American goes into protected Sentinelese territory in Andaman, allegedly killed by tribe

The Sentinelese tribe are known to be the world’s last ‘uncontacted’ people – a vulnerable and numbered group which has a history of resisting contact with the outside world.
American goes into protected Sentinelese territory in Andaman, allegedly killed by tribe
American goes into protected Sentinelese territory in Andaman, allegedly killed by tribe
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An American national John Allen Chau, was allegedly killed by Sentinelese tribals on Andaman islands. The Sentinelese tribe, which is protected under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation Act, 1956, are known to be the world’s last ‘uncontacted’ people – a vulnerable and numbered tribe which has a history of resisting contact with the outside world.

Jatin Narwal, Superintendent of Police (HQ) at Port Blair, told TNM that John was last seen alive on November 16, as per the fishermen who took him to the North Sentinel island, a reserved area, where entry is prohibited without explicit permission.  

According to a press statement by the Andaman police, 27-year-old John had decided to visit the Sentinelese with the help of local fishermen and wanted to meet them for missionary activities. He reportedly took their help and hired a fishing dinghy at Chidiyatapu area after which he ventured forth in his own canoe.

“We got information that he has been killed by the Sentinelese people. We have registered two FIRs. The first under section 302 (murder), and another FIR has been registered against the locals who had taken him to that island under relevant IPC sections and the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation Act,” Jatin said.

"He lived in Alabama, US. He is some kind of paramedic. He was on a misplaced adventure in prohibited area to meet uncontacted persons. People thought he is a missionary because he had mentioned his position on god and that he was a believer on social media or somewhere online. But in a strict sense, he was not a missionary. He was an adventurer. His intention was to meet the aborigines," Andaman DGP Dependra Pathak told TNM.

The DGP added that his body has not been retreived yet. "His body has not yet been retreived because we have to strategise keeping in mind the nuances and sensitivity of other cultures We are working on that, and are in contact with anthropologists and tribal welfare experts. We will figure out some strategy," he said. He added that seven local fishermen who facilitated John have been arrested. 

SP Jatin Narwal said that John had a Bible on him, according to the fishermen. "He went to the North Sentinel island on November 15 and 16th multiple times. He wanted to do missionary activities. He had some handwritten notes and he gave it to the fishermen. He wanted them handed over to a friend in Havelock Islands." The SP refused to disclose details of what was on the notes and said they were part of investigation.

Police officials refused comment on whether the members of the Sentinalese tribes could be prosecuted.

An all-out adventure seeker and football coach, John Chau describes himself on Instagram as a “Wilderness EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), “PADI Advanced Open Water Diver”, “Outbound Collective Explorer” and a “Snakebite Survivor”. From trekking iced-capped mountains and going hiking at nature reserves to kayaking and scuba diving, John’s Instagram account is filled with pictures of his outdoor adventures. 

His thrill-seeking is evident in an interview that he had given to the Outbound Collective. He said, “I definitely love camping, hiking, climbing, and fishing. I love to explore, so whether it's trekking through dense old growth forests near the Chilliwack River, finding a rumoured waterfall in the jungles of the Andamans, or just wandering around a city to get a feel for the vibes, I'm an explorer at heart.”

This wasn’t his first trip to India or the Andamans. His Instagram shows photos he uploaded from Andaman in March 2017 as well as October 2016, when he stayed for nine days at Havelock island. He seems to have visited the Kerala backwaters in the same October 2016 trip.

In an interview published in November 2015 on The Outbound Collective, Jonh’s response to “What’s on the top of your must-do adventure list right now?” was, “Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top - there's so much to see and do there!”

This was John's sixth visit to the Andaman islands. 

Who are the Sentinelese tribe?

There have been several attempts to make contact with the Sentinelese with little success. In fact, two fishermen who had unknowingly strayed into their territory met with fate similar to John’s in 2006. Sunder Raj (48) and Pandit Tiwari (52) were drunk on palm wine and their boat drifted to a shore of the Sentinelese’ island.

They were reportedly killed by the tribesmen. Even when an Indian coastguard chopper went to the area to investigate and recover the duo’s bodies, the aircraft was attacked with bows and arrows by the Sentinelese warriors. Sunder and Pandit’s bodies were visible to the crew when the wind from the chopper’s blades blew away the sand from their shallow grave.

The Sentinelese determination to remain secluded in their island is so great that even when rescuers and boats went to their island to check for casualties after the 2004 tsunami, they were met with the hostility of bows and arrows, Andamans' then police chief, Dharmendra Kumar, told The Guardian.

Tribespersons photographed at the North Sentinel island. Photo: Indian Coast Guard

The earliest mention of the Sentinelese is from the 1700s, as per Atlas and Boots’ detailed blog on the tribe. There have also been accounts of outsiders being attacked by the Sentinelese from the 1800s too.

After this, the first major attempt at friendly contact happened in 1967, led by anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, who is also the author of the only book written on the tribe, The Sentinelese. It was unsuccessful, although the visiting party left ‘gifts’ of cloth and candy in empty huts, for the Sentinelese had retreated into the forest.

Photo: Indian Coast Guard

The first and last peaceful contact with the tribe was established in 1991. For the first time in history, the Sentinelese greeted the visiting dinghy without weapons, and apparently indicated that they wanted gifts.

“As usual, the dinghy moved down the beach to a safe spot, and a crewman jumped out to drop off a bag of coconuts. As usual, the Sentinelese rushed down to grab it. But for the first time ever, the aborigines brought no weapons with them when they approached the water’s edge—only mesh baskets and the iron-tipped wooden adzes they sometimes used to chop apart the coconuts. Emboldened, the dinghy’s passengers tore open another sack of coconuts and threw them into the water. Five of the Sentinelese swam out to collect the nuts, and a few others brought out one of their canoes,” an account reads.

Despite the Sentinelese violence towards outsiders, there are several who argue that they should be left alone, and that their actions are justified, given the violence and condescension they have faced from outsiders due to their primitive ways. Even RK Tiwari, the father of Pandit Tiwari, the fisherman killed by the Sentinelese in 2006, argued similarly. 

Now, according to Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation Act, a person requires a ‘pass’ for venturing into any of the restricted areas which includes the Sentinelese’ abode, North Sentinel island, which can be granted by the Deputy Commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Even if someone holds the pass, they are barred by law from collecting or carrying any forest produce, books, maps, photographs, films religious or scientific artefacts to and from these areas. They are also not allowed to introduce substances of like weapons, drugs or any intoxicants into these areas.

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