Jarawas are human beings… just like us

Newspapers and TV anchors are waxing indignant about a video showing the tribal Jarawas of the Andaman Islands dancing for tourists in exchange for food and trinkets. Many NGOs are demanding closure of the road used by tourists to enter Jarawa territory, and are outraged by what they call \”human safaris.\”

Most want the Jarawas to be kept isolated from the mainstream population, to protect them from disease and cultural degradation. One TV anchor claimed that asking Jarawas to dance for food amounted to \”treating them like zoo animals.\”

Whoa! Has anybody ever tried negotiating with zoo animals to dance in return for food? It\’s impossible. Only humans negotiate a fee for dancing.

Indeed, it is the NGOs and TV anchors that are treating Jarawas as animals. To call tourism in Jarawa areas \”human safaris\” is to equate Jarawas with animals. Seeing Jarawas in their habitat is not fundamentally different from seeing Japanese in Japan or Tutsis in Rwanda. Every Republic Day, the government organizes tribal dances, and nobody call these safari performances. One TV anchor actually called the Jarawas an endangered species! Excuse me, but the Jarawas are homo sapiens, like all of us. To call them an endangered species is to call them nonhuman, as though they are animals. To keep them as pristine tribals, isolated from all humans save a few anthropologists and administrators, is to convert their tribal territory into an open zoo where benevolent zookeepers oversee the creatures. This may be well intended, but deprives Jarawas of fundamental human rights.

Our Constitution and laws give all citizens certain rights. NREGA gives all citizens the right to work for 100 days. Isolation denies Jarawas this right. We have a Right to Education Act for all citizens. Keeping them as pristine tribals will deny them this right. All citizens have a right to vote. But the benevolent zookeepers oppose any electioneering or polling booths.

Dozens of other rights are similarly being denied to Jarawas. NGOs like Survival International claim tribals will be better off in complete isolation. Sorry, but these NGOs see tribals as zoological specimens to be preserved in open zoos.

This is well meaning but outrageous. Mainstream folk like us are simply ex-tribals who walked out of jungles a few thousand years ago. The entire human race was tribal for almost all its million-year existence. But 10,000 years ago agriculture was discovered, and in phases tribals across the world became settled farmers, and later urbanites.

Across India, most tribals have made the shift to agriculture. Only tiny groups like the Jarawas remain hunter-gatherers. This makes them culturally different. But it does not justify treating them as a separate species without human rights.

NGOs do not bother to ask the Jarawas what they want; they are self-appointed guardians. They say, rightly, that tribals through history have been decimated by disease and exploitation after contact with the mainstream, and surely Jarawas cannot want that. True, but who can say they will not enjoy integration that preserves their traditions while giving them education, health and alternative ways of life?

The 2004 Jarawa policy of the government recognizes the need to preserve Jarawa culture while integrating them. Contact with the mainstream carries perils like diseases to which tribals lack immunity, but this can be overcome with inoculation. Historically, the track record of trying to integrate tribals with the mainstream has been pretty appalling. This is why NGOs fear, quite legitimately, that Jarawas will suffer a similar fate.

However,the Jarawas number just 240. This is so small that a handful of specialist administrators should be able to protect them from disease and exploitation while helping integrate them gradually. NGOs should assist the process. Giving Jarawas education, healthcare and other facilities will not mean depriving them of their culture or traditions. India has many ethnic groups thriving with their different cultures even as they join the mainstream. Tribal identity can definitely co-exist with national identity.

The 2004 policy says, rightly, that Jarawas should be allowed to choose their own future. But how can they make an informed choice without knowing what the alternatives are? Just explaining the alternatives properly will entail considerable contact between them and the mainstream. Provided this is arranged in a sensitized manner by specialists, Jarawas will be empowered to choose their future. To keep them isolated and make decisions on their behalf is to disempower them and treat them like zoological specimens.

All readers of this column, including NGOs activists, are extribals. We have done very well by exiting the jungle. It would be immoral to deny the Jarawas a similar opportunity.

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