Earlier this year, when linguist Anvita Abbi began to write an obituary on Licho, the last speaker of an ancient language belonging to the vulnerable Great Andamanese community for the science magazine Scientific American, she was filled not just with grief but anxiety.
Licho was the last speaker of the Sare language. Several languages once spoken by various tribes within the Great Andamanese had already become extinct. Bo, another language, disappeared when its last speaker Boa Senior died a few years before Licho. Just one more language, Jeru, with its three speakers remains now. But even amidst them—all living in a small and remote island out of bounds for visitors—they often speak in Hindi among themselves. With Licho’s death, from tuberculosis and a heart condition, the Great Andamanese community now shrank to just 58 individuals.
Abbi had got close to Licho when she began to seek her help in studying the languages spoken on the Andaman islands, resulting eventually in the first-ever dictionary of languages spoken by the Great Andamanese. She had watched with admiration as Licho would break into, without seeking an appointment, the chief secretary’s office to raise issues that affected her community. When Abbi had a book launch on her work on the creation myths within the community, Licho came wearing a bright yellow sari. “She was very bold and forthright,” Abbi says. “She was like an activist in many ways.”
But at the news of her death, it wasn’t just the grief of losing someone she had worked with so closely that plagued her. Covid-19 had just hit the Andaman and Nicobar islands. What if the virus hit someone from this small and ancient tribe in the Andamans? What havoc would it wreak on this community, which had once numbered around 8,000 individuals (in the 1850s, when the British first colonised these parts) before diseases, such as syphilis, brought by settlers against which they had no immunity almost entirely wiped them out? What if worse was to follow and it spread even further, to the other equally vulnerable and ancient tribes of the Jarawas and Onges?
Last month, her fears came true. Eleven members of the Great Andamanese tested positive for Covid-19.
The indigenous communities on the Andaman islands (the government classifies them as PVTGs or Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups) belong to a very special group of people. They are genetically closer than any other modern human to the group of Homo sapiens who first moved out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. While that pioneering batch began their trek across the world, a smaller group trekked along the southern coastal route in India to finally settle on the Andaman islands. When the ocean ran over whatever bridge connected these islands to the rest of the world, their link, too, disappeared. Whatever was happening in the rest of the world—the genetic mixing that took place among our ancestors, the technological leaps made, the diseases that ravaged us and against which we built immunities—the tribes in the Andamans remained untouched by them.
They lived in seclusion. They fired arrows at sailors who tried to land on their shores. Their world changed in the late-1850s when the British colonised the islands to set up a penal colony. Some tribes, like those belonging to the Great Andamanese, were forced to turn friendly. Unequipped with immunity to diseases these new settlers carried, their numbers were also the first to dwindle, from an estimated 8,000 or so when the British arrived to just 58 now. Others, like the Jarawas, turned deeper into the forest, continuing to remain hostile right up to the late-1990s. The North Sentinelese, who gained infamy two years ago for killing a US national, have continued to remain somewhat untouched on their island.
Indigenous communities across the world, already vulnerable because of the expansion of the rest of the world into their territories, are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19. Several members of indigenous communities in Brazil have already perished. There have been infections even in tribes like the Nahuas in the Peruvian Amazon who have only recently come into contact with the world.
As India now becomes the country with the second highest number of infections and as the virus spreads through the Andamanese capital of Port Blair, these few ancient Tribals living on the peripheries, already greatly diminished because of the diseases we have carried to them in the past, are now particularly at risk.
For most of the early months when the Covid-19 outbreak occurred in mainland India, there had been little to worry about the safety of these vulnerable tribes. Every one of the 58 Great Andamanese Tribals, even those who work and study in Port Blair, were shifted to the government settlement structure built for them in the 1960s on Strait Island. The North Sentinelese remained as aloof as ever. The Onges were confined to a reserve on Dugong Creek. And the Jarawas—who have not assimilated with the rest of society and officially at least no contact is permitted with them, although there have been increasing incidents of tourists and poachers reaching out to them—were restricted to the west coast of the island. The Andaman Trunk Road, which cuts through the Jarawa reserve, also became quiet with only a few vehicles carrying essential supplies permitted to ply on them. With the announcement of the lockdown, and the closure of the airways and the sea lanes, most of the islands appeared to have become cut off from the rest of the world.
BUT THE TROUBLE started when the lockdown was lifted. Many from the Great Andamanese community who live in Port Blair wanted to return to the city. “We have to remember they are not specimens or anthropological objects. They are humans like you and me,” Abbi says. Unlike the remote settlement which the government set up for them at Strait Island, Port Blair with its modern amenities is more attractive, and convenient, to live in. “If one person [from the Great Andamanese] gets a job in Port Blair, half of the family [from Strait Island] moves in with them. You can’t avoid it. And why should you? They are like any other citizen.”
Among them was Riya. “I have two children who study in Port Blair. We wanted to come to the city because we thought the schools and markets were going to open,” she says in Hindi. Riya, who works as a compounder at the small dispensary set up for their community on Strait Island, is the daughter of the island’s queen. This is a notional title, a practice first started during the British Raj whereby they nominated one individual to represent the community, and which continues post-Independence. Invariably, the government chooses the meekest and most docile among them—for instance, Riya’s mother Surmai—Abbi points out, as the king or queen, so they can have their way.
