If the American national John Allen Chau has been killed in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as alleged, then it is indeed tragic. A young person in his twenties did not deserve to die this way. But equally, the illegal adventure of Chau and the push by the administration to find out what precisely happened are not steps in the right direction. India must stand up to pressures that are reportedly being mounted by the US authorities to recover the body because what is at risk is far more precious. Any engagement, let alone a confrontation, puts the tribes living in these remote islands at risk. What is worse, a peaceful tribe, dwindling in numbers, living by themselves and our last direct link to our hunter-gatherer roots, is being described as “hostile” when recorded notes from past visits tell us a different story.
Of the 572 islands in the archipelago, just 38 are inhabited. Six tribes (official nomenclature as per the Scheduled Tribe list in the Indian Constitution) inhabit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Nicobarese, the Onge, the Sentinelese and the Shompen. Of these, the Nicobarese and the Shompen are classified as Mongoloid and the other four as Negroid going by their physiognomy. But for the Nicobarese who are in large numbers and whose survival is not threatened in any way, the rest are struggling for their survival. As per the 2011 census, the Great Andamanese number 40, the Jarawa 380, the Onge 101, and the Shompen 229.
As regards the Sentinelese, no one is clear as to their population, including the 2011 census which puts their number at just 15. Various sources have put the population of the Sentinelese between 15 and 100. In any case, any population below 400 is considered totally threatened. But of course, there are other aspects to be factored in this calculation in terms of carrying capacity of the habitat, the availability of resources and density of population. Going by this indication, except for the Nicobarese who are 27,168 as per the 2011 census, the rest of the five groups are indeed endangered and highly vulnerable.
It is another matter that around the 1900s, all these groups were thriving. Contact with outsiders from the mainland, first opened up by the colonial administrators and then the islands being populated for various reasons, including as a penal settlement, took its toll on the indigenous ethnic groups as their resistance and immunity to the diseases and pathogens carried by the outsiders was low, and led to mass deaths and lowering of their populations drastically. Given such grave danger to the dwindling populations of the tribes, the administration has imposed severe restrictions as regards travel and access to the places inhabited by the tribes except in the case of the Nicobarese, who have had contact with outsiders and are in no danger compared to the other groups.
It is quite common knowledge for those who inhabit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that the Sentinelese do not welcome intrusions in their island. Chau, a Christian missionary, ventured into the Sentinelese territory all by himself after being guided there by fishermen, who were bribed. The fishermen apparently saw “in silhouette” a body being buried. From 1967, when the first “contact” was made, about 30 such “friendly contact expeditions” have been undertaken to the nearly 60 sq km island by the Andaman administration accompanied on most occasions by anthropologists. And on each occasion, they have carried “gifts of coconuts, bananas and iron rods” and deposited these on the shore of the island. On many an occasion, the expedition anchored about 400 meters away from the coast and watched the Sentinelese with arrows drawn and ready to let them go if they ventured any further.
The Sentinelese have not extended their hands for shaking but have drawn their arrows in resistance. In spite of such a reception, repeated attempts have been made to “establish contact” with the Sentinelese. In a way, it is sad to note that even professional anthropologists have not paid any heed to the fact that the Sentinelese have made it quite clear that they do not want any intrusions in their territory. You do not need to be told repeatedly, certainly not 30 times, that you are not welcome. Also, the tenets and ethics of anthropological fieldwork demand that informed consent and ready welcome into a people’s life and society are prerequisites to carry out any activity/study. Even a beggar or a vendor arriving at a middle-class home among the so-called civilised urban populations a second time irritates the dwellers. So, how come the administrators and anthropologists have utter disregard when a group of people make it amply clear that they do not want any outside contact? Do they not have the right to “self-determination” as most groups would like to emphasise when it comes to their own territory or places of habitation?
Dr T N Pandit, an anthropologist, then based at Port Blair, is known to have made the first contact with the Sentinelese in 1967. His account records that the Sentinelese watched the expedition consisting of the Andaman administration, the Indian Navy, and him as the only anthropologist, land on their shore and quickly hid themselves. Pandit counted 18 huts on the island. Even if we consider four persons as inhabiting a hut the population at that time would have been 72. Going by Pandit’s account, the Sentinelese were not hostile. They just hid themselves. Over the years, something unpleasant must have occurred during the expeditions that has made the Sentinelese resist the outsiders. And anthropological literature has ample empirical examples to show that contacts with outsiders have always had adverse effects on indigenous populations all over the world, including the instances from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands themselves.
Every group gives top priority to its survival. It would indeed be surprising if the Sentinelese did not. For about 60,000 years that they have been inhabiting their territory, they have developed an ecological niche and ways that sustain them in terms of a hunting and gathering economy. And towards that end, they have developed a cocoon that stands them in good stead. Should they be blamed for that and their way of living branded as “hostile”? Their attitude towards the outside world has to be truly construed as one of self-defence; and self-defence to protect one’s life is recognised in law universally. Any foolhardy attempts by the Andaman administration in collusion with the police/navy/air force, and anthropologists to boot, to retrieve the body of Chau could definitely lead to bloodshed and this should be avoided at all costs.
M A Kalam is an anthropologist, Dean – Administration and Regulatory Affairs, Krea University, Sri City, Andhra Pradesh. Views are personal. (Syndicate: The Billion Press)