A Savage Among the Anthropologists

Jarawa dolls sold in Port Blair shops

Last week I participated in a conference that was exhilarating as well as profoundly demoralizing. It was held in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The picturesque former penal colony in the Bay of Bengal is now a terrain contested between the remnants of aboriginal tribes like the Jarawa and the Onge, and a growing population of settlers from the Indian mainland. The point of the gathering was to discuss the future of the aborigines.

I have studied the history of the Andamans for many years, but this was my first conference on the Andamans in the Andamans. So there we were for two days, packed into a crowded hall, a motley collection of anthropologists, historians, activists, local politicians, bureaucrats and even a general (the Lieutenant Governor of the islands). There was the kindly, thoughtful, former director of the Anthropological Survey of India, along with a contingent from the current AnSI. There was Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, albeit in his capacity as an anthropologist convinced that capitalism will soon collapse. There was a retired IAS officer, also a trained anthropologist, with the look and manner of a mad Tantrik. There was an activist who, in the spirit of full disclosure, had written about her excitement when a naked Jarawa man felt her breasts in the jungle (supposedly it’s the Jarawa way of confirming that clothed women are in fact female, but it could also be that most men are fourteen-year-old boys at heart), but who wanted to complain about the new Jarawa habit of downloading pornography on their cell phones. There were journalists and television cameras. There were, of course, no Andamanese present at this meeting about their future, except for a Great Andamanese woman who silently served tea to the participants before disappearing. (There was a Nicobarese activist and an anthropologist, but the Nicobarese are not black-skinned and are excused from having to be ‘primitive’ all the time.)

Such a gathering would have been unthinkable at a conference in America, where the divide between the academic and non-academic worlds is rarely breached in practice, and academic gatherings are staid, polite and ritualistic. But in Port Blair, there were sharp clashes of actual interests and not just veiled egos: the bureaucrats resented the activists, the academic anthropologists resented the government types, the settler-politicians resented the bleeding-heart defenders of aborigines, the general resented the civilians, and nobody liked the historians. People shouted angrily, interrupted speakers in mid-presentation, tried to grab the microphone, burst into tears, refused to leave the podium, inserted themselves into panels without warning (one panel ended up having eleven presentations), and stormed out. Terrible drivel was punctuated by informative presentations. And although I too stormed out at one point (only to be placated and return like a prima donna), there was something politically alive about the whole thing: a sense of real stakes.

By the end of the conference, intensity had turned into disgust. The absence of the Andamanese from the conference, except to serve tea to middle-class citizens who loved hunter-gatherers but had no intention of doing much hunting or gathering, had become both literal and a metaphor of Indian democracy. In the place of aborigines and their views, was the verbiage of the civilized: administrators of ‘primitive tribes’ who wanted to deflect criticism, settlers who wanted access to the tribal reserve, activists who were thoroughly invested in their self-appointed guardianship of the primitives. The Tantrik administrator-anthropologist declared without embarrassment or irony that Onges and Jarawas should be encouraged by their government-affiliated minders to work for provisions, but only to preserve their self-esteem; they must not be paid monetary wages under any circumstances. Money, like politics, porn and self-representation, would be the apple in paradise.

The administrators and settlers were easy to understand, even when they suggested that aborigines be removed from Great Andaman and concentrated on one small island. The settlers, in particular, were straightforwardly and rationally self-interested, and there was a logic to their argument that the concerns of more than a hundred thousand tax-paying, vote-casting members of the public outweighed those of six hundred aborigines. It was the activists who were the revelation and the source of the disgust, because they did not appear to be reactionary. They were, for the most part, English-speaking, college-educated and middle-class, and they included that famous archetype of the Indian leftie: JNU faculty. Yet the prospect of aborigines as fellow-citizens sat poorly with them. They were far more comfortable with the idea of ‘primitive tribes’ as children, whose lives would be simultaneously ‘protected’ and controlled by their enlightened well-wishers.

It was as if the Protectors of Aborigines in nineteenth-century Australia had been reborn as a less exalted horde of Indian journalists, novelists and professors. Or rather, it was as if the debates on race, rights and citizenship that have driven the politics of aboriginality in other democracies – Australia, the United States – since the Second World War had never happened. And indeed, because they had not happened in India, we were left with an activist posture that was inseparable from racist and colonialist imaginations, in which race is biologically inherent, identity is beyond politics, some people are trustees, and others are held in trust. In this perspective, the ‘primitiveness’ and ‘vulnerability’ of  some people so defines who they are that if they were no longer primitive and vulnerable, they would no longer be people at all. So they must be ‘protected’ from change at all costs, protected from contact with outsiders, protected from information and pornography, and protected also from adaptation to the modern world of politics, money and rights, because adaptation suggests agency, which children cannot possess. They must be insulated in a bubble of jungle as a middle-class fantasy of pre-capitalist purity and innocence, cocooned in somebody else’s hope that capitalist society would not find them out. And because that hope is known to be false, and the insulated are a sort of living dead, the whole enterprise is shrouded in a vocabulary of imminent extinction and a sentimental, masochistic anguish that allows activists to weep at the podium.

