A US consulate team is in talks with Andaman authorities to retrieve the body of John Allen Chau. Police say he illegally tried to enter a protected island.
New Delhi: An obscure forbidden island, a ‘Christian missionary’ spreading the love of Jesus and death by an arrow — the alleged murder of an American national in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands by an isolated tribe has all the makings of a dramatic 18th century adventure gone wrong.
A team from the US consulate in Chennai has landed in Port Blair and is talking to authorities there on how to retrieve the body of John Allen Chau — who was allegedly killed by an isolated tribe in the Andamans — a task that has never been achieved before.
“It’s practically impossible to recover the body. There’s no way we can get it back. The Sentinelese are hostile to outsiders,” said a senior police officer in Port Blair.
“As it is, he (Chau) broke the law and illegally tried to enter the island. He bribed the fisherman with Rs 25,000,” he claimed.
“The only way we can get the body back is by using force, and that won’t be right,” the officer said.
According to the Andaman and Nicobar police, Chau was allegedly shot with arrows by the Sentinelese, a protected tribe, on 16 November.
Government officials in Port Blair are also concerned that the American man had managed to reach very close to the North Sentinel Island, a part of a sensitive and protected zone that requires several levels of permission for access.
They police are in the process of registering two FIRs, against the seven accomplices of Chau they have arrested so far.
“Since John lost his life, the ones who ferried him to the island will be charged with murder. The other will be booked under IPC 304 (culpable homicide not amounting to murder),” he said.
The lonely island
The island, barely 50 km away from the coast of Port Blair, has been a “no-contact zone” since 1996. The government even set up a 5-km radius around it to protect the tribe from “contact” with the rest of the world. Illegal fishermen have continued to explore the area, but from a safe distance.
However, according to reports, Sentinel was one of the 29 islands of the archipelago that the Home Ministry had allowed access to in August this year.
The police, on the other hand, maintain that Island is protected and MHA “restricts movement of foreigners in these areas”.
“The government decided to set up a circumnavigation team for joint-patrol in the area under the tribal welfare ministry and the forest department in December 2014,” said local researcher Zubair Ahmed.
“But the circumnavigation has not been happening for the past couple of years. Only the Coast Guard remains, and they can’t seem to detect small boats,” he added.
The police officer claimed that 24×7 patrolling is impossible and strict action will be taken against Chau’s accomplices to prevent any such incident in future.
Reason for Chau’s visit
“God, I don’t want to die,” Chau wrote in his diary on 16 November, parts of which has been accessed by ThePrint.
“Don’t blame them or God if I am killed,” he wrote.
Despite being threatened by an arrow (which reportedly pierced his Bible), Chau persisted in his attempt to enter an island which is markedly out of bounds for visitors. It is believed he approached the shore on his kayak.
The next morning, the fishermen — now arrested for taking him close to the “mouth of death” — saw the tribe, the Sentinelese, burying someone on the shore. They concluded that it had to be Chau.
“If you read his journal, it is like he is hallucinating. He writes things like, ‘I’ve been chosen by God,’” the police officer said.
A host of people have taken to social media to determine the reason behind 27-year-old Chau’s visit to the island. While the majority is inclined to believe he was proselytiser, trying to convert the tribe to Christianity, the police maintain he was a “misdirected adventurer”.
A passage from Chau’s journals further supports the claim of his being a Christian missionary. “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people,” he reportedly wrote in a note to his family.
At the same time, sources say that even if he was a proselytiser, the government needs to answer for its mishandling of the situation in a protected area.
“Those islands are in a sensitive location, and a heaven for intelligence agencies to run covert activity undetected,” said a security source who did not wish to be named.
“Indian authorities can’t shirk their responsibilities for who allowed him in that area?” he added.
An ‘isolated’ tribe
Chau has inevitably painted a ‘savage’ picture of a tribe that has managed to survive without contact with the outside world for nearly 60,000 years. The Sentinelese are known to be the last pre-Neolithic tribe in this world.
Infamous for wielding bows, they first made headlines in 1974 when he they launched a volley of arrows at a National Geographic team that was hoping to film a documentary in the area. They escaped the first attack, but soldiered on. The policemen accompanying them deposited gifts on the island, hoping for a more friendly welcome next time. The documentary director took an arrow in his thigh, a reminder that Sentinelese weren’t willing to welcome outsiders.
A series of “contact expeditions” under anthropologist T.N. Pandit starting in 1970 got close enough to provide some rare images of this elusive tribe. Arguably, his team is perhaps the only one to have made positive contact with the tribe throughout history. He even persuaded the Jarawas, a tribe of skilled archers that inhabit the islands, to lay down their bows. It was move, he would later lament, that did them more harm than good.
The Indian government drew a crucial lesson from Pandit’s expeditions — it was in the best interest of the Sentinelese that they be left alone. In 1996, it was declared Sentinel Island a protected zone under the Protection of Aboriginal Tribe (Regulation), 1956 and Regulations under Indian Forest Act, 1927.
In 2004, after a tsunami ripped through the Indian Ocean, the Sentinelese managed to survive the onslaught. As a rescue helicopter approached them with supplies, it was greeted with the expected warning arrow.
But tragedy struck again in 2006. Two fishermen managed to stray too close to the island. A little too much alcohol later, they fell asleep and their boat swept close to the island. They were allegedly killed, with arrows. Their bodies were never recovered.