North Sentinel Is Back In The Spotlight After An American Traveller Was Killed During An Attempted Visit

Last week, on the 17th of November, American citizen John Allen Chau was killed by an endangered tribe after he visited North Sentinel Island. India-owned North Sentinel lies in the Indian Ocean and is inhabited by the Sentinelese, who have lived in complete isolation for around 60,000 years. Chau was on a mission to convert the people, who are protected under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act (1956), to Christianity. The Sentinelese are fearful of outsiders and attacked Chau with a hail of bows and arrows. They are believed to be the world’s last pre-Neolithic tribe.

The body of the American evangelist may never be recovered from the island, experts have said, and tribal rights experts have warned it would be futile to attempt to do this. Local fishermen had seen the tribespeople dragging his body around on the beach.

A team from the American Consulate reached Andaman and is in touch with the local authorities and with the Indian police. They are currently liaising with experts on the best way to establish contact – a boat they sent led to a nervous stand-off between officers and the tribespeople. The police were around 400 metres from the shore and were mapping the site, when they spotted several men armed with bows and arrows on the beach where Chau was last seen. “They stared at us and we were looking at them,” said Dependra Pathak, police chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The boat then turned back to avoid a confrontation.

However, attempts by authorities to try and retrieve the body ironically goes against their ‘Eyes On, Hands Off’ policy, which exists to protect the Sentinelese and means officials check on their welfare from a safe distance, for example after the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. Although the Ministry of Home Affairs in India removed the island from the list of places which need a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) for entry, there are other restrictions in place for people wanting to enter the island. It is a protected area and people aren’t allowed to go within 5 nautical miles of it, after a similar event happened in 2006 where two local fishermen were killed by the tribe. The visit of the young American can ultimately be seen as an intrusion into the protected territory, with his notes indicating that he knew the trip was illegal, as the group were “lucky to evade patrols.” Therefore, the intrusion can be regarded as a crime, whilst the case filed by the Andaman police against the tribe for murder under section 302/34 IPC, is almost a mockery of the regulations in place.

There are several reasons as to why the authorities have failed to protect the tribe from those seeking misadventure. Firstly, Chau’s death was not even detected by the Andaman and Nicobar Authorities, but was reported through an email from the American Consulate on the 19th November, who had received information from John Chau’s mother that an incident had taken place. Based on this information, the police case was filed. Although the ‘Eyes On, Hands Off’ policy exists, a Tribal Welfare Officer, on condition of anonymity, has said “the policy wasn’t implemented in its true sense, which has emboldened many to reach the islands illegally.” Furthermore, there had been a decision for a joint patrolling team comprising of members from tribal welfare, police and forest departments to circumnavigate the islands. Sources say that this decision hasn’t been implemented for many years. This could possibly be a reason why Chau’s boat had gone undetected whilst trying to reach the island.

More recently, in 2014, the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI) came into existence and has made research-based interventions in dealing with another tribe, the Jarawas. The institute conducted studies on the seasonal movement of the tribes, to understand their ‘nomadic’ movement in the forest, and implemented health interventions as well as empowering the tribe by closely working with them with minimal disruption to their lives. However, ANTRI had reservations about a non-existent policy for the Sentinelese tribe and had been the ones to suggest the ‘Eyes On, Hands Off’ system and regular circumnavigation of the island through joint patrolling with strict guidelines. Minutes from meetings dating back to 2006 clearly state that the objective set was to secure the habitat of the Sentinelese tribe living on North Sentinel Island and only to intervene if they are being threatened by outside intrusion. The institute also specified that all visits to the island for surveillance purposes would have to be approved and cleared by them and the Executive Secretary of the Andaman. Further protocols include a fixed list of members that need to be approved, with the frequency of visits to be justified, through clearly-defined objectives. Gift-giving would be prohibited and efforts to lure the tribes out would be regarded as disturbance and creating nuisance among the Sentinelese. However, the Tribal Welfare Department did not give the institute powers of its own to carry out actions, despite recognizing the importance of creating an adequate policy to put in place a protection system for the Sentinelese. This has led to no serious activities being undertaken by the institute in recent years.

On the other hand, there is a stereotypical assumption which suggests that tribes, such as those of Andaman, need help to become ‘civilized.’ An example of this occurred in the late 1800s when M.V. Portman, the British ‘Officer in Charge of the Andamanese,’ landed with a large team on North Sentinel Island. The group took away an elderly couple and some children to Port Blair to be studied. The adults soon fell ill and died, whilst the children were taken back with gifts. It’s unknown how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this ‘scientific experiment,’ but it is likely that the children would have passed on new diseases and this would have led to many deaths of the Sentinelese. This could be one of the reasons why the tribe is hostile towards outsiders.

Multiple Andamanese tribes were endangered after British colonization during the 19th century. The Great Andamanese, an alliance of ten coastal clans, fought the Battle of Aberdeen against the British in 1859, were enslaved and eventually decimated. In the 1860s, the British set up an ‘Andaman Home,’ where hundreds of captured Andamanese died from disease and abuse, and whilst 150 babies were born there, none survived beyond the age of two. A large chunk of the population was wiped out after catching measles, influenza and syphilis, on an epidemic scale, from the early settlers. Before the British invasion, a population of around 5,000 thrived, whilst today, fewer than 50 Great Andamanese are alive. The Onge people were forced to make room for settlers, the Jawara resisted until the late 1990s and have now responded to the state, with government hospitals bordering their reserve opening special wards to treat them.

The Sentinelese have remained hostile since the government tried to reach out to them in 1967, and have managed to hold their fort to this day. The government gave up in the mid-90s and then developed the five mile out-of-bounds zone around the island. They have been protected by the coral reefs which make landing on the island dangerous, along with their obvious hostility towards outsiders.

During a current post-colonial era, colonial culture is still deeply rooted in religious efforts, where, despite language and cultural barriers, it is assumed that a particular religion will be accepted by a tribal group, who supposedly live in an uncivilized manner and need help. Forcing religion on others in order to save them ‘from the clutches of Satan,’ resulted in Chau’s untimely death, after previous visits in 2015 and 2016 were also met with hostility. The government needs to take these attempts more seriously, as the whole tribe can be endangered if they come into contact with modern humans. As they have no immunity against 21st century diseases, even the common cold could potentially wipe out the whole tribe.

The Sentinelese have made it very clear that they do not wish to have any contact with the outside world and, as President Pranab Mukherjee said in 2014, it is the responsibility of the Indian state to ‘protect them in their own environment and in their own circumstances.’ After witnessing the extinction of their neighbouring tribes after British colonization, and the scientific experiments they endured in the 19th century, it is no surprise that they want no contact. This is something which the government clearly recognizes, but there is a greater need for strict action to be put into place to ensure that no one can enter the tribal areas, along with improved policies based on input from experts with experience.

The revival of ANTRI, or the establishment of a similar group with the interests of the tribes at heart, is vital for this, along with a decreased influence of international forces who seek punishment in these unfortunate cases of trespassing. All seven of the locals who facilitated Chau’s trip have been arrested and this is the correct step forward to dissuade others from trying to facilitate contact. However, it is also important for outside groups to be educated and understand that they need to take the requests of tribes seriously, or irreversible damage, including the extinction of the tribe, can occur as a result of human contact with the Sentinelese.