I gave a mildly acidic talk that was greeted with consternation, archly disapproving remarks about ‘provocative’ ideas, and one woman announcing that she disagreed so comprehensively that she didn’t know where to begin objecting. The administrators and settlers were less disapproving, which I found more disturbing. But with progressives like these activists, reactionaries are redundant. Near the end of the conference, the principal organizer of the conference asked me to make some closing remarks that included policy recommendations. I was surprised, but obscure historians rarely get the chance to talk policy before a panel of senior administrators and I was happy to accept the invitation. So I hurriedly wrote a few words and went back to the podium. The audience this time was more openly hostile, and in the middle of my talk a few of them (including the activist who had been groped by the Jarawa) sprang to their feet and began objecting vehemently, having taken issue, no doubt, with my suggestion that the Jarawa be allowed to watch porn. The Lieutenant Governor had to intervene before I could continue. He also remarked that he would have preferred a conference organized ‘along Army lines.’

Small animated huddles developed when it was over. The English and Germans in the audience stood sympathetically over me, expressing their shock at what had happened: they had never seen anything like it. One of the JNU professors overheard them and offered, ‘People were outraged.’ For a moment I thought she meant that people had been outraged by the disruption; then I realized that she meant the disrupters had been justifiably outraged by my remarks. At that moment, I realized how profoundly out of step I was with both the left and the right wings of Indian democracy, and I needed very badly to skip the formal dinner and go drinking with the white folks.

The funny part of the episode is that nothing I said would be controversial in, say, North America or Australia. Here is the text of my recommendations to the Lieutenant Governor.

“Thinking Futures: The PVTGs of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands”
(Conference in Port Blair, December 4-5, 2014)
Policy Recommendations for the Office of the Lieutenant Governor
Satadru Sen

In the Constituent Assembly of India, Pandit Nehru, Dr. Ambedkar and their colleagues took the remarkable step of establishing suffrage without qualifications in a nation made up largely of illiterate, impoverished peasants and tribals. In doing so, they rejected the common colonial claim that most Indians were ‘not yet fit’ for democracy, and declared that all human adults are capable of functioning as citizens. They made no exception for hunter-gatherers or nomads. They assumed, liberally and boldly, that all citizens – even the most humble and ‘backward’ – can recognize their political interests, deal with the state on their own behalf, and participate in the functioning of the state. That assumption has not always worked perfectly, but it is nevertheless the ideological and moral basis of the Indian state.

Nehru and Ambedkar also understood that not all sections of society are equally strong, and that the state must assist and defend the weaker sections. But they saw no inconsistency between the protective state and the democratic state of universal adult suffrage. They suggested that the two concepts were mutually dependent: democracy must protect the weak, but the weak must have all the rights of citizenship in order for democracy to exist. This too is a foundation of the Republic of India.

Organized into the categories of "Rights, Representation and Information," "Education" and "Economy," the proposals put forward here are aimed at reconciling the ‘vulnerable’ condition of the Andamanese tribes with their status as Indian citizens, and to ensure that citizenship provides them with the same benefits and protections that other Indians expect for themselves.


Goals: To ensure to tribals their democratic and legal rights, and to provide them with information that would enable them to function as full citizens, while ensuring their dignity and protecting their identities as members of small tribal groups. The objective is neither to segregate the tribes from the mainstream, nor to deny the facts of their disadvantage and suddenly remove all protections. Accordingly, the objective of specific proposals I am making is to facilitate the tribals’ interaction with the mainstream on terms over which they – the tribals – have substantial control. Also, it is to revise the legal basis of tribal identity in a way that makes it possible for the tribes to grow and thrive. Most importantly, it is to create an administrative posture that treats the tribals as adults, not children.


1.      Exclusive tribal rights to the land of the tribal reserve must be protected.

2.      Within the reserve, there should be no special interference by the administration or AAJVS in the day-to-day lives of tribals: no attempts to regulate their moral lives or contacts with outsiders, no externally imposed restrictions on drinking, smoking, watching pornography, and so on.

3.      Tribal councils should be formed as soon as possible for the Jarawa and Onge. These councils (drawing upon tribal traditions of self-government whenever these are available), should be elected by members of the tribe to represent the tribes. These councils should be trained by the administration to gradually take over the management of tribal finances, and to conduct basic intra-tribal governance in a way that is consistent with the Indian Constitution. A similar council should be formed for the Great Andamanese when their population reaches 100, and for the Sentinelese if and when they give up their isolation.

4.      The issue of the ATR should be determined by the Jarawa themselves, either through the tribal council or through a referendum. We must not assume that the Jarawa want the road to be closed; nor should we make that determination for them. For all we know, they might want to keep the road open and collect a toll. Giving them the final say over the road would be consistent with the principle of tribal control over the territory of the reserve.

5.      A broader legal framework of tribal identity should be created, either nationally or locally. Women who marry non-tribal men should retain their tribal status. Children born of such unions (and all unions, marital or extra-marital) between tribal women and non-tribal men, as well as between tribal men and non-tribal women, should have tribal status, as should the children of those who are of ‘mixed’ race. There must be no insistence on ‘purity.’ This would bring administration in the islands in line with aboriginal policy in other democracies, such as Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada.

