‘Hands Off, Eyes On’: Ex Lt Gov of Andaman on Sentinelese Tribe
The pristine Andaman and Nicobar islands lie in splendid isolation over 750 kms in the Bay of Bengal, and have a chequered history. After lying unclaimed for centuries, they were colonized by the British for over 150 years and briefly by the Japanese during World War II.
But before all this, the islands have been the abode of six indigenous tribes, who have lived here since times immemorial. These tribal groups are in various stages of acculturation into the mainstream, and barring the Nicobarese, are classified as ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups – PVTGs’.
They are intricately linked with the forests they live in and have limited, or in some cases, no contact at all with the outside world. Most of them live as hunter-gatherers and prefer to remain in seclusion.
My Time as Administrator of the Islands
Between 2013 and 2016, I faced many challenges living here, as administrator of the islands. Having toured the islands extensively, and interacted with all shades of opinion, I came to the conclusion that there are 4 centres of gravity in these islands viz strategic security; the settlers and their development aspirations; the indigenous tribes and their right to live in the manner they wish to in the protected space reserved for them; and of course, the pristine environment.
These 4 centres of gravity have to live in harmony, and not at the expense of each other. This articulation became necessary ad helpful to place the narrative in a balanced perspective.
There are strong views on both ends of the spectrum: one view is that we should leave the tribals alone, backed by strong evidence that any contact with modernisation has been deterimental to the primitive tribes. At the other end of the spectrum, there is an equally strong view to mainstream the tribals – why deny them the fruits of modernisation, they ask.
While I was administrator of the islands, after great deliberation, my team decided to move forward with interacting with one of the indigenous people, the Jarawas, but only after ascertaining the will of these people through anthropologists and our own specialised force ‘AAJVS’ (who can communicate with the tribes in their language).
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We were surprised: the Jarawas wanted selective interaction.
Who are the Jarawas?
There are over 400 Jarawas living in the Jarawa tribal reserve, measuring 1000 sq kms, in south and middle Andaman Islands. The tribe was once feared for their hostility, but over the years have become less so. The Andaman Trunk Road, a national highway that cuts through the tribal reserve , has given rise to allegations of ‘tribal tourism’ by many NGOs who even went to the extent of calling for a tourism boycott of the islands. This accusation was not entirely true, though there have been sporadic cases, including unlawful acts committed by the settlers who live in the vicinity of the reserved areas.
As per a Supreme Court directive, an alternate sea route has also become functional. Violations of the primitive tribe regulations ANPATR-1956 are viewed very seriously, though convictions in the courts have been tardy.
Jarawa Tribe Wanted Selective Interaction
In our endeavour to interact with them, seven-eight hotspots were designated for interactions to take place. Women would get their children on designated days, and a bilingual script based on their own ‘Ongan’ language was taught. A very rudimentary barter system was also initiated to preserve their dignity. To our surprise, the women requested for clothes; basic clothing was provided, which the women wore only when crossing the road.
We also set up an “Andaman Nicobar Tribal Research Institute – ANTRI” in 2014, where research and study programmes provide valuable data for creating informed policies. In fact, some of the Nicobar elders were very enthused, as they believed that their heritage, culture, customs, language and traditions needed to be preserved for future generations.
John Chau’s Killing: Failure of Local Intelligence & Surveillance
Untill 1993, the administration tried to befriend the Sentinelese, but their efforts were in vain. With effect from 1993, the approved policy was changed to “hands off” to respect the will of the Sentinelese.
When I reached the islands, I asked one question in this regard: if we are responsible for ensuring the well being of the Sentinelese, how can we ensure it without any information, for there could be threat of forest fires, poachers etc. That’s why we got the policy changed to “Hands off, but eyes on”.
This meant that we could undertake periodical helicopter reconnaissances, and also circumnavigation by sea. A number of poachers were apprehended near the island, vindicating our change of policy.
While a case of murder may have been registered against unknown people, the law will be difficult to apply against people who do not understand it, live in a different world, and who only acted to defend themselves against illegal intrusion.
A similar dilemma occurred with respect to the Jarawas. Once a report came in that Jarawa men had killed a 5-month-old-child whom they suspected of being born of illicit relations between a settler and a Jarawa woman. While the settler was arrested, we did not have clarity with reference to the Jarawa, who were actually very open about it. Such cases have to be dealt with very sensitively, keeping in view the fact that the isolated tribes do not understand the law and live by their own customs.
Moving Forward, But With Sensitivity
As per available information, the government has removed ‘Restricted Area Permit’ from 29 islands upto 2022, including islands which are inhabited by PVTGs, 3 islands in South Andaman and 9 islands in Nicobar district. This has caused dismay and alarm amongst many who are concerned about the well being of the tribals. It obviously appears to be with an aim to mainstream the tribals, as also to boost tourism, albeit, without due diligence about the effects and in contravention of ANPATR-1956.
The inclusion of North Sentinal island however, defies all logic, and the most charitable view one can take is that the powers that be were in a hurry to act without due analysis or diligence. It certainly doesn’t speak well of the Andaman Administration, who cannot just be a mute spectator for impositions from the top.
It cannot be anyone’s case that Nicobar islands must remain restricted forever. But opening it should be a gradual process and with the consent of the tribal council. In fact in my tenure, we had started this dialogue with the tribal captains and there was a mixed response. It would be wise to move forward slowly and with sensitivity.
Such decisions cannot be based on a notion to turn these islands into another Phuket or Macao.
(Lt Gen A K Singh(Retd), is former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar and Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)