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The Sentinelese Tribe: Caught between isolation and the march of humanity that waits for none

It is extremely difficult if not impossible to ensure the assimilation of the Sentinelese who have been isolated from the rest of the world for such a long period of time. Apart from the obvious risk of extermination due to lack of immunity to common pathogens, there is also the very serious risk that they will be exploited.

Should we coerce other people into adopting our way of life because we firmly believe that they will be better off that way? This question is fundamental to the nature of the ethical dilemma that lies at the heart of modern man’s interaction with the pre-Neolithic tribes living in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

There are four tribes primarily living in the Andamans which have been completely detached from modernity for ages. The Great Andamanese, the Onge, The Jarawa and the Sentinelese. The Onge’s and the Great Andamanese interaction with modernity hasn’t yielded any conducive results for them. By all accounts, it has been detrimental to their existence. And there are great fears that continued interaction with them may wipe out their entire culture.

The following film by French filmmakers explores the existential crisis faced by the Jarawas due to their interaction with modernity. Apart from poaching, alcohol has made its way to their lives. The resources they survive on are being threatened by modernity. Definitively, their tryst with modernity hasn’t been beneficial for them.

The Sentinelese, on the other hand, are by far the most isolated tribe in the Andaman islands. They reside on the North Sentinel Island. Not too much is known about them but from what is known, they live an extremely primitive way of life. They are primarily hunter-gatherers, are excellent marksmen and do not wear any clothes. They protect their territory zealously, as they must, to thwart any attempts at interaction with them. It is believed that they have been isolated from the rest of the world for about 60,000 years.

The most definitive authority on the tribes in the Andaman is the former director of the Anthropology Survey of India, T.N. Pandit. He remains the only individual to have established at least some form of cordial relationship with the Sentinelese. There is a lot that we can learn about the aboriginal tribe from his accounts. They love coconuts and their society doesn’t appear to have any single chief. He has lost plenty of clothing, watches and spectacles during his interaction with them.

From his interviews over the years, it appears that his opinion on modernity’s interaction with them has changed drastically. “We can’t leave them forever,” said Mr Pandit during an interview to The Independent in January 1993. “But the government must ensure that, when they do come into contact with the outside world, the Sentinelese won’t be uprooted or hurt. The question is: how?”

In September 2018, during an interview to DownToEarth, Pandit states, “In my opinion, we should not be in a great hurry to make contact with the Sentinelese. There is no gold, silver, oil and gas beneath their land. Their island does not have any strategic use. Unlike the Jarawa, who have much more resources to be able to withstand the pressures of civilisation, the Sentinelese are a highly vulnerable population and would disappear in an epidemic. The government’s responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense, no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone.”

In an interview to Ellen Barry of the New York Times in 2017, Pandit rues mournfully about the destruction of a community. Speaking of the Jarawas, he says, “Now they have gotten infected. They have been exposed to a modern way of life they cannot sustain. They have learned to eat rice and sugar. We have turned a free people into beggars.” Pandit evidently mourns the decline of the Jarawas. “The negative impact of close contact is inescapable, but it is sad,” he said. “What an amazing community, but it has been diluted in its outlook, its self-confidence, its sense of purpose, its sense of survival. Now they take it easy. They beg for things.”

Pandit speaks of his interaction with the Jarawas in the interview, “I have seen a Jarawa girl. I can never forget her face, though it was many years back. She sat in the boat watching us as if she was Queen Victoria, with such dignity and such poise. You see, then I realized one doesn’t need clothes and ornaments and crown to make you dignified. What comes spontaneously, your inner self, you can project your personality that way.”

In his interview to DownToEarth, Pandit says about the Andaman tribes, “I can answer that by emphasising that the quality of life among the Sentinelese and others is not “primitive” and is very refined.

When a tribal Jarawa gives a gift to another, something like a bow and arrow or a shell-necklace or some food, the gift-giver presents the gift with great reverence. The other man does not take it straight away. He takes his own time. Are we like this? Social mores are such that an individual knows that when he commits a wrong, he has to punish himself. There is no tribal chief, council or panchayat to enforce anything. Such an individual isolates himself. The community indicates its disapproval by not looking at him, not talking to him.

If food is in short supply, they will share. Nobody starves. If there is plenty, they will feast. Those who bring a hunted turtle, wild boar or honey, do not advertise their claims over it. Selfishness is unknown. The clans follow monogamy. There are no free-for-all sexual orgies. Close relatives do not marry each other. The absence of attire does not mean anything to them. They believe that the body is nature’s gift and should be treated with respect. I am not romanticising them as ‘Noble Savages’. We should only see to it that their way of life endures.”

The Sentinelese have resolutely shrugged away from any interaction with modernity. It is said that when Indian authorities tried to drop food packets in the island after the terrible Tsunami, they were attacked in their helicopters by the tribesmen with their bows and arrows. The Government of India has made it illegal for anyone to get in close proximity of the island. And as the recent death of the Christian missionary shows, when a tribe has given so many hints that they want to be left alone to their devices, when the most definitive authority on them believes it’s better to leave them alone if we cannot ensure they won’t be exploited, then the only honourable option on the table is leaving them alone.

There are various advocacy groups who are working towards ensuring that the Sentinelese are left alone and saved from poachers. Miriam Ross from Survival International told Forbes, “At Survival we continue to emphasize that there should be no further attempts to contact the Sentinelese, urging the administration of the Andaman Islands to adhere to this by putting a stop to poaching around the island which led to the deaths of two fishermen in 2006. This is why it is vital that we allow the Sentinelese to live in peace on their island. Any human contact will ultimately lead to tragic consequences on both sides” says Miriam Ross.

It is extremely difficult if not impossible to ensure the assimilation of the Sentinelese who have been isolated from the rest of the world for such a long period of time. Apart from the obvious risk of extermination due to lack of immunity to common pathogens, there is also the very serious risk that they will be exploited by people for various purposes and are likely to suffer inhumane treatment.

More importantly, we are not entirely sure about the language they speak and the structure of their society. Under such circumstance, with our absolute lack of knowledge, it will be cruelty to even make an effort to assimilate them. As humans have in the past, we may very well end up destroying their way of life irreparably without benefiting them in any manner.

An effort towards assimilation at this point will be an exercise borne of hubris. We may be a lot more technologically advanced than they are but we are not Gods and we have no right to risk the destruction of a people without any knowledge about them and merely because of self-righteous grandiosity. Sometimes, the best we can do for people is stay away from them. This is one such instance.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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