One of the last things American evangelist John Allen Chau wrote in his journal before being killed at the North Sentinel Island by primitive tribes was, “God sheltered us from the eyes of the Navy and the Coast Guard.”
But anthropologists and other island experts are asking if the government kept its eyes shut or even facilitated John Allen Chau’s misadventure. A new government rule in June, which said foreigners no longer need a special permit to visit 29 out-of-bound islands in Andaman and Nicobar, has drawn their attention.
The June 29 Union Home Ministry notification, in a way, gave foreigners access to North Sentinel, one of the most protected islands in the world.
North Sentinel is number 17 on the list of the now-accessible islands, where a Restricted Area Permit or RAP is no longer mandatory for a visit.
It is one of the most protected islands in the world because of the Sentinelese, an ancient tribe that has resisted contact with the outside world. Their numbers are believed to be less than 150 and can be as low as 40.
Sources in Port Blair say tour operators and the chambers of commerce that had pushed for removing the RAP to promote tourism and business were taken aback to see North Sentinel on the list.
Sources claim the glaring lapse was pointed out to the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, who administers the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar.
The administration, according to sources, said they would write to home ministry to rectify the error. But it is not clear whether that was done.
Most unlikely, said Denis Giles, editor of Andaman Chronicle newspaper.
“John Chau came to Port Blair a total of five times, twice in 2016 and twice earlier this year. But it was only on his fifth visit that he ventured out to North Sentinelese. He may have seen the MHA notification lifting RAP and thought he was free to go to North Sentinel.”
Administrative officers, however, said restrictions are still in place. For example, it is mandatory for locals and foreigners to go to islands which have tribal population. A five-km buffer zone is in place around the North Sentinel Island, officials said.
The top police officer in Andaman and Nicobar said John Chau knew what he was doing was wrong.”He wrote in his journal that that god sheltered us from the eyes of the navy and the Coast Guard,” Director General of Police Dependra Pathak Pathak told NDTV over telephone. “He meticulously planned his trip to the island. They sailed at night. He rowed to the island in his kayak even before dawn. The fishing boat then moves away into fishing waters so they could avoid suspicion. A misplaced misdirected adventure is what I can call it,” Mr Pathak said.
But veteran anthropologists are not satisfied and worry that the government’s “unqualified” decision to boost tourism in the Andamans may come at a very heavy price.
“And what about Myanmarese and other poachers who roam the islands all the time? They could get on the North Sentinel and shoot the Sentinelese day any day. The death of the American has exposed there is no surveillance by the administration at these sensitive islands at all,” a veteran anthropologist requesting anonymity told NDTV.
“A Dornier is supposed to fly twice over North Sentinel, a Coast Guard ship has to periodically circle the island,” the anthropologist said. “Where were they on the 14th, 15th and 16th (of November) when John Allen Chau went to his death and endangered the primitive aboriginals of the island,” he questioned.
Some anthropologists have written to the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes protesting the withdrawal of the Restricted Area Permit. The commission has written to the home ministry to restore the restrictions as well as review other the status of other islands.
There is no official home ministry response but a senior officer, refusing to be named, had said the ministry hoped it would not have to review the RAP decision after the incident.