Centre Ignored ST Panel Advice on Protecting Vulnerable Andaman Tribes

Tribal rights activists question why 29 islands, many with endangered tribes, were thrown open to tourism earlier this year.

New Delhi: In June this year, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes recommended that the government be “ultra-sensitive” to the Particularly Vulnerable Tribes Groups (PVTGs) of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Yet in August, the Ministry of Home Affairs opened the North Sentinelese Island, where the reclusive Sentinelese tribe lives, and 28 others, to tourism.

These islands had been excluded from the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime till December 31, 2022. After the August announcement, NCST chairperson Nand Kumar Sai shot off a letter to Union home minister Rajnath Singh, demanding that the interests of the tribals be safeguarded under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulations.

Also read: ‘Adventurist’ American Killed by Protected Andaman Tribe on Island Off-Limits to Visitors

The decision to lift RAP was meanwhile conveyed by the MHA to the chief secretary of the Andaman and Nicobar administration. Apart from promoting tourism, he was also told that lifting RAP would ensure the islands’ “overall development”.

MHA claim contradicts Centre 

Some MHA officials have defended the decision to lift the RAP, saying the intention was not to promote  tourism on all the islands on the archipelago. They said it was also aimed at doing away with some of the permissions that were required of anthropologists and researchers, because of the special laws protecting tribal communities and forests there.

Also, lifting the RAP, they said, did not mean direct access to all the islands for foreigners. They would still need mandatory approvals.

Still, the decision has proved deadly. John Chau, who wanted to meet the inhabitants of the North Sentinelese Island, was shot and killed by arrows as soon he reached the island by kayak. The tribe has always violently resisted the arrival of any outsiders.

An image from John Allen Chau’s Instagram feed. Credit: Instagram

‘Tragedy should have not happened’

Survival International, which works for the rights of tribal people, said “this tragedy should never have been allowed to happen”. According to its director Stephen Corry, “the Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe and outsiders.

He lamented that “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.”

FIR raises many questions

Following the killing of Chau, the police have nabbed seven fishermen for ferrying him close to the North Sentinel Island. An activist for the rights of tribal groups, Denis Giles, said “the fishermen in the dinghies tried to warn him it’s a risky thing”. But Chau continued with his journey and paid a heavy price.

But if the island had been opened to tourists by withdrawing RAP, it is difficult to fathom what crime the fishermen committed. As Giles was quoted as saying: “One among the islands which was opened up was North Sentinel island.”

The police have also registered the murder case against “unknown tribesmen” – and this makes a mockery of the law since they were the ones “intruded upon”.

Fishermen booked for endangering life of Chau

The Andaman police, which registered the FIR at Humfrigunj police station, stated that the fishermen have been booked for endangering the life of the American tourist.

Also read: The Trials and Tribulations of the Andaman Fisheries

“Despite knowing fully well about the illegality of the action and the hostile attitude of the Sentinelese tribesmen to the outsiders, these people collaborated with John Chau for this visit to North Sentinel Island without any permission from the authorities,” the police said.

The accused have been booked in sections under the Indian Penal Code that pertain to conveying persons by water in unsafe or overloaded vessels, endangering life or personal safety of others, and culpable homicide not amounting to murder. They have also been charged under relevant sections of the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulations.