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« Concrete Jungle vs Concrete Common Sense | Main | Double blinding violins (prasad) »

January 11, 2012


Thanks, Prasad. My husband I were supposed to make a trip to the Andamans this February, a place we have talked about for a long time for its scenic beauty and not for gawking at the protected tribes. He backed out, pleading deadlines at work. Now I will be going to India by myself and not to the Andamans.

This is very disturbing indeed. Hopefully, some bribe taking heads will roll. But knowing the corrupt and inept Indian bureaucracy, I wouldn't hold my breath. I agree with almost everything you said here including the mostly useless fetish for preserving ancient DNAs and cultures. As long as changes happen by the natural process of voluntary commerce, health care and education, such changes should not be resisted. But then what is lucrative tourism without a generous dose of exoticization?

If I somehow found myself on a tour like those you describe, Prasad, I would be so hideously miserable being a party to objectifying indigenous people in that way that I would have to leave. I think most people would feel the same way: they would know it was wrong, they would not take part in it. I know, I know -- we support foreign wars, we accept on behalf of others terrible risks, we let distant children be malnourished, and that ain't the half of it. But a taste for degrading others right up close is something special. Or so I would like to think.

The Jarawa don't seem to be quite that enamored with coming into full contact with 'civilization', whether for medical treatment and/or education. The Observer has additional details that present the full context:
Survivor International seems to have a well-documented website, and many of the stories of not only the Jarawa, but also other isolated tribes worldwide and how they are exploited will undoubtedly make the reader's blood boil. I found the story of Boa Sr, the last speaker of the Bo language and her song about the earthquake and Tsunami of 2004 particularly intriguing, the phonetics remind me of Tamil, even if the meaning is undecipherable to a non-speaker. And then I wonder, was the recording and photographing of the last of the Bos in itself a sort of exoticization and exploitation?

@ Prasad:

Thanks for posting this story. It was informative, sad, bizarre, and creepy. I can't bring myself to comment on it.

It would be nice to have the Jarawa take on this story. What do they think of strangers lining up to drive through their reserve and begging for dances in exchange for biscuits and bananas? Surely, there must be an intrepid reporter who can locate a Jarawa speaker to translate.

Sujatha, I don't think it would even be difficult to interview the locals; if you can *make* them dance for money, you can sit them down and talk to them. I saw the video, and they're basically conversing in Hindi, with a few words of English (!) mixed in. Any so-called isolation has long since vanished in practical terms. That there wasn't a long 5000 word interview with various Jarawa interview (specifically about this issue or otherwise), is frankly to me is a bigger symptom of these people being treated like children/animals than the story itself. Can you imagine an investigative report about Vegas strippers or prostitutes in some red-light district that made no attempt to interview the affected people?


Hope you have a nice trip, I've heard only wonderful things about the natural beauty of the islands, though I've been. As a probe of the exoticization issue, I'm distressed by this:

"Those responsible for the tribe's welfare think the only solution is to keep them apart from outsiders for as long as possible. "Forced coexistence would be total genocide for them," says Dr Anstice Justin, head of the Anthropological Survey of India in Port Blair. He points to the case of Enmai, who became something of a minor celebrity before his interest waned and he stopped coming out of the jungle. Most of the Jarawa feel that way, Justin says. "The inner core feeling is not to have interaction with outsiders."

There's something very weaselly about this; you can't close off "forced" coexistence without also stopping all contact, including that initiated by the Jarawa themselves. Notice the weaselly stuff about "most" of the Jarawa feeling something and how he's discerned some "inner core feeling." In reality of course it's much more likely the case that (for better or for worse) curiosity extends both ways. There's no more "the" Jarawa feeling than there is "the" mainland feeling, and some individual Jarawa are going to be as curious about us as some of us are about them. More so probably since we have much more shiny stuff.

To me a more natural way of handling this would be to create some type of tribal sovereignty where the *tribe* (not the central government) controls access to its area, but individual tribespeople are allowed to enter and exit as per their wants. Of course there are risks, and the history of indigenous people interaction has pretty sordid moments, but there's something extremely patronizing to me about the way this Justin fellow's arguing. At least it seems to me *he* is the one in favor of cordoning them off as in some wildlife preserve. And then he acts all outraged when other people sit on elephants and go in with binoculars, so to speak.

@Prasad: "Yes" to everything you said.

