The paradoxical focus of the world on the life of an uncontacted tribe, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, after the killing of an American citizen by some of its members, who determinedly resisted his illegal intrusion into their territory by shooting arrows, reveals a sordid tale. What will its implications be for the tribe?

John Allen Chau, a 26 year old American evangelist, who knew his misadventure may end with his death, intruded with the mission of taking the word of God into the lives of the Sentinelese tribe living on North Sentinel Island.

He detailed his mission in a journal. The adventurer missionary says his objective is to save these tribes from the clutches of Satan, and despite clear resistance from them he landed on the island with a Bible and gifts of fish to lure them, people who have always maintained distance from the outside world, and have fought back all kinds of intrusion into their territory.

The matter came to notice on November 19, when the US Consulate informed Island authorities they had received information from Chau’s mother that such an incident had taken place. Based on the email, Andaman Police registered a case (Cr No.91/18 dated 20/11/2018 under section 302/34 IPC at PS Humphreygunj) in Port Blair.

An FIR (first information report) against ‘unknown persons’ was immediately filed. But why was a case filed at all against the tribes; how are they at fault, when the intentional intrusion was a clear breach of a stringent law already in place?

It emerged during investigations that Chau had visited Andaman and Nicobar many times, meticulously planning and preparing for this trip with the assistance of a local missionary named Alexander, an engineer by profession, and a few fishermen from Mayabunder in North and Middle Andaman, all of whom have been arrested by Andaman Police for culpable murder.

The Sentinelese, the only uncontacted tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, remain an enigma to local authorities, and there are no verified reports of even their number.

Reports of various incidents of tried and failed ‘friendly missions’ by anthropologists belonging to the Anthropological Survey of India a couple of decades ago also found their way into the media. These missions were later abandoned.

They were only a continuity, to the colonial mindset of appeasing the tribes and trying to ‘civilise’ them in order to make it easier for the colonial powers and settlers to usurp their resources and land.

Although it is stated that its hostility towards the outer world has kept the tribe safe from extinction, there have been many reports in the past of fishermen local and Myanmerese found in the vicinity of North Sentinel Island. In June 2006, two fishermen whose country boat had drifted to the island were killed by tribespeople and buried on the seashore. They also resisted repeated attempts by the authorities to approach the island to retrieve the bodies, by shooting arrows.

Despite the head of police’s accepting that the task of recovering the buried body of John Allen Chau is ‘an impossible challenge’, why has the exercise not been abandoned? Is it under pressure from the US Consulate, that many rounds of trips on the sea as well from the sky are being conducted? The local administration is leaving no stone unturned to gather as much information and expertise, involving anthropologists just for the purpose.

Such moves will only antagonise the tribe further, and distract and disturb the tribes from their normal lives. Instead of wasting resources on a mission impossible, there is a need to focus on the causes of these violations, plug the loopholes, and find ways to address the collective failure of various agencies entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the island from outside intrusion.

There is also an urgent need to have a sensible legal framework for dealing with the tribes. The usual method of filing an FIR against unknown persons only shows a lack of clarity on the stated policy of ‘Eyes On, Hands Off’, which clearly states that there shouldn’t be any move to intrude upon the island.

Last August, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued notice to the Andaman and Nicobar Administration abolishing the Restricted Area Permit of 29 islands, which include five or six sensitive Islands that are an abode to aboriginal tribes.

The list included North Sentinel, Strait Island and even Tillangchong Island, which is culturally sacred to Nicobari tribes.

It was an unwise move by the government of India, exposing its ignorance of the Islands, which of late has become the norm. Decisions taken by the centre on matters related to the Islands show a high degree of insensitivity, due to a lack of knowledge about the Islands, their ecology and the people there.

The recent statement by General VK Singh, a union minister, shows his ignorance. He shouldn’t have commented without sufficient knowledge or information.

The ‘Eyes On, Hands Off’ policy formed the substance of a note issued in December 2014 by the Andaman authorities with regard to the Sentinelese. The policy wasn’t implemented, which has emboldened many to reach these Islands illegally.

The decision was also taken to circumnavigate the Islands, by a joint patrolling team comprised of members of the tribal welfare, police and forest departments. This decision too remains unimplemented for many years. Surveillance by the Coast Guard in the area hasn’t been effective, for as they themselves admit, they cannot detect small country boats on their radars.

