Why they don’t like us

The Sentinelese

The death of the American missionary John Allen Chau, who had travelled to the remotest corners of the world to preach Christianity and was headed to the protected North Sentinel Island in the Andamans has made the world debate whether it is right for ‘outsiders’ of the ‘civilised’ world to explore the isolated tribes.

The death of the missionary at the hands of the Sentinel tribe renewed interest in the tribe, which has been sought to be studied by anthropologists and officials earlier without much success.

There are about 150 people living in the North Sentinel Islands who are hunter-gatherers. They are skilled in the use of bows and arrows and spades and clubs. Many of the weapons that the Sentinelese use are iron-tipped. It is thought that they obtain the iron from goods that may be washed ashore. The trend in anthropological reading has been that a community is named what it actually calls itself in its own native tongue, but in case of the Sentinelese, we don’t even know what the tribe calls itself. The resistance to ‘outsiders’ shows that they don’t care about the world outside and neither are they interested in forging any alliances. The esoteric picture of the Sentinelese as a tribe in exotic and primitive living cannot be understood in isolation. There are socio-historic reasons why they prefer a life of calm rather than one of exchange with the outside world.

The colonial West wanted to take its civilising mission to the ‘barbaric East’. When they established their empire in India, they wanted to ‘civilise’ the North Sentinel islanders.

Even much later, in the 1980s, a British anthropologist landed in the North Sentinel Island with a large team. They brought back a family of four from the tribe and took them to Port Blair. The elderly couple died after becoming desperately sick while the two children were let free with gifts. The Sentinelese have low immunity. When exposed to the diseases of the modern world, there is no way for them to cope. Perhaps, when the children went back to their tribe, many more Sentinelese got infected.

Another attempt was made to establish contact with the Sentinelese by anthropologist Trilok Nath Pandit, who worked with the Indian government. To establish friendship, his team left eatables, gifts and plastic buckets for the Sentinelese and took away the bows, arrows, baskets and other items from their unguarded homes.

In 1974, the National Geographic channel was filming a documentary on the island when a crew member was hit by an arrow of the Sentinelese. The idea of making a film had to be dropped.

In recent years, when the 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman coast, when the Indian Coastguard was flying over the island to check if the tribe had survived, they found that the tribe wasn’t at all hesitant to attack the helicopters with bows and arrows. In 2006, two fishermen mistakenly ventured into the Sentinel Island and were brutally killed and their remains buried in the sand.

Given the enormously negative interaction between the Sentinel tribe and the outside world, it is not surprising they do not appreciate any intrusion. Underlining this history enables us to make sense why the killing of Allen Chau cannot be seen in a vacuum: it has to do with the injustices propagated on the tribe in the name of civilising missions.

The death of Allen Chau has raised a series of debates about whether un-contacted tribes should be allowed to live in isolation and what the basis of interaction between the esoteric world and the modern should be. While officials from India continue to visit the island for purposes like conducting Census (the last being in 2011), it is advocated that it is best to leave the tribe alone.

Survival strategy

The tribe is around 30,000 years old. In all this time, they have confronted many troubles inflicted by ‘outsiders’ out to ‘civilise’ them.

In 1858, the British counted 5,000 people living on the island, but by the end of 1931, only 450 survived. The brutality that they have suffered and the self-imposed superiority complex of the ‘civilised’ world have not only meant that the islanders don’t trust us, but also that they do not want to be disturbed by us. The brutality with which they killed Allen Chau may be seen as a sign of barbarity, but are we justified in thinking so?

We would be committing the same mistake that the colonial rulers did if we don’t see why they developed this hostility to us. The Burmese, Malaysians and Chinese have held members of the tribe as hostages and sold them as slaves in other countries; in many colonial expeditions, they were used for testing medicines. Thus, a distrust of all that is strange to them isn’t a choice, but a strategy of self-defence. The establishment of a penal colony in the Andamans during colonial rule led to large-scale deforestation there despite resistance by the tribe.

Since the 1950s, thousands of people from the mainland and refugees were settled in the islands and this resulted in indigenous peoples contracting disease and addiction to alcohol and sugar, which were earlier unknown to the community. Many people died because they had no immunity to fight the modern diseases.

Today, many tribes in the Andaman Islands are on the verge of extinction. The history of their relationship with outsiders -- whether it was the colonial administration, the invaders from Burma and China or modern society -- has been one of repression, mindless exploitation, denial of the difference and diversity of the pristine tribe, and extermination. Every arrow that the Sentinelese shoot at the ‘modern man’ is a reminder of the fragility of the latter’s ego that wishes to conquer and control all those who are not in tune with its definition of civility.

(The authors are founding editors of The New Leam)

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