For all we know, the 'dance for the tourists' is just the Jarawan form of rumspringa, similar to what the Amish do. I think Gethin Chamberlain ought to pack his(her?) bags and get back to interview a real live Jarawan, instead of just waving bananas at them and asking them to dance for the camera.

Amen to what Prasad says too, about the Dr. Justins of the world.

Is there nothing to the fact that the only tribal members dancing were women?

I don't necessarily read Justin's remarks as all that weasly. Ultimately we're talking policy, not anthropological rigor. Granted, the remarks are laconic. How do you get from a bored Enmai to genocide? Or from a quantity ("Most of the Jarawa") to a quality of "inner core feeling"? But even if many Jarawa are curious about us, that doesn't mean they can't also share a desire to be left alone. Facilitating that desire by imposing a mode of tribal sovereignty might or might not work. See, for instance, the U.S.'s Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

No need to travel abroad to encounter this problem, though. San Francisco has its own interests in exploitative tourism.

Do the Jarawa want to be protected by Justin from interactions they find unsavory? Did they ask him to get between them and the world? Unless a scene very much like that happened, who does he think he is? -- their Cesar Milan? Take the frigging pith helmet off, Mr. Justin...

While we are bashing Dr.Justin, it behooves us to look at his background as well. It makes it clear that he is coming from the position of being an insider rather than an outsider peering in.

Another fascinating look at the Jarawa and their interactions with the settlers and tourists.

Dean: Of course, jiggling breasts make for more prurient photos/video for the passers-by. Dancing men would apparently not have the same effect. You could call it sexploitation. But are we denying the Jarawan women the ability to freely do what they want, when we bemoan these transactions? They get handouts that they want, in exchange for something they are not averse to doing. Who is the exploiter here?

From the linked article (ATR is the Andaman Trunk Road, which runs through Jarawa territory):
"Similarly it is reported that at the crossing of middle strait some Jarawas provide a little amount of resin packed over much of dry clay lumps to passing passengers on ATR. Jarawas insist on getting a paper currency as opposed to coin, reflecting a visual association with economic value. Moreover it shows the Jarawa capacity to calculate the economic advantage by 'cheating' the passengers who are in a hurry. In fact it should not be assumed that Jarawas are simple folks unable to understand economic exchange. For example in early phase of contact at various jetties small shop owners had pretty much got the Jarawas trained to return back unopened food packs that the bus passengers purchased for them and re-sale it to the passengers, and giving Jarawas what they wanted at the end of the day (Pandya 20). Similarly Jarawas at roadside pose for cameras and expect in return to be paid in token form of chewing tobacco."

Sujatha, thanks for digging up these links. I'm less angry with Justin than before :) If perhaps his views are condescending at least he would seem to have come by them honestly thru earnest mental toil. The report makes for good reading. I couldn't figure out if it was commissioned by anyone important, but hope so. It's quite thoughtful and sober in its recommendations re roads, health and schools.

Justin's views are perhaps an echo of his feelings of loss of culture when he moved out of his Nicobarese tribal milieu into the larger world. It isn't unnatural for him to impute similar feelings to other tribes of the Andamans.
The report is written by Vishwajit Pandya, who appears to have worked closely with the tribals, he is a researcher with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from U Chicago, currently teaching in New Zealand and India.

I also looked up Gethin Chamberlain, the reporter who broke the original story. He is a fantastic photographer who specializes in photographs of the underprivileged and downtrodden the world over (with the exception of the UK, naturally), but tends to be a less than truthful or exaggerating reporter whenever roped in to supply articles rather than photos.

This is on the front page of Indian Express today.

Thanks for the link. I couldn't figure out what to make of the story; it just wasn't vivid enough - just what are these people being asked to do?

As usual I find the target of the reporter's outrage somewhat ill-chosen - isn't the problem that they're being paid terribly low sums of money per day? I bet it's a tiny fraction of what the government (plus whatever contractor they've hired, babus etc etc) makes per day from tickets. Instead the reporter seems to object to the fact that they're being put in the spotlight to begin with. I just don't see why the latter is a problem (the more so since these aren't isolated peoples to begin with). Delhi Haat (for example) is one of the few things in the city that actually showcases and sustains traditional crafts and cultures, especially what we call 'indigenous' culture. I also noticed the familiar ban on photography...why on earth do people think it's enlightened policy to prevent someone from photographing another?

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