The Sentinelese Tribe.

There are four ancient Negrito tribal communities in the Andaman Islands (the Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese) and two Mongoloid tribal communities in the Nicobar Islands (the Shompen and Nicobarese). 

Why are Sentinelese in news?

In November 2018, an American national John Allen Chau illegally entered the forbidden North Sentinel island and got allegedly killed by the Sentinelese tribe.

Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese, a negrito tribe who live on the North Sentinel Island of the Andamans, have not faced incursions and remain hostile to outsiders. The inhabitants are connected to the Jarawa on the basis of physical, as well as linguistic similarities, researchers say. Based on carbon dating of kitchen middens by the Anthropological Survey of India, Sentinelese presence was confirmed in the islands to 2,000 years ago. Genome studies indicate that the Andaman tribes could have been on the islands even 30,000 years ago.

The Sentinelese tribe iss the most isolated among the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG) in Andaman and Nicobar islands like Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa, Sentinelese, Nicobarese and Shompens.

The 2011 census of India says that there are only 15 Sentinelese left – 12 males and 3 females.

How are Sentinelese protected?

The Govt. of India issued the Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 (ANPATR) to declare the traditional areas occupied by the tribes as reserves, and prohibited entry of all persons except those with authorisation. Photographing or filming the tribe members is also an offence. The Regulation protected the tribals from outside interference, specified the limits of reserved areas and said no land in a reserved area shall be allotted for agricultural purposes or sold or mortagaged to outsiders. In 2005 the ANPATR was amended and the term of imprisonment as well as the fine were increased. The government amended the ANPATR again in 2012, creating a buffer zone contiguous to the Jarawa tribal reserve where commercial establishments were prohibited, and regulating tourist operators.

Why the need to keep the sentinelese isolated.

The reason why no one — whether missionary, scholar, adventurer, U.S. citizen or Indian — is allowed to venture near North Sentinel Island without permission, which is given only in the rarest of circumstances and with meticulous precautions in place to ensure that the Sentinelese are not disturbed. Having lived in isolation in the Bay of Bengal for thousands of years, the Sentinelese have no immunity or resistance to even the commonest of infections.

It is not uncommon for 90% of a tribe to perish following first contact. To give one example of the risks, such contact can expose people to deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, like Peru’s Nahua people, half of whom died in the year after they were contacted.

Are the sentinelese completely ‘isolated’.

We are not entirely sure if it can be established that the Sentinelese, or the “Sentinel Jarawas” as they were classified in colonial records, were or are completely isolated. Both colonial records and Census reports up to 1931 reveal that officials did set foot on the islands and were able to walk through it to collect information. The Government of India’s own official “contact” photographs from the 1970s onwards reveal interesting signs that question the “complete isolation” thesis.

Sentinelese and contact with the outside world.

Out of the Anthropological Survey of India’s recorded 26 visits to the islands, it is stated that seven were met with overt hostility. In other words, the argument that the hostility of the Sentinelese is chronic or pathological needs to be seen in perspective. Evidently the Sentinel Islanders decide what kind of visitations pose a threat to their survival or dignity and what are “safe” or “useful”. Their hostility towards the outsider is then to be regarded as “strategic” and deliberate and therefore key to their survival.

International Conventions

The Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957, of theInternational Labour Organisation (ILO) insisted on an integrationist approach towards tribal communities, the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention 1989 convention insisted on a policy of non-intervention, “recognising the aspirations of these peoples to exercise control over their own institutions, ways of life and economic development.” India ratified the 1957 convention but has not ratified the 1989 convention. 

Way ahead:

  • A civil authority on the island must be set up to deal with the problems of poachers, encroachers and unsustainable tourism.
  • Settlers and Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups must be treated as equal stakeholders in a common sustainable future.
  • India must sign the 1989 convention of the ILO, and implement its various policies to protect the rights of the indigenous population.
  • Settlers and tourist must be sensitised about the presence and behaviour of the vulnerable tribal groups.

Sources: The Hindu, The Hindu, The Hindu, The Hindu, The Hindu, Time

Interesting read: Down to Earth