The Sentinelese, an indigenous community inhabiting the North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, fiercely protect their sovereignty, even repulsing approach by the Indian government, which nominally owns the territory. It was no surprise they killed the American missionary John Chau for trespassing last month.

In subsequent talk about the community’s hostility towards outsiders, stories of two anthropologists stood out. TN Pandit was the first anthropologist to make contact with the Sentinelese while Madhumala Chattopadhyay was the first to have a friendly encounter with them. They were both part of official contact missions to befriend the indigenous people.

While there was outrage that Chau might have endangered the community by exposing them to germs to which they may not be resistant, media reports glorified the anthropological contact.

Did the anthropologists not pose a threat to the Sentinelese? Did their missions, led by the Andaman and Nicobar Islands administration, not compromise the indigenous people they contacted?

The making of a conflict

The Sentinelese and another Andamanese indigenous community the Jarawa did not hear of India’s independence since they knew no language spoken by any outsider. Besides, they were quicker to draw their bows than ask questions. Punitive missions sent by the British rulers and aerial bombing by the occupying Japanese forces had not improved the Jarawa’s dim view of interlopers. The Onge, the other indigenous group in the Andamans, had made peace with the outside world in the late 19th century.

Independent India sought to develop the Andamans by settling refugees from East Pakistan there, some very close to the unfriendly Jarawa. (The Sentinelese dodged the bullet since they lived on their own island.) Frequent skirmishes occurred along the boundary between the Jarawa and the settlers. In 1957, the government demarcated the Jarawa Tribal Reserve along the length of the South Andaman and Middle Andaman islands. To improve the fraught relationship, the government also embarked on a mission to befriend the indigenous people. It sent boatloads of doctors, photographers, anthropologists, zoologists, botanists and police bearing gifts to the west coast of the Middle Andaman, essentially Jarawa waters. By 1974, the Jarawa seemed to like these encounters, frequently boarding the visiting ships, even posing for photographs.

Such efforts to befriend the Sentinelese started only in 1967. In 1988, Pandit writes, the Sentinelese picked up gifts within 10 yards of the visiting boat. In 1991, they took gifts from the visitors’ hands and even boarded their ship. However, further contact with the Sentinelese was called off. For one, their home was farther than that of the Jarawa. Two, the island had nothing the administration wanted – there was no easy way to bring out timber logs.


The Jarawa continued to be engaged, though. After all, cynics would say, there were settlers to protect and massive trees to fell.

If the goal of these contact missions was to establish a friendly relationship with the Jarawa, there is no evidence they succeeded. Even as the gift-giving generated a truce on the western beach of the Middle Andaman, conflict on the eastern front escalated. In mid-1980s, the government started building the Andaman Trunk Road, cutting through the reserve. Jarawa men protested this aggression by killing road workers. After the completion of the road in 1989, public buses travelled through the reserve with all their windows shut and an armed policeman on board.

Nor do the anthropologists involved in the contact missions appear to have learned much about the Jarawa. The “information gathered in the span of a short encounter repeated three to five times a year is subject to [a] range of interpretations and misrepresentations”, the anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya notes, writing in 1999. The visiting anthropologists did not keep records of the contacted Jarawa nor could they estimate how many lived in that region. They did not even know what the community called itself. The term “Jarawa”, meaning other, comes from the Aka-Bea, one of the Great Andamanese group of tribes. It is only now, after over 30 years of contact, that we know the Jarawa call themselves Ang. “Most of the people involved in the contact event regard it as an extremely tiring and risky chore that they have to do and that they would like to get it over with quickly,” Pandya notes.

Madhushree Mukerjee, author of The Land of Naked People, is more scathing: “The amount of knowledge that emerged from three decades of contact was, however, astoundingly small.” Several anthropologists, she observes, “had built careers on the contact programmes”. Indeed, some of them admitted to her that a large party arriving with gifts of coconuts and bananas was hardly conducive to doing any study.

