Keeping tribes in cultural formaldehyde

India’s Supreme Court is right to reject a Western-led bid to keep the Jarawa people isolated from everybody else.

Patrick Hayes

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Why would a UK national newspaper join forces with a Western campaign group to try to close a road thousands of miles away on a small Indian archipelago, the Andaman Islands – a road which allows over 100,000 people to access vital medical services?

For the 105,000 residents of the North and Middle Andaman districts, spread over 400 villages from Diglipur to Baratang, the Great Andaman Trunk Road provides indispensable access to the islands’ capital, Port Blair. The road, which opened in the 1980s, is a vital trade and communications route for locals, and crucially allows them to make road journeys to the only government hospital on the island. Without the road, many such journeys would have to be made by sea instead.

But the wishes of tens of thousands of local inhabitants pale in comparison to those of London-based campaign group Survival International (SI) and the Observer newspaper. As the self-appointed guardians of the ancient Jarawa tribe, thought now to number between 250 and 400 people, SI and the Observer complain that the road passes through the Jarawa tribal reserve.

The Jarawa reserve is over 1,000 square kilometres – over 12 per cent of the land area of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, despite Jarawa making up a mere 0.1 per cent of the island’s population. Since the opening of the road, many Jarawa have chosen to cluster around it, receiving gifts and food from the locals. This has led to some unsavoury incidents, one of which was recorded on video when an off-duty local policeman was filmed goading Jarawa tribeswomen to dance for food to please visiting tourists (reported in the Observer last year).

In January this year, the Indian Supreme Court responded to what the Observer dubbed ‘domestic and international pressure’ and partially closed the Andaman Trunk Road, preventing any tourists from accessing the area. Traffic levels reportedly fell by two thirds; even before that, only eight convoys of cars were permitted to pass through each day. The Observer, which had written a series of campaigning articles supporting the closure of the road, gushed: ‘For the first time in a generation, members of the tribe are able to wander through their jungle safe from the prying eyes of the tens of thousands of tourists who travel to the islands in the Bay of Bengal every year to view them.’ SI, meanwhile, hailed the decision to partially close the road as a ‘victory’.

Now, however, following a resumed hearing, during which an application was filed on behalf of local inhabitants stating that the road was a ‘vital link’, the Supreme Court has ordered that the road should reopen to traffic, allowing tightly monitored tourist trips down the Andaman Trunk Road to the nearby limestone caves and mud volcano. As the MP for the islands has argued previously, ‘With all sympathies for the Jarawa, one finds it not very logical to halt development of facilities and amenities for 400,000 people to provide resource domain to merely 300 individuals in a primitive stage of development’.

Predictably, this judgement has caused a backlash among Western campaigners. SI’s director calls the decision ‘extremely alarming’ and has pledged to continue to campaign vigorously for the closure of the road.

Such comments put paid to the idea that SI is in anyway humanist in outlook. What organisation, which claims to care about the welfare of people, would blithely gloss over the fact that the closure of such a road would leave tens of thousands of people having to travel by sea in order to reach their island’s only government hospital? The elevation of the assumed interests of a handful of Jarawa tribespeople above everybody else is anti-democratic. The Jarawa, after all, are human beings, not an endangered species of animal or plant (despite one organisation terming them ‘human ecology’).

And, as I have argued before, the insistence upon keeping the Jarawa isolated from the modern world does not prevent the creation of a ‘human zoo’; in fact, this isolation keeps them in one.

The campaigners calling to keep the Jarawa isolated argue that contact with people on the Great Trunk Road could spread disease. But it’s apparent that they don’t just mean germs, but also the spread of what campaigners see to be another disease – that of modernity. Tracts on SI’s website include Progress Can Kill, which presents development as polluted and diseased. As one of its web pages characterises the development towards modern life: ‘Progress = HIV/AIDS, starvation, obesity, suicide, addiction and the end.’

Certainly these self-appointed Western guardians of the Jarawa aren’t acting in the interests of the local populations of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But in trying to keep the Jarawa preserved in a kind of cultural formaldehyde, it’s hard to see how they are benefitting the Jarawa either.

The campaign to preserve the Jarawa is for the benefit of Westerners who feel bad about modernity; they treat tribes, real people, like Damien Hirst treats sharks – frozen in time forever, for rich people to gawp at and feel good about. The Indian Supreme Court is right to reopen the road, because SI’s attempts to close it really are a road to nowhere.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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