It’s high time the focus shifted from the crime committed by the US citizen and his accomplices, and we seriously deliberate upon the issues faced by various tribes owing to the indifferent approach of the authorities.

The institutional flaws that remain unresolved, and the onslaught of developmental activities impeding the lives of the tribals need to be addressed urgently.

The recent move by the NITI Aayog to open up more Islands for tourism and tourism-related activities in the vicinity of the tribes will only worsen the situation.

The Onges, another dwindling tribe being pushed to a corner on Little Andaman, is going to face another onslaught as the Island too has been included in the NITI Aayog’s list.

Institutions like the Andaman and Nicobar Tribal Research Institute (ANTRI), formed in 2014, need to be revived and strengthened by freeing them from the clutches of bureaucracy, and bringing on board expert anthropologists and their suggestions, and research-based interventions need to be taken into account by the Tribal Welfare Department and other agencies.

Foremost, in the case of the Sentinelese tribe, keeping away from the Islands and protecting their Island from outside intrusion by poachers or tourists is the need of the hour.

The Government should accept the decision to remove the Restricted Area Permit on this island was wrong, and it should exclude the island from the list.

Many fishermen who habitually fish around tribal reserves actually deplete the resources of the tribes.

There was a report a year and a half ago of a death due to leprosy of a member of the Shompens, another reclusive tribe (though not uncontacted) residing in Great Nicobar Island. Leprosy had been declared eradicated nationally. The issue was kept under wraps, and denied the importance it merits.

A source from the tribal welfare department said that the member of the Shompen had contracted it from contaminated soil. There is a high possibility of more such cases, as isolated communities haven’t developed immunity to such diseases.

The Great Andamanese Tribe, with a minuscule population of 52 members, who were moved away from their place of residence and settled on Strait Island, are now unable to engage in productive activity there, and have become dependent on doles, referred to as welfare measures, as Strait Island doesn’t have the resources they once relied upon.

They were provided bicycles to keep them healthy! an absurd thought emanating from the mind of an indifferent bureaucrat.

This Tribal Reserve Island too features on the list of islands removed from the Restricted Area Permit.

For the Jarawas, the tribe who shed their hostility some fifteen years back and have come into contact with the outer world, the policy of 2004 states that the tribes should be isolated and there should only be minimal intervention, like healthcare.

The work of ANTRI made a huge difference in their lives, but the institution has been made redundant by the present dispensation.

Recent developments among the tribe raise questions of sexual exploitation and poaching of their resources by outsiders.

The number of the tribe has increased exponentially in the last decade. But of late many Jarawa children aged below 10 are seen begging on the Andaman Trunk Road, through which hundreds of tourist vehicles pass daily.

Although an alternate sea route was declared open, and the jetty at Baratang extended, the boat plying between Port Blair and Baratang can carry hardly 60 tourists at a time. The scarcity of high capacity boats, which can carry a thousand tourists, and also the reluctance of tourists to take the sea route as it doesn’t serve the inherent purpose of their visit which is to see Jarawas on the roadside, remains an impediment in checking the lingering chances of violations.

Then there is the case of Organic Jarawa, a video documentary prepared by a French filmmaker duo in 2014, where with the assistance of local accomplices the perpetrators stayed with the Jarawas for more than 40 days inside their reserve, undetected by authorities. It came to light only when a teaser of the documentary was released on YouTube. The complete video was broadcast by a French television later. Though the local accomplices were arrested, all attempts to book the filmmakers and make them face the law failed.

And, recently, one habitual poacher from South Andaman was caught with Viagra from the Jarawa Reserve; he also occasionally reaches North Sentinel Island. The legal framework is so weak that the perpetrators easily escape the net, and move freely about repeating their crimes.

Following upon the death of an American citizen, the Andamans have once more found their place in the national and international press. But pertinent questions are to be asked of the seemingly ostrich-like attitude of the authorities, as they ignore and evade these pressing issues.

They must come out of their comfort zone and take issues seriously with the assistance of field experts, especially institutions like ANTRI. The ideology of leaving these tribes to live the way they want has often resulted in imagination and interpretations of what is observed.

Instead of playing god, there is a need to respect the way of life of these communities. The method of conversion from a hunting and gathering society to a sedentary lifestyle of relying on doles provided by the authorities is just the bane of communities.

It’s no different from that centuries old dictum: the white man’s burden.

Zubair Ahmed is a journalist and researcher based in the Andamans.