Andaman Islanders

Alternative names: Andamans, Jarawa, Onges, Sentinelese
Location: Andaman Islands, Indian Ocean
Population: 500-600 in total
Religion: indigenous beliefs
Language: Negrito languages

There are four distinct tribal peoples living in the Andaman Islands—theAndamanese, the Onges, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese. The Andaman Islands are a chain of over 500 islands, 27 of which are inhabited, in the Bay of Bengal. Although they are closer to the south-east Asian archipelago the islands, along with the Nicobar islands to the south, are an Indian Union Territory, under the jurisdiction of the Home Ministry in New Delhi.

Little is known about the history and development of the indigenous peoples of the Andamans, since they are small groups of hunter-gatherers, have no written language and have fallen drastically in numbers over the last two centuries. Although the islands were known to outsiders the first attempts to colonize them came from the British at the end of the eighteenth century although these were soon abandoned. The islands were again colonized in the aftermath of the “Indian Mutiny” of 1857 when a penal colony and jail was established on South Andaman which housed over the years both political and other prisoners. In addition settlers from the Indian mainland, especially from East Bengal/Bangladesh, have settled in the islands and today total 180,000. As a result there has been a permanent, and most probably irreversible, decline in the numbers of indigenous people.

The Andamanese have suffered most drastically. In 1858, when the penal settlement was started, there were 4,800; in 1901, 625; in 1930, 90; and in 1988, 28. Initial casualties came from warfare with colonizers, later ones from diseases such as pneumonia, measles and syphilis. Today the survivors have been resettled by the administration on the 603-hectare Strait Island. The Jarawa were the next group to face colonization of their lands. At first, in desperation, they moved away from the settlements but later they began to attack them. The British retaliated and organized punitive expeditions. The Jarawa today number about 300 and live on the 742 square kilometre Jarawa reserve in South and Middle Andaman islands. The Onge of the remote Little Andaman islands were the next to be contacted by outsiders in 1867 when they killed eight sailors. In retaliation a punitive mission took 70 Onge, about 10% of the total population. Although friendly relations were established in 1887, the Onges were infected by disease and numbers declined from 670 in 1901 to 250 in 1930 and 103 in 1984. The exact numbers of the Sentinelese of remote North Sentinelese Island remains unknown but they probably number about 50 to 150. Outsiders who have attempted contact have been met by flights of arrows and the official policy is to leave the Sentinelese alone.

Like other Tribal Peoples in India the indigenous peoples of the Andamans are classed as “Scheduled Tribes” and have special protection under the Indian Constitution. The four tribes are among those classed as “primitive tribes” — the subject of special government programmes. But the odds against their survival as viable peoples are overwhelming. The main threat comes from development of the islands by large-scale settlement and deforestation. This was recognized by the late Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who stated in 1975: “... Neither resettlement nor development should be made an excuse to uproot tribal groups or cut down forests. The Tribals are the original inhabitants and any disturbance may threaten their survival.” In 1960 the total population was 50,000 and is today approaching 200,000. Over 100,000 hectares of forest have been cleared and the Andamans Grand Trunk Road will eventually link the main islands.

Tribal resistance continues today, especially by the Jarawa, to those who encroach on their reserve as happened when several road building crew died in 1976 and two settlers died in 1985. Some attempts have been made to contact these Jarawa with gifts, and sometimes these have been successful, but many anthropologists have warned that such contact is intrinsically harmful and will only result in the destruction of the few tribespeople who still survive. Recent proposals by the Indian government to give the Andaman and Nicobar islands the status of a Free Port and to encourage the tourist and communications industries may be the final blow for the original Andaman Islanders.

(See also Adivasis of India; )