Isolation or assimilation ?




A man, accused by credible witnesses of killing a 5 month old child, has not been arrested yet in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The delay in arrest is not because of corruption related lethargy of law enforcement agency as many may suspect. The fact is police is waiting for direction from the government.

Why a direction from top bureaucrats necessary in a simple case of murder?

It is because the man belongs to the protected Jarawa tribe , an endangered hunter gatherer group living in the island for thousands of years. It is believed that the tribe only has around 400 surviving members.

A Jarawa tribe member has never been prosecuted. More over it is said that the tribe had a custom of killing of infants of fair skin color because of suspicion that the father is not from the tribe.

It was the New York Times that globally broke the story. It wrote

For now, the case does not seem headed for a swift resolution. Mr. Thakur, the police superintendent, who is overseeing the case from the islands’ capital, Port Blair, said it was straightforward enough from a constitutional perspective: “Nobody is above the law.”

On the other hand, Indian law also accords special rights to vulnerable social groups, like castes and tribes. “They have special status,” he said. “We are duty-bound to protect their interests.”

The matter, forwarded to the Tribal Welfare Department, seems poised to enter a kind of legal Sargasso Sea, circulating among bureaucratic eddies and tide pools. This is a peculiarly Indian solution, and that seems to suit nearly every stakeholder. There is no pressure from members of the Jarawa tribe, who are, by and large, sympathetic to the man accused of killing the child, Ms. Savuriyammal said.


Many have accused the NYT report of being harsh on tribal’s and short on research. Two senior professors of anthropology who had worked extensively in this area wrote an open letter to NYT.
The article’s focus on the ethical and legal conundrum arising out of the case might have been well conceived had it been backed up by deeper research and understanding. Its conclusions based on comments from various ‘stakeholders’ too don’t shed any light on the complexities of the case. In fact what the article has done is to sensationalize the issue and stoke an uninformed debate about the Indian state’s policy of protection of its Particularly Vulnerable Tribal citizens.

To avert this needless debate the authors would have done well to focus not merely on the criminal investigation report and stoke the question of Jarawa culpability in the crime but ask more pressing questions relating to the series of immediate events and the larger conditions that led to it. In other words it should have probed deeper into the role of the non-tribal offenders in the case and asked why they should have entered the Tribal Reserve, supplied alcohol to the two young Jarawa men and instigate them to abduct the baby and kill it. If we assume that the practice of eliminating illegitimate children is still pervasive among the Jarawa community, then the question would be why the Jarawa would have needed the help of non-tribal intruders to carry out the act this time? This question becomes particularly important if we go by tribal welfare records of the practice over the last decade. First of all it is clear that practice of killing illegitimate children among the Jarawas has dwindled and almost stopped as a result of relentless sensitization of the community by tribal welfare officers. Anup Kumar Mondol senior Tribal Welfare Officer in the Kadamtala region has been at the forefront of persuading Jarawas to end the practice and encourage adoption of such children by willing members of the community. His and his team’s efforts have borne heartening results and the practice of “shankhutayen” or the killing of illegitimate children has almost disappeared.

It’s true that crime of Jarawa man should not be seen as just another murder of a child. At the same time how long Jarawa people can be shielded from the good and bad influence of settler Indian society?  There should be a mid way between full isolation and sudden complete assimilation.

Picture courtesy



  1. Dr Sarah says

    Wow. This was really interesting – thank you. As well as the immediate argument over what to do about this man, there is also the more ongoing question of what to do about keeping cultures separate. Obviously it would be a disaster to have a repeat of the way that white settlers imposed their culture upon Native Americans, but is it paternalistic to deny members of a culture even the opportunity of interacting with other cultures? I would say so.

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