Why We Need to Leave Andaman Islands’ Sentinelese People Alone


Why We Need to Leave Andaman Islands’ Sentinelese People Alone

Illustration: Arati Gujar (representation purpose)

You could be forgiven for thinking that Salman Khan is the only person who could get away with murder in this country, but you’d be wrong. Bhai might have great luck in court, but he isn’t above the law. However, in the wake of 26-year-old American traveller John Lang Chau’s death at the hands of the tribal residents of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman & Nicobar archipelago, we are reminded that there is a group of Indian citizens who live ungoverned by the Constitution; in fact, they’ve never heard of it. They are the Sentinelese, who are recognised by the government as a scheduled tribe and enjoy a protected status. As a result, their way of life, which has remained unchanged since as far back as the Stone Age, has been kept free from the influences of modern society.

Chau’s death was the result of his foolhardy insistence on visiting the Sentinelese on their native island, despite the tribe’s reputation for welcoming visitors with a volley of arrows and spears. It’s no secret that the Sentinelese people don’t want any company – the government stopped undertaking gift-giving, contact-making expeditions to the island in 1996, and the Navy has been tasked with maintaining a cordon around the island since 2004. “Complete isolation and minimal intervention” is the government’s stated approach to dealing with the indigenous peoples of the Andaman & Nicobar islands.

It’s an approach that Chau should have paid heed to instead of making his fateful final trip. The policy of isolation is in place for a reason; not just to protect outsiders like Chau, but also to protect the Sentinelese themselves from communicable diseases like flu and measles to which they have no immunity. Through the lapses that allowed Chau to visit the island, the authorities have failed not only the international traveller but also the indigenous community. So far, the fishermen who arranged Chau’s transportation and an associate in Port Blair have been arrested in conjunction with the incident, but questions need to be raised about the efficacy of the Navy’s cordon and government’s efforts on informing travellers about the stringent restrictions surrounding visits to the island.

Maintaining this state of isolation is of utmost importance, not just for security, but also to ensure the continued survival of the Sentinelese as part of modern India. Their population is estimated to be between 100 to 150 individuals, which is an educated guess, since census-takers have never been able to visit the island. The Sentinelese language is unique from the other native languages spoken on the archipelago by the Onge and Jarawa tribes. With no written script, their entire cultural history is encapsulated in their oral tradition, and remains uncatalogued by the outside world. Should the Sentinelese be wiped out, either through disease or assimilation, thousands of years of culture and wisdom will disappear with them.

The fate of the Sentinelese people has now reached a fork in the road.

The dangers of unregulated contact are evident to any student of history. The ethnocides of Native Americans in North America, the rapacious looting missions of conquistadors in South America, and colonial settlers exterminating Australasian aboriginals serve as stark warnings about the danger of unregulated contact. But there is a more recent, more relevant example from the very same chain of islands where the Sentinelese live: the case of the Jarawa tribe.

The Jarawas once had a similar reputation for hostile greetings, fighting British guns and muskets with bows and arrows during the 19th century, when the islands were used as a penal colony by the Raj. The construction of the Andaman Trunk Road was marked by several clashes between the islanders and foreigners. Today however, this once fiercely independent tribe has become partially assimilated into mainstream life.

Outside contact with Jarawas is forbidden, as it is with the Sentinelese, but a search on YouTube will find tourists in the Andaman going on “Jarawa safaris”, where the islanders dance for cameras and accept fast food from vehicles. Jarawas can be spotted begging in Port Blair, something which would have been unfathomable a few generations ago. In a story in The New York Times, a local environment activist Samir Acharya expresses regret over how the Jarawa tribe was exposed to harmful influences. “They have been exposed to a modern way of life they cannot sustain. They have learned to eat rice and sugar. We have turned a free people into beggars,” he says.

The fate of the Sentinelese people has now reached a fork in the road. Either they will go the way of the Jangil, another island tribe from the region which went extinct in 1921, or maybe they’ll enter a liminal state like the Jarawas, existing on the fringes of mainstream society, benefiting at times from modern conveniences, but slowly losing their identity and way of life. For all of India’s famed diversity and talk of protecting the rights of minorities, our most vulnerable citizens are facing an existential crisis. A culture that has existed for millennia will collapse if they are exposed – a culture that has managed to self-sustainably survive in harmony with nature, without governmental control.

John Lang Chau’s death is a wake-up call. The Sentinelese people survived even the 2004 tsunami, but will they survive the inexorable tide of modernity?