There were eight men and a pig on the small motor boat that sped towards the North Sentinel Island. That was in 1967, and only a few days ago, the team, comprising an anthropologist and officials of the forest department and local administration, had conducted a successful “gift drop” with the reclusive residents of the island, which is around 50 km to the west of Port Blair. The team had dropped off coconuts and bits of iron in their previous visits, both of which were accepted happily.
“We tied the Yorkshire pig to the boat as we set sail, the poor thing!” says T N Pandit, the anthropologist who is among the few men to have made contact with the Sentinelese tribe.
With attempts being made to retrieve the body of 27-year-old American tourist John Allen Chau, who was allegedly killed by the fiercely reclusive Sentinelese tribals, Pandit’s words — as the first anthropologist to land on the island and interact with members of the tribe — carry tremendous weight. Pandit was lead anthropologist with the Anthropological Survey of India when he carried out several trips to the Sentinel Island between 1966 and 1991.
The son of a professor in Kashmir, Pandit lived in Port Blair for 25 years, retiring as director of the Anthropological Survey in 1992.
Now 83, Pandit says their team worked hard to win the trust of the Sentinelese islanders. “We were trying to communicate to the members of the tribe that we were there just to extend a hand of friendship and wanted nothing from them. The pig was a gift. In the early days itself, we chalked out a method to drop gifts. We would stop our boats at a safe distance from the islands so that even if the Sentinelese were to shoot arrows at us, we wouldn’t be hit. We would wade through the water with the offerings, drop them on the shore and rush back to observe what happens,” Pandit says.
That day, as soon as the team left the pig on the island and reached their boats, the Sentinelese came out of the jungle to inspect the offering. Three-four of them looked at the pig intently and finally one speared it.
“We thought our gift had been accepted. The next day, we saw a small mound on the beach. Curious, we decided to take a risk and inspect the mound since there was no one on the shore. We found that they had killed the pig and buried it. Our gift had been rejected. We never took back another, sticking to coconuts,” Pandit recalls.
According to recorded evidence, collected from the coal, utensils and kitchens in their settlements, tribes in Andamans have been around for at least 2,000 years. The study of the human genome says that these tribes branched off from the tree of evolution 30,000 years ago.
Of the tribes in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, some have been called hostile at different points. “Until teams of anthropologists and forest officials developed friendship with the Jarawas, they were called dangerous and hostile. When we forged friendship with them in the 1970s and 80s, they would welcome us with song and dance. This is also the case with the Sentinelese. If we tried to venture into their territory without respecting their wishes or got too close for comfort, they would turn their backs on us and sit down on their haunches, as it to defecate. That was meant to be an insult. If we didn’t pay heed and stop, they would shoot arrows as a last resort. Once, a team member of mine was hit with an arrow on the thigh because our boat got too close to their island,” recalls Pandit.
During their first trip to the island, however, Pandit and his team were not aware of what they might encounter. A 20-member team, including armed local security officials, landed on the island and managed to make it to their settlement.
“The Sentinelese hid in the forest. I believe they are aware of the power of a firearm and did not want a confrontation. We had not gone with the intention of occupying; only studying. Before leaving, we kept a coconut in each hut as a goodwill gesture,” he says.
That visit in 1967 remains the only documented look into the Sentinelese settlements. The team found 18 slanted-roof huts, all facing each other, and small fires outside each hut. The fire was protected by a ring of twigs around it. Bows and arrows and spears lay about.
“After that trip, we went back in smaller teams of seven or eight. The Sentinelese made it clear that we were not welcome and we kept our distance,” he says.
During another trip, Pandit and his team sought the help of Onge tribesmen, hoping they would help communicate with the Sentinelese.
“We took two Onge men, who were like our friends, to the island. They attempted to converse with them. But then the Sentinelese said something to the Onge men that got them to hide inside the boat and ask us to leave immediately. To this day, I don’t know what they said. The Onge men only told us that the men were very dangerous,” he said.
It took Pandit and his team 25 years to establish a rapport with the tribe by attempting to gift coconuts, plastic buckets, and even a piece of red cloth that they had heard might be a friendly gesture. The cloth was discarded, but the coconut — which doesn’t grow on the island naturally — was an instant hit.
In 1975, Belgian King Leopold III had also made an attempt to visit the island. “As soon as his boat got too close, they shot an arrow in his direction. The king was overjoyed and said it was the best day of his life!” Pandit chuckles.
Since then, many have attempted to build contact with members of the tribe. The last documented successful visit, however, remains 1991. It was also Pandit’s last and the one which, he believes, brought the most success. The photographs from that day instantly bring a smile to his face.
In the photographs, Pandit and another colleague of his are in waist-deep water as they hand over coconuts to a few Sentinelese men. There is no spear or bow-arrow in sight. “We got them to trust us enough to leave their weapons behind. It was a big breakthrough for a tribe so reclusive,” he says.
While there is no definitive way to say how many Sentinelese still live on the island, Pandit’s guess is between 80 and 90.
Should the government have continued to make efforts to reach out to the Sentinelese? “I think that if interaction would have continued, the young man would not have been killed. But we also have to understand that friendship has its stages and nuances. We spent years just dropping gifts and presenting ourselves to each other. That led to the brief interaction where they were ready to touch us. The man (Chau) should have backed off when they asked him to. They made it very clear he wasn’t wanted there,” says Pandit.
In a 13-page journal that Chau, the American tourist, handed over to the fishermen who accompanied him to the island, he details his last few hours with the Sentinelese, saying that when he tried to speak their language and sing Christian “worship songs” to them, they reacted angrily.
“In any case, tribes in Andamans have recently shunned efforts to be converted. In Nicobar islands, however, both Christianity and Islam have made an entry,” he adds.
Closer contact can also bring more harm to the Sentilese community, he points out. “It’s not just the spread of disease, I think it is also about their way of life, community and culture. Some have been saying that the men who killed Chau should be caught and punished. There is no sense to that argument. These are not their laws. They were protecting what is theirs, just like we do. We forget, the ‘civilized’ man is the aggressor here,” he says.
Would he like to go back?
“On a sunny day, I would like to pay an old-fashioned visit. Leave my boat at a safe distance, rush to the shore, drop a clutch of coconuts, rush back to my boat and see what happens next,” says Pandit.