Another key reason these missions failed was the lack of consistency. The anthropologists served short stints on the islands, each bringing their own ideas of how to engage with the Jarawa, says Manish Chandi, a human ecologist on the Andamans. The result was a fluctuating policy that often exoticised the indigenous people. The anthropologists also did not share what they learned, if anything, with the settler communities, “leaving them to their own imaginations and constructions of what and who the Jarawa were”.

American Christian missionary John Chau was killed by the Sentinelese last month. Photo credit: Instagram/John Chau
American Christian missionary John Chau was killed by the Sentinelese last month. Photo credit: Instagram/John Chau

Threatening their ways of life

Persisting ignorance about the indigenous peoples’ ways of life despite these expensive contact missions was the lesser evil. Most egregious was the threat they posed to these people. Though the participants were checked for diseases, any of the common ailments that do not affect us much could have proved lethal for these isolated communities. During the early attempts at making friends, visiting dignitaries went to see, in Pandya’s words, “exotic primitives living in harmony with nature” on what seemed to be human safaris operated by the government. Were the Jarawa affected? We do not know.

The government, and especially the anthropologists, should have known the consequences of such contact. They only had to look at the fate of the Great Andamanese. Estimated to number 3,500 in 1857, only 19 had survived by the 1951 census. In 1969, while the Jarawa contact parties were enacting their strange rituals on the west coast, the adminstration moved the last remaining Great Andamanese to the Strait Island.

Though the government tightly controlled who went on the all-men contact parties in later years, many of the participants brought along their sexist and racist baggage. They “have on occasion behaved badly and tried to take photographs of naked Jarawa women”, Chandi wrote in The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier. Until 20 years ago, such pictures taken during the missions were sold in gift and curio shops in Port Blair.

When Pandit’s party barged into an empty Sentinelese camp, accompanying policemen stole some of their belongings. “I told the chief commissioner we should confiscate,” Pandit told Mukerjee. Most of the loot was “confiscated” but instead of being returned, it went on display at a Port Blair museum.

The contact missions were no secret. People on the Andamans heard about them on the radio. Settlers near the reserve were inspired to undertake their own clandestine missions, tying pieces of cloth to trees and leaving scrap metal. Some thought in exchange for these offerings, they could hunt deer and pig in the reserve and log trees. But no one explained these terms of the trade to the Jarawa, who killed intruders when they caught them.

The Jarawa also raided settler villages at night, helping themselves to things the contact parties had freely given them on the west coast, and sometimes injuring or killing people. Villagers complained the indigenous community had become addicted to gifts offered by the administration. But Pandya says the Jarawa possibly thought they were merely taking their gifts from the villagers just as they had from the contact missions. The administration compensated the villagers for these losses.

If the contact parties underwent health checks, the villagers didn’t. If the missions to the west coast were friendly, infrequent and brief, interactions along the eastern boundary of the reserve were hostile, constant and unregulated.

The North Sentinel Island was no exception to this. Fishermen seeking access to its rich waters offered fish, coconuts and metal to the Sentinelese, says Chandi. Neither the government nor anthropologists had oversight of such palaver.

Introducing them to human depravity

One single event changed the dynamic of the uneasy relationship between the Jarawa and the mainlanders. In 1996, settlers took an injured Jarawa, Enmei, to hospital. After returning to the reserve, he brought groups of young people to see the outside world. They visited the hospital, where they were showered with gifts.

At tea shops along the Trunk Road, villagers offered tobacco, alcohol and other substances to their former enemies. The first new Hindi words the friendly Jarawa learnt were swear words. Within a couple of years of contact, an outbreak of pneumonia sent 40 Jarawa to hospital, and in 1999, 95 Jarawa were admitted with measles. The medical team ensured there was no mortality, but these were signs of what was to come.

Around this time, driven by belated concern for the Jarawa or a Supreme Court order to close the Trunk Road and remove encroachments, contact missions to the Jarawa stopped. But the damage was done: the Jarawa had been introduced to human depravity. Today, many Jarawa are addicted to liquor, tobacco and drugs which the settlers provide in exchange for sex, venison, timber and forest produce.

