Tribesmen of North Sentinel Island: An opinion

The Sentinelese tribe of India

The Sentinelese tribe of India

In November 2018, a 27-year old American John Allen Chau was reportedly killed by people of the Sentinelese tribe on North Sentinel island, Andaman & Nicobar. Roughly 15 days later, as on November 30th, authorities were yet to recover Chau’s body, given the intricacies involved.

Amidst grieving for the traveler, there have also been calls for taking strict action against those who ‘murdered’ him, namely the Sentinelese tribe. Others have suggested that both the tribesmen, as well as Chau’s body, should be left alone. So, which clashing opinion should one favour? Read on to find out.

Who are the Sentinelese tribe?

North sentinel island map
The North Sentinel Island

North Sentinel is one of the 572 islands in the Andaman & Nicobar territory. While the South Sentinel Island, much smaller, is uninhabited, the North Sentinel is inhabited by perhaps the least known about dwellers in the world.
The Sentinelese, called so because no information is available about their self-identification, are an indigenous people. With population ranging anywhere between 15-500, the tribe has refused any outside contact for as long as the world has been aware of them. The Sentinelese have a history of turning hostile or violent if outsiders try to enter the island. To date, very little is known about them.

The case of John Allen Chau

“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold, where none have heard or even had a chance to hear your name”, wrote Chau in his personal journal, shortly before his death.

According to those who knew him, John was strongly drawn towards the Sentinelese tribe, long before he first stepped onto their island. According to Remco Snoeji, who first met John in 2016, the young missionary was ‘intensely interested’ in the tribe. It was Snoeji’s shop in Andaman & Nicobar where John Allen Chau had walked in, back in 2016, wanting to learn how to scuba dive.

In November 2018, Chau paid some fishermen to take him to the North Sentinel island, where he apparently wanted to go and spread the message of Jesus. On November 14, Chau saw men with spears and arrows on the Island’s beach, and proclaimed his and Jesus’s love for them, before retreating.
He made two consecutive trips to the island- the next day, and the final one on November 16th. The second day resulted in a young member of the tribe shooting an arrow at him, piercing into his Bible. On November 16, Chau instructed the fishermen to leave him on the island, having already left instructions to contact his family in case things took an ugly turn. The next day, the fishermen reportedly saw the tribesmen dragging Chau’s body across the sand and burying it on the beach.

A closer scrutiny

The International Christian Concern (ICC), an international Christian organisation has condemned the killing, or as they say, ‘murder’ of the young Missionary by The Sentinelese. Their press release says “We here…are extremely concerned by the reports of an American missionary being murdered in India’s Andaman & Nicobar islands. Our thoughts and prayers go out to both John’s family and friends”.

Notice that in the same release, the ICC goes on to mention how “India has a history of attacks on foreign Christian missionaries”. It describes different forms of oppression and brutality the Christian missionaries have to face in India. Let’s see why this is problematic.

Are the Sentinelese citizens of India? In theory, yes. The island falls within the jurisdiction of the country. However, the people of North Sentinel are the world’s least contacted group of people, rejecting any outside contact for generations now. It is not exactly a tight-guarded secret that the Sentinelese do not want anything to do with anybody from outside the tribe.

It is downright unfair to place the Sentinelese on the same pedestal as those who attack Christian missionaries in India. The former’s actions are not driven by any hatred, religious grudges, but just a simple act of self-defense.

Now, let’s look at the title of ICC’s released statement. “American missionary reportedly murdered by hostile tribe in India.” Two words that immediately stand out are “murdered” and “hostile”. John Allen Chau’s death was tragic, no doubt. But, is it correct to call it a murder; i.e. an intentional act of taking a life? It’s not. Chau went on the island twice before allegedly being killed by the tribe. During both of those times, he was given clear signs that he was not welcome. The Islanders did not plot to kill him, it was what they would consider “self-defense” since Chau resembled an alien presence to them.

Moving on to the second word in question- “hostile”. T. N. Pandit, the first anthropologist to reach the island in 1967, and part of the 1991 team which established the first-ever friendly contact with the tribe asserts that the tribe is not hostile. They do not disrupt peace or lead attacks. They simply signal to leave them alone, in peace. If killing Chau was really their intention, they could have easily done it the first two times he visited the island. Instead, he was given warnings not to trespass.

Should the Sentinelese be left in peace?

Going in the proximity of the North Sentinel island has been forbidden by law. The area comes under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal TribesAct, 1956. Accordingly, it is illegal to approach the island any closer than 10 km. Chau was well-aware of this fact, and that what he was doing was not ‘exactly legal’.  According to reports, he paid a sum of INR 25,000 to the fishermen to take him to North Sentinel, dodging the patrolling.

The tribe, surviving for at least 30,000 years, has had practically zero interaction with the outside world. While their personal wishes alone are reason enough not to go strolling around on the island, there is another quite logical reasoning involved. For a group of people who are entirely alien to the rest of the world, their biological traits are also different from the rest of us.

Their immune system is not as strong as ours and introducing them to our environment means exposing them to a variety of health threats they have no shield against. The tribals are few in numbers, and such reckless measures might wipe them out completely. So, what Chau did was not just a breach of their personal space, but also posing a risk to their survival. This does not mean that we should celebrate the death of the young man, merely that we realise how trespassing on their island is both morally and logically wrong.

Based on the advice of anthropologists, the authorities have stopped making efforts to retrieve the body of the US citizen. And, with good reason. Further probing into their island and lives will not only induce xenophobia in them but will also pose a great threat to their lives. What they did was an act of safeguarding their home, even if Chau himself may have not meant them any harm.

The conclusion? We must all accept that it was a regrettable death, yes. But, it was not a murder.