Sentinelese have been saying for long, “We want to be left alone”

The North Sentinel’s islanders, among the last of the uncontacted tribes in the world, killed 27-year-old John Allen Chau with arrows when he went to their island last week

Photo by: SeM Studio/Fototeca/UIG via Getty Images
Photo by: SeM Studio/Fototeca/UIG via Getty Images

NH Web Desk

The killing of an American national by people of Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman islands off India's east coast has once again brought to the limelight the lives of the tribals, who don’t want to be bothered.

The 26-year-old John Chau allegedly paid money to local fishermen to take him to North Sentinel at night, even though they had warned him against it. It is being said that he went with a Bible in the hope of converting them to Christianity.

The North Sentinel’s islanders, among the last of the uncontacted tribes in the world, killed 27-year-old John Allen Chau with arrows when he went to their island last week.

Andaman and Nicobar Island is home to five such tribes—Jarawas, North Sentinelese, Great Andamanese, Onge and Shompen. Jarawas and the North Sentinelese haven't interacted with the mainstream population yet. This makes them a source of curiosity for many of the 500,000 tourists who visit the islands every year.

Earlier in 2018, the Home Ministry passed a notification exempting foreign nationals from having to acquire restricted area permits (RAP) to visit 29 islands in the group of islands.

The Home Ministry list includes nine islands in Nicobar and two in Andaman, occupied by tribal and indigenous communities considered particularly vulnerable, including North Sentinel island.

Still, administration authorities insist visitors will still have to obtain permission from the district authority and the forest department to do so.

The Jarawas live in a 1,028km forest reserve between the south and middle Andamans. Many tourists take a two-hour bus ride to see Jarawas, from Andaman's capital Port Blair to Baratang which is home to limestone caves and mud volcanoes. They travel on the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) which cuts through the Jarawa reserves.

Apex court in 2013, banned visitors from taking the ATR after a video shot by a journalist showed policemen forcing six Jarawa women to dance for tourists.

According to a report in BBC, Manish Chandi from the Andaman Nicobar Environment Team, said, "The administration has long prioritised the livelihood of the locals." Chandi has been studying the islands for the past 18 years.

"After the court's ruling, it set up a ferry to Baratang island from Port Blair. It was a clever move. If questioned, they could always say it has made an alternative to the road available and the choice now rests on the tourists. But invariably, tourists 'choose' the road."

Sentinelese tribe

There isn’t any direct route to reach the North Sentinel islands. It is located 50km west of the capital Port Blair. There is also frequent patrolling by the coastguard to keep visitors at bay. And yet people keep attempting to see the North Sentinelese, often by bribing local fishermen, says Chandi.

"In 2013-14, a Mumbai-based businessman on a sports fishing boat was caught by the coastguard looking at the North Sentinelese people," says Chandi.

"Often, yachts carrying foreign tourists pass by the islands. But most are deterred by the coastguard patrol and make sure they don't lurk around."

According to a report in BBC, Govind Ram, director of the Department of Tribal Welfare in the islands, indicates he is aware of the instances of tribal tourism.

"It's true that people have a fascination to see the tribal community," he says. "We have made all arrangements to restrict this from happening. There's regular patrolling by the police and officials from the tribal welfare department."

But given the size of the areas meant to be patrolled, he adds, “there is a chance that miscreants can enter”.

And despite official insistence that foreigners will still need to obtain permission from the district authority and the forest department to visit Jarawa reserves and North Sentinel, conservationists say the scrapping of restricted area permits for these islands sends a signal that they will eventually be opened for tourism.

"The decision was taken unilaterally, without any consultation with local stakeholders," said Denis Giles, editor of the local newspaper Andaman Chronicles. "Instead of taking measures that might lead to tribal tourism, the government needs to continue with the 'hands off, eyes on' policy it has practised so far."

According to report in Washington Post, no one knows exactly how many Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island. Attempts by Indian census officials to count them from a distance have put their number at fewer than 100. The Indian government adopted a policy of "isolation with minimal intervention" toward the Sentinelese and several other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are in the Bay of Bengal off the eastern coast of India. But what we do know is that they have lived happily and largely healthily on their tiny, lush, mangrove-swamped 20-square-mile island for at least 30,000 years.

In the 1960s, anthropologists succeeded in exchanging gifts and conducting field visits but abandoned their efforts some 25 years ago in the face of renewed hostility.

No one really knows why they are deeply suspicious of outsiders but perhaps it could stem from the trauma of the original kidnapping, which happened in the middle of the 19th century. Then a British naval officer Maurice Portman had kidnapped several of these islanders and took them to his house, where he watched the adults among them grow sick and die. He then returned the children back and called the experiment a ‘failure’. Over the next century, hardly anyone went there.

“Just for our curiosity, why should we disturb a tribe that has sustained itself for tens of thousands of years?” asks Anvita Abbi, who has spent decades studying the tribal languages of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“The Sentinelese want to be left alone,” pointed out anthropologist Anup Kapur.

“So much is lost: People are lost, language is lost, their peace is lost.”

In addition, contact with such isolated people can be catastrophic on their health, scholars have warned, with islanders having no resistance to foreign diseases. This could be another traumatising factor behind the aggressive hostility of the Sentinelese.

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