Settlers exploited indigenous women. In 2016, a mixed race baby born to a Jarawa woman was killed by a Jarawa man, apparently on the instigation of two settlers. The Jarawa complained of being assaulted by armed poachers and illegal loggers when they protested.

Fishermen routinely fish along the west coast. “A fair number of large crabs exported from the Andamans come from the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, often caught by Jarawa women and traded to local fishermen for bottles of poor quality rice,” says Chandi. “The big marine export product, ‘dollar fish’, comes from the west coast of the reserve. Some fishermen from South Andaman catch lobsters in the reefs and shelves along North Sentinel.”

Few of these law-breakers are prosecuted.

The Sentinelese stand guard on a beach on their North Sentinel Island. Photo credit: Creative Commons
The Sentinelese stand guard on a beach on their North Sentinel Island. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Adopting a policy of dispossession

The contact missions not only made anyone a “peace emissary”, but they were the operational part of a policy of dispossessing the indigenous groups of their land.

For example, the Onge became friendly before Independence, but it was the Indian administration that confined them to two reserves in Little Andaman, where they now live on the dole. The rest of their island was denotified for oil palm plantation and settlement.

Similarly, the government shrank the Jarawa Tribal Reserve in 1959 and again in 1979. Indeed, as far back as 1949, an Indian government report stated that the area set aside for the Jarawa could be “decreased in course of time after better contact has been made with them and their proper number ascertained”.

“The unstated assumption here is that the Jarawa, in 1949, occupied more land than they needed,” writes the historian Uditi Sen. “Thus, independence unleashed in the Andamans a logic of development that needed indigenous land, but had no use for indigenous people.”

Hence, the contact missions. In her book, Mukerjee quotes a 1969 report: “Such gifts be distributed as may gradually make the Jarawa economically dependent on the Administration.”

These “friendly encounters” were thus the precursor to an occupying force, no different from Thomas Roe representing the British East India Company at the Mughal court, even though the presence of anthropologists provided a veneer of credibility and respectability.

Unlike on Little Andaman, where the government usurped Onge territory, the sanctity of the Jarawa reserve was maintained. The thaw in the group’s relationship with settlers, however, opened the reserve for the latter to exploit with impunity.

Who are we to go and change them?’

When it comes to the Sentinelese, what lessons can we learn from the fate of the Jarawa and of the Onge and the Great Andamanese before them? Should the Sentinelese be left alone?

Many argue the reclusive community should be brought into the mainstream. If only they got a taste of our dazzling civilization, the thinking goes, they would never return to their “uncivilised ways”. The government had hoped the Jarawa would settle down in houses and cultivate crops. But despite two decades of interaction, the Jarawa did not fall for the allure of our consumerist civilization. Enmei retreated into the reserve, rarely to be seen again.

In 2011, Enmei and other Jarawa explained to Pandya why they turned their backs on our way of life: “To go and live in a cleared settlement, with electrical light and houses like the settlers have and eat rice would be like when we are hospitalised. We will be restricted to sleeping areas and constant light in the house, and no tree shade, no fireflies and no stars to see! To be in the forest we see the dawn and dusk, we feel the change in light, humidity, and temperature, as they change we accordingly move and change homes. Life in forest is not just dark and bright but shades of illumination and experience of shifts in the darkness due to fire, fireflies and stars that give light.”

If the sad experiences of the Great Andamanese and the Onge and the continuing exploitation of the Jarawa are any indication, the Sentinelese chose right to repulse contact.

Chandi says we should stop trying to change others’ lives. “Who are we to go and change them?” he asks. “They do what they want to do; what suits them. Cultural diversity has to evolve on its own. The best we can do is help them make [an] informed choice.”

In that sense, the current policy of “hands off, eyes on” is the best the government can do for the Sentinelese.

Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals.