Warning- Intrusion will cause Death.
John Allen Chau, an American Missionary Adventