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May 15, 2012

Revisiting ‘Reserves’ in Neoliberal India: Case Study of Jarawa


By Shaily Mudgal

At the crossroads... of extinction and survival

The introductory note of the UNESCO dossier on Jarawa tribes reads, “One of the most distinctive, but relatively little known aspects of the Andaman Islands is an entity of land and sea called the Jarawa Tribal Reserve – a space legally notified in the name and, presumably,the interests of the Jarawa tribal community within it” (2010: 7). I begin this article from the vantage point of this ‘reserve’, with the intention of exploring neoliberalism’s operation, and its inadequacies, within specific sections of society; i.e. the indigenous/tribes that are the earliest inhabitants of the land. This article has emerged as a reactionary response to the video-footage shown on the official website of The Observer, and the news coverage of British journalist Gethin Chamberlain on January 8, 2012:

Andaman Islands tribe threatened by lure of mass tourism: Jarawa people at risk from  disease, predatory sex and exploitation as tourist convoys crowd the road through their jungle. (The Observer, Sunday, 8 January 2012: 20).

The video portrays a shameful spectacle of, most likely, an army-man (however, there is no official confirmation yet) commanding young, semi-clad, almost naked, Jarawa girls to dance in front of a group of non-tribals (allegedly tourists). The video aired on almost every news channel in India and abroad, has once again raised questions on the role of administrative machinery that enforces laws for the security of its citizens, the police who are supposed to protect vulnerable communities from intrusion and encroachment, and the tourists who are misguided in their touristic pleasures. Chamberlain in his article accuses these tourists for taking sadistic pleasure from the exploitation of the innocent tribes:“This kind of video is the trophy tourists dream of when they set off into the jungles of the Andaman Islands “on safari”. The beauty of the forest functions merely as a backdrop. The goal of the trip is to seek out the Jarawa, a reclusive tribe only recently contacted, which is taking the first tentative steps towards a relationship with the outside world” (20). More importantly, the video and the news surrounding the bizarre episode, once again brings into attention sheer contempt of the highest court of India within its own bureaucratic framework. The Andaman Trunk Road,which the Supreme Court had ordered to be closed to ensure absolute non-intrusion in the reserve area in 2002, still continues to be functional. The apparent defiance of court orders has had its consequences for the Jarawas at various levels. In 2007, to further protect the area from any external incursion, poaching, and commercial exploitation the government created a buffer zone around the reserve, which has been under dispute in the Supreme Court for sometime now.

While the world witnesses yet another challenge to its self-prescribed modernity,developing nations liked India are in a dire need to reassess their post-coloniality. At the cross-roads of globalization and neoliberalism, India’s social reality marred by instances of exploitation of its unique indigenous heritage creates a farce of tall claims to social equality and justice.


In Context: the Jarawas

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands constitute a part of the Union Territory of India. Andaman Islands alone are an archipelago of around 500 islands in the Bay of Bengal, out of which 27are inhabited. There are four distinct indigenous communities living in the Andaman-Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, and Sentinelese. During 1990s, the total population of the indigenous communities was recorded about 500, and has dwindled drastically since then.The Indian government provides special protection to the indigenous peoples of Andaman under its Constitution as scheduled tribes. The anthropologists are of the opinion that the indigenous communities of Andaman constitute the group of earliest immigrants from Africa (Negritos) to the southeast of the Indian sub-continent. They have also been prone to colonial encounters during the eighteenth century. Their contact with outside communities, however,became one reason for the decline in their numbers. Initially, the colonial warfare took a toll,and later they contracted diseases, such as measles, pneumonia, and syphilis from the outsiders. The survivors of one community called the Great Andamanese, who were themselves made up of ten different sects, were subsequently resettled by the Government on the 603 hectare Strait Island. The Jarawas, who can be counted to only 300 today, were living on the 742 square kilometres reserve in the South and Middle Andaman Islands. The Jarawa Tribal Reserve (JTR) area was increased in 2004 and is a little more than 1000 square kilometres today. The JTR was formed in 1957 under the provisions of the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956. Historically, the Jarawa Reserve“initially came into existence due to their hostility and non-compliance to needs of the colonists, from 1858 up to the occupation of the islands by the Government of India (GoI). In1956, the GoI notified areas in the Andaman and Nicobar Archipelago as Tribal areas exclusively for the native islanders” (Chandi, 2010: 33). Besides the facts, the most important aspect of the Jarawa Tribal Reserve is that it is an area identified by the outsiders (settlers); it might not necessarily be recognized as such by the Jarawas themselves.

Till about the late 90s, the Jarawas have resisted all attempts of the settlers to establish contact with them and have preferred to stay in isolation, but much has changed since then.There is nearly 200 year old history of hostile and violent interactions between the Jarawas and the settlers, with hundreds of deaths on either side. In 1976, several members of the road construction crew around the legal Jarawa reserve, but actually in the heart of the forests that the Jarawas were using, died; in 1985 as well some settlers were reported to have died in the area around the reserve due to these hostile encounters. The official policy has been to leave them alone, and not interfere with their way of living, and desist from encroaching upon their land. However, attempts have been made at developing friendly relations with the Jarawas through ‘contact missions’, giving gifts and food, but anthropologists believe that this may lead to the ultimate decimation of the surviving tribe. To make matters worse the administration is keen on developing tourism in the Islands, for which massive amount of time and money is being spent on infrastructure, road construction, and development of communications and media.

The most urgent concern regarding the imminent extinction of these tribes is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR). Functional by about 1989, ATR happens to be the arterial road connecting South to North Andaman Islands in the archipelago, and intersecting the Jarawa tribal reserve area right through. In 2002, the Supreme Court of India had demanded its closure to restrain any movement between the islands by the outsiders. Despite the highest jurisdictional ruling, the road has been kept open by the Island administration, mainly, it seems, to harness the tourism potential of the area. Where the anthropologists,environmentalists, and social activists are desperate to save the almost extinct tribes, the Government does not seem to efficiently handle the issues concerning the existence of these indigenous communities. The road is a pernicious vehicle that comes with the loss of preciousforest cover indispensible for ecological balance and conservation of biodiversity - and thus also a metaphor for the threatened sustenance of these tribes. The ATR effectively cuts off access to the east coast thereby shrinking the Jarawa habitat, as well as their resource gathering area. The road also brings alien food, and diseases against which Jarawas have little immunity. But the worst of all is the kind of tourism, disguised and unofficial, which viciously intends to thrive and prosper on commercializing and advertising innocent Jarawas,unmindful of what this exposure can lead to. Though any interaction with and photography of these tribes is legally prohibited, yet the promotional tourism brochures promise rides to these mystical reserves inhabiting stone-age, naked tribes.

Still today, unfortunately, the most obvious fact needs to be highlighted: that the Jarawa reserve did not come into existence following the tourist intrusions. Rather, despite the restrictions imposed on tourism-related activities, tourism impacts heavily upon the JTR area.Tour operators manoeuvre to get through or around the prohibited area, practising tourism in a deformed, illegal way. The recent video expose and the events following it are an opportunity to understand these sensitive issues and how they are handled at various levels within the organizational framework.

The tenets of neoliberalism look at tourism industry as one of the avenues where individuals can exercise their liberty anywhere across the globe, and which rests on the forces of privatisation and free market policy. Hence, intrinsic to neoliberal tourism industry are the perils of unrestricted movement of capital, labour, and consumers. In many specific contexts,such as the Jarawa reserve, uninhibited and mostly illegitimate interaction between the indigenous peoples and the consumers (labour, settlers, tourists, administration) for the purposes of tourism has a damaging effect on the natural abode of these tribes and their traditional mode of living as well.


