Speaking about Silence: One Hundred Years of Adivasi Migration to the Andamans

From the Series: Assimilation, Dispossession, Erasure, or Refusal

Photo by Pankaj Sekhsaria.

The politically loaded language of indigeneity is broadly conceived of as a tool of empowerment. Articulations of indigenous voice, however, can also produce the opposite effect of empowerment: silence. The intricate dialectic between silence and voice can be better understood by examining the experience of the Ranchis, a diasporic ethnicity-in-the-making who live on the Andaman Islands (Zehmisch 2017). Composed of migrants from various indigenous communities of the Chotanagpur plateau in central India, the Ranchis had been transported to the Andaman Islands by the Catholic Labour Bureau in Ranchi from 1918 onward. Linked to their common discrimination as “primitive and docile tribals,” (Zehmisch 2017, 167) officials have routinely silenced Ranchi claims to state resources. As a result, approximately sixty thousand Ranchi laborers and their descendants have been cut off from the avenues of social mobility and have been denied a meaningful voice in local politics.

The events of December 30, 2018, are a case in point: Ranchi activists had organized a public event on that day in order to commemorate the centenary of their migration to the islands. The event was cancelled, however, due to official security concerns linked to the arrival of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, who was campaigning in the islands. Seeking to understand why the centenary celebrations could be easily called off by officials, I investigate how the discourse on indigenous rights, entitlements, affirmative action, and welfare has become manifest at the local level. An examination of the history of the Andamans’ settlement and the contested indigenous identity of the Ranchis themselves shed light on the systems that systemically silence Ranchi claims to rights and Adivasi visibility.

The Ranchis are caught between two types of indigenous subjectivity that limit their political voice and visibility. The first goes back to classic notions of indigenous peoples as the primitive, fossilized Other of colonization, as found in settler colonies all over the planet. The history of the Andamans fits in the settler-colonial framework (Wolfe 1999) when it comes to certain characteristics. These include a fluid, shifting frontier between “savagery” and “civilization,” (Sen 2010) as well as ethnocidal tendencies toward the indigenous gathering and hunting communities. The indigenous peoples of the Andamans—known to anthropological audiences through A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s (1922) The Andaman Islanders—had been decimated by British colonization of the islands from 1858 onward when convicts, and later Ranchis, cleared the tropical forests, enabling infrastructure development and a flourishing timber export industry. After Independence, all kinds of disenfranchised communities settled on indigenous lands, causing a significant demographic increase from 30,971 in 1951 to around 500,000 inhabitants. The Ranchis functioned as the major “architects” (Zehmisch 2016, 133) of this spatial transformation without ever being acknowledged by those who had benefitted from it.

Concomitant with the settler-colonial framework, Ranchis are also limited by the global perception of the Andamans. For foreign audiences, the Andamans remain intertwined with the exotic notion of savagery. The hunter-gatherers remaining on the islands count among the last “unconquered” communities across the planet, embodying the constant struggle for indigenous survival that finds broad symbolic support by rights activists and concerned global publics. These audiences represent them as the “ecologically noble savages” of the Anthropocene (see also Hames 2007). Exemplified by the 2018 killing of the American missionary John Chau by the Sentinel, state sovereignty shows its limits when exempting the perpetrators from juridical sanctions. Here, an implicit acceptance of a notion of indigenous sovereignty, which permits violent self-defense against outside interference—even against Americans—seems to be common sense.

Such overemphasis on indigenous vulnerability leaves little discursive space for the Ranchis to make themselves heard. As Adivasi migrants, they cannot prove one major characteristic of indigeneity: ancestral ties to the (is)lands. Nonetheless, my research established that many Ranchis acquired a “rooted” relationship to the land they settled on: indigenous values, norms, and practices had migrated with them. Among others, an “animist” worldview caused them to develop close relations to the local environment and cosmologies. In spite of that, Ranchi claims to be recognized as indigenous migrants are denied because the state regards the remaining hunter-gatherers as more “primitive,” and thus more “indigenous,” than the Ranchis.

The second aspect of indigenous subjectivity that limits the Ranchis concerns the politics of “Adivasi-ness.” Indigenous political mobilization in postcolonial India based on the contextual notion of the Adivasi opened up various spheres of political possibility (Carrin 2013). Inspired by struggles against the disenfranchisement of Adivasis in their homelands of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh, some Ranchi activists seek to transplant Adivasi representational politics to the Andamans. Ranchi leaders use occasions of public visibility, such as the silently passing centenary, to fight against their silencing: speaking to the media, the government, or other political players, they routinely reiterate that the state should lift them out of poverty. They demand some kind of reservation, preferably by including them into the system of affirmative action for Scheduled Tribes (STs) based on quota reservations of seats in higher education and employment with the government.

Claiming to be “true Adivasis,” Ranchi leaders refer to the practice in other states of the Indian union, where migrant communities such as Oraon, Munda, Kharia – who compose the major Ranchi groups in the Andamans, too – are recognized as STs. Ranchi leaders hold that the community is entitled to an equivalent form of affirmative action. As they had been broadly cast as laboring bodies, however, their attempts to reconstitute themselves as vulnerable indigenes are a doomed effort. Decision makers in the administration categorically reject their claims, arguing that if the Ranchis competed with the “more primitive” Andaman Islanders, they would outdo them and thus inhibit their “development.”

To conclude, the untold story of the Ranchis and its metaphoric embodiment, the cancelled centenary celebrations, highlight the pitfalls of hegemonic speech and disclose the routines that produce silence. Further, this example demonstrates that the Ranchis’ positionality cannot be understood without considering the other, more dominant narrative of indigeneity, which centers on the vulnerability of equally silent indigenes. The silencing of the Ranchis’ voice is directly linked to the fetishization of the indigenous islanders: their global and national support structures assign the indigenous islanders a discursive space in the global landscape of indigeneity, without ever asking them if they identify with such categorizations. The Ranchis, in turn, are becoming part of a national landscape of Adivasiness, which motivates them to strategically demand the state to be identified as indigenous migrants. Another centenary will surely follow—this time probably without being cancelled.


Carrin, Marine 2013. “Jharkhand: Alternative Citizenship in an ‘Adivasi State.’” In The Modern Anthropology of India: Ethnography, Themes and Theory, edited by Peter Berger and Frank Heidemann, 106–20. London: Routledge.

Hames, Raymond. 2007. “The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36, no. 1: 177–90.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1922. The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology (Anthony Wilkin Studentship Research, 1906). Cambridge, UK: University Press.

Sen, Satadru. 2010. Savagery and Colonialism in the Indian Ocean: Power, Pleasure and the Andaman Islanders. Routledge: New York.

Wolfe, Patrick 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. London: Cassel.

Zehmisch, Philipp 2016. “The Invisible Architects of Andaman: Manifestations of Aboriginal Migration from Ranchi.” In Manifestations of History: Time, Space and Community in the Andaman Islands, edited by Frank Heidemann and Philipp Zehmisch, 122–38. New Delhi: Primus.

———. 2017. Mini-India: The Politics of Migration and Subalternity in the Andaman Islands. 1st ed. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press.