The death of an American evangelist at the hands of an indigenous group in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on November 16 has put the spotlight on members of the isolated community.
John Allen Chau had bribed local fishermen to take him to the secluded North Sentinel island, with the alleged intention of preaching Christianity to its inhabitants. He was killed by the indigenous people who are believed to have lived on that island for nearly 60,000 years. These hunter-gatherers have avoided contact with the outside world even in desperate times such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Local fishermen have said that they had seen the indigenous people drag Chau’s body on the beach, and that the tribespeople may have buried it in the sand.
On Sunday, NDTV reported that the police had gone on a reconnaissance mission to ascertain the best way to retrieve Chau’s body. The police used helicopters and boats in their mission but were cautious enough not to get too close to the island. The Sentinelese responded by mounting a vigil on the beach, armed with bows and arrows. The police seem to be hoping that the indigenous people will repeat something they did in 2006, when they killed two fishermen in a boat that had run aground on the shores of North Sentinel island. The Sentinelese had subsequently strung up the bodies of the fishermen on a bamboo stick facing the sea, as a warning to potential intruders. The police seem to be hoping to retrieve Chau’s body if this act is repeated.
But there is more to this than merely retrieving Chau’s body. Protected by the Indian government as a “Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group”, North Sentinel island is off-limits to all visitors by law. The police will therefore be violating the law if it lands on the island to retrieve the body. But the other side of the law is also at play. A case of murder has been registered under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, making it obligatory for the police to investigate.
This is where the problem lies. The assault on Chau is clearly a special case where the letter of the law must not be implemented literally. In attacking Chau, the Sentinelese can be said to have acted purely in defence against someone trying to invade their territory and autonomy.
The police have acted with sensitivity till now, and have stated that it is in talks with anthropologists on how to handle the situation. But there is not enough transparency on what exactly is happening. The police’s continuous attempts to reach the island seem to indicate that it is under some kind of pressure to act, possibly from the US. This is why transparency is crucial.
The police must make clear that it is attempting to retrieve Chau’s body not because of demands made by the US or legal procedure, but because it wants to protect the island’s indigenous people. Having lived in isolation for several thousands of years, the Sentinelese are unlikely to have immunity to even common infections, let alone deadly diseases. There are some who say that if Chau’s body stays on the island, it could expose the indigenous population to contagions, and endanger the group whose members are estimated to number no more than 100.
If the actions of the police are motivated by anything other than the welfare of the island people, it amounts to harassment. The Sentinelese have just been subjected to the stressful event of an outsider landing on their island. Police actions will only add to their stress and must therefore be backed by strong and clear objectives. The police must openly state whom it is consulting – be it anthropologists and/or medical specialists – and put out in public the suggestions such experts have made.
This is also a time for introspection for the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This whole controversy took place because the administration failed to protect North Sentinel island, making it easy for an outsider to reach its shores by bribing a few fishermen despite the existence of strong laws prohibiting such trespass. It is important to ensure that such a situation is not repeated.