‘Reserves’: places, spaces, or otherwise?

It is extremely important to notice that tribal ‘reserves’ is not a very prominent category in India, as it is in Canada or the U.S.A. Neither are the historical and political implications of‘reserves’ similar in each case. Perhaps, the notion of ‘reserve’ would have different meanings for different tribal communities. In fact, in the A&N Islands themselves, the ‘reserves’ acquire prominence in a very unique sense. It is with this specificity in mind, and the caution to avoid generalizing the category of ‘reserves’, that I analyze them as places geographically defined for the indigenous/tribal communities, as uniquely distinct social and politicalconstructions, simultaneously holding similarities on significant aspects.‘

Reserves’ are multi-layered entities, sites that question the legitimacy of neoliberalism and relevance of postcolonialism. They are reminders of the legacy of colonialism now exercised by the government within the decolonized national boundaries. Castells, following the Leibnizian tradition, conceptualizes that space, “ a social product,is always specified by a definite relation between the different instances of social structure,the economic, the political, the ideological, and the conjuncture of social relations that result from them. Space, therefore, is always an historical conjuncture and a social form that derives its meaning from the social processes that are expressed through it”. Correspondingly,reserves should also be understood as spatial constructions that have their own history, and that are an outcome of the underlying socio-historical processes.

In the history of Western philosophy space has predominantly been conceived as absolute, universal, unlimited, in contrast to place as the particular, limited, local, and bound. However, recent debates and discussions on space and place have brought the discourse above the dichotomous nature and revealed the overlapping areas of both, where space is intrinsic to place, though not necessarily bound by borders, and embodying multiple layers of reality manifest in and by place. Edward Soja (1980) adds to the theorizations around space by asserting that space

“...has always been political and strategic... shaped and molded from historical and natural elements, but this has been a political process. Space is political and ideological. It is a product literally filled with ideologies.”

Reading space as strategic allows one to also read its engagement with the political, historical, and the ideological, as Soja articulates. The idea of space that thus emerges also enables us to realize the process of meaning-making within the place-based trajectory of a region, intersected by historical,political and social reality.

In his famous lecture of 1967, Foucault had elucidated that all cultures constitute heterotopias, and that heterotopias are places, which are simultaneously mythic and real, and which can be further categorized as heterotopias of ‘crisis’, or heterotopias of ‘deviation’,among others. To quote him verbatim, “There are ... in every culture, in every civilization,real places – places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society – which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites ...are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted” (ibid). Extending the Foucauldian notion to the analysis of ‘reserves’ as heterotopias, it would not be difficult to perceive themas heterotopias of both ‘crisis’ and ‘deviation’ at the same time. The inhabitants of the reserve live in perpetual crisis, ranging from land encroachment, alien intrusion and endemic diseases to threatened natural resources and perils of cultural assimilation. Reserves are also centres of deviation since they are habitat of so called primitive societies, or tribes, whose mode of living is traditional and different from the mainstream norms. Therefore, reserves are rendered vulnerable to criticism and exploitation from the dominant society, which relegates these peoples and places into subaltern corners of society, on the periphery of lived social reality.Reserves become synonymous with stereotypes that have sedimented over time.

Drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s The Southern Question (1926), deployed by Guha and Spivak in their Subaltern Studies project, the concept of ‘subaltern’ has travelled far and wide to largely locate and voice the histories of non-elite, marginalized subjects (peasants, labour and working class) within the Indian subcontinent. With the development of critical interventions in the field of subaltern studies, the indigenous as a category of the subaltern merged as a new area for postcolonial discourse. As David Ludden summarizes, “The meaning of subalternity in Subaltern Studies shifted as the framework of study increasingly stressed the clash of unequal cultures under colonialism and the dominance of colonialmodernity over India’s resistant, Indigenous culture” (19). Mindful of the ongoing debates on the overlapping categories of both indigeneity and subalternity, and their tensed relationship and commensurability with the postcolonial project, this paper does not intend to propose any critical stake on the rubric of the subaltern. However, albeit the existence of reserves as sites once colonized by the British, and now by the democratic bureaucracy under the modernized systems of neoliberal global citizenship, there remains little doubt regarding the subaltern and marginal status of the indigenous peoples within the period post/past colonialism.

In another remarkably significant way, reserves can be read as landscapes offering opportunities of potential tourism. Cartier’s conceptualization of “touristed landscapes”, as“...places of complexity, in some cases landscape palimpsests of great historical depth, and whose draw owes to multiple sites of possible experience and sensory encounter.... where locals and visitors negotiate identity, seeking renewal or exploration, the possibilities of alterity and liminal identity shift” (2005: 1-2) offers distinctly interesting perspective on reserves. Her interpretation opens reserves not only as geographical places that are touristed,but also as spaces that are simultaneously transformed by human activity in a way that makes possible connections to diverse other places. Identifying tourism as category of activity,experience, and economy, Cartier’s theorization enables us to re-read reserves as places that are transformed by the process of tourism through engagements between the toured, the touring, and other agencies that are both or neither. Therefore, practices of tourism as the largest neoliberal venture in global economy hold implications at global, national, regional and local level, where politics of place and space merge effectively to initiate a critique of oppositional aesthetics between the two.


‘Orientalism’: another paradox in ‘Postcolonialism’

While analyzing reserves as Cartier’s touristed landscapes, effecting seduction and exoticism,the Saidian idea of the ‘Orient’ rings through the discussion. Moreover, locating and interrogating the ‘orient’ and ‘orientalism’ in postcolonial settings becomes interesting,because it makes us aware of the colonial social reality in the decolonized nations. This“internal orientalism”, as Breckenridge and van der Veer articulate, “by far the most problematic feature of the post-colonial predicament”, rests on “a theory of difference that was deeply interwoven with the practices of colonial control” that still continues to exist even in the absence of foreign rule (1993: 14-15).

Undercut by the characteristics defining the ‘Orient’, as articulated by Said, reserve becomes some mystical primitive place of seduction and desire for the outsiders (especially the tourists) that “...had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences” (1978: 1). Reserves as the ‘orient’ immediately become desired destinations largely because of their characteristic ‘otherness’ and ‘difference’ (Cartier, 16-17). Here, referring back to the recent media disclosure on Jarawas, what the world saw through the video-footage in reality appeals to the Saidian desire for the ‘exotic’ and the ‘bizarre’. Rather, under the falsely held notions of eco-tourism, the government itself nurtures and feeds into this ‘desire’ for the ‘different’, the ‘orient’. The tourists serve to fulfil both the tourism department’s propaganda as well as their own hunger for the Freudian ‘uncanny’, the ‘unheimlich’ (1919). In the context of those ‘reserves’ where tourism is a legitimate and mutually agreed upon activity between the tribals and the nontribals, reading the article entitled The tourist welcomed; The adivasi exiled... (Chanchani, 2007) further elucidates the marketing moves of tourism industry, where the star attraction of tourists lies in the exploration (read exploitation) of ‘Protected Areas’, or the ‘reserves’ of tribal communities. The marketing strategy ‘exoticises’ indigenous peoples and‘commodifies’ ‘reserves’ to lure tourists. Therefore, tourism that could have been a benefitting tool for the indigenous communities and ecology, rather becomes a neoliberal neocolonial medium of exploiting, displacing and marginalizing the vulnerable tribal communities of India.

