How Should We Think of the Sentinel Islanders?

The last time the inhabitants of Sentinel Island were caught in the glare of global media attention was in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. The image of a Sentinel Islander looking upward, bow and arrow drawn and pointed at an Indian helicopter, elicited a resounding cheer worldwide. The Sentinel Islanders became a potent symbol of resilience, a testimony to the strength, endurance, and wisdom of indigenous groups worldwide and the ways that their knowledge practices have enabled them to adapt and live sustainably. The fierce figure captured in that photograph became a source of global fascination and, ironically, hastened efforts to learn more about these unfamiliar islands and their inhabitants. Today, yet again, Sentinel Islanders are under scrutiny following the untimely death of the U.S. citizen John Allen Chau on the island.

As we sift through responses to these compounding events and their media coverage, can we discern a productive way to think of the Sentinel Islanders? Without rehashing the historical context regurgitated in numerous recent commentaries, how might we attend to the singular context of their lives at this juncture in the twenty-first century?

The Indian government has designated certain indigenous groups in the Andaman archipelago as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, a classification that confers on them a degree of protection. The term was adopted in 2006, following persistent advocacy by anthropologists and activists to retire the previous designation Primitive Tribal Groups. Carried out in terms of an “eyes on, hands off” policy, this has meant that the Sentinel Islanders are safe from the administrative and welfare-based interventions directed at other indigenous groups (Venkateswar 2008). The Andaman administration has demonstrated commendable humility and restraint in following these policy directives, which has not been the case with other voluntarily isolated groups elsewhere in the world. The events after Chau’s death demonstrate the willingness of local authorities to confer and collaborate with others who are better positioned to understand what is at stake in times of crisis. When a group of experts issued a joint statement calling for the cessation of efforts to recover Chau’s body, local authorities responded by focusing on other lines of investigation that sought to trace the events leading to his arrival and death on the island.

Yet India’s central government has been less inclined to seek advice, and the dismissal of key advisory bodies left a crucial void in relation to informed policy decisions. At one time, the presence of these advisory bodies created openings for providing research-based briefing notes when policy processes were underway (Venkateswar 2006). In the absence of such guidance, ill-advised efforts to facilitate large-scale commercial tourism across the Andaman Islands have been a source of embarrassment. Given the fallout around Chau’s death, authorities have been backpedaling from a recent decision to remove the Restricted Area Permit protection from areas inhabited by Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups.

The environmental researcher Pankaj Sekhsaria draws on satellite imagery to demonstrate how the vitality of the Andaman rainforests hinges on its indigenous inhabitants: the remaining tracts of undisturbed forest coincide with where Jarawa and Sentinel Islanders have resided over several millennia. This is no small matter, given the scale of destructive human impact elsewhere on the planet. As the COP24 climate conference in Poland kicks off this week, we would do well to pause and learn from the ways in which the lives and livelihoods of Andaman indigenous groups have reciprocally adapted and evolved with natural environments. While descriptions such as “Stone Age” or “primitive” have been bandied about in the media, let us not lose sight of the fact that the Sentinel Islanders are our contemporaries, with the abilities and technologies that they need to live successfully in their island fortress. The geophysical upheavals of the 2004 tsunami have indelibly altered the island’s landscape, with impacts on the foraging practices of Sentinel Islanders across forest and sea. Even so, their capacity to get on with their lives without interventions from the Andaman administration is noteworthy.

The Sentinel Islanders have borne witness to the ravages of a so-called civilizing mission in the Andaman Islands, whether in the form of colonial or missionary zeal. They have developed effective means to keep intruders at bay and are prepared to kill to protect themselves and their home. Maintaining a safe distance through “eyes on, hands off,” as carried out through satellite or drone technologies, is our best course of action to ensure that they can bear witness to another century or more. It will also ensure that the last stands of pristine rainforest in the Andaman Islands survive as well.

On Savior Anthropologists and Martyred Missionaries

What might a forgotten anthropologist and a young missionary have in common? These two figures are linked by recent events on Sentinel Island: one eager to set the record straight about her role in the historic “contact” mission to Sentinel Island and Jarawa; the other so blind to the perils of his evangelical endeavors that he persisted in the face of direct threats to his life. Perhaps the latter can be forgiven as a misguided young man in thrall to his religious upbringing and its espousal of martyrdom, but the indiscretions of the anthropologist and her lack of both foresight and hindsight is more difficult to condone. Madhumala Chattopadhyay’s self-presentation as the anthropologist savior, whose feminine persona calmed the frisson of danger during contact, was both misjudged and ill-timed, risking encouragement to another proselytizing mission in the future: but with a female protagonist next time.

More than two decades later, Chattopadhyay seems not to perceive the colonial overtones of the original mission, which was led jointly by the Andaman administration and the Anthropological Survey of India. As I have argued elsewhere (Venkateswar 2001), such one-sided efforts to initiate contact were never benign occasions. If our first responsibility as anthropologists is to do no harm, then our ethics of care must begin and end with those who are most vulnerable to its oversight.

References

Venkateswar, Sita. 2001. “Strategies of Power: An Analysis of an Encounter in the Andaman Islands.” Qualitative Inquiry 7, no. 4: 448–65.

_____. 2006. “Manifesto for a Public Anthropologist: Insights from Fieldwork.” India Review 5, nos. 3–4: 268–93.

_____. 2008. “The Fate of the Jarawa: Some Lessons across Space and Time.” In Contemporary Society, Volume 7: Identity, Intervention and Ideology in Tribal India and Beyond, edited by Deepak Kumar Behera and Georg Pfeffer, 131–46. New Delhi: Concept.