Contact missions by those like TN Pandit and Madhumala Chattopadhyay also endangered the lives of the Sentinelese as much as John Chau’s visit did, say experts.

Why the media needs to stop glorifying previous missions to contact Sentinelese Madhumala Chattopadhyay with the Jarawa people. Photo: Sudipto Sengupta/
news Sentinelese Tuesday, December 04, 2018 - 12:09

In the aftermath of John Chau’s death on the North Sentinel Island in Andaman, there has been much discussion and debate about the colonial nature of his mission. John, a 26-year-old Christian missionary, wanted to make contact with the Sentinelese – a tribe which is protected under the law of the land – known for resisting contact with outsiders, and preach Christianity to them.

In the course of these debates and discussions, plenty of anecdotal evidence about previous attempts by the Indian administration to make “friendly contact” with the Sentinelese have also emerged. Several such attempts were made through the 1980s and 1990s, and even in 2005. Names like Triloknath Pandit and Madhumala Chattopadhyay have come into limelight for being the first Indian anthropologists to establish friendly contact with the tribespersons.

The Indian expeditions however, have been largely unquestioned in the media and even glorified to a large extent, though they posed similar risks to the Sentinelese as John, and had similar colonial motivations at their core.

Health risks and misplaced glorification

The Sentinelese, are likely to not have developed immunity to several common illnesses. One of the fears of John’s visit was that he may have exposed them to illnesses and pathogens. Sita Venkateswar, an anthropologist and author of Development and Ethnocide: Colonial Practices in the Andaman Islands, pointed out that the Indian expeditions for friendly contact in the past – particularly in the 1990s, carried a similar risk.

“There were health checks done for people who would be going on these expeditions to the Island. But this was not enough because something we considered harmless could be a health risk to the Sentinelese,” she says.

Sita also points out that the glorification of these past visits in the media is more harmful than good. “Articles retrieving this originary fame of “first contact” are a misplaced blunder, especially now that we have the insight and wisdom to understand that they were mistakes. They had at their heart the colonial mentality of “friendly contact” and should not have been done in the first place,” she argues.

Sophie Grig is a researcher with Survival International, an organisation which campaigns for tribal rights globally, and one of the few organisations that had opposed these “friendly” visits by the Indian administration two decades ago as well. Sophie says that media reports glorifying the success of these visits are dangerous.

There have been several reports on Madhumala Chattopadhyay - how she was the first woman outsider on the North Sentinel Island and she was able to touch the Sentilese after offering gifts.

“There is a danger that these simplistic reports will encourage missionaries to send women to try to make contact with the Sentinelese,” Sophie says. “No one knows why the Sentinelese briefly accepted the gifts of the government teams in 1991, nor why shortly afterwards they resumed their firm defense of their island and rejection of any approach from outsiders. It’s really important, in all the coverage of the situation, that it is made clear that the Sentinelese have expressed their desire to remain out of contact with people from outside time and time again and that this must be respected,” she urges.

In 1999, Survival had written to the Andaman Lieutenant Governor and said, “The ‘Sentinelese’ have shown by their hostility that they do not wish to be contacted. Survival asks your government to respect their right to remain uncontacted and not to make any further attempts to contact them."   

Sophie points out, "Triloknath Pandit, and others who were involved in these contact visits often speak of their regret at these attempts and now argue strongly that the Sentinelese should be left alone. Those contact missions also endangered the lives of the tribe, just as much as John Chau’s visit did, which was one of the reasons that Survival and others campaigned against them."

Sophie emphasises that it is still illegal to make contact with the Sentinelese due to other administrative regulations, even after the government’s confusing removal of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) requirement for the North Sentinel Island. “[…] Any attempt to contact them is likely to pass on diseases that will devastate and decimate the tribe,” she says. 

The state-controlled perception of the Sentinelese

Vishvajit Pandya, an anthropologist, argues in his paper Through Lens and Text: Constructions of a 'Stone Age' Tribe in the Andaman Islands, that the perception of the Sentinelese as a violent, hostile, ‘Stone Age’, and isolated tribe has been a function of the Indian state, to maintain its monopoly of the right to contact, protect and preserve them.

Vishvajit, who has been to the North Sentinel Island thrice on government’s official contact expeditions in 1993, 1998 and 2005, points out that the majority of photos of the Sentinelese in circulation are ones where they are armed, pointing their spears and arrows at the camera. This, even though there have been several times when the Sentinelese have made contact with outsiders, but on their own terms. These photos, which show the Sentinelese in more humane light, are not as common, and their absence helps perpetuate of the community as 'hostile' and 'primitive'.

“The state deploys such images to underpin an optical regime that reserves for itself the sole right to 'see', to 'show' and to 'circulate' the Sentinelese in ways that it views as appropriate and permissible,” he writes. “While on the one hand they purportedly sustain the state's self-image as sole and effective protector and preserver, on the other they perpetuate ideas about the Sentinelese as exotic relics of an ancient past and hence a source of unending curiosity and attraction. In this way, images legitimizing the state's visual regime paradoxically also carry with them the potential to undermine it, for images of hostile and isolated 'stone-age' islanders both deter and attract outsiders,” he adds.

Sita too questions this perception of Sentinelese as violent. “What do you mean they are violent? They are simply protecting their territory. Would you welcome outsiders with open arms?”

She adds they have good reason to be wary – their perception as the “uncontacted” and “most isolated” community is misplaced, given the multiple contact attempts, right from the colonial era. “One of the Andaman tribes, the Onge, would often travel long distances across the islands, before the British colonised them and demarcated territories. Stories of violence and subjugation have been passed on. These communities can surmise the increase in the number of people around them and are wary,” Sita says.

The colonial nature of the will to knowledge

With these arguments at hand, where does this quest to learn about the unknown stand? Can it be balanced with the Sentinelese clear desire to be left alone?

Sita says that the will to know cannot be separated from the power play within it. “The will to knowledge is never innocent or benign, especially in the context of unequal structures of power. On what terms are you getting to know? And there is always something colonial in seeking to know. When it comes to the Sentinelese, it is not ethical to seek to know, because they do not have a say in the matter,” she says.

Sophie believes that it is essential that the media does not sensationalise these attempts to know and contact the Sentinelese. “I strongly believe that the media has a responsibility not to sensationalise the previous ill-advised contact missions to the Sentinelese, nor John Chau’s trip. It would be a huge tragedy if this incident were to spark copy-cat attempts to go to North Sentinel and further endanger the lives of a people who have made it extremely clear that they do not want contact with people from outside,” she asserts.  

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