Before the North Sentinel Island in the Andaman came into news following American Christian missionary John Chau’s death, it was one of the 29 Andaman and Nicobar Islands removed from the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime in August 2018. Now, however, the Centre is considering reinstating the regime.
According to Nistula Hebbar’s report in The Hindu, the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, Nand Kumar Sai, said that the government is mulling reinstating the RAP requirement for visiting the 29 islands, including North Sentinel Island. This comes after John Chau attempted an illegal mission to visit the North Sentinel Island to preach Christianity to the Sentinelese – a tribe protected under the law of the land. He is believed to have been killed by the tribespersons on November 17.
Nand Kumar, who is leading a delegation of National Commission for Scheduled Tribes in this appeal, said that removing the requirement for the RAP had proved problematic. He said that the government should rethink its decision to make these islands accessible to foreigners, given the Sentinelese’ clear demonstration of their desire to be left alone. However, Nand Kumar did not link John's death to the removal of the regime, and said that this could only be ascertained when the delegation, which is in Chennai for Thursday, returns to Delhi and files a report on the incident.
The RAP regime was notified under the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order, 1963. If a foreigner wanted to visit a place protected under this regime, they would need a Restricted Area Permit even before they flew from their home country.
Incidentally, several reports in the days following John Chau’s death wrongly reported that the North Sentinel Island was open to visitors due to this, when in reality, the island is still protected as a tribal reserve and visitations would require other permissions including from the local FRRO (Foreigners Regional Registration Office) and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs as well as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The RAP was just one of the requirements that was done away with by the government with the view to encourage more tourism in the Andamans.
While the RAP requirement was not there when John entered the North Sentinel Island (also a tribal reserve and hence protected), he did not have any of the other three permissions either.
Nand Kumar added that there seems to have been some carelessness on the authorities’ part in tracking John Chau, and that the Commission had spoken to the Andaman administration including Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands Admiral (retired) DK Joshi.
While he approved of the continued efforts to retrieve John’s body – an activity that several anthropologists and experts have been strongly opposing – Nand Kumar said that it should be done without further disturbing the Sentinelese.
Nand Kumar said he had noted on their visits of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that there had been conversion activity by Christian missionaries. “[…] our view is that further contact with tribal groups that have various degrees of exposure to other societies should be on their own terms, and nothing should be forced upon them,” he said.
Further, the Commission has also asked the local administration in the Andamans to keep an eye on similar activities by foreigners or local priests to convert other tribes like the Jarawa and Onge, reported News18
The Sentinelese, who are believed to have been inhabiting the North Sentinel Island for about 60,000 years, have resisted contact with the outside world, with some exceptions. There have been a few successful “friendly” contact missions by the Indian administration in the 1980s and 1990s, however, anthropologists say that these should not have been undertaken in the first place, and posed similar risks to the Sentinelese as John Chau’s visit – particularly the risk of exposing them to diseases and pathogens they may have no immunity against.