Jarawa Baby Killing:
Open Letter to the Editor New York Times
From Prof. Vishvajit Pandya & Dr. Madhumita Mazumdar
We write this in response to the article titled “ Baby’s killing tests
protection of an Aboriginal Culture” written by Ellen Barry and Hari Kumar
published in the NYT on March 13, 2016. India
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.
In this context the sudden ‘revival’ of “shankhutayen” in certain specific segments of the Jarawa reserve i.e. in the Tirur region (where this incident happened) has to be probed more carefully. Particularly because it has to be seen in the light of of the peculiar settler-Jarawas relations that have manifested here both in their ‘collusive’ and in their exploitative aspects. This is a troubling yet relevant question if one goes by the number of cases of poaching, illegal intrusion and sexual exploitation of Jarawa women that have been reported from this particular region over the years. There is ample reason to believe that habitual sexual offenders who are often the cause of unwanted pregnancies would have a vested interest in keeping alive a practice that has the potential to shield them from both legal and social censure. It also allows them to transfer blame onto a community that has no power to speak for itself in a court of law. In this case Subramani the prime accused was the father of the child and it is possible he instigated the killing in a cynical attempt to remove evidence of his sexual offences in the Reserve.
It would therefore be a grave mistake to make easy assumptions of culpability of the Jarawa man and bring him under the Indian state’s criminal justice system without addressing the insidious role of the offenders in this case.
In our opinion neither the assertion of cultural relativist positions on Jarawa practices, nor the mobilization of old stereotypes of the ‘savage primitive ‘ nor even the invocation of labels such as ‘human heritage’ help in making sense of the events that led to the killing of the infant. The authors should have focused not only the perceived crime but on the context behind it. To suggest that the killing of illegitimate children among Jarawas is a long held practice is not enough to assign blame on a community or assign equal culpability on the Jarawa man. Prudence dictates that such instances be understood in their own specific terms. The need of the hour therefore is to unravel the nexus and modus operandi of the prime accused in this case and to regulate further intrusions into the forest. In this context it may be useful to note that tribal welfare administration has already initiated a process of organizing young Jarawa men and sensitizing them to report cases of poaching and illegal intrusions in the
. But a more
concerted, strong and sustained state effort must be in place for this to work
effectively. The state is committed to the protection of the community and it
is expected that offenders don’t get away with such impunity. Reserve
To conclude, the question of the Jarawa man’s culpability and the ethical and legal conundrum it has generated for the administration, remains a needless distraction in a case where the prime accused has still a lot to answer for. The authors of this piece would have done well if they chose to pose the problem in ways that would have shed greater light on the specificities of the case and the larger politics behind its slanted reportage in the media.
Prof Vishwajit Pandya is Professor of Anthropology at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology and is also the Founder and Honorary Director of the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI).
Madhumita Mazumdar is Associate Professor at DAIICT.