6.      The administration should ensure that there is no barrier or discouragement (formal or informal) to marriage between tribals and non-tribals, or between people from different tribal groups.

7.      Social workers affiliated with the administration, ANTRI or AAJVS should be trained to provide tribals with information about their legal rights, constitutional rights, and the functioning of the court system. Social workers should also provide tribals with information about basic money-management, banking and access to credit.

8.      There should be no restrictions on the employment of tribals outside the reserve, anywhere in the A&N islands. Tribal employees who believe that they are being subjected to exploitative, abusive or illegal working conditions should have a readily accessible forum where they can file a complaint. That forum can be provided by the administration, ANTRI or AAJVS. It should be able to intervene quickly to resolve the situation, and to initiate police action if necessary.

9.      A similar forum should be maintained for complaints against abuse by the police.

10.  There should be no restrictions on the movement of tribals, within the islands and beyond.

11.  The right to vote must be ensured for members of tribal groups. The administration should take steps to provide voting cards, and to educate tribals about voting.

12.  The status and rights of Scheduled Tribes should be ensured for the Andamanese tribes, in education, employment and political representation.


Goals: To create in the islands a cultural and educational climate that is inclusive rather than exclusive, which is attractive and meaningful to tribal children and parents, and in which tribals and non-tribals can all participate and benefit. The objective is to give shape to tribal identities that fit comfortably with Indian society and produce genuine opportunities for economic mobility, and at the same time, to ensure that non-tribal Indians living in the islands are familiar and comfortable with the culture of the tribes.


1.      Andamanese languages such as Jarawa and Onge should be taught in the schools of the A&N Islands, in addition to Hindi and English. All children, tribal as well as non-tribal, should learn one tribal language. The administration need not insist that Jarawa children will learn Jarawa, Onge children will learn Onge, and so on. Any child should be free to learn any tribal language that is offered at his or her school. The objective should be to make all children in the islands familiar with a broadly conceived tribal culture, rather than lock them into closed and rigid identities. This will also allow for the protection of tribal languages within the established national policy of the Three Language Formula.

2.      Tribals should be employed in the schools as language teachers, on the same salary scale and with the same benefits as other teachers.

3.      The history of the islands, with an emphasis on the history of the tribes, should be taught to all children (tribal and non-tribal) in the schools, in addition to the standard curriculum of Indian history.

4.      The curriculum of the island schools should be broadly revised in a way that is sensitive to tribal culture, and that makes education directly relevant to the lives of the children. It is not that tribal children should not learn about Helen Keller and the American space program, but that this material should be balanced by topics closer to their home.  Teachers should be trained to teach this revised curriculum, and tribals recruited as teachers whenever possible. New textbooks should be created in consultation with ANTRI and made available to the schools. This restructured curriculum should be taught to all students, and not just tribal children.

5.      In teacher training as well as curricular development, ANTRI should liaise with institutions on the mainland, and initiate exchange programs for visiting instructors and trainees, so that experience and innovations can be shared widely and effectively.

6.      There should be no segregation of tribal and non-tribal children in the schools outside the reserve. Tribal children should be able to attend the same schools that non-tribal children attend.

7.      School enrollment should be mandatory. A special school should be established within the Jarawa reserve, and administered in close coordination with the Jarawa community. The curriculum should cover what is important to the Jarawa, without ignoring the general curriculum. Here as well as in schools outside the reserve, promising tribal students should be identified early, advised about further educational opportunities, and provided with the guidance of mentors affiliated with ANTRI.

8.      Computer literacy for tribal children should be a priority of the schools. Children should be given easy access to computers at the schools, and loans of tablet PCs if that is found practical. The Internet should be easily accessible from the reserve.


Goals: To equip tribals to engage the market on their own terms as far as possible, to minimize their disadvantages, and to allow them to benefit from their existing and potential resources. Economic policy should begin with an acknowledgment that tribal societies are unlikely to remain unaffected by the wider economy and media. ‘Traditional’ pursuits like hunting and gathering and subsistence fishing may become inadequate and unappealing to tribals themselves; there are signs that this has already happened to some extent. Economic alternatives should be structured in ways that allow the tribes to maintain control of their resources.


1.      Individual tribals who wish to set up business ventures, both within the reserve and outside, should be able to do so, subject to regulations and restrictions drawn up by the tribes themselves.

2.      Tribes should be encouraged and assisted in collective initiatives for selling reserve products and services to outsiders, subject to regulations and restrictions drawn up by the tribes themselves. Fish and crabs, which are currently harvested and sold illicitly and cheaply by tribals to non-tribal buyers, should be brought into a legal, regulated system of prices and transactions.

3.      Tribes should receive a percentage of the proceeds from the sale of merchandise directly related to tribal culture (such as dolls, masks, performances, etc.).

4.      A financial institution should be established for the tribes, to coordinate small savings, the investment of tribal funds and the provision of credit.