When I met the Andaman Jarawas
In 2016, I had the opportunity to visit the Andamans and interact with two girls of the Jarawa tribe. It became clear to me that their language, values and way of life were under threat because of contact with the outside world.
The theme of the International Day for World's Indigenous Peoples is Language. Many of the thousands of languages are disappearing; in fact the biggest threat to the tribal communities is the extinction of language. According to the United Nations, this danger is so great that every two weeks a tribal language is disappearing.
In India, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands house many of the country’s extant tribal communities; many of them still live in the Stone Age, untouched by the world. These groups include the Jarawa, the Onge, Sentinelese, the Shompen and the Great Andamanese.
I got an opportunity to meet Jarawa tribals and the people who have been working with these tribes for a long time. This is an opportune moment to focus on the language of the tribals, whose way of life is disappearing.
The Jarawa of Andaman is one of the most talked-about tribes. Today, I would like to share my experiences with you about their language and some other aspects of their lives.
On February 26, 2016, I reached Port Blair with my team. I needed government approval to meet the protected tribe of Jarawa. Over the next several days I spent much time with government officials. I was taken to guest houses and government offices. While the officials were busy proving themselves good hosts and trying to keep me busy with coffee and snacks, I was eagerly waiting to get the nod to meet the Andaman tribespeople. But, to get the permission from the administration was difficult. Local officials were sceptical about approving my request to use a camera for shooting video of the Jarawa community.
Even after a million attempts, no officer was ready to sign my papers. Tired of pleading my case, I tried another journalistic way: and with the help of a nurse, my attempt was successful. At the end of the first week of March, my meeting was fixed with two Jarawa girls.
I had to get to Govind Ballabh Pant Hospital in Port Blair in the morning. I was permitted to take along only two teammates. I selected Manoj and Sudipto. I knew the rest of my teammates were unhappy. But I had no choice.
We had to leave the car near the hospital and go to the back of the hospital. I was explaining to my companions how to deal with the Jarawas… we were moving towards the Jarawa Ward, and as we did so when I caught sight of the two girls. My colleagues asked me to turn on the camera, but I refused. As we moved towards the ward, the nurse Lakra, due to whom this visit was possible, was waiting for us. Lakra knew their language. The names of the two Jarawa girls we met were Harbotale and Yoguda. They were sisters.
Harbotale had been brought for a health check-up and Yogada had come along with her to care for her. I assumed that I would need translation help from Lakra, the nurse, who was working with the tribe. I started making an effort to establish a conversation with the girls. I asked the names of the girls ...Initially, they laughed at me. However, I soon realized there was no need for a translator.
At first, Harbotale was happy as she had made a garland of red flowers that day and the Admim Janjati Vikas Samiti had given her new clothes. She was asking to take the food given by the hospital to her tribe as she wanted to share it with them.
Both girls were speaking Hindi; it was clear that these tribals were no longer isolated from the rest of the world. During our conversation, I asked them about their daily routine; I was told they wander in the jungle all day long. They hunt for pigs.
When I asked about the family, I was told that they have parents and an elder brother. They said that their brother was a temperamental person and everyone was afraid of him.
Angry and abusive
Soon it struck them that they were not being sent back on the same day. At this, Harbotale became furious. Shanti Lakra tried to explain but they were angry. Harbotale started abusing the nurse. She said that she would not eat any food and would throw away the clothes given to her and go naked.
During this, her sister remained calm. I was stunned by the torrent of bad words; none of the research on the primitive civilisations of Andaman has found abusive words in their languages. Of course, all these tribes are learning abusive vocabulary from modern society.
Apart from the language, the social behaviour of these tribes may also change due to this unsolicited contact with modern society. Before going to Andaman, I had read some books and articles to understand and research the Jarawa and other tribal groups. Many anthropologists, who worked on the Jarawas, wrote about illegal intrusions into the world of the Jarawa tribe. This is dangerous for their survival. The government and the police dismiss these claims; but the two Jarawa girls using Hindi were proving the point.
I don't see a problem with them speaking Hindi but the kind of language they were learning! It’s a question of great concern; from whom were they learning those abusive words? Were they abused by the people around them?
It was clear to me from my experiences in the islands that there is a lot of corruption happening in the name of protecting the Jarawas and their language.
After my visit, three things were clear. First of all, the language of the Jarawa tribal group is in danger. Second, it was clear that there is a lot lacking in the efforts to save the language. Apart from this, it was also clear that there is no meaningful effort to save their way of life and language. The third thing was that along with the threat to the Jarawa language there is the trauma of imposing outside values on them. For example, when she said she would take off her clothes, she was implying that we have imposed our beliefs of covering the body, especially women.
During the tour, I met many officials and anthropologists. Many of them are working with the utmost sincerity, but some of them don’t care. Many of these responsible people also agreed with my observations in an informal conversation.
[Autotranslated from Hindi]