An archipelago of 572 islands in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (ANI) cover an area of 6400 square kilometres. A richly biodiverse area, the islands are often compared to the coral triangle that falls between the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, which has the greatest marine diversity in the world. With an estimated 400 coral species, the islands are home to almost 80 percent of the diversity found in the coral triangle. 

Evidence suggests that the first indigenous peoples of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands arrived on these islands anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 years ago. While some studies propose that they may have been a part of the Great Coastal Migration when people first moved ‘out of Africa’ up to 60,000 years ago, newer studies suggest that the different tribes from northeast India may have used a land-bridge to get to the islands during the Last Glacial Maximum 26,000 years ago. To be fair, DNA studies are complex and often compromised by the slightest contamination, and in all probability the Andamanese tribes, which are genetically distinct from each other, may have migrated from different parts of the world – holding up the multi-regional theory of human evolution. 

To this day, there continue to be six distinct indigenous communities living on the islands – the Great Andamanese, the Onges, the Jarawa and the Sentinelese in the Andamans, and the Nicobarese and the Shompen in the Nicobar group of islands. While little is known about the history of these hunter-gatherer groups who communicate without any written language, what we do know is that their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent centuries. Truly accurate estimates of indigenous populations are hard to make, but studies suggest that the total population of Andaman tribal communities has gone down from about 2000 in 1901 to a little over 500 in 2011. However, with large-scale immigration from mainland India over the last few decades, the human population on the island overall has gone up manifold – the population has increased from 50,000 in 1950 to about 3.4 lakh people, according to the 2011 census. 

Add More Images
A group of Andamanese men and women catching turtles, ca. 1903. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives. Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As early as the 11th century, the Chola dynasty used the ANI as a naval base to launch military offensives against Indonesia (the erstwhile Sriwijaya Empire). We have no way of knowing what impact, if any, their presence had on the indigenous forest-dwelling communities on the islands. The strategic importance of the islands returned to the forefront centuries later. The ANI’s famous history as an island of exile began in 1789 when the British set up the first penal colony at Chatham Island (though this was eventually replaced by the more-prominent Cellular Jail colony at Port Blair in 1858). Some time after a three-year occupation by Japan, during World War II, the islands officially became a part of India in 1950, and were declared a union territory in 1956.

As has been the case time and again in different parts of the world, here, too, with the settlers from the mainland came conflict, unwanted contact of many kinds, disease and deforestation. As timber became the primary industry providing employment for the convicts and revenue for the island, the pristine tropical evergreen forests that these communities call home began to be logged indiscriminately. Still largely unexplored, these forests host a large number of rare, endangered and even undocumented flora and fauna. Endangered species such as the saltwater crocodile and the endemic Andaman wild pig have been affected by logging. More than anything though, it is the forest-dwelling communities that have been impacted by timber extraction – and of these, the Great Andamanese population seems to have dwindled the most. They numbered close to 4,800 in 1958 when the Cellular Jail was built. Today, an estimated 54 individuals remain.

Add More Images
A group of Great Andamanese in front of their communal huts, ca. 1886. Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

A similar story played out with the Onge of Little Andaman. As the settler population grew rapidly, the Onge were displaced from Hut Bay, which is now the main town in the island. They were taken out of the forests and made to live in wooden houses on stilts in Dugong Creek and South Bay – in conditions not suitable to the climate or temperature of the islands. Today, there are only about a 100 Onge still in existence – and the treatment meted out to them, as they take on menial jobs and tasks for administrative officials, is nothing short of tragic. 

Conflicts between the land colonisers and the Jarawa, who have been the subject of media hype since they emerged from the forests two decades ago, also took on a violent nature, with attacks and retaliation from both sides. The stories are many, but the themes of ecological damage, land grabbing, biodiversity loss and the constant threat to indigenous peoples’ lives and cultures run through each and every one.

Even the settlers, who were brought to the islands in the 1950s and 1960s from the mainland – mainly refugees from East Bengal and Bangladesh – have their own complex history of struggles and restrictions. They were sent here without their explicit consent, made to restart their lives in an unfamiliar environment, and put into direct conflict with the island’s indigenous peoples. 

