Culturally, historically and even anthropologically, India’s shining outpost of Andaman and Nicobar Islands personifies the vividness of the ‘Idea of India’.
Around 1,200 kilometres from the ‘mainland’ mass of either Kolkata or Chennai shorelines, these 572 island Union Territory is geographically closer to countries like Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia etc, thus affording a strategic vantage point in the proverbial, ‘East’.
Popular in the national conscience as the Kala Paani of our freedom struggle, the Cellular Jail at Port Blair still reverberates with the eerie and poignant sense of resilience and unrecognised contribution of our freedom fighters who came from different regions like Punjab, Maharashtra, Bengal, United Provinces etc.
Almost 80,000 were incarcerated, tortured and brutally punished to instil fear, break-down and quell the rebellion on the mainland – it did not succeed, Netaji Subash Chandra Bose aided by the Japanese, unfurled the ‘Tricolour’ for the first time and declared independence from the British Raj, as early as 1943.
Starkly Distinct Groups
But the antiquity of the land and its indigenous inhabitants are an unmatched treasure of diversities that defies logic of predominance by any one group.
Six starkly distinct groups of native tribes still abound specific tracts of the Island systems – four Negrito tribes on the Andaman cluster ie Jarawa, Sentinelese, Onge and the Great Andamanese, along with two Mongoloid tribes on the Nicobar cluster ie Nicobarese and Shompen. Sadly, a seventh tribe, known as the Jangil or Rutland Jarawa is now extinct.
Genetic studies suggest that these tribes may have become isolated from others during the Middle Paleolithic times some 50,000 years back when the Islands separated from what eventuality became the landmass of Africa and Asia. Such is the distinctiveness amongst each group that while the Nicobarese language has Mon-Khmer affiliation, the Shompen language is not rooted in the same.
The discovery of the Islands to the outside world started in the Chola period and with the arrival of distant maritime powers like Denmark, Austria, Britain and Japan etc – these tribes remained either hostile or essentially unengaged, left to pursue their own ways.
But this uneasy disengagement also dwindled their numbers in the face of aggressive violence perpetuated by the colonisers or by the new strains of diseases inadvertently introduced by the ‘outsiders’, that wiped out scores of hapless communities that had neither the immunity nor the medical advancement to protect themselves.
While the days of the hostile colonisers is the past, the still-essentially traditional ways of some of these tribes makes them dangerously susceptible to diseases and epidemics against which they would have virtually no physiological, infrastructural or societal wherewithal given their cocooned communes and protected land zones.
Integration or Isolation?
The Sentinelese who have been designated a ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’ remain the most uncontacted and wary of the outside world, retaining their hunter-gatherer status that has not taken to either agriculture or cooking food – stray illegal contact with them met with a bloody end as the adventurists were killed on contact. Meanwhile the Nicobarese have seamlessly integrated into the mainstream that is composed of majority settlers that came from the Indian ‘mainland’ prior, during and after the freedom struggle.
The numbers for Shompen, Onges and Great Andamanese have greatly diminished over time though they have been introduced to modernity and civic infrastructure with varying degrees of integration. The Jarawa have been afforded their preferred pace for integration with controlled access to outside engagement, that is sometimes unavoidable given the lifeline road that cuts through their territory.
The question of integration or isolation is never straightforward with good reasons for-and-against the same. The administration has taken a prudent decision of protecting them by offering any help that they might need, albeit, without a forced engagement that could disrupt their normalcy and preferred lifestyle, too much or too soon.
This protective arrangement always led to perennial fears of safeguarding them against the outbreak of any epidemic or disease, should these still-isolated tribes engage with the mainstream. That feared doomsday scenario has sadly knocked on the doors, with the news of nine of the only 59 surviving members of the Great Andamanese tribe, testing COVID-positive.
The Strait Islands, which is the home to the Great Andamanese is restricted for outsider entry but the tribe itself could travel extensively, to-and-fro.
How COVID-19 Could Affect the Tribes
Given that Andaman and Nicobar Islands are in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, that specific nightmare has come through.
The unauthorised reality of barter-system of the mainstream with some isolated tribes like the Jarawa or Shompen (Sentinelese are usually beyond practical reach), could have devastating consequences.
Anthropologists note that the impact of imported diseases during the establishment of the penal settlement like flu, gonorrhoea, measles etc, led to the extreme dwindling of Great Andamanese numbers that was once estimated to be around 8,000 in 1850s, had dropped to less than 100 at the time of Independence, and to only 19 in the 60s.
Today this tribe of 59 Aboriginal-Burmese-Indian mix culture faces yet another medical disaster, one that even the outside world itself has no safeguard against!
While this situation might temporarily strengthen the case for accelerated integration after the COVID-crisis, the other compelling cons of forced-integration will persist. What the latest COVID-19 spread certainly insists is the highest isolation levels to be maintained, especially on the Great Andaman Trunk Road and the bordering inhabitation of the Buffer Zones, that make the tribes like Jarawa, especially vulnerable.
This tragic news is especially hurtful given the unsung role that the Great Andamanese had played in the little known ‘Battle of Aberdeen’.
History books on freedom struggle seldom mention this valiant battle which took place between the native, sparingly-and-primitively armed Andamanese tribes against the forewarned, waiting and better-armed British forces that slaughtered the attacking tribe.
That distrust of the outside world, its colonisers and their accompanying miseries still linger – today, yet again it is an alien disease that has gripped the pristine idyll in the emerald waters. In more ways than one can imagine, Andaman and Nicobar symbolise the noblest inclusivity, possibility and diversity that is given to the composite ‘Idea of India,’ and one can only hope and pray that these valorous tribes overcome the latest challenge known to human race.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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