Now that we’ve forgotten about the Andamans again, I wish someone could tell me what the fuss was all about. As far as I could tell a British journalist went to do the stock piece on the well-known phenomenon of ‘Jarawa safari’ tourism, paid his money, saw the tribal show and acquired a somewhat dated video of the same.
Then he followed the usual protocol for all European journalists doing this story: got a stern quote from Survival International, the British ‘Movement for Tribal Peoples’—which means a free pass through the ethical thicket of trespassing on the Jarawa while complaining about tourist incursions. There was an unsubstantiated allegation that policemen were involved in the video. And we had national news for a week.
A lot has happened since then: Salman Rushdie missed a party at the Jaipur ick-Fest. The elections have begun. People have been killed in poll violence in Manipur. It’s only right that the national narrative of breaking news has moved on.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that a three-year-old video clip was treated as ‘a shocker’, and ‘a national embarrassment’ by news anchors, and senior politicians alike.
Like anyone who keeps half an eye on the Andamans—if only on the internet—I learned nothing about the enduringly shameful predicament of the Jarawas that I didn’t already know. Nor did I see anything I hadn’t already seen long ago on youtube. The truly remarkable thing about the episode was the reflex with which the story was taken up because it had appeared in ‘the Observer of London’.
There is some national embarrassment in that.
It’s only a matter of time before some foreign correspondent makes his name by spotting the 43-year-old footage of Helen’s Aa jaane jaan number from Inteqam on youtube. And after our twisted inversion of colonial fantasies has been excoriated in the Guardian we’ll have panel discussions on CNN-IBN and NDTV. ‘Are Indians Racist Perverts?’ Actually the 1969 cabaret scene was brilliant enough to have already incorporated the post-colonial-colonial gaze among its many perversions. At 2:22 on the video you’ll notice a table of four Europeans scrutinising the bizarre spectacle like totemic Observers of London.
But the answer to that hypothetical TV debate is also already up on youtube. Just look for “Jarawa Dance” and you’ll see a recent performance of Indian teenagers igniting a Port Blair function by gyrating to a Tamil disco number in blackface and tight black costumes adorned with leaves. It’s the missing exotic-erotic link between the Caucasian-body-stockinged Helen and the pixellated Jarawa damsels of our international shame-shame.
Watching the Jarawa video episode as a televisual national event I had the disconcerting sense that an English-accented command of Nachho! Nachho! had propelled us into this self-flagellatory dance. And for all our trespasses against adivasis this is not a voice we should be heeding. It’s the voice of a tedious Mistah Kurtz who will not die. A voice that exaggerates the horror and perpetuates the fantasy.
If facts rather than fantasy matter at all, it should be said that the women in the Jarawa video were not “forced to dance”. If facts matter we should acknowledge that contrary to the Guardian’s claim the Jarawa did not “live in peace for thousands of years” until tour companies invaded their forests. In truth the Jarawas lived with violence for centuries and they now live in peace—in which they voluntarily participate in the tawdry spectacles that so offend us.
And if the Jarawa really matter to you, you should read the Light of Andamans rather than the Observer of London. The Port Blair newspaper recently carried a report by Zubair Ahmed tracing the women featured in the notorious video. It gives them names, hears their voices, dates the event and identifies the videographers as defence personnel rather than policemen or tour operators. It has a lot of information and perhaps too many inconvenient facts to make it to the evening news.
The realities of life in the Andamans are the messy and unsentimental realities of Indian democracy and any genuine resolution of the Jarawas’ situation will have to involve an articulation of this community’s choices and rights as well as those of the thousands of exotic (in the unromantic sense of the term) settlers who have become their neighbours. It’s unlikely to be a telegenic spectacle but it really doesn’t have to be a national embarrassment.
Kai Friese is the editor of Geo.
Elsewhere: Also on the Andamans by Kai Friese: Guilt Trips