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Tsunami - Ten Little Niggers

Or are they Little Indians? The great Andamanese tribal circus continues.


Habshi mar gaye?" An indignant friend tells me of his father’s reaction to the news of the tsunami’s assault on the Andaman and Nicobar islands. But in the backwash of the disaster, the question does seem to have caught the imagination of reporters drifting around the distant archipelago. The answer, happily, is habshi bach gaye. But I’m putting it badly. The Times of India is more to the point: "Tsunami has not been as big an anthropological disaster for primitive tribals as was being feared."

Yes, anthropology is alive and well, in the islands and it’s having a field day in the news. The Indian Express on Sunday gave us a double-page spread (slugged ‘Black and White’) with a field guide to "the tribes and their survival tricks". The Great Andamanese "whose strongest physical characteristics are distinctly Negroid"; the Jarawas who "look at heavenly bodies and can decipher what is to come"; the Shompen, "the only primitive tribe of the islands with Mongoloid features", and so on. It’s revealing that most journalists have invoked racial labels like Mongoloid or Negroid (I’ve even read ‘Negrative’) only as a marker of primitivism. When it comes to the assimilated (and populous) Nicobarese, they seem at a loss. Outlook’s own contribution was a fabulous non sequitur: "Unlike the Nicobaris who have become completely integrated with the outside world, the Shompens are of Mongoloid stock." But what do you expect? Indian journalists’ strongest physical characteristics are distinctly Caucasoid.

Meanwhile, NDTV’s more sensitive reporter wittered on about the "dignity" of Nicobarese tribals, and the BBC’s web edition fretted about the fate of "some rare indigenous tribal groups". They needn’t have worried; Aaj Tak and Hindustan had already reassured us that if even one tribal could be located, an entire tribe could be resurrected through the good offices of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. I’d read about the CCMB’s plans long ago in a toi report titled ‘Andaman Tribes Fit for Genomic Studies’, in which the institute’s director announced plans to study tribal DNA. "They are very dark, but good to behold with smooth skin," he exulted.

Earlier this week, Samir Acharya, of the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology (SANE), complained about TV crews paying Jarawas to ham it up in "VIP Frenchie underwear, Nike hairbands and what have you". According to Acharya, the Aaj Tak channel has been broadcasting promos for its helicopter footage of the Sentinelese titled ‘Janbaaz Junglees’.

Welcome to the Andamans, where genetics and genocide, Neolithic tribes and Neanderthal officials frolic together in a dark and chronic farce. I haven’t been there since the tidal waves struck, but I was there long enough ago to know that the indigenous tribes learned their ‘survival tricks’ facing a tsunami called India. The fact is, the ethical dilemmas posed by the survival of the indigenous peoples have always been treated as problems of wildlife management. "No wild animals, only wild man," I was told at the Jirkatang Gate on the Andaman Trunk Road, the construction of which provoked a small but bloody war with the Jarawas through the 1980s. The administration’s solution to such problems has always been inspired by the example of the British: settling refugees from the mainland on ‘denotified’ Jarawa land, and on the Onges’ once-exclusive preserve, Little Andaman. None of this has obstructed the march of ‘Anthropology’. It was on the advice of the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) that "13 males and 15 females" of the scattered Great Andamanese were rounded up and transported to an ASI-administered desert island in 1970. The problem, according to the ASI’s T.N. Pandit, had been "rampant exploitation of their women, resulting in cross-breeding".Meanwhile, the Jarawa problem was approached with a venerable colonial strategy: capturing tribal children and "treating them well". As a charming ASI monograph on the Jarawa puts it, "The method followed by Portman in 1879-1894 was followed."

For what it’s worth, the tactic seems to have worked. Long before the disaster journalists got there, tourists were taking rides into the Jarawa reserve to offer the Junglees biscuits and hear them yell "bhainchod". The state presides as an earnest zookeeper, warning visitors not to "give any item eatable, clothes, etc to Jarawas".

No, I never got to feed the Jarawas, but on my last day in Port Blair I was taken out for lunch to Corbyn’s Cove, a beach named after a colonial administrator who ran the ‘Homes’ where Andamanese children were isolated from their communities to "implant the germs of new habits and render their former wild and barbarous modes of life irksome to them". We were offered local rock lobster, a dark crustacean that blushes when it is boiled. "It turns from a West Indian to a Red Indian," joked the manager. A torrid metaphor for Nature and Culture. The Raw and the Cooked, as Levi-Strauss would have it. I’m sure it’s still on the menu.

From Outlook India, January 2005

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