From the Viewsroom

Murder of a missionary

Venky Vembu | Updated on November 28, 2018

Ethical dilemmas in the killing of an ‘intruder’ by the Sentinelese

An anthropological tragedy of enormous proportions is unfolding in slow motion on the remote North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, where 27-year-old Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the reclusive local inhabitants last week. The ongoing debate about the merits of retrieving the body of Chau, who was buried by the Sentinelese people after being killed with arrows, overlooks other, more serious aspects of the irresponsible, intrusive adventurism that ended in his killing. As the world’s last remaining pre-Neolithic community, which has had very limited contact with the outside world, the Sentinelese are susceptible to human-borne microbes and pathogens — to which they have no immunity. Chau’s advent on the island imperilled the Sentinelese; and now, even in death, with his body decomposing on the island’s white-sand beach, Chau continues to put the endangered community at risk of wholesale extinction.

It may appear strange that in this day and age, there exist remote outposts where a killing may not invite lawful retribution — and, indeed, even be morally justifiable. But the episode gives reason to reflect on the ethical underpinnings of the actions of the principal protagonist. Chau was a wilful intruder, who violated the law of the land to make contact with the Sentinelese. He was motivated by a mission to proselytise the indigenous community, and had perhaps convinced himself that his actions were driven by a godly spirit. But the effect of his action — which reeks of an Occidental arrogance — is decidedly ungodly insofar as it has put an entire community at risk. It is a reminder that the uncaring actions of even pious humans can have monstrous consequences.

The tragedy also exposes the failings of India’s security mechanism in a region that is pivotal to the country’s maritime defence. That Home Ministry officials were oblivious to Chau’s repeated efforts to undertake evangelical activities on a tourist visa and that he managed to slip the naval cordon around the secluded island is disquieting at many levels.

Published on November 27, 2018

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