Opinion
Any attempt by authorities to try and retrieve his body goes against their “Eyes on, Hands off” policy – which exists to protect the Sentinelese.
John Chau. Courtesy: Instagram

A misplaced adventure by an American citizen with a mission of taking the word of god to an uncontacted tribe in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, ended up in his killing, allegedly by the Sentinelese tribe on the North Sentinel Island. John Allen Chau, aged 26, who has been referred to as an international football coach, adventurer and wanderer, had written several pages in a journal, in which he clearly admitted his objective – of taking the onus of “saving the tribes” upon himself, from the “clutches of Satan.” He had taken a Bible along with other gifts to lure the tribe, which has maintained distance from the outer world and resisted any kind of intrusion into their territory. He had visited the Andaman Islands more than once and prepared the trip with the assistance of a local missionary, named Alexander – an engineer by profession – and a few fishermen, all of whom have been arrested by the Andaman police.

In the aftermath of John’s death, his family posted a note on Instagram, that said, “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.” They asked for the release of his friends, and claimed they ‘forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.’

The journal entries and the note from his family have led to a divided opinion about the crime the young American committed – there is a lot of misplaced sympathy in the aftermath of John Chau’s death. There have been marathon attempts by the local authorities to retrieve John Chau’s body, reportedly buried on the seashore by the Sentinelese. A team from American Consulate had reached Andaman and is in touch with the local authorities.

But what everyone seems to be forgetting in their hurry to sympathise with the young American citizen is – he broke the law of the land. And any attempt by authorities to try and retrieve his body goes against their “Eyes on, Hands off” policy – which exists to protect the Sentinelese.

Sentinelese are the victims, not the criminals

North Sentinel is one of the Islands which was recently removed from the list of places that need Restricted Area Permit (RAP) for entry, by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India; the decision was widely criticised. Though, there are other restrictions in place for anyone who wants to enter the island, and a link cannot be established between the removal of RAP and the recent killing of John Chau, there are many pertinent questions about how the victim could make frequent visits to the Island without detection by the agencies.

In fact, the news about John Chau’s death was not detected by the Andaman and Nicobar Authorities, but was reported through an email from the American Consulate on November 19; the consulate told the Island authorities that they had received information from John Chau’s mother that such an incident had taken place. And, based on the email, the Andaman police registered a case under section 302/34 IPC against the tribe – basically, accusing them of murder.

The intrusion into the territory of tribes has to be seen as a crime being committed and the case filed against the tribal members is nothing but a mockery of the regulations that are already in place. This is a stark reminder about the many lapses on the side of the authorities – of their failure to protect the tribe from such misadventures.

There have been reports in the past of fishermen – both local as well as Myanmarese – found in the vicinity of the Island. Earlier, two fishermen whose country boat had drifted to the Islands in June 2006, were killed by the tribe and buried on the seashore, and the Sentinelese resisted attempts by the authorities to approach the Islands by shooting arrows.

Important policies left unimplemented 

In December 2014, the Andaman authorities had issued a note on the policy with regard to Sentinelese tribe, which clearly mentioned an “Eyes On, Hands Off” approach towards the tribes. A Tribal Welfare Officer on condition of anonymity said that the policy wasn’t implemented in its true sense, which has emboldened many to reach the Islands illegally.

There was also a decision for a joint patrolling team comprising of members of tribal welfare, police and forest departments to circumnavigate the Islands. Sources said that this decision hasn’t been implemented for many years. Though it is claimed that the Coast Guard surveils the area, many times, they too have admitted in various press conferences to non detection of small country made boats by their radars.

There are other institutional flaws, too, to be blamed. Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI), which came into existence in 2014, headed by Honorary Director Professor Vishwajit Pandya – a renowned anthropologist – had made research-based interventions in dealing with the outer contact of another tribe, the Jarawas. The Institute had conducted studies on the seasonal movement of the tribes and prepared a calendar based on the concept of time and space as envisaged by the tribe, to understand their ‘nomadic’ movement in the forest, foraging and hunting. As the numbers of the tribe increased exponentially, they implemented health interventions as well as empowered the tribe by closely working with them with minimal intervention in their lives.

However, the Institute had serious reservations about the non-existence of a pragmatic policy for the Sentinelese tribe. They had, in fact, suggested the “Eyes On, Hands Off” policy and circumnavigation of the Island through joint patrolling with strict guidelines. But, the Institute was rendered a toothless body by the Tribal Welfare Department, headed by a senior bureaucrat from the Forest Department, who was not keen on matters concerned with the protection and welfare of the tribes. Over the last couple of years, the Institute has become almost defunct with no serious activities being undertaken.

ANTRI rendered toothless

It is quite apparent from the minutes of a meeting held on June 24, 2016, convened by the Executive Secretary of the Andaman Adim Janjati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS), what the agreed upon policy with regard to the Sentinelese is. The meeting was attended by the Honorary Director of ANTRI, Tribal Welfare Officers, the Janjati Sewaks belonging to AAJVS; very pertinent issues about the various Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) were discussed and the level of contact defined.

The minutes of the meeting which refers to the Sentinelese tribe living on North Sentinel Island, clearly states that the objective set is to secure their habitat and to intervene only if it is established that they are threatened by outside intrusion. It is also clearly specified that all visits to North Sentinel Islands for the purpose of surveillance would have to approved and cleared by AAJVS and ANTRI, according to the set protocol. Prior to such visits, a fixed and approved members list would have to be submitted and cleared. The frequency of survey/visits will have to be justified, and proposals defining the objective of the visit vetted by the Lieutenant Governor.

The minutes of the meeting further says that the main objective of any such visit to the North Sentinel Island at the moment however has be to spot any kind of evidence of outsider presence along the shore. Unless there is prior approval, no form of gifting would be undertaken. Accounts and observation must be submitted but no efforts would be made to lure them out and close by any means. It also mentions that such activities would be regarded as disturbance and creating nuisance among the Sentinelese. The overall objective is to see to it that the Sentinelese habitat is protected from outside intervention.

However, none of these decisions were put into action and furthermore, bureaucratic red-tapism prevailed and the Institute had no power of its own to do anything concrete, which had created disgruntlement among the once enthusiastic ground staff, who were the eyes and ears.

Authorities must pull up their socks, tribals don’t exist for tourists’ amusement

There are other areas too, where such intrusions can be expected, if the authorities don’t empower the institute and take remedial measures, putting behind the institutional ego between the Tribal Welfare Department, AAJVS and ANTRI.

Of late a large number of young Jarawa kids under the age of 10 are noticed on Andaman Trunk Road, interrupting the large number of vehicles carrying tourists, and begging for goodies. Though the Andaman authorities have started an alternate ferry service to Baratang Island, with a boat with a capacity of less than 100 seats, the thousands of tourists who throng to visit the Limestone caves, literally take the road to have a glimpse of the Jarawa tribe, which is a naked truth everyone in the Islands knows but turn their eyes away from.

It would be easier said than done to shift the tourists from the road to take the sea route as it takes away their fancy to have a glimpse of the tribe. Moreover, shortage of ships with large capacity will always remain an impediment. Chances of violation of privacy and contact cannot be ruled out if the same situation continues.

There is a need to put into action the already decided upon policies on Sentinelese tribe as well as revive ANTRI by empowering it with experts with vast experience and zeal, and relieve it from the clutches of an indifferent bureaucracy.

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Port Blair. Views expressed are the writer’s own.