Andaman’s Sentinelese: Seclusion is not the solution

With the memory of the recent killing of John Allen Chau still fresh, it is easy to paint the Sentinelese as hostile, but they have not always been so. Their plight demands protection and engagement, writes Lokesh Kumar

A young American named John Allen Chau was killed after the members of the tribe inhabiting the North Sentinel, one of the Andaman islands, fired arrows at him. The tribe, known as the Sentinelese, is known to resist any contact with outsiders. John Chau’s killing was a tragedy. However, his attempt to make contact with the Sentinelese, whom he seemed to know little about, was impetuous – and dangerous, not only to himself but also to the Sentinelese.

John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese

This death has initiated a fierce debate. Some argue for members of the tribe to be punished for the killing, while others have called for their integration into modern society. Both these arguments indicate a failure to grasp the problem in its entirety. Punishing or integrating them will lead to nothing but their extinction. Even this cruel aversion to outsiders showed by the Sentinelese has been debated. Some attribute it to pathological primitivity and their absolute isolation from civilization while others to the memory of colonial brutality.


Have the Sentinelese always been hostile to outsiders? Have they remained completely isolated? A change in shape of their boats, the use of iron to make knives and arrowheads and so on all point to the fact that Sentinelese have not remained entirely isolated. The government has tried to establish contact with the tribe in the past. Photos of them receiving fruits and other gifts from the tribe are proof. Around 30 years ago, Madhumala Chattopadhay, an anthropologist, was one of the first people who made “friendly” contact with the Sentinelese. In 1989, she received fellowship from the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) to conduct research in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Chattopadhyay lived there till 1996, has published a book and written papers on most of the six tribes, who have lived on the islands for thousands of years.

A member of the Sentinelese tribe photographed firing arrows at a helicopter in the wake of 2004 Tsunami (Photo courtesy: Foreignpolicy.com)

This seems to suggest they first determine whether a contact is useful or otherwise; that their unfriendly nature is somewhat decisive to ensure survival, rather than born of primitivity. Hence, there exists a scope for their development, which would not be resisted by them.

As it stands now, no one is allowed to enter North Sentinel without permission from the government. Having said that, the government rarely grants permission. Authorities follow “an eyes-on and hands-off” policy on this island. There is a government protocol to circumnavigate the island. The young American bypassed the law and along with him those who helped him to enter the island.

The Sentinelese are a negrito tribe. Physically and linguistically, they are similar to the Jarawa tribe. According to the Anthropological Survey of India, the presence of Sentinelese on the island has been confirmed to 2,000 years ago. However, some genome studies trace their presence to 30,000 years ago.

The Sentinelese and other aboriginal tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar islands are given protection under the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation, 1956. Under this regulation, the area traditionally occupied by the tribes are declared as reserves. Even photography or making a film on the tribes is a crime. Unlike the colonial administration, the Indian government has abstained from coercing indigenous communities into assimilation. The tribal welfare policy for these islands ensures their protection and accepts their right to self-determination.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs has been operating a programme called the Development of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs), covering 75 identified PGTVs among Scheduled Tribes in 17 states and one union territory, that is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Sentinelese are also one of its target communities. It was in 1975 that the Government of India started identifying the most vulnerable tribes and set aside 52 of them as PVTGs. In 1993, 23 more groups were added to this category. Hence, 75 out of 705 Scheduled Tribes are also PVTGs. They are spread over 17 states and one Union Territory (the Andaman and Nicobar Islands) (2011 census). PVGTs are given priority under the Special Central Assistance to Tribal Sub-Scheme. They have been identified by their pre-agriculture level of technology, stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy and subsistence economy.

The first ‘friendly contact’ of the union territory administration with the Sentinelese took place on 4 January 1991. (Photo courtesy: First Post)

A large chunk of the 10 tribes that make up the Great Andamanese was wiped out by syphilis, measles and even influenza, on an epidemic scale, following contact with the early settlers. When contact with the Jarawa was established, the government hospitals on the islands opened special wards to treat them for infections.

As the Sentinelese have been living in isolation on the island for thousands of years, they do not have immunity against even the most common infection. Due to this lack of immunity, there has been a severe decline in their population. In the mid-1990s, the government decided that no one could enter a 5-km buffer zone around North Sentinel.

On the one hand, the government has to protect the aboriginals with more cautious measures. On the other hand, the government to think about their development as well. It has to address their lack of immunity, carry out anthropological and sociological studies and a lay a foundation for their development.

Copy-editing: Anil


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