Around this time, the number of coronavirus cases had begun to shoot up in Port Blair (so far, nearly 3,500 have tested positive) and authorities decided to test those from the community who were now living in the city. About seven of them were found to be positive, including two spouses who were not from the community. Alarmed at this finding, when authorities decided to check those residing at the settlement on Strait Island, another four who had not visited Port Blair tested positive. There is some confusion about the likely source of infection for those who lived on Strait Island. Although in early interviews, authorities have claimed that those who had contracted the infection in Port Blair might have passed it on to those who lived on Strait Island when they visited it. But Riya, along with Port Blair-based journalist-cum-activist Denis Giles, claims none of the Tribals had returned to the island. “There are a few other government staffers [from the mainland] on the island too. It could have come from them,” Riya says. Senior health official Dr Avijit Roy and authorities at the Tribal Welfare Department declined requests to be interviewed for this article.
Nilanjan Khatua, an anthropologist based in Port Blair, who was part of a team that checked the health of the Great Andamanese Tribals last year, claims the members have several co-morbidities. “Most of them are obese, at least 55 per cent were anaemic. And even among those between 25 and 35, many of them had issues like hypertension,” he says. He believes a sedentary lifestyle, being restricted to one small island, and a sudden change in food habits—from being hunters and gatherers just a few generations ago to a modern food habit replete in carbohydrates and sugar—is to blame.
Licho, who died earlier this year, would tell Abbi that she was opposed to the building of the Andaman Trunk Road. This road, which was built in the 1970s and which is crucial because it connects Port Blair to all major towns on the island, also happens to cut right through the forest reserve meant for the Jarawas, who until recently had remained hostile to outsiders. She would say: “The Jarawa people will be decimated just like us.”
As the virus spreads through the Andamanese capital of Port Blair, the ancient tribals living on the peripheries, already greatly diminished because of the diseases we’ve carried to them in the past, are now particularly at risk
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A lot of the concern now is about whether other PVTGs, like the Jarawas and the Onges, have got the infection. According to the authorities, the Jarawas, who number about 500, have been informed of the pandemic. They have been asked to stay in smaller groups and remain somewhat socially distant to avoid any possible spread in the event of the Covid-19 outbreak, and even told to contain themselves to the western coast of their reserve. “We have even provided them with tools and iron to make arrows and spears for which they salvaged ships in the past or came to depend on outsiders,” says an anthropologist connected to the Anthropological Survey of India. “We have told field functionaries to stay away or interact only at a distance with face masks and gloves. We are also intensely patrolling the west coast to ensure that poachers don’t interact with them.”
The Jarawas remain vulnerable to outsiders. Poachers from nearby countries like Myanmar often land on their shores and barter goods with them to procure items like honey, which the Jarawas collect, or the edible nests of Swiftlet birds which are considered an aphrodisiac and fetch high prices. There have even been instances of sexual exploitation and getting them hooked on to tobacco and alcohol. Just a few weeks ago, eight poachers were arrested for fishing in an area considered part of Jarawa territory.
Abbi worries that recent efforts by the authorities to send health workers and government staffers to check upon the health of the Jarawas and to test them could lead to unintended consequences. “I have been telling them to stop doing this. Don’t send anybody to them. The intention is good. But the methodology is unsound. In trying to do good, you can cause more harm…You can’t treat hunter-gatherers the same way you treat city dwellers,” she says.
Several workers connected to the welfare of PVTGs have been turning positive of late. According to Giles, a worker belonging to the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), which is an autonomous body that helps and advises the administration in the protection of aboriginal tribes, who had accompanied a medical team that had visited the Jarawa reserve to test the Tribals, was found positive later in the evening. “His sample had been taken a few days before. But the positive result only came later that evening. Look, we get it. It’s a tough situation. It’s a pandemic after all. But one really has to be more vigilant,” he says. “The other problem is how long can we expect the Jarawas to contain themselves to the west coast,” Khatua says. “They are hunter-gatherers. They have to move about to hunt.”
A few days ago, the results of the tests conducted showed that neither the Jarawas nor the Onges had contracted the virus. Some more good news was to follow when the last two, among the 11 of the Great Andamanese who had got Covid-19, also recovered.
All of them have now been asked to return to Strait Island. Those who have jobs in Port Blair have been told a way for transferring their jobs to the island will be found. Riya is not particularly enthused. Government authorities have had a heavy-handed approach towards them in the past. Some years ago, when Riya’s elder sister Rengi fell in love with an outsider and wished to marry him, the government briefly did not allow it. This is quite common now given the tribe’s small numbers. Rengi, however, was told that the government was following an isolation policy in the context of the Andaman’s aboriginal tribes and hence a marriage between a Tribal and an outsider could not be allowed. She, however, had her way.
“They are saying we will be safer [on Strait Island]. That’s true,” Riya says. “But we can’t always be there.”