Imprisoning the Jarawa Tribe

Pop quiz: What do you call forcible imprisonment in impoverished conditions? Well, if the person you’re imprisoning has dark skin and a culture older than yours, you get to call it “protection” on a “reserve.”

Here are the opening lines of Al-Jazeera’s new video on the situation of India’s Jarawa people:

The reclusive Jarawa people live on the Andaman islands. Their lifestyle is threatened by poachers, loggers, and tourists. … [W]e ask if India can protect an ancient tribe on the verge of extinction.

There are about 400 Jarawas living today. India has established a jungle reserve to protect these “reclusive people,” but strangely, many of them seem to want to leave it. The video includes footage of Jarawas coming to Indian villages to ask for food, phones, and other material assistance. Luckily, the police show up, shove the Jarawas into vans, and deport them back into the reserve for their own protection. Phew! That was a close call.

The state-sponsored fantasy that Jarawas are “reclusive” and should be protected from outsiders depends on the usual colonial belief that indigenous people are children — not capable of making decisions for themselves. Here’s what Denis Giles, a local newspaper editor who considers himself an activist on behalf of the Jarawas, had to say:

They are quite simple, and their brain is almost like a teenager, or little children: so simple, so clean, so pure.

The reserve and the laws prohibiting contact with outsiders are designed to protect this fantasy of something “pure.” Activists like Giles want these “little children” to live in the jungle and never grow up. Remember, the Jarawa’s “lifestyle is threatened.” And it is that supposedly prehistoric lifestyle, not the Jarawas’ very real lives, that the Al-Jazeera reporter and the local activists seem to be largely concerned about.

The Jarawas, on the other hand, seem eager to alter their lifestyle by adding telephones and regular meals.

These people quite obviously want some of the benefits of global capitalism. It’s up to the Jarawas themselves to decide how to balance their material desires with whatever desires they may have to preserve their “lifestyle.”

The Indian government’s absurd policy of protection by imprisonment stems from the fundamental confusion of a state-centered society: the belief that powerful people should help weaker people by using violence against them.

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Filed under Emerging Events, Nonaggression Anthropology

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