New Internationalist

When insensitivity is the norm

2013-10-04-dam.jpg [Related Image]
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.

Comments on When insensitivity is the norm

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

  1. #1 Ajit Menon 05 Oct 13

    Thanks for this Mari. You are absolutely right. It is one thing to visit a country and try to get away from the 5 star tourist experience and see how the average person lives an quite another to make the marginalized part of the 5 star experience.

  2. #2 Prabir KC 05 Oct 13

    There has been no obvious discussion in Indian newspapers on the 5th March claim by Survival ’India’s Supreme Court today reportedly reversed its previous ‘interim order’ to ban ‘human safaris’ in the Andaman Islands, dealing a major blow to the campaign against the controversial tours.’
    Is it accurate? Survival is involved in defending the ban order and explaining why mainstreaming is not a good idea. However it is important to realize that the ill effects of mainstreaming are not restricted to a few hundred people in a remote island.
    Mainstreaming also hurts the 6 million Santals- who have Members of Parliament and even a sitting Chief Minister. Mainstreaming is an ideology loved by those in the ’conversions’ and in newer ’revivals’ and ’re-conversions’. Basically it is a slower method of ’cleansing’ discordant cultures. These indigenous and local traditions slow the rapid deforestation and destruction for profit that national and multinational businesses thrive on. A bit like the Story of Solutions- we need long term and local sustainable responses.

  3. #3 Aloke Surin 05 Oct 13

    This move by the Indian Tourist Department is really the height of ’Despicable’. When a country equates its people (be they indigenous or otherwise) to exotic species to be ’sighted’ by camera toting tourists in safari-style vehicles,then surely it has reached the nadir of insensitivity. Shame on the politicians and bureaucrats who could even come up with this idea. Has everything and anything in this world today become a marketable product?

  4. #4 Shewli Kumar 05 Oct 13

    Dear Mari
    I am in complete agreement with you with regard to not just the Jarawas but also other Adivasi communities in India. In Maharashtra the Katkaris have been completely alienated from their culture and they are living a life which is neither part of the mainstream nor part of their own lifeworlds. Their lifeworlds and culture has been shattered by gradual urbanisation and tourism in hill forest areas.

    I endorse and agree that we should respect nature and adivasis lifeworlds and some of these areas should be left alone. The Jarawas and their areas like the Kondhs of Niyamgiri Hills should be left for self rule.
    Warm wishes

  5. #5 maureen lobo 05 Oct 13

    Dear Mari,

    I read with interest the blog. I am totally with you on this. We capitalise on this invasive form of ’tourism’. The tragedy is that this is not restricted to our country alone.

    Thanks for highlighting this issue.


  6. #6 Ravi Badri 05 Oct 13

    I find this outrageous. Here is a classic example of a community living in harmony with nature, protecting it and preserving it for eons. Instead of learning from them, our government is turning them into museum objects to be gazed at. How is this any different from the workings of a colonizer. I fully support the effort to stop this inhuman practice. Is there a sample letter or a petition that one can sign or a number that one can call to register our displeasure.

  7. #7 Ludwig Pesch 05 Oct 13

    All of us who care about Indian culture, the courtesy and generosity we have enjoyed, need such periodic reminders like this one that there's another side; the indifference and bureaucratic frame of mind (though no exclusive privilege of India); and the greed that seems to justify dehumanizing fellow citizens whose rights are beautifully enshrined in India's exemplary constitution (no irony here).
    So it's good that you, Mari, voice the concerns in no uncertain terms. After all, outsiders like myself always risk being labelled racists or colonialists which is understandable to an extent.
    That aside, in Europe we read up on the pseudo-science of the past two centuries that paved the way for gross abuses of human rights and the dignity of indigenous populations; seemingly innocent excesses in late 19th and early 20th century displays of ’villages’ in zoos and touring circuses; parading dark colored and scantily dressed people from one fairground to another ... enough historical baggage to stay modest. Yet continuing such practices in the disguise of tourism must be discouraged like any other unethical practice - it's an abuse and must be labelled as such.
    See also ’Forcing tribal peoples into the mainstream, exploitative ‘human safaris’ allowed to continue’
    As for an overview of indigenous rights, please visit or download the Guided tour designed for general information and classrooms. Here the situation of India's indigenous communities is conveyed from various angles and placed in a global, modern context:
    As always, it's only through education that real, lasting change of hearts and minds gets a chance. In and outside India. Let's make a beginning wherever we are.

