Jarawa girls told to dance semi-naked for the camera as two videos offer fresh proof of official involvement in ‘human safaris’

Gethin Chamberlain

The Observer, Sat 4 Feb 2012
Two videos obtained by the Observer offer fresh proof of official involvement in “human safaris” to see the protected Jarawa tribe of the Andaman Islands.

A three minutes and 19 seconds clip, shot on a mobile phone, shows half-naked girls from the tribe dancing for a seated Indian police officer. A second, shorter clip again focuses on a girl’s nudity, while men in military uniform mill around.

The new evidence comes as authorities in Orissa state set an example to their counterparts in the Andamans by moving swiftly to end human safaris to see the Bonda tribe, another abuse revealed by an Observer investigation.

The Indian government had ordered both sets of officials to take swift action to investigate and prevent abuse. In an interview last week, tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo said exploitation by outsiders had to be stopped.

A preliminary report quickly commissioned by the Orissa government concluded that the Bonda needed greater protection. Officials suggested that tourists would in future be banned from photographing the tribe and all cameras would have to be deposited with officials before they could enter the area. Two tour operators have already been charged with selling tribal tours “in an obscene manner”.

Police in the Andamans have repeatedly denied any involvement in human safaris after an Observer investigation last month found evidence that officers had accepted bribes to allow tourists to meet and film the Jarawa. A video of young Jarawa women being ordered to dance in return for food caused outrage in India and around the world.

But the new videos raise fresh questions about the complicity of officers who are supposed to be protecting the tribe.

An off-camera voice at the start of the longer clip is heard to tell the girls: “Dance”. Initially, the camera is focused on the breasts of the oldest girl. A few second later, the man tells the girls: “Move back, move back a little, a little more”. They do, until they are all in shot. The girls are young, wearing red string skirts and jewellery. “Do it,” the voice tells them, and they start to dance again, swaying their hips and clapping.

Halfway through, the camera pans round briefly to show a police officer sitting by the side of the road, watching. For the opening seconds, the camera focuses on the girls’ baskets: inside are items including a packet of Parle-G biscuits – a popular Indian brand.

The second video is less structured and shows a group of young Jarawa being filmed with military personnel. The camera points first at a bare-breasted girl. A male voice, off camera, tells her, “isko to de” (“at least give me that”), which prompts her to run to protect her basket of belongings. The clip ends with a male voice saying, “chal chal” (“get lost”).

The words are spoken in Hindi. The speakers are, it appears, members of the Indian defence forces (the Andamans is unusual in that it has a force structure combining all three military services, known as the Andaman and Nicobar Command). Neither video is datestamped, but the longer one is understood to have surfaced about two months ago in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

The Indian government ordered a crackdown on human safaris after the Observer revealed that hundreds of tourists drove through the Jarawa jungle every day on the Andaman trunk road, taking photos of the tribe and throwing them fruit, biscuits and other snacks.

The Jarawa are believed to have lived on the islands for tens of thousands of years but did not make contact with outsiders until about 14 years ago.

Campaigners say police are heavily involved in abusing the trust of the Jarawa. Six years ago, a report for the Indian government’s National Advisory Council, chaired by Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress party, warned about the sexual exploitation of Jarawa women and the involvement of police. Despite reports of Jarawa girls being seen entering police huts at night, and the birth of a non-Jarawa child, no action was taken.

The original Observer investigation found evidence that some police officers were taking bribes to allow tourists to meet and film the Jarawa inside their jungle reserve, both of which are illegal.

The Indian government has taken a hard line, ordering the governments of the Andamans and Orissa to investigate and take action to prevent future abuse.

The tribal affairs minister said last week that the government would review its policy on the Jarawa within the next 12 months, and promised to consult the tribe. He said: “Their land rights have to be protected. Their sources of livelihood have to be protected. Finally, their exploitation by outsiders has to be checked.” The minister has also written to the Orissa government and promised to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of culprits.

Although Orissa has taken swift action, there was embarrassment for ministers last week when it was revealed that tribal people were being paraded for visitors to a state-run exhibition. Human rights activists protested that the government was “making a circus” out of the tribes. Several tribal people had been brought to the exhibition in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, and told to sit outside models of tribal houses for visitors. In the face of protests, organisers quickly withdrew the human exhibits.

Andaman police failed to respond to the new allegations, claiming to be unable to view evidence submitted by the Observer because of problems with their internet connection. Earlier the commander-in-chief of defence forces on the islands had promised to take “appropriate action” if evidence was found of the involvement of military personnel.

Denis Giles, the campaigning editor of the islands’ Andaman Chronicle newspaper, says the tribespeople believe the police are protecting them; the reality is that they are being used.

He says police have taught the Jarawa to beg. Officers take the money they collect and give them tobacco, which they never previously used, and food. The possibility of abuse is obvious, and Giles says there have been cases where women have given birth to children fathered by outsiders. The babies are not accepted by the Jarawa and are killed, he says.

Like many previously uncontacted tribes, the Jarawa are vulnerable to new diseases. They have started succumbing to measles and mumps and even malaria, to which they previously appeared to have some sort of immunity.