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When insensitivity is the norm


Indigenous groups in India are often evicted from their lands to make way for dams like this, or other wealth extraction schemes. Donald Lee Pardue under a Creative Commons Licence

Survival International's Proud, Not Primitive campaign is asking people to tweet to protest the Indian tourism department promoting 'sightings' of people from the Jarawa tribe as an added attraction in the Andamans. Yes, sightings! In precisely the same way as wildlife safari trips hold out the lure of that tantalizing glimpse of a tiger, lion or rhino, our tourism touts offer visitors a bus ride through the Jarawa reserve. The promise? 'Spotting a primitive'.

The campaign described a jungle jaunt. I quote one tourist's description: 'The journey through the tribal reserve was like a safari ride. We were within dense rainforest, looking for wild animals, Jarawa tribals to be specific.' Imagine the crass insensitivity. Yet, this insensitivity, sadly, is the norm rather than the exception. We're not surprised in the least.

The Jarawa indigenous community lived in total isolation, in much the same manner as their ancestors, for centuries. Their contact with the outside world began around 1998. This exposure to outsiders renders them vulnerable to hitherto unknown physical diseases. For adivasis, India's tribespeople or indeed, indigenous people everywhere on the globe with no exception that I know of, these invasions have been disastrous. It has meant the beginning of the end of their way of life and almost everything they held sacred. Chinua Achebe portrayed this beautifully in his seminal, insightful Things Fall Apart, describing the destruction of the community and the spirit of indigenous African tribes by the non-tribal invasions.  

Numerous Indian writers and film makers have created poignant books and films about adivasi life and the daily exploitation these peoples have faced after outside forces invaded them. Ostensibly, the raids were to 'help them out of their primitive existence and bring them the privileges of a modern lifestyle.’ In reality, these incursions into adivasi heartlands inevitably meant the invaders had the freedom to despoil tribal lands and forests. Adivasi women have been raped, entire communities enslaved or bonded; their traditional livelihoods have been usurped and stolen. Their very way of life, the keystone of their existence, has been snatched from under their noses. Their lands and their forests are the basis of their existence, an ancient primordial way of life which anthropologists know is in many ways superior to the crass, materialistic modern world.

This deprivation in turn leads to a denigration of their very existence because they are termed 'savage' and uncivilized. The young people internalize this message and become ashamed of their origins and traditional ways. In most places the move to modernity has been painfully slow. They are treated as second class citizens - cheated and patronized by government officials sent to 'save' them where once they were monarchs of all they surveyed.

What is lost in transition is invariably, immeasurably more valuable than the small, petty gains of government jobs and dominant influences which accrue to indigenous people when the modern state embraces them. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, a statesman with a poetic pen and a deeply sensitive soul, foresaw this when he begged his bureaucrats to respect ‘their genius,’ when invading their lands with development as the pretext and ‘not to make them pale imitations of ourselves’.  Just recently, in 2013, the National Advisory Council reiterated Nehru's vision for adivasis. Yet they continue to be evicted from their lands to make way for the nation's wealth extraction schemes. Read dams, logging or minerals. Nehru's noble exhortation predictably remained enshrined in words not in execution.

I join the Proud, Not Primitive campaign in asking readers to request the Indian government to ban tourists from one of the last bastions of unspoilt, adivasi lands – the Jarawa reserves in the Andaman Islands. Can we please desist from despoiling one of the few pristine treasures left in India? Often, governments respond to saving environmental hot spots rather than putting people first. So readers, please do write in. Thank you.

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