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When I was younger, one of the places I visited with much interest was the local zoo. It was always fascinating to see birds and animals of a kind that I would normally never come across in my day to day life. The zoo was full of many children and it was common to see large crowds near the monkey cages with people milling around with monkey nuts and bananas. All around were signs advising people not to feed the monkeys which pranced around like the exhibits that they after all were for the fun and amusement of kids and adults.
Recently while on a visit to the Andaman Islands and more specifically the Middle Andaman islands, I passed through a portion of forest land titled the Jarawa Reserve where the ambience is not unlike the tiger reserves, reserve forests and the like with innumerable restrictions and barricades with the idea of keeping the Jarawas as far removed as possible from the mainland population- not just the visitors from main land India but even the mainlanders settled on the Andaman Islands itself.
At the gateway to the reserve itself, there is a police check post and notice boards proclaiming that interaction with the tribal people is prohibited, that they are not to be given food and drink and that no contact with the tribals in any way is permitted. To enter the reserve itself, vehicles have to assemble as a convoy and are escorted through the reserve land by police constables, much as you would find in an insurgency prone area. Passing through the reserve, one occasionally comes across the Jarawa â€“ a tribal community of the Negroid race, but mindful of the stern police notices, one just speeds past with the Jarawas receding into the horizon like elusive wild life.
On the face of it, the whole spectacle looks bizarre, the Jarawas looking no better than specimens in a human zoo. But below the surface is a raging question â€“ which kind of life is better— the close to nature , primitive but pristine life of the Jarawas , practically bereft of any human contact outside their own tribe or the melting pot culture of the mainlanders with all its ills ? And who is it to decide?
The main threat to the Jarawa was the building of a road through their lands and forest in 1970. Survival – a worldwide organisation supporting tribal peoples – focused on trying to get the road through Jarawa land closed and the settlers removed. In May 2002, the Indian Supreme Court in a landmark decision ordered the road closed, the settlers be removed from Jarawa land, and banned all logging. Survival is now trying to ensure the implementation of the court order.
At one level, the government of India and the Supreme Court are doing the right thing by protecting one of the few indigenous cultures in the land which is still relatively uncontaminated. I remember a few years ago when the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbusâ€™s ships sailing in to the Americas happened, the biggest analysis that took place was a reassessment of his place in history on the ground that by eliminating the indigenous people of South America and destroying their culture, he and his crew and others who followed in his wake had actually committed genocide.
Given this interpretation of events and much subsequent criticism of the â€œcivilizing missionâ€ of the imperialist powers that subsequently happened, who can blame the government of India , if it chooses to preserve the unspoilt tribal culture of the Jarawas by keeping them isolated and in protected reserves. On the other hand, it is also true that due to their isolation and consequent inbreeding among an already diminished population, the numbers of the Jarawas are decreasing by the day and the day may not be far off when the tribe will in any case be extinct. So, is it right to keep the Jarawas like specimens in a zoo for visitors to gawk at because they supposedly need to be kept pure and spoiltâ€¦.. Or should they be given a chance to choose â€œmodernâ€ life as we understand it, mix and inter mingle and inter marry with others and in the process, perhaps preserve their tribe, albeit with some dilution in their way of life. The choice to be made it would seem is a Hobsonâ€™s choice.