Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956.
In January, the abominable behaviour of the private tour operators in the Andaman Islands came to light when the Andaman police lodged a complaint against unidentified persons (of whom one is reported to be a policeman) who had taken a video of the Jarawa women dancing, and promised food in return for the same.
The Jarawa people face various problems due to lack of occupations and are therefore reduced to begging by the side of the highway near their reserved forest area, and the tour guides take undue advantage of their pitiful condition by bringing close to five hundred tourists everyday to the forest area for what they call a ‘safari’, during which food is thrown out to the Jarawas, treating them no better than any animal caged in a zoo. Adding to their already miserable state, women of the tribe, who often leave their upper torsos uncovered, are forced to dance for the amusement of wealthy tourists.
The video that was unearthed by the police openly flouted the rule under the PAT regulation, according to which taking pictures or video shooting of tribals is banned. While the government is trying its best to keep tourists out of the area reserved for the Jarawas, they have not been able to achieve much, due to the Great Andaman Trunk Road that was constructed in times of great need to connect the lakhs of people in the Andamans who earlier faced acute shortage of food supplies due to various reasons. For this reason alone, the government refused to close off the Jarawa portion of the road.
It is a matter of great shame that the tour guides as well as the tourists lack even the least bit of sensitivity, and do not think twice before encroaching on the lives of the Jarawas. What rankles most to me is that the dignity of the women has been compromised and their lives reduced to nothing more than shambles because of the detestable way the outsiders treat them. Is this what we had envisaged when we India gained independence back in 1947? We were supposed to be a democracy, our feelings protected, and our rights promoted, and the tribals have been, undoubtedly, the groups which are in need of this assurance the most. Tribal affairs, as always, remain a very sensitive matter in Indian polity, mainly because of the divergent theories on tribal participation in social life. While some are of the opinion (like the BJP) that they need to come out of their seclusion and join the ranks of the rest of the Indian population, Nehru’s panchasheel for tribals makes a valid suggestion in saying that nothing must be imposed on them. I agree wholeheartedly with the latter.
Why, I ask, is it oblivious to some that the tribals too are human, and deserve the chance to decide for themselves?
The government needs to take stringent reforms immediately to ensure the protection of the Jarawa and other tribes that are being exploited at the hands of a merciless few. At the same time, people of the Andamans must fight for their tribes, for those who have continued to preserve ancient culture since times immemorial. Nature and human right activists must take an active step towards helping the Jarawas as well.
I am resigned to the fact, albeit very disheartened, that Freedom is a word that has been stripped bare of its true connotation and now remains just that- a word. As a woman, as an Indian and foremost as a human, I sincerely hope that the Jarawa people see the light of justice as early as possible.
As Albert Camus once said, ‘Democracy is not theÂ law of the majority but the protection of the minority.’