Around November 21, 2018, news came that a 27-year-old self-styled adventurer and Christian evangelist from Washington state had been killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe on North Sentinel island, a piece of land about 20 square kilometres in area in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal.
John Allen Chau had hired seven local fishermen to help him get close to the island. He then ventured on land, arriving in a kayak all by himself. He is said to have written in his journal that the island was “Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear [the Lord’s] name.”
News of Chau’s death predictably garnered considerable international attention. For many commentators and observers, Chau was reminiscent of the colonial-era Christian missionary who set out to bring the light of Christ to the darkest corners of the world.
The shadow of the past
On this view, missionaries were, after all, handmaidens of the colonial ideology of expansion and accumulation. At the same time, we know that missionaries have built schools and hospitals in areas untouched by the State, for people considered outside the pale of modern civilisation. Moreover, Christianity is not the only destination of converts fleeing social oppression and marginalisation. As recently as in April of this year, more than 300 Dalits converted to Buddhism in a mass ceremony in Una, Gujarat, where they had faced a brutal assault by cow vigilantes in 2016.
But the killing of Chau by the Sentinelese is cognisable within a longer history of contact, such that his death can be read as an act of self-preservation and survival.
In an era of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia, the Sentinelese’ rejection of the outsider/intruder is the very opposite of the turning away of the refugee who is left to drown on the high seas. The turbulent waters here are not the making of the Sentinelese. Marooned on this island, they themselves are the refugees of a civilisation that has been imploding around them.
The record of the colonial period casts a long shadow on the contemporary predicament of the Sentinelese. The colonial state’s expedition in the late nineteenth century led by Maurice V. Portman had aimed to civilise them. It resulted in the kidnapping of six Sentinelese, two of whom perished immediately due to measles and syphilis.
The postcolonial Indian state’s response has been one of attempted political and economic integration, but with a view towards at least tokenistically, and often opportunistically, preserving cultural diversity in the nation.
From the 1960s onwards, the state undertook a series of expeditions to test the waters of contact. In 1967, anthropologist T.N. Pandit had ventured on to the island with scientists and unarmed navy personnel but no direct contact was established. In 1970, a research team set up a stone tablet formally claiming North Sentinel island to be part of the territory of India.
A breakthrough seemed to have occurred in 1991 when anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay led a group of researchers and succeeded in establishing “hand-to-hand” contact with the Sentinelese. Indeed, as media reports put it, Chattopadhyay managed to “soften” the purportedly hostile tribe whose members came to her boat and accepted gifts of coconut.
Accounts of her contact have focused on the gendered aspect of the encounter, of an intuitive connection established between her and the women of the tribe, one of whom, according to Chattopadhyay, succeeded in preventing an arrow being shot at her. Commentators have speculated that the presence of a woman indicated a certain form of solidarity that the Sentinelese would have recognised, a recognition that at once establishes norms of gendered behaviour that are more shared than different.
By 1994, the Indian government ceased its aim to contact the Sentinelese. Worldwide attempts to contact “uncontacted tribes” had resulted in catastrophic consequences, and opinion among experts was now firmly in favour of preservation through isolation. Although Survival International, an advocacy and campaigning group for isolated tribes, had been established in London as far back as 1969, by the 1990s its message of no contact had become more mainstream and brought under the ambit of human rights.
In recent decades, areas where India’s tribals live have become sites of intensified resource extraction and capital accumulation. As mining corporations and real-estate companies are given away pieces of tribal land and forest, the state’s commitment to tribal rights seems highly selective. In fact, tribal people themselves are converted into objects for the tourism trade, as exemplified in the human safaris that the Jarawas, neighbours of the Sentinelese, have been subjected to.
To counter accusations of exploitation, the ministry of tourism and culture has devised an eco-sensitive model that incorporates Hinduised cultural concepts of “bharat darshan” and “atithi devo bhavah”, such that the North Sentinel island can be incorporated as an integral part of “bharat”.
What makes this case so intriguing and compelling is that at the core of it is a profound paradox concerning our own modernity and its others. After all, Chau’s intentions (as also those of the state and of global capitalism) are seen as readily available as a transparent will to power, but in the absence of any shared language and contact we find ourselves flummoxed by the question of what the Sentinelese think and want.
So is this case merely confirmation of a radical incommensurability between “us” and “them”, between those who consider ourselves to be modern and those we consider to be tribal and outside of history itself?The long history of primitivism in which indigenous peoples were rendered either as savage and barbaric and thus in need of civilising, or, as in the tradition of Rousseau-esque romanticism as offering an antidote to the spiritual wastelands of modern civilisation, shows us how the figure of the tribal has been key to our understanding of our own temporality (understood as progress and development) as modern citizens.
Certainly, advocates of the Sentinelese such as Sophie Grig of Survival International, seem to have little doubt about what the Sentinelese think and want. In a statement issued soon after this incident), she described the killing of Chau as expressive of “their right to remain uncontacted”. For Grig, it is this act itself that points to how “they have made it very clear that’s what they want”.
Similarly, an open letter to the media written by a number of leading Indian activists and anthropologists declares that “the rights and desires of the Sentinelese have to be respected”.
At one level, such appeals to the rights of the Sentinelese are constituted by a real paradox, using as they do the framework of the modernist ideas of “rights” to advocate a non-modern present for the tribal. Even so, the needs and even the desires of the Sentinelese seem straightforward enough since clearly most attempts to establish contact with them have been rebuffed with varying amounts of intensity.
But the strange case of John Chau gives rise to a further set of ethico-political questions. Do we even have the right to demand access to their thinking when our histories have been so violently at odds? One answer may lie in the importance of occupying a standpoint of universal citizenship that bestows upon us, all of us, a shared humanistic framework that cuts across differences of language, religion, gender and race.
However, this leads to a further set of questions: If we share a universal framework that bestows historicity upon all cultures and peoples, then what is the place of different histories within it? And in the purported absence of written records, indeed even of transmitted oral accounts that we can have access to, how do we know that the Sentinelese know their history, which is history as we apprehend it?
In an attempt to make sense of these vastly difficult questions, what we can do is take recourse to facts and figures. Even as we may not be able to understand their social structures, their cultural forms and their understanding and knowledge of colonialism or capitalism, we know that the hunter-gatherer North Sentinelese population has now dwindled to less than hundred Thus, the traumatic history of contact is written on the bodies of the dwindling tribe members themselves.
In the end, what we are left with is the very language of modernity that frames how we view the Sentinelese – through the lenses of history, rights, freedom. After all, even tribe and culture are terms inseparable from state-driven languages.
But instead of rejecting modernity for them, we can assert a common humanity such that the Sentinelese can be seen as the residents of a deeply damaged and devastated world. And it is in exercising their “right” to remain free from contact that they have asserted the right to survive in this world. What greater testament to universal humanism can there be?
Ultimately, the Sentinelese, like other abject citizens of the world, use the very tools of exploitative modernity to resist it. Through arrow points made of steel salvaged from shipwrecks they resist the onslaught of capitalist modernity and establish a common humanity that no amount of isolation can obliterate.
Rashmi Varma teaches in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She is a member of Awaaz-South Asia Watch and part of the editorial collective of the journal Feminist Dissent.