People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

February 26, 2012


Exotic Tourism and Commodification of Tribal Culture


Archana Prasad


REPORTS of the illegal exploitation of tribals in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in Odisha have been brought to light by videos and news reports in the recent past. Two Jarawa videos from Andamans showed how tourists and the police were forcing tribal women to dance naked in return for food and other provisions. A few days after this came to light, reports from Odisha suggested that exotic Bondo tourism had become commonplace and that the tourist companies were selling ‘primitiveness’ for their own profits. Both these instances showed the ways in which the market has penetrated the tribal areas and how the valorisation of uneven development and poverty has become a way for big companies to link these regions with international tourism market.




The perception of ‘tribal culture’ as unique and strikingly different is not a creation of the neo-liberal regime. It has its roots in the development strategy of the Nehruvian era when the ‘tribal panchsheel’ was borne out of the idea that upliftment of tribal people had to take place through a slow process of their ‘modernisation’ even while their culture had to be preserved. The tribes were meant to develop ‘according to their own genius’ and were to slowly be introduced to mainstream economic development and the market. Thus while the cultural and political rights of tribal people were given due importance, their economic rights over land, natural resources and basic services were ignored. Resource rich regions were targetted to benefit heavy industries and were not compensated, especially in terms of providing livelihood security to the tribal people. This was a result of the failure of community development programmes whose design was neither ecologically favourable nor suited to the material reality of the tribal people.


Hence, while health and education indicators showed a stark improvement in the post-independence years, a more fundamental transformation of the tribal peasantry from producers to casual labour was also taking place. Simultaneously, the protection and promotion of tribal culture by the state became a symbol of cultural pluralism that was to symbolise India’s democracy. For the state, tribal culture symbolised song, dance, drama, crafts and all the images promoted by colonial anthropologists in their valorisation of the tribal identity. This narrow interpretation of ‘culture’ was accompanied by the growing economic vulnerability and stagnation of the tribal economy. Such a culture was nurtured through the establishment of ‘tribal museums,’ and culture was regarded as an unchanging thing and totally divorced from the material reality, leading to its objectification. 


This vulnerability has been simultaneously expressed both in terms of an ‘adivasi’ political identity as well as an exotic unique identity. The ‘adivasi’ political identity has largely found expression through a formation of tribal elites who are expressing their opposition to the historical exploitation of their regions and people. It is a form of politics where these newly emerging elites are demanding a greater political space as reflected in the movement for a separate Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand state. Hence, it is a modern identity that is formed, both as an impact of the affirmative action and the uneven development that has resulted from state capitalism. Though its use of primordial culture as a mobilisational and symbolic force also limits its impact in forging larger alliances for broader unities, this identity is fundamentally different from the ‘exotic’ and unique image promoted by the state. State-promoted tribal culture is part of an ideological campaign to justify its own oppression in these regions earlier for state capitalism and now for neo-liberal corporate capitalism. The commodification and commercialisation of tribal culture has to be seen in this context.




The Jarawas and Bondas are characterised as people who represent the prototype of a unique and ancient culture. Thus one tour company says in its promotional campaign: “…..the Bonda are semi-clothed, with the women characterised by the wearing of thick silver necklace bands. The tribe is one of the oldest and most primitive, with their culture little unchanged in over a thousand years.” In a similar vein, the Jarawas of the Andamans have been popularly known as the ‘oldest’ tribes whose lifestyle has protected their culture and life from ‘outside’ intervention. The ‘nakedness’ of tribal groups, especially their women, is considered a part of their ‘primitiveness’ and promoted as an example of ‘unique and pristine culture.’


Another aspect of the tribal image is its gendered character. As in the case of the Bonda, the Jarawa video is particularly about the topless Jarawa women who are being made to dance to the tunes of foreign tourists and even police officials. In this sense, the commodification of women is an essential part of the exotic images used by corporate tourist companies to attract foreign clients.


These unchanging images, which are used by the tourist companies, are popularised by ‘primitivists’ and colonial anthropologists as representative of the tribal culture. They are based on the belief that tribal societies have certain essential characteristics because they have been living in an isolated way for centuries. Thus the existence of tribal culture is both ‘primitive’ and ‘exotic’ at the same time. It is exotic because it is unique and not found elsewhere.


Therefore ‘Jarawa sighting’ is one of the activities promoted by the tourist companies. In Odisha, companies also assure the urban and foreign tourists of ‘contact’ with the Bondas. For these tourists the experience is new and different because they are experiencing a lifestyle that is far removed from their own world.


This sense of distance is fundamental to the characterisation of this culture as ‘primitive,’ as these cultures are seen as outside the pale of the mainstream modern capitalist society. If this perception was used earlier to legitimise the ‘civilising mission’ of the colonial powers, it is now being used to pave the way for corporate capital into protected tribal areas.




The intrusion of the market through the tourism industry should also be seen as a neo-liberal state’s policy to dilute the protection accorded to tribal areas under Schedule V of the constitution. It also has to be seen in the context of the diversion of 40,000 acres of land per year from the forests on which the tribal groups depend for their survival.


The penetration of corporate capital has also taken the form of the privatisation of mining as well as opening up of markets for forest produce trade.


The increasing activity of big corporate tourist agencies in these regions also appears to be part of this larger trend. Both ‘Jarawa Reserve’ and the Bondo area fall under Schedule V where necessary government permissions are needed to carry out tourist activities. However, in all the reported cases, these permissions were neither granted nor sought by the agencies. Rather, in the case of Jarawas, the law enforcing agencies were themselves involved in forcing Jarawa women to dance to the tune of tourists. As one journalist reported, local tourist guides and agencies charge foreign tourists up to Rs 30,000 for making contact with the Jarawas. Of this, half the amount is paid off to the local police people who are meant to be ensuring that the tribal areas are protected from unfair practices. Similarly, in the Bonda area a big travel agency charges from Rs 1500 to 4000 for visiting one Bonda village.


This profiteering is, however, not limited to tourism but also to natural resources. The Jarawa reserve is well known for illegal sand mining and the removal of wood and non-timber forest produce from the Andaman Trunk road. Similarly, Odisha is well known for conflicts over land and forests in lands that have dense tribal habitations. Therefore the commercialisation of tribal culture is an integral part of the market penetration into these regions and has become more rampant than it was in the past. It is only likely to increase in the neo-liberal era and is part of a larger process of state’s withdrawal from its social, economic and political responsibilities. Thus this trend can be combated only if the image being marketed by the tourist companies is demystified through a sustain campaign against the assaults on tribal areas.