The question of how interactions between indigenous communities and others should be regulated, minimised or avoided has plagued anthropologists, governments and activists for decades, as efforts to “rehabilitate” or “engage” indigenous communities are increasingly clouded by economics-driven ethno-tourism. Even as the world shrinks and flattens in our new virtual realities, there still remain pockets where ancient cultures and traditional communities remain. 

Add More Images
The remote North Sentinel island, as seen from the Advanced Land Imager on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite on November 20, 2009. Surrounding the forested island is a perimeter of uplifted reef. Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

Less than 5 percent of the world’s population is indigenous, but they account for over 15 percent of the people living in poverty. As we learn more about indigenous communities, their local traditions and culture, anthropologists and ethnographers are caught between arguments for and against engaging with them. Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia have adopted “no-contact” policies, and India is following suit. Yet there remain some anthropologists who argue for controlled contact, citing our innate social nature and right to interaction. On the one hand, learning and documenting information about these communities, their ways of life and the traditional knowledge that they have, can help direct conservation efforts and policies on engagement (or non-engagement). On the other hand, any interaction led by non-indigenous people is likely to set off hard-to-reverse changes, by exposing these communities to the possibilities of exploitation, disease, violence, racism and even theft of their lands and natural resources. The noted anthropologist TN Pandit, who spent years living among hunter-gatherer tribes of the Andamans in the 1970s, now looks back and questions the premise of any kind of contact – after all, once any process of integration is begun, it is difficult to stop

How governments at the centre have interacted with the islands after Independence is another strand of this complicated story. A report on “Accelerated Development” of the ANI, published by the Ministry of Rehabilitation in 1965, was titled ‘Colonization’, and was an unabashed attempt to mine the island’s land and clear its “Jarawa-infested” forests. 

Add More Images
One of the earliest existing photographs of Great Andamanese: two men of an unidentified northern tribe, 1875. Source: Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. Photograph courtesy Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

In its 2016 plan, the NITI Aayog (the government think-tank which replaced the Planning Commission in 2015) makes no mention of the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) of 1956 – an important piece of legislation which put in place essential protections for these communities and notified the protection of significant areas of the islands just for them. We may have left behind the harsh language of the coloniser, but today’s policies continue to carry much of the same intent. 

Even as the NITI Aayog has been unabashedly ‘prospecting’ the island for its economic potential through railroad construction, the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and increasing tourism opportunities, India’s security strategy is increasingly paying heed to the islands too. With plans in different stages of motion for establishing sonar surveillance systems in the islands to monitor Chinese submarines, a radar station on the volcanic Narcondam Island which is also, incidentally, the only habitat of the endangered Narcondam Hornbill, as well as plans for a railway line cutting through the islands to improve connectivity, the islands are gradually becoming a strategic node in the country’s geopolitical security. 

The future of the islands is unlikely to follow a linear narrative tracing forward from their chequered past. These islands, which make up less than 0.2 percent of the country’s total landmass, constitute almost one-third of our Exclusive Economic Zones – a sea zone stretching out 200 nautical miles from the coast, granting a state special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources, including energy production from water and wind. 

Add More Images
Narcondam Island. Photograph courtesy Kalyan Varma for Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

The position of the islands isn’t just strategic for defense, fisheries resources, or energy production. It is also strategic for trade. Less than a hundred nautical miles from both Myanmar and Indonesia, the ANI is located in the middle of some of the busiest trade routes in the world. 

As Pankaj Sekhsaria very succinctly puts it, “If the real and complete history of the islands is ever written, the British would not be more than a page and India could only be a paragraph.” As for the as-yet-unwritten future of its people, both indigenous and settlers, it appears that it will be dominated by conversations about the ANI’s geopolitical location and economic potential, rather than the preservation of indigenous cultures or its invaluable biodiversity.

Read our interview with Pankaj Sekhsaria, a long-time chronicler of the islands, here