60 Minutes: With M. Sasikumar Society

‘Hands off, eyes on the Sentinelese’: M. Sasikumar

M. Sasikumar, Deputy Director of Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI), has worked closely with the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Recently, Sasikumar and other anthropologists published a policy document for one of the islands’ most isolated tribes — the Sentinelese. Among the few anthropologists to have visited North Sentinel Island and conducted an aerial survey, Sasikumar greatly emphasises a ‘hands-off, eyes-on’ approach towards the tribe. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you think a policy document was required for the Sentinelese tribe?

The mandate to notify any official policy on the PVTGs of Andaman and Nicobar Islands lies with the A&N administration. We at AnSI prepared the draft policy document when we received a communication in this regard from the Andaman administration. AnSI held a series of meetings with researchers who have worked in the Andaman Islands. AnSI has been working in the Andamans for more than 70 years and is one of the oldest government organisations here. We thought it would be beneficial to the academic world if we published the draft policy in our official journal, which is now available internationally.

A policy document on a particular community gives clarity both to administrators and the general public. A lack of clarity leads to incidents of the sort that happened in November 2018. If a policy had been in place, the general public as well as officials would have been more alert and able to avoid such incidents.

What does the document say?

The Sentinel islanders, also called the Sentinelese, are usually described as the ‘most uncontacted’, ‘most reclusive’ people on earth. Curiosity pertaining to their lifestyle has existed since 1771 when an East India Company vessel sailing past their island spotted lights there. It was, however, only in November-December 2018 that the Sentinelese attracted international attention when an American national went missing after venturing on the island. It is alleged that the Sentinelese killed him after warning him twice to leave the island. This has further reinforced the image of their ferocity, of a people who do not want any contact with the outside world and long to remain the ‘masters of their island’.

The document, among other things, stresses the need to respect the territorial (traditional and customary) rights of the island’s natives who have lived there for thousands of years, even before the seeds of the contemporary political state were planted in the world; and protect them from the four Ts — travel, tour, transport and trade; the accumulation of knowledge on the way of life of the islanders with minimum or nil interference in their life; and most importantly, the sensitisation of the wider society. The essence of the document, in short, is that there should be no intervention in their life. At the same time, all efforts must be made to protect them from external interferences.

Have there been policy documents on the other PVTGs of Andaman and Nicobar Islands? If so, what do these documents suggest?

Yes. The five PVTGs of the islands are poles apart, not only in terms of development but also in terms of cultural ethos, degree of culture contact, development needs, and administrative dependency.

The A&N administration notified a policy on the Jarawas in December 2004 and a policy on the Shompen in May 2015. The administration is in the process of notifying similar policies for other PVTGs too. The Jarawa policy dealt with the different strategies to be adopted for the protection of the tribe’s cultural identity, natural habitat and health, and ways to regulate traffic on the Andaman Trunk Road. The need to codify the Jarawa language is emphasised. It also gives guidelines for the institutional arrangements required to achieve these objectives.

The Shompen policy begins with a note admitting “various gaps in our understanding of this somewhat lesser-known community”. Though they are not unfriendly like the Sentinelese or the pre-1997 Jarawa, our understanding of the community suffers because of their particular socio-cultural and geographical setting. The most important feature of the Shompen tribe is that the different territorial/ geographical groups living in the different regions of the Great Nicobar Islands are not on friendly terms. The policy, among other things, deals with the strategies to be followed for the facilitation of livelihood, health and education, and emphasises the need for maintaining a Shompen database through field research. The need for protecting their natural habitat to ensure their livelihood is also highlighted. The policy document, as in the case of the Jarawas, discusses the institutional arrangements required to achieve the policy objectives.

When was the last time you visited the island? How was the experience?

It would be wrong to say I visited the island. We never landed on the island. In 2014, the Andaman administration constituted a committee to conduct an aerial survey as well as to circumnavigate the island, after a forest fire broke out in North Sentinel Island. I was a member of both committees and participated in the survey. The fire was first reported by some fishermen. Thereafter, there were several rumours, and media reports expressed concern over the safety of the island’s inhabitants. The aerial survey was undertaken on April 8, 2014, and the circumnavigation on April 18 and 19, 2014.

At the outset, we could see that the forest fire had not affected the life of the islanders in any manner. We saw 16 of them on the shore. They were healthy, without any sign of obesity. The sex ratio too was balanced. Almost all of them were young, below the age of 40. Three of them were children below the age of four, carried on the backs of their parents in bark belts. Their response to us was quite positive.

How did anthropologists respond to the death of American national John Allen Chau in November 2018?

The policy of the administration in relation to the Sentinelese is quite clear. To help them survive in their isolated island, uninterrupted by policies and programmes of the administration. After 1996, all types of contact expeditions to North Sentinel Island were abandoned. However, patrolling is carried out by security forces like the Marine Police, the Coast Guard, and the Navy to prevent poachers from reaching the island. Around 2014, this ‘hands-off’ policy drew criticism, especially after the Malaysian flight went missing and a forest fire broke out. A ‘hands-off, eyes-on’ policy was then proposed. The November 2018 incident should not have happened. It shows the need for sensitisation of the local people, especially fishermen, and strengthening of security forces. Most importantly, we need a separate policy for the Sentinelese.

How can the Sentinelese tribes be further protected?

The islanders have clearly shown their attitude towards outsiders; that the so-called ‘civilised’ are not welcome in their island. They have expressed it as emphatically as they can. The policy of non-intervention should continue and at the same time, the ‘eyes-on’ policy has to be implemented strictly. What is essentially required is a rigorous conscientisation programme among the fishermen. They should be made aware of the consequences of facilitating such illegal visits. Academics, missionaries, adventure tourists, poachers and others are watching North Sentinel Island to make a trip there when conditions are favourable. Impoverished fishermen should not have to fall prey to their soft monetary persuasions.


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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 6:27:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/hands-off-eyes-on-the-sentinelese-m-sasikumar/article33757682.ece

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