  8. #8 Joy Tudu 06 Oct 13

    Thanks Mari for putting up this much needed write up, it is coming in as the ongoing campaign 'proud and not primitive' is underway. This particular attitude of the people of this country and elsewhere involved in sight seeing of adivasis in this manner is much more than being insensitive and ignorant. It is the approach of the system of this country towards the adivasis that has resulted in this attitude. It is high time that the Prime Minister should apologise to the adivasis of India for completely failing to respect, fulfill and protect their basic human rights. Our right to living a dignified life is all we want; we are only asking for the implementation of whatever is enshrined in the constitution, and nothing more than that. sadly the adivasi ideology or worldview today has been deliberately undermined by the so called intellectuals and perspectives are documented as like in earlier times. Today the world should listen to us before talking and prescribing solutions about our well being.

  9. #9 SNL 06 Oct 13

    To find out more about Proud Not Primitive go to

  10. #10 Deepthi Sukumar 07 Oct 13

    This is a great piece of writing Mari. Whenever I see large 'development' work, I think of all the people displaced people especially the women and the children, who just move on silently struggling to maintain their dignity and self-respect. Airports, dams, power projects etc are all reflections of the silent struggles of Dalits and Adivasis. The land owners are compensated but it is the Dalits and Adivasis who are the losers of their livelihoods/ means of survival. And Adivasis, the skill and techniques they use in everyday life are beyond our understanding. Thanks for this Mari and God bless you.

  11. #11 Betty 07 Oct 13

    ’...wild animals, Jarawa tribals to be specific.’ - This is what 'polite society' has been reduced to. Glib, complacent new age linguistics catering to a Twitter and Facebook generation. Knee jerk insensitive reactions and responses made purely for effect, shock value and a mistaken belief in being part of a 'cool' culture, followed by half baked apologies, ’I mis-spoke’.

  12. #12 Diwan Singh 08 Oct 13

    I wholeheartedly support this initiative to ask Government to leave the Jarawa habitat untouched. Tourism or any other activity should be totally banned in the area that even remotely affect the Jarawa people.
    If these people are touched by modern development, there will no one left in the world to teach us sustainable living.
    Modern development is a bane to the living planet. At least, save these people and their habitat from it.

  13. #13 david cohen 12 Oct 13

    Though a bit late, I want to comment on Mari Marcel Thekaekara's blog When Insensitivity Is the Norm with a suggestion.

    Of course it is crude , cruel and exploitative for the Department of Tourism to promote sightings. That places the Tourism Department's policies and actions in the perpetual Hall of Shame.

    To be removed from the Hall of Shame they must not only stop but place a tax on tourist companies and travellers to have a trust fund that allows tribals and adivasis to be supported as they wish to be supported to preserve and develop practices and policies consistent with human rights responsibilities.

    That is the least we can do to begin to rectify years of arrogant and official misbehavior to such peoples.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC

  14. #14 Lucy Horitz 19 Oct 13


    I'm absolutely shocked that any human being would dare to describe another human being as a 'wild animal'. It's disgusting.

    Thanks for highlighting the issue - and certainly poses something for us to think about as we plan our travels in future.

    Lucy x

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

Get our free fortnightly eNews


Videos from visionOntv’s globalviews channel.

Related articles

Popular tags

All tags

New Internationalist Blogs

New Internationalist hosts several different blogs, from the Editor's Blog to the Majority World Blog, the Gaza Blog to the Books Blog

New Internationalist Blogs