In 2012, a shocking video showing half-naked Jarawa women being made to dance by an off-camera police officer caused outrage on the Internet and among Indian authorities. For many viewers, this was their introduction to the Jarawa, one of the indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, which form part of India’s Andaman and Nicobar territories. These are home to several indigenous peoples, including the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Jangil, Onge and Sentinelese.
Most of the people living on these islands are Indian immigrants. The indigenous Andamanese form a small minority – their numbers fell due to colonialism, the introduction of diseases to which they had no immunity and new threats disrupting their way of life. The Jangil are extinct, probably due to contact with foreign diseases. The Great Andamanese now number 52 individuals, while the Onge have less than a hundred people.
For the longest time, both the Jarawa and the Sentinelese refused attempts at contact with outsiders, the Sentinelese often doing so violently. However, the Jarawa established peaceful contact with Indian authorities in 1997.
Who are the Jarawa?
Few know the story of the Jarawa people. On seeing their dark skin and Afro-textured hair, one might wonder how they got to Asia, but the Jarawa and others who look like them can be found in several south and south-east Asian countries. Following the “Out Of Africa” theory of human evolution, modern humans stem from a single group of Homo sapiens who emigrated from Africa and populated the world. The Jarawa are said to be descended from some of the first humans to leave Africa.
“No one ever told us where we came from,” says Telo, a Jarawa man who appears in the documentary We Are Humanity. “I don’t know; maybe we reached here by boat.” Director Alexandre Dereims believes the Jarawa travelled from Africa during the Ice Age and were isolated on the Andaman Islands at the end of that geological period.
Jarawa territory includes beautiful beaches and reserves, and the government has economic plans to build the largest port on the Indian Ocean there.
Dereims and producer Claire Beilvert have dedicated their lives to making impactful documentaries focused on people who are fighting for their freedom. After becoming aware of the threat facing the Jarawa, they teamed up with a crew of Indian activists to capture their stories. The Jarawa may once have been curious about the outside world, but that has changed, as they now face new challenges.
Tourists and the ‘human zoo’
The Andaman Islands are a tourist hub for the Indian middle class. Tour companies offer packages featuring colonial historical sites, the tropical rainforest, pristine beaches and rich marine life, and hikes on nature trails. Attractions often include a drive along the Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts through Jarawa territory. Dozens of tourist buses, flanked by military vehicles, drive through the Jarawa reserve four times a day in what has come to be described as a human zoo. Companies lure tourists with the promise of seeing the Jarawa in person. It was on such a trip that the video of Jarawa women being made to dance for food was shot. Although it is illegal to take photos in the Jarawa reserve, it happens. Photos and videos of the Jarawa are available on the Internet and are sold in markets.
This twisted fascination with the Jarawa is plain racism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the stereotypes attached to Africans living in India are attached to the Jarawa. Foremost is cannibalism, which has been traced to Arab and Persian documentation on the Andaman Islands. The association of cannibalism with the indigenous people can also be found in 19th century European records.
Alexandre reiterates that the average Indian is merely curious about the Jarawa and wants to know more about them. It is a small group of politicians and locals, he says, who want to wipe them out. Why? Well, Jarawa territory includes beautiful beaches and reserves, and the government has economic plans to build the largest port on the Indian Ocean there.
Poachers, modern technology and alcoholism
The Jarawa perimeter is guarded by the military so, in theory, their land is protected by the Indian government. However, poachers have become an increasing threat, decimating the population of wild hog that was once the staple of the Jarawa diet. Wild game is sold illegally by poachers on the Indian market. In We Are Humanity, a group of Jarawa men describe being shot at by poachers, then retaliating and killing 10 of them.
Contact with the outside world is also affecting their way of life, which has hardly changed in millennia. Even though they prefer to live traditionally, there are bits and pieces of the outside world that look incongruous in the Jarawa setting. Some women wear clothes, one man wears a watch, others wear rings. They use torches and cook in metal pots. There are T-shirts, hats, shorts…all given to them by Indians. They own plastic bottles, mirrors and their hair is clipped with scissors.
Outside influence has not always been positive or innocuous: The Jarawa have been offered tobacco and alcohol, which some tribe members say they have been forced to drink. Other indigenous people, such as the Onge, have growing rates of alcoholism and drug use. In 2014, it emerged that Jarawa women were being sexually exploited by Indian poachers.The Jarawa have travelled to meet with Indian authorities but their complaints have been ignored. They say the outside world is bad and they do not want to see tourists or poachers.
The Jarawa in their own words
We Are Humanity is part of a campaign to educate the world about the Jarawa people and put pressure on Indian authorities to protect them from extinction. They do not want to be assimilated into Indian society and they have taken the peaceful route by trying to communicate this with the rest of the world. We Are Humanity captures their voices in an intimate portrait of their lives. We see tasks ranging from the mundane – fishing, fetching honey, making baskets – to the touching: In one scene a woman paints her husband’s face with clay, the standard make-up for the Jarawa.
Learning the Jarawa’s story is like watching several hundred years of colonial activity being repeated.
Some infantalise the Jarawa by comparing them to children, describing them as childlike and innocent. The documentary, however, shows us that they are much like anyone else in the world. Yaday shares the story of how he fell in love with his wife Yonukay, attesting that “we’ll never split up”. Kids are seen playing with their fathers. Their way of life should not be dismissed as “simple” or “uncivilised” simply because it differs from ours. They do not need the outside word to live fulfilling lives.
Learning the Jarawa’s story is like watching several hundred years of colonial activity being repeated. Onia, a Jarawa woman, says, “We look different from you but we are all good.” It is a message that those projecting racist stereotypes onto the Jarawa should bear in mind. If there was one thing to learn from the history of indigenous peoples and foreign contact, it is that we are morally obliged to prevent the repetition of past atrocities. Equally important is their right to remain in seclusion, away from modern “civilisation”. “We don’t need your world,” one of the Jarawa boldly states. Those of us on the outside can resist attempts at colonisation by joining the cause to respect their rights and treat the Jarawa as fellow human beings.
Sign the petition to raise awareness on the Jarawa people here.
You can watch We Are Humanity on demand here.