Vanquished voices

With the passing away of Boa Senior of the Bo tribe, one more language has gone silent in the Andaman Islands. Will the administration wake up to the indigenous cultures that are dying out there.

Boa Senior of the Bo indigenous community in the Andaman Islands died on January 26, 2010 at the ripe old age of 85. The inevitable had to happen and yet every such passing leaves behind sadness and regret. In that sense Boa Sr. was like everyone else and at the same time unique in a hugely tragic sense.

With her death one more ancient language of these islands has gone silent forever. Boa Sr. was the last speaker of the Bo language and all that we have now are some recordings that may have been left behind. The fate of language neatly reflects the fate of the people themselves and the story of the Great Andamanese that Boa Sr. belonged to is no exception. About 150 years ago 10 groups (the Bo included) constituted the Great Andamanese community of the Andamans. The population that was nearly 5000 then is down to only about 50 today. It is also a little known fact that only four of the 10 original languages have survived and with Boa Sr. now gone, that number is further down by one.

Lack of sensitivity

There is a whole treasure house within these communities, their way of life and their languages that is on the verge of going silent. Boa Sr.'s is the inevitable silence of the dead, but it is another silence that is deafening for its lack of awareness and sensitivity. Her death was widely reported and accounts appeared in the press all over the world. What was striking however is that the official government machinery had no role at all to play in it. The news of Boa Sr.'s death was first reported by Dr Abbi and her team of linguists who have been working with the community for many years now. It was posted by them on the ‘andamanicobar' e-discussion group and then circulated further via a press release issued by Survival International, the London based tribal rights advocacy group.

The huge paraphernalia of the A&N Administration that includes the Tribal Welfare Department and the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) did not as much as even issue a note announcing the death, leave alone expressing their condolences. There was no mention on the website of the A&N administration or in ‘The Daily Telegrams' the daily newspaper published by the administration from Port Blair. Neither did any political party or other prominent group in the islands acknowledge the passing away of another community and another language.

One might argue that even if this were to happen it could have done nothing for Boa Sr or the Bo language. While that might be true, the larger concern is about what this apathy reflects for others in the future. These agencies are responsible for the welfare of some of the most vulnerable and threatened human communities like the Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese that inhabit these islands. If they remain unacknowledged even in their death, what hope can there be for those that are just about hanging on to their survival? These are voices that are not just going silent; in more ways than one they are being vanquished.

Even a change in history is sought – one of the most prominent demands in this light being the recent call by the All India Forward Block in the islands to rename the Andaman and Nicobar groups as Shaheed and Swaraj respectively, as suggested by Subhas Chandra Bose. It is not a new demand and has been made repeatedly since the 1950s by a range of historians and those with political interests. The enthusiasm to re-configure and reclaim this history, however, is striking in its ignorance of the larger context of these islands.

It is a question that renaming enthusiasts need to consider very carefully: How does one reclaim what was never yours in the first place? There are undeniable connections of India's freedom movement with the islands; best symbolized by the mutiny of 1857 and the Cellular Jail. There can be no denying that and neither can one deny the close bonds that a large section of the country feels with these islands, but that history does not go beyond a 150 years.

It has to be remembered that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have been the traditional home of a number of aboriginal communities – the Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge and Sentinelese (in the Andamans), the Nicobaris and the Shompen (in the Nicobars) that have been living here for nearly 50,000 years. The 150 years that we want to claim now is like the blink of an eye in comparison. Injustices have been done and continue to be done to these communities in a manner that has few parallels in India. Their lands have been taken, their forests converted to plywood and agricultural plantations, and the fabric of their societies so violently torn apart that extinction looms on the horizon for many of them. The Great Andamanese who were at least 5000 individuals when the 1857 mutiny happened are today are only about 50 people. Two months ago the last member of the Bo community died and the administration did not even acknowledge her passing away. The Onge who were counted at about 600 individuals in 1901 census are only a 100 people today.

Worthy of study

These are people, like indigenous peoples everywhere, who have their own histories and their own names for the islands and places First the British gave them a name and now we want to call them something else . If indeed the places have to be renamed, should not an effort first be made to find out what the original people had first named them and which names are still in use by them? Should that not be the work of scholarship and historical studies? It would be a far more challenging and worthwhile exercise and perhaps not a very difficult one either because a lot of information does already exist.

If indeed 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. How's that for a perspective and a context?

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Printable version | Jul 13, 2020 6:39:21 AM |

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