Indian police are stumped by a murder in a 50,000-year-old tribe

Not in isolation anymore.
Not in isolation anymore.
Image: AP Photo/Anthropological Survey of India
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A murder deep in the forests of the Andaman Islands has thrown Indian authorities into a bureaucratic and ethical conundrum: How to solve a crime committed within an isolated—and legally protected—ancient tribe?

The Jarawa tribe is thought to have migrated from Africa to India 50,000 years ago, and now occupies 300 square miles of forest in the Andaman Islands, in the Bay of Bengal. Its members number about 400, who only ventured out of the forests 18 years ago. Local police are restricted from interfering in their lives, in the hopes of preserving their Paleolithic-era culture. But now, the death of an apparently mixed-race infant opens the possibility of that a tribe member will be arrested for the first time in history, according to the New York Times.

Two years ago, a tribal man revealed that girls in the Jarawa tribe were being sexually abused by poachers. His anonymous 2014 interview with the Guardian exposed the price the tribe was paying for contact with outsiders: That year, eight Jarawa girls had been kidnapped, he alleged. “The girls say the outside boys press them lots,” he told the Guardian. “They press them using hands and nails, when the girls get angry. They chase them under the influence of alcohol. They fuck the girls. They drink alcohol in the house of girls. They also sleep in Jarawa’s house.”

Their ordeal seems only to have grown more torturous since then. According to the Times, the mixed-race, light-skinned boy was born to an unmarried Jarawa woman last year. In November 2015, the infant—then five months old—was murdered from within the tribal group.

So far, Indian authorities have proceeded with caution. Only two non-Jarawa men have been arrested: a 25-year-old accused of raping the infant’s mother, and another man accused of offering alcohol to the alleged murderer.

Authorities in Andaman—home to three other tribal groups—constantly debate whether the Jarawa should be exposed to the modern world, and how to handle their inevitable interactions with it. Some argue that the ancient tribe should not be denied the fruits of civilization, while others worry that contact will only bring ruin. That debate has now spilled over to the case of the murdered child.

“I think they have the right to maintain the purity of their race. If they decide such a child should be wasted, let them do it,” Samir Acharya, an activist with the Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology, told the Times.

“They are in a pre-civilization period,” Nupur Sarkar, a 28-year-old constable in Andaman village Tirur, echoed. “We deal with them on that basis.”

This conundrum has the case hanging. “Nobody is above the law,” Atul Kumar Thakur, the police superintendent of South Andaman, told the Times. However, Indian law clearly states that the tribes have “special status,” and that authorities are “duty-bound to protect [tribal] interests.”