India: The Sentinelese must be left alone

On 16 November 2018, 26-year old John Allen Chau was killed when he attempted to visit an indigenous community living in voluntary isolation. Apparently, he wanted to convert them to Christianity.

Chau visited North Sentinel Island, home to the Sentinelese tribe. They killed him with a hail of arrows.

Seven local fishermen have been arrested for illegally taking him to North Sentinel. Chau paid them to take him to the island.

Authorities are now trying to rescue Chau’s body.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, said in a statement,

“This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. The Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe, and outsiders.

“Instead, a few months ago the authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event.

“It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe.

Indian government lifted restrictions

North Sentinel Island is part of the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain in the Bay of Bengal. The Sentinelese have lived on the island for about 60,000 years.

They are protected under India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands (protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation Act, 1956. In September 1991, the Indian government established a five kilometre exclusion zone around North Sentinel Island, under the 1956 Act.

In August 2018, in an attempt to boost tourism, the Indian government removed Restricted Area Permit requirements from 29 islands in the Andaman. According to an article published by Down to Earth, North Sentinel was one of the islands opened up to tourism.

Over the past three years, Chau made several trips to the Sentinelese.

On his most recent trip, Chau brought gifts, including scissors, safety pins, fish, and a football.

Chao’s journal

He kept a journal, in which he wrote that he was “doing this to establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island … Do not blame the natives if I am killed”.

Chau’s mother shared the journal with the Washington Post. In a last note to his family he wrote, “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” He added, “God, I don’t want to die.”

Chau’s mother told the Washington Post that she believes he is still alive. When the Post asked why, she replied, “My prayers.”

The fishermen told Indian authorities that they saw Chau’s body being dragged and buried on a beach on the island.

The Sentinel should be left alone

Indian authorities are now considering whether to recover Chau’s body. On 24 November 2018, police sailed to the island. They stopped their boat about 400 metres from the island, and watched through binoculars. They left when the saw the Sentinelese lining up on the beach with bows and arrows.

Dependra Pathak, police chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, told ABC News that,

“We have mapped the area with the help of these fishermen. We have not spotted the body yet but we roughly know the area where he is believed to be buried.”

Survival International’s Corry issued the following statement today:

“We urge the Indian authorities to abandon efforts to recover John Allen Chau’s body. Any such attempt is incredibly dangerous, both for the Indian officials, but also for the Sentinelese, who face being wiped out if any outside diseases are introduced.

“The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every such contact. Such efforts in similar cases in the past have ended with the Sentinelese attempting to defend their island by force.

“Mr Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese. The weakening of the restrictions on visiting the islands must be revoked, and the exclusion zone around the island properly enforced.”


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  1. An excellent article by Madhusree Mukarjee on the Sentinelese:

    The American Killed by Asian Islanders Hoped to Save Their Souls. But the self-styled missionary failed to comprehend that isolation ensures the Sentinel Islander’s survival
    By Madhusree Mukarjee, Scientific American, 26 November 2018
    On November 17, 2018, when 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau landed on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in the hope of rescuing the natives from “the clutches of Satan,” they predictably slew him. The last tribe living in voluntary isolation in Asia, the Sentinelese kill almost everyone who lands on their shores. The strategy ensures distance from outsiders, protecting them from the diseases and social decay that have felled other tribes of the Andaman archipelago. Now, the attempts to retrieve Chau’s body — in violation of his express wishes — threatens to unleash a cascade of events that would endanger the survival of this island’s exceedingly vulnerable people.

  2. ‘Pls call off efforts to retrieve body of John Allen Chau from North Sentinel Island: Joint Statement’

    26 November 2018
    1900 hrs

    To All concerned…

    Subject: Joint Statement

    We, the undersigned note with concern and distress the continued efforts of the A&N administration to retrieve the body of John Allen Chau from the island of North Sentinel.

    The media has reported nervous stand-offs between the teams seeking to land on North Sentinel to get the body and members of the Sentinelese community who clearly find these incursions unwelcome. Continuing with the efforts could well lead to further violence and completely unwarranted loss of life.

    The rights and the desires of the Sentinelese need to be respected and nothing is to be achieved by escalating the conflict and tension, and worse, to creating a situation where more harm is caused.

    We are not aware of the pressures under which the Government of India and the A&N admninistration is pursuing the efforts for the retrieval of the body, but would urge the authorities concerned to immediately call off these efforts.

    – Pankaj Sekhsaria
    Member, Kalpavriksh and author, ‘Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story (Email:
    – Vishvajit Pandya
    Anthropologist and Author
    – Manish Chandi
    Senior Researcher, Andaman and Nicobar Environment Team
    – Zubair Ahmed
    Editor, Light of Andamans, Port Blair
    – Denis Giles
    Editor, Andaman Chronicle, Port Blair
    – Madhusree Mukerjee
    Researcher, Activist and Author
    – Sita Venkateshwar
    Anthropologist and Author

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