Coconuts, bits of iron, and plenty of caution is what anthropologist T N Pandit suggests as a means to recover the body of 27-year-old American tourist John Allen Chau who was allegedly killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe when he tried to approach them on the restricted island of North Sentinel in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. And Pandit should know.
Between 1966 and 1991, Pandit, 83, made several trips as part of the Anthropological Survey of India’s expeditions to remote islands in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and was the first anthropologist to land on the island and interact with members of the tribe. “If a small party goes in the afternoon or evening, when the tribesmen are known to not venture out on the shore, carries coconuts and iron as gifts, and stops the boat beyond the shooting range of arrows, it is possible that they will allow us to take the body. The help of local fisherman should also be sought,” he said.
Pandit, who was associated with the Ministry of Tribal Affairs until 2015, said that an estimated 80-90 Sentinelese people, who are the most reclusive tribe in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, still live there. “Many people have called these tribes hostile. That is the incorrect way to look at it. We are the aggressors here. We are the ones trying to enter their territory. What has happened is very unfortunate but I believe the tribesmen were trying to protect themselves. From what I have read, the tribesmen shot arrows at him the first time he reached out. He should have been cautious and patient,” said Pandit.
According to officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Chau did not inform the local police nor did he take any permission from the forest department or local administration before setting out to the North Sentinel Island. Between 1966 and 1991 – which was Pandit’s most successful outreach – parties of seven to eight people visited the North Sentinel Island regularly.
“On the first such expedition, we took a large team and managed to survey their settlements. We found 18 huts and bows and arrows, and spears. We left behind coconuts, which do not grow on the island, and little bits of iron for them to make arrow heads with,” recalled Pandit.
In 1991 came the breakthrough. The tribesmen started trusting Pandit and his colleagues enough to show themselves and accept coconuts from their hands. A photograph shows a young Pandit waist-deep in water, smiling as he hands over a coconut to a member of the tribe.
Does Pandit believe that the Sentinelese could have killed Chau? “I wouldn’t like to believe that, but yes, they could have. During one of our exchanges with the tribe, the party somehow left me behind, knee-deep in water. A young Sentinelese boy stood across from me. He gestured towards my spectacles and took them. When I tried to get them back, he drew a knife and threatened me. I quickly retreated,” Pandit said.
He said there is no point blaming members of the tribe. “It will not serve any purpose. There is also a big chance closer contact with them will not only introduce diseases they have never been exposed to but also harm their culture and way of life,” he said.