A crucial failure of neoliberal globalization lies precisely in its neglect of the context specific parameters of progress and development, as well as in overlooking the alternate versions of civilization. While following the construction of ‘reserves’ as touristed landscapes, as places identified for purposes of tourism promotion, local and global vectors come into play at the same time. Noticeably, people from diverse cultures, polities and geographies travel to tourist destinations (‘reserves’) and in consequence transform them with their experiences and imaginings. ‘Reserves’ are a testament to the process of interaction and mutual appropriation (not necessarily explicit) of the local and the global. Discourses of globalization tend to overlook the significance of place and focus largely on space. Dirlik(1998) also emphasizes that “in discourses of globalization...the global is often equated with space, capital, history and agency, and the local with place, labor, and tradition.” To counter the deliberate erasure of ‘place’ in the discussions on globalization, Casey articulates against the "disempowerment of place in both modern theory and social life”, and asserts that “it is our inevitable immersion in place, and not the absoluteness of space, that has ontological priority in the generation of life and the real” (1996: 18). Beyond the binaries of global and local, space and place, the indigenous communities are predicated on the continuity of the“biophysical, human and supernatural worlds... and social relations are seen as encompassing more than humans”. Specifically, the Jarawa Reserve, “ many things rolled into one at the same time. It is home to the Jarawas and at the same time home, perhaps, to the best and last of the remaining original forests that once clothed this entire group of islands. It is a space that ecologists see as a critically important repository of the island’s biological diversity; it is an internationally recognized Important Bird Area and it is home to a host of critically endangered and endemic species of plants and animals…. It is a space with multi-layered histories, occupied earlier in part by the Great Andamanese community, and one that is now claimed by many others; primarily the state and the settlers from mainland India” (UNESCO 2010: 7). Owing to the multi-sited complexity of ‘reserve’, it also becomes a place of seduction and carnivalesque desire for the romantic and the exotic luring the outsider/ tourist for sensory engagement and experience within. It follows that tourism becomes an experience which emerges out of the various engagements between the agencies of place and space, embodied by the tourists and emplaced in their memories of sensory and visual encounters, “embracing the spatial reach of social relations” (Cartier: 4-5).Reimagining tourism within the neoliberal global framework provides an opportunity to experience the collapse of the binaries of global/ local, place/ space, and to highlight the dynamics arising from the emplaced experiences across spatial stretches of culture and geography at local/regional/national/global levels.


Conclusion: rethinking indigeneity and neoliberalism

The expanding lines of inquiry in neoliberal ethics and politics are fundamentally centred on the impact of neoliberalism on the on-going reconfiguration of states and societies, and the response of local communities to these transformations. Especially with reference to the postcolonial settings, neoliberalism’s interaction with the notions of modernity, progress, and individual freedom, as against indigenous cultures and local models of social living, has received critical attention. The hegemonic ideology intrinsic to the project of neo-liberalism accords power to bureaucratic machinery which in turn exercises this power in places where it does not exist, such as indigenous communities and tribal reserves. With the allocation of agency for competing on a global scale, neo-liberalism seeps into those spaces where there are differences of perspective and objective, and simultaneously produces sites where social inequality and injustice lingers. The master narratives of neoliberalism and globalization have evidently assumed homogeneous conceptions of progress and modernity, consciously, or otherwise, obliterating local indigenous experiences and knowledge-systems. Dirlik and Bahl (2000), in their introductory essay, remind us that “...the diffusion of certain epistemologies globally does not result in a so-called global village, but on the contrary disguises the recolonization of the world under the guise of globalism” (8). Springer also cautions us against the penetrating influence of neoliberalism in the state apparatus and its appropriation of intellectual and social theorization in every domain: “Far from a fait accompli, neoliberalism‘s ongoing implementation in various sites has been marked by a considerable amount of struggle, contradiction, and compromise, which suggests that the meaning of neoliberalism as a paradigmatic construct must necessarily be called into question” (2010:1029). Neoliberalism’s critical reliance on globalization and globalization’s marginalization of ‘place’ and appropriation of ‘space’ creates a vicious circle which rotates on the axes of open economy, individual freedom, and spatial liberty, simultaneously pushing off the tangent the alternative local, indigenous, community orientated socio-economic models of sustenance.In consequence, an asymmetry is created in the global social space which is oblivious or negligent of the local place-based experiences within communities. However, Dirlik and other critics reinvigorate the debate by deploying the notion of the ‘glocal’ to challenge the prominence of the global and ordinariness of the local, extending functional equality to both. Deployed initially in 1980s for purposes of capitalist restructuring, this term is attempting to build a new meaningful socio-economic praxis that discredits binaries and validates the coexistence of experiences at all levels. However, the notion of the ‘glocal’ seems hardly true and commensurable with the neoliberal ideals of individual liberty and progress within the‘reserves’. Yet, these ‘reserves’ are territories “that point toward(s) the construction of alternative life and society models... as multidimensional space(s) for the creation and recreation of the ecological, economic, and cultural practices of the communities” (Escobar,162). At the same time, as alternative models of existence, seeking validity and approval at the global level, ‘reserves’ reinforce and reclaim indigenous subjectivity and agency within the hierarchical framework. The incommensurability of “extraneously convened neoliberalism” with the political geographies of indigenous communities derives from the neglect of “variability, internal constitution, societal influences, and individual agency” (Springer, 1029) that are pivotal in effecting neo-liberalism in the right frame.

