The last sentinel

Denis Giles | Updated on November 30, 2018

Forced to beg: A Jarawa member being given food from a passing bus on the Andaman Trunk Road pankaj sekhsaria   -  PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

A pre-neolithic tribe in the Andaman islands is fiercely holding on to its way of life

Enmei was a teenager when he became a local celebrity while being treated for a fractured foot at a Port Blair Hospital. I met the Ang (also known as Jarawa) boy almost seven years later. He was by then 21, and the father of a child.

What would he do if an outsider tried to misbehave with his wife Chaila, I asked him. Enmei looked at me with a blank face, and replied, “Nothing”. In broken Hindi and gestures, he then said, “Chaila Karega”. Chaila will do what she has to do, he said. The message was clear. Chaila was capable of defending herself; all members of his tribe were capable of defending themselves, when required.

I was reminded of Enmei when the news about the disappearance of an American man from the Sentinel Islands made headlines. The story of his tribe, perhaps, can teach us a few lessons about how not to treat the Sentinelese.

In 1996, Enmei got injured while trying to pluck fruits from a tree. The locals took the boy to the hospital. The media was quick to put him in the spotlight for the Jarawa were seldom seen outside their habitat.

Enmei’s stint in the hospital had marked a beginning of change in the equation between the Jarawa and the locals. The Andaman Trunk Road had triggered anger among the Jarawa, for it was cutting through their habitat. But the boy’s treatment led to a truce. Today the Great Andamanese have mixed with outsiders. Many have forgotten their language. Some can be seen begging for money, mostly to buy alcohol. This is not what one would want the Sentinelese to go through.

The author interviewing Enmei (left) in 2003   -  DENIS GILES


Growing up in Port Blair, I first learnt about the Sentinelese from the locals who would go near the North Sentinel Island to fish. They would call them the Pathan Jarawas — Jarawas because the Sentinelese resembled the Jarawa people and Pathan because they appeared stronger than the Jarawa. At least the locals thought so, possibly because they were fiercer than the Jarawa. Whenever locals ventured near their area, such as the Tarmugli Island, there was always retaliation by the tribe. No fishermen dared to get any closer. The locals would carry a metal shield to protect themselves from the arrows of the Sentinelese.

The Andaman islands are home to several pre-neolithic tribes such as the Great Andamanese (consisting of 10 tribal sects living on the island), the Angs, the Sentinelese and the Onge. The Great Andamanese tribes and the Ang occupied parts that connect to the mainland. This meant they could roam and interact with one another. The Great Andamanese were once known to have consisted of 8,000 people. They were the first to retaliate in the 1859 Battle of Aberdeen after which the British occupied the island. Over 90 per cent of the tribes were wiped out then and subsequently fell to modern diseases their bodies had never encountered. Today, only 54 people are left.

The Sentinelese, on the other hand, were geographically bound to the 60-sq km North Sentinel island, cut off entirely from the mainland. They had no interactions with The Great Andamanese, let alone islanders. Even today, they fish in rudimentary canoes that cannot sail far from the shore. Nobody knows how many of them exist; their numbers could be anywhere between 15 and 500.

What we know from several incidents is that they are fiercely defensive about their territory. In 2006, when rescue helicopters tried to retrieve the bodies of fishermen who had been swept up on their island in the floods, the Sentinelese shot a shower of arrows at the helicopters, signalling them to keep off.

Having learnt from the decimation of the Great Andamanese, activists and workers have warned successive government of the harms that the Angs, Onges and Sentinelese could face if safeguards were not put in place. The government framed regulations from time to time to ensure the rights of the aborigines were respected. Unfortunately, the policies aren’t strong enough. Hundreds of poachers and exploiters have been arrested for breaking the law, but not one has been convicted.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (Foreigners Division) of the Government of India issued a notification on June 29, 2018, stating that in the interest of promoting tourism and development of the A&N Islands, it had excluded 29 islands in the Union Territory from the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime. These 29 islands included North Sentinel. But the ministry also said that separate approvals would continue to be required and issued for visiting the reserved forests, wildlife sanctuaries and tribal reserves. This would give outsiders access, however limited, to the islands where indigenous people lived.

American citizen John Allen Chau, who tried to visit the Sentinelese, is believed to have been killed by the people of the island. More such incidents may follow if the government continues to remain insensitive towards the vulnerable tribal communities.

In 2003, when I met Enmei, Chaila had become a mother and was at the Kadamtala Primary Health Centre. I took a bus to Kadamtala. I asked Enmei if he would come out of the jungle to experience modern life. His reply was crisp and clear. “My jungle is good,” he said.

Denis Giles is the editor of Andaman Chronicle and lives in Port Blair

Published on November 30, 2018

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