Weakening of restrictions pose risk to indigenous communities in India

The recent visit and subsequent death of American missionary John Allen Chau at the hands of the Sentinelese indigenous tribe has highlighted the precarious condition in which these communities exist and the dangers they face during encounters with the outside world

December 03, 2018 by Anish R M
The Senitelese are the last uncontacted community in India

On November 17, 2018, John Allen Chau, a missionary from the evangelical organization, All Nations, based in Missouri, United States, made a third visit to the North Sentinel Islands near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are part of India. Chau went there with the express mission of “declaring Jesus” to the indigenous Sentinelese. He did not return from his mission, and there are reports of fishermen witnessing him being dragged by the natives of the island, a rope tied around his neck.

By November 20, 2018, the local police declared him to be ‘missing, presumed dead’ after witnessing his body being buried by the tribe during a search missions. This incident has brought national and international attention to the Sentinelese, the last uncontacted tribe in India, and by extension, the condition of the other Andamanese people.

1. Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese are a tribe indigenous to the North Sentinel Island, which is situated about 36 km away from the main cluster of the Great Andaman islands at the eastern rim of the Bay of Bengal. The island is under the administration of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory under the direct rule of the federal government in New Delhi. They are among the four remaining indigenous Andamanese tribal communities.

According to Survival International, a London-based advocacy group for the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, the Sentinelese are the “most isolated” community in the world. They are the last uncontacted tribe in India, and have for long resisted every approach or attempt at contact, often violently.

2. Were there previous attempts to contact and ‘integrate’ them?

The first recorded encounter with the community was in the latter half of the 19th century when the British were establishing their penal colony in the South Andaman island. The first attempt at contact was violent with a British naval office, M. V. Portman, kidnapping a dozen inhabitants, including two elderly people, in order to bring them to Port Blair. The elderly people died of sea sickness, and the rest were sent back with the hopes that they would persuade their community members to establish contact. Possibly because of the memory of the mass kidnapping, the islanders have ever since been hostile to outsiders.

Several attempts to establish contact were made by the authorities, anthropologists, and even the National Geographic, all of which were unwelcome and at times, were greeted with spears and arrows. The only known friendly contact to have been established so far was by an Indian anthropologist, Trilok Nath Pandit. He tried for nearly three decades to contact the community, and only got his break in 1991, when they took his gifts of coconuts. Their language was indecipherable. So in a later visit, he brought two Onge tribe members along for translation, since the Sentinelese and the Onge languages are considered similar. However, the arrival of the Onges was not received well by the Sentinelese, who closed themselves off to even Pandit. Anthropologists and administrators are of the opinion that this is not a bad thing as the community is vulnerable to ecological and cultural changes that can come from continuous contact with the outside world that can potentially wipe them out.

3. What are the dangers of them opening up to outsiders?

All the indigenous tribes at the time of their encounter with colonial authorities were, and continue to be hunter-gatherers in the palaeolithic stage of technological development. They are historically not known to have engaged in agriculture or animal husbandry, which were essential in humans elsewhere developing immunity against various infections that we today take for granted. Something as common as a common cold could be deadly to the whole tribe. The Sentinelese have, owing largely to their geography, avoided such potential devastation during the colonial period, but it is quite possible that they might end up being pushed to extinction if they are opened up to outsiders.

4. What other indigenous tribes live in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and how did they fare with outside contact?

There are five protected indigenous groups in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – the Great Andamanese, Jarawas, Sentinelese, Onge and Shompen. The first four are clubbed together as Andamanese, as they are ethnically similar, while the Shompen are considered a completely different tribal group. Apart from these, there is also a large community identified as the Nicobarese, who shared the Nicobar Islands with the Shompen. The Nicobarese have had consistent contact with the outside world for at least a millennium. The Shompen have lived a largely secluded life alongside the Nicobarese, and there were very few attempts by colonial authorities to establish contact with them.

Except for the Sentinelese, the Andamanese tribes suffered devastating consequences from outside contact after getting exposed to diseases like influenza. In many instances, a large number of members of the community died. The introduction of intoxicants like alcohol, opium and tobacco by colonial authorities also contributed to the dwindling of their populations.

Forceful attempts of integration by colonial authorities had a disastrous impact on the Andamanese. It brought about a sharp decline of the Great Andamanese from around 3,500 in the 1860s (when the British established a first permanent penal colony) to barely 25 people at the time India became independent. After independence, the tribe was moved to a reservation on Bluff Island in 1949 and from there, to the Strait Island in 1961. It was only after moving to the reservation that the tribe witnessed a growth in its population. Today, they number around 52. The 10 individual clans of the tribe have vanished, even though there are individuals who hold on to some aspects of their clan heritage, and their languages have become extinct, except a form of the Andamanese creole admixed with Hindi.

Other tribes also suffered from the colonial interaction. The Jangil, the fifth known Andamanese tribe that inhabited the Rutland Islands, went extinct by the 1920s. The Jarawas who once inhabited much of what is today the South Andaman district saw their population getting halved under colonial rule and were displaced by the penal colony and the subsequent influx of mainland Indians and Burmese in and around Port Blair. The Onge that numbered around 700 at the beginning of the 20th century, were reduced to around 150 by the end of the colonial period. The tribe, the original inhabitants of Little Andaman island, have been reduced to two separate enclaves on two corners of the island, while their population declined until 1971. Since then, it has stabilized at around 100 members. The Jarawas moved into the forests north of their original homeland and were given over 1,000 sq. km of reserved tribal land. The Sentinelese in this regard are the only ones among the Andamanese tribes to keep their homelands safe from any outside contact.

5. Are there any protections for these groups?

Yes. The North Sentinel Island of the Sentinelese, the Jarawa reservation in Great Andaman, the Onge reservation in Little Andaman, the Strait Island of the Great Andamanese, and the Shompen reservations in the Nicobar islands are protected under the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956. According to the Act, while the indigenous communities are considered Indians by default, the government actively restricts Indian citizens from even approaching the tribes in the archipelago, and protects their land from any outside settlements or encroachments.

6. What are the issues facing the Andamanese, today?

In January 2018, the union government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi removed the Restricted Area Permit requirements for foreigners to venture into several islands, most of them uninhabited, to promote tourism. Among these was the North Sentinel Island. While the island itself has been reserved under the Act of 1956, which prevents other Indian citizens and foreigners from entering without permission, there are concerns about taking out the added protection to the island and the islands around it, which may lead to predatory tourism and can adversely impact its ecological balance with the incoming ships and boats.

There are also questions raised about how effective navy and coast guard patrols have been in the area, considering that John Allen Chau made at least two visits with other groups before his fatal visit to the island. It brought to light the thinning of protections under the present government, endangering the indigenous peoples just to promote tourism. Apart from the Sentinelese, such policies also affect the Onge and the Great Andamanese.