The discourse on neo-liberalism having pervaded almost every social and intellectual domain, having re-constituted many academic disciplines, has significantly led the way to search for some other empowering praxis that takes into consideration the perspectives and experiences of marginalized communities within the nation, while staying progressive at the same time. Springer synergises the debate on neoliberalism by calling into discussion “a new language of ‘neoliberalization’, which acknowledges the multiple geographies of neoliberalism through attention to contextual specificity and local experimentation” (2010:1029). Springer’s “individual neoliberalizations are considered to ‘materialize’ quite differently as mutated and hybrid forms of neoliberalism, depending on and influenced by geographical landscapes, historical contexts, institutional legacies, and embodied subjectivities” (ibid).

Where Springer evokes us to reformulate neoliberalism in order to get rid of its inadequacies, Cadena and Starn, in their introduction to Indigenous experience today, persuade us to reconceptualize indigeneity: “Reckoning with indigeneity demands recognizing it as a relational field of governance, subjectivities, and knowledges that involves us all—indigenous and non-indigenous—in the making and remaking of its structures of power and imagination” (2007: 3). Such emancipatory ideology is required in order to revamp ‘the dark side of the nation’ (to borrow Himani Bannerji’s title), and to acknowledge alternative versions of community-living, such as the ‘reserves’, as co-existing models in society. The special volume of Interventions, “Between Subalternity and Indigeneity”, also raises questions on the postcolonial (read neo-colonial) conditions existing within the reserves under the neoliberal framework, and congratulates indigeneity for its ability to confront and subvert Eurocentric hegemony:

Indigeneity also marks an intellectual project that challenges and disrupts the logics of colonialism that underwrite liberal democracies in order to question Euro-American constructions of self, nation-state, and subjectivity that have also been the purview of postcolonial theory.... In a historical moment when imposed displacements and diasporas, volatile borders, and coerced exiles confuse and obliterate human perspectives, ‘indigeneity’ holds the promise of rearticulating and reframing questions of place, space, movement and belonging” (2011: 3).

Besides all the intellectual and ideological pedagogies, performance really sits in the field of action. It would be apt to end on Chandi’s (research scholar and activist in the Islands) interview excerpt: “We have to be able to desist the temptation to give [Jarawas] a strategy, but rather allow them to devise their own henceforth, and as always” (2011).


I would like to thank Mr. Panjak Sekhsaria, member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh (Pune, India), for his valuable feedback in the process of writing this article.

Dr. Shaily Mudgal is a scholar in Canadian immigrant literature. Her areas of interest include post-colonial studies, media discourse, and aboriginal/indigenous traditions and their socio-political concerns.


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