- In August this year, the government removed the requirement for a Restricted Area Permit for 29 islands in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which means foreigners get unrestrained access to the islands. The explanation behind the move is to encourage tourism, but if past experience is anything to go by, such rash ideas can destroy the particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTGs) that still survive precariously on the islands today.
- It was precisely such insensitivity by the British in the 18th century that began the end of the tribal population on the Andaman Islands. The Great Andamanese tribe, now confined to Strait Island where they survive on government doles, once roamed and hunted in the vast jungles of the Andaman Islands.
- In the aftermath of colonisation, except for the Sentinelese (estimated at 50), who continue to live uninterrupted on the isolated North Sentinel Island, all other indigenous communities — the Jarawa (498), the Onge (120), the Great Andamanese (56) and the Jangil (extinct by 1920s) — lost their traditional habitats and were critically depopulated. These communities are now on the verge of extinction and fall in the category of PVTGs.
- Among them, the Andamanese, who were 10 strong groups before colonisation, came in closest contact with the British and they also suffered the most.
They came with ideas
- The British came into the Andamans in 1789, establishing a penal settlement here that was subsequently abandoned in 1796 because of the inhospitable climate. Then, in 1858, the British returned, this time to Ross Island with prisoners from the Indian ‘mutineers’. The Andamanese fiercely resented this colonisation and conducted frequent raids, murdering convicts and plundering the settlement.
- To contain the hostile indigenes, the British adopted a mixture of punitive and friendly measures. One such was tribal ‘homes’. In the early 1860s, the first ‘Andamanese Home’ was set up on Ross Island, with shelter, medicines and food, to ‘tame’ the Andamanese. “They must see the superior comforts of civilization compared to their miserable condition… we are in reality laying the foundation stone for civilizing a people hitherto living in a perfectly barbarous state, replete with treachery, murder and every other savageness,” wrote Colonel R.C. Tytler in 1863.