TN Pandit was the first anthropologist to enter the isolated Andaman island of North Sentinel, back in 1967. He says he was surprised when he heard that an American evangelist, John Allen Chau, had been killed by the Sentinelese. Speaking to ET at his residence in New Delhi, 83-year-old Pandit narrated his experiences of interacting with the Sentinelese, among the few remaining isolated tribes in the world. The tribe is not hostile, nor do they raid their neighbours, Pandit says. “They only say, leave us alone,” said Pandit, also the author of the book, The Sentinelese. Edited excerpts:
How do you read the recent incident of an American national, John Allen Chau, being killed by the Sentinelese people?
I feel sad over the tragedy that happened in North Sentinel island
. But I am surprised the Sentinelese killed the American. They are not hostile people. They warn; they don’t kill people, including outsiders. They don’t raid their neighbours. They only say, ‘leave us alone.’ They make it amply clear that outsiders are not welcome in their habitat. One needs to understand that language. So, anyone who intrudes into their land must not go beyond what they agree with. They give enough warnings; the outsiders must respect that and return. But this gentleman took too much of a risk and possibly ignored their warnings and ventured into the island. He should have returned after they signalled him.
Let us now go back to the 1960s when you ventured into the North Sentinel island. You actually moved around in the island, right?
It was January 1967. I was then 31. I was in-charge of the regional centre of the Anthropological Survey of India in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was a joint venture of the Anthropological Survey of India and the Andaman administration. The idea was to explore the North Sentinel island and make friends with the tribe there. About 20 of us, including local administrators, policemen and Naval personnel, took a small ship. The Navy provided us landing gear. North Sentinel is a small island of about 20 square miles. In my estimate, there are 80-100 Sentinelese now.
Were you attacked by the Sentinelese? Were you scared?
When we reached there, we had no idea that the locals could be hostile and attack us. We learnt about that aspect of the Sentinelese only in our subsequent visits.
On our first visit, the Sentinelese must have seen us, but they did not come out at all. Instead, they hid in forests, possibly observing us. There’s a small beach in the island, and the rest all are forest areas. So, when we walked into the island, they were definitely watching us, but we did not see them. We first spotted a footmark and followed it to enter deep into the jungles. After walking in the forests for a kilometre or so, I saw an open area with 18 huts. Those were occupied, not abandoned, ones. I noticed fire and cooked food items. We saw roasted fish, wild fruits. There were bows, arrows and spears all around. There were halfmade baskets, too. They don’t wear any clothes. They don’t collect any stuff and keep it in their homes. But their houses are nicely built. Those were open lean-to huts made of tree branches and leaves with no doors or windows. They hid the moment they saw us. One of us caught a glimpse of one Sentinelese man, but we came back without meeting them or without having any incident.
Did you bring back any stuff from the island for research purposes?
We spent about an hour there. Personally, I was not keen on getting their stuff, but the policemen who went with us picked up bows, arrows, spears, etc. We kept some gifts there: coconuts, plastic utensils, aluminium, etc. For me, seeing the settlement of 18 huts and the goods that they had kept there was itself a big discovery. We estimated that about 40-50 people must have been living in that colony. We came back. No one attacked us.
What happened during your subsequent visits? How did you know that the Sentinelese don’t welcome outsiders?
In the 1970s and 80s, we had a series of visits to North Sentinel island. They resisted every time. As our boat reached the island, they would come and confront us. They would make various gestures including showing their back. Perhaps it was to insult us.
Except our first visit, we never walked around on the island. We understood their warnings. Hence, we maintained a safe distance. Over time, we developed a strategy that they did not object to. From a distance, we used to give them gifts like coconut, iron rods, utensils, etc, which they liked a lot. Both men and women used to come out and collect those gifts. So they allowed us to drop gifts but made objections the moment we tried to enter their island. During our later visits, we also saw teenagers. My experience is that the women don’t use any bows and arrows; only menfolk use those. In 1991, I visited the island twice. It was the first time the Sentinelese took coconuts from our hands. They made that concession. But they did not allow us to go inside the island. They constantly talked with us, but we could not understand their language. On one occasion, we took two Onge persons (one of the four major tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands). But seeing the Onge, the Sentinelese were even more angry. We stopped at that. The Jarwa tribe, on the other hand, allowed us to go inside their territory first in April 1974. They made us sit and then they sang and danced. But the Sentinelese never permitted it.
Do you think it would be possible for the authorities to retrieve the mortal remains of Chau?
The authorities will need a strategy and to choose a timing when the Sentinelese are not around. A helicopter can land on the beach, but it’s noisy and hence avoidable. It’s likely that the body is half buried in the sand. The authority has to observe the movements of the tribe and reach the island in motorboats, not in helicopters. It has to be done without using any force.