Leave the Sentinelese alone: Paper on John Chau’s death reiterates non-intervention

John Chau was killed in January after he attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese tribe that lives on the North Sentinel Island.
Leave the Sentinelese alone: Paper on John Chau’s death reiterates non-intervention
Leave the Sentinelese alone: Paper on John Chau’s death reiterates non-intervention
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About nine months ago, John Chau, a US citizen, died after he attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese tribe that has lived on the North Sentinel Island in Andaman and Nicobar for thousands of years. The tribe, that are a protected group known for their chosen isolation from the outside world, killed John with their spears and arrows when he illegally entered their island to preach Christianity.

In the aftermath of his death, there was much discussion on who the Sentinelese are, previous attempts to contact them and their hostile responses to the same, and attempts to retrieve John Chau’s body. A recent paper published in the journal of Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) looks back at the events from January, and author Dr M Sasikumar, Director of the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies, makes a case for leaving the Sentinelese alone, and for the Indian government to continue its “hands-off, eyes-on” policy for them.

Why John’s body was not retrieved

Titled North Sentinel Island: A reprisal of Tribal Scenario in an Andaman Island in context of Killing of an American Preacher, the paper looks back at how John planned his mission, and roped in local fishermen as well as a local friend to help him. While John wasn’t the first person who was killed due to the Sentinelese’s desire to remain isolated, in his case, the authorities stuck to their policy and ultimately did not retrieve the body.

Dr Sasikumar, who worked with the AnSI in Andaman and Nicobar Islands from 2011 to 2017, points out in the paper that this was due to two reasons. First, the administration’s own policy of “hands-off” or non-intervention, and secondly, the risk of exposing the tribespersons to diseases that they may not be immune to due to their isolation that would have been posed if a team was sent to find John’s body.

“In the instant case, the victim deliberately entered the restricted area under the cover of darkness evading the gaze of the patrolling Indian Coast Guard and Navy, knowing well that it is an illegal act as per the rules of the Government of India. Even the tribesmen had given the warning, as they always do, but he was not ready to return. More than that, the aerial survey team could not locate the place of his burial. The precedence in this regard is not in favour of retrieval,” the paper says.

Why the “hands-off, eyes-on” policy is needed

From 2015 onwards, the Indian security forces have been undertaking circumnavigation – periodic patrolling at a distance from the North Sentinel Island – with the broad objective of keeping vigil, warding off and reporting anyone straying into the Sentinelese’s territory, and to make systematic observations of the tribe and their island from a distance. This is where the “eyes on” part of the policy comes in.

Dr Sasikumar, who was part of a circumnavigation of the North Sentinel Island as well, tells TNM that this policy must continue to be followed and the Sentinelese and their way of life should be left alone. “We should learn from the experience of the other Andamanese tribes,” he says, referring to how “friendly contact” and “mainstreaming” of other Andamanese tribes like the Jarawas resulted in massive depletion in their numbers as well as the tribes becoming plagued by social evils such as alcoholism, sexual exploitation and diseases such as measles.

Even if the Sentinelese came to tolerate or welcome contact, it could lead to a host of other issues, Dr Sasikumar says. “It would open the doors for depletion of forest resources by outsiders, illegal activities in the territory, as well as expose the Sentinelese to pathogens alien to them.”

Ultimately, Dr Sasikumar says, we have to remember cultural relativism. “No culture is superior than the other. We shouldn’t be thinking that the Sentinelese way of life is inferior in any way just because it is different than ours.”

Empower fishermen to be eyes on ground

Dr Sasikumar also stresses in his paper, the need to empower fishermen of the area to contribute to the “eyes on” aspect of the Indian administration’s policy. It is usually the fishermen who get lured with money by tourists and other persons into showing them to the North Sentinel Island and other restricted areas. Instead, fishermen should be made aware and encouraged to inform and report such requests to the authorities. John had allegedly bribed local fishermen to take him to into the waters near the North Sentinel Island in the guise of fishing activity.

“The policy of non-intervention should continue and at the same time the ‘eyes-on’ policy has to be implemented strictly. More than that what is essentially required is a rigorous conscientisation programme among the fishermen of Wandoor, Chidiyatapu and Port Blair area. They should be enlightened about the consequences of facilitating such illegal visits and the need to refrain themselves from such acts of rule breaching,” the paper says. 

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