How would you feel if you were held captive in your homes? What if strangers visited and gawked at you? Indigenous tribes around the world face a common challenge - a challenge to survive in a world dominated by ‘civilized’ humans. The Andaman Islands, home to some of the oldest tribes of India, have witnessed the extinction of many tribes. A handful of tribal people - the Jarawas and the Sentinelese - have managed to survive. Confined to the reserve forest aimed at protecting them, the Jarawas are prisoners in their own home.
My husband, Sai, and I ride the bus from Port Blair to Baratang. I am drowsy. The driver screeches to halt at the Jiratang check-post. I jolt awake and look around. My co-passengers stretch after the arduous ride. The bus feels stuffy, with a faint stink of iron coming from the seats. An elderly couple steps out to get some fresh air and a hassled mother tries to calm her wailing kid. Sai still snores lightly in the next seat.
I look out of the window. Our bus sits in a queue on a narrow road lined with dingy shops, where some of the tourists sip tea. The weather is warm for a 5:30am February morning. Our guide, Vishnu, touches Sai’s shoulder lightly and says, “Sir, you should have some tea now. It will be long before we get any breakfast. The gates to the reserve forest will open in another half hour and we will be driving through the forests for almost two hours.” Short and lean, Vishnu appears to be in his late-thirties. His hair, neatly oiled and combed, accentuate his broad forehead and sharp nose. He goes from seat to seat, making small talk with the passengers.
The small village of Jiratang serves as a gateway to the middle and north Andamans through the Jarawa reserve forest. Vehicles are only allowed to move in convoys escorted by police in the reserve forest. Four convoys leave Jiratang every day at 6:00am, 9:00am, 12:00pm, and 2:30pm.
We return to our bus after a quick cup of tea. The gates open and the one kilometer long convoy starts moving. The convoy has about ten buses, a few trucks, and numerous private vehicles. “Everyone please refrain from photographing the Jarawas or be ready to spend a few years in the prison,” quips Vishnu. The excited newlyweds in the neighboring seats stash their cameras back into their bags. I remember a 2012 report by The Observer exposed the human safaris in the Andamans by publishing video footage of girls from the tribe being coerced into dancing semi-naked in return for food. The Indian government has since been under tremendous pressure to impose stricter laws to safeguard the interests of the tribes.
I ask Vishnu if things have changed now. “Yes, they have definitely changed,” he says. “There is more regulation on tourists. Vehicles are supposed to move in a convoy without stopping anywhere in the reserve. Photography and interaction with the tribes are prohibited. The government still helps out the tribe with medicines and hospital facilities.” He pauses, his face serious. “But, I feel things have worsened and it will never be same for the tribe. Some of the tribals have adopted the vices of the outsiders: tobacco, alcohol, and betel nuts. Outsiders use these to manipulate them.”
Jarawas, among the four major tribes including the Great Andamanese, the Onge, and the Sentinelese, have lived in the Andamans for 55,000 years. Anthropologists think the Jarawas are descendants of some of the first humans to move out of Africa. Diseases and natural calamities have wiped out many of the other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The roughly four hundred Jarawas have managed to survive. Someone at the back shouts, “Jarawas! I see them.” People excitedly move to that side of the bus and stick their heads out of the windows. I feel revolted. The Jarawa are not animals and we are not on a safari. The Andamans is their land but here they are living as captives in a reserve forest. Shouldn't they be pointing at us?
I catch a glimpse of a group of Jarawa men running with spears in their hands. Dark-skinned and well-built, they run fast to catch the hunt of the day. I picture a frightened wild boar running ahead. Three of the Jarawas are naked, while the fourth is wearing a cloth of leaves tied to his waist.
The only piece of modern world in the vast expanse of wilderness is the road we are driving on - the Great Andaman Trunk road. “Andaman Trunk road is a bane for the tribes. Poachers abuse it for wood, animals, and honey. Jarawa women have been sexually abused by poachers and outsiders,” Sneha, our Bed and Breakfast owner, told us the last night over dinner. “I am completely against the interference we have brought about for our selfish needs.”
Built in the 1970s, the road has been in litigation for a long time. In 2002, the Supreme Court of India ordered to close the highway. However, the road is still open and the local islanders depend on it for commuting to the middle and north Andaman islands. “We were co-existing peacefully with the Jarawas before the road too. The road opened up their vulnerabilities as poachers robbed them. But, we can’t do away with the road. The road is important for tourism and local commute,” Vishnu explains.
Sai asks Vishnu, “Have you interacted with the Jarawas?” Vishnu smiles and replies, “I have had some good meals with them. They grill everything from bananas to wild boars. But, I don’t interact with them now.”
“Because of the new rules?” Sai presses. Vishnu nods his head.
With another half hour to go before we cross the forest, our bus stops abruptly. A group of Jarawas block the road. Beads hang around their necks. Two women stand on the side, giggling. Three men point their spears at our bus and ask for tobacco and betel nuts by pointing at their mouths, completely red from consuming the same. Vishnu asks everyone to calm down. He signals back saying we have none. They look dejected and give us way. “This is the problem now. They have become addicted to these stuffs,” Vishnu speaks bitterly. “It doesn’t end here. They sometimes attack tourists and steal their cameras and phones which they barter for tobacco and alcohol with the local policemen.” I glance back at the receding figures. They are preparing to block another vehicle.
Our bus moves on to reach the other check-post. We alight and make our way to the ferry. I see people talking excitedly about the Jarawas, catching snatches of their conversations. “How can they be still living naked?” “I can’t imagine someone living without electricity.”
My mind fails to comprehend their questions. Shouldn’t we be asking why we encroached their land, robbed them of their resources, made a safari out of their home, and introduced them to addiction? The Jarawas may still live without clothes and electricity, but they have changed. We have changed them. And time will tell whether the change will culminate in the extinction of the last remaining tribes of the Andamans.
Swagatika's tryst with travel began in 2011 during her student exchange programme in France. Twenty countries and countless stories down the line, her bucket list continues to expand. Follow her on Instagram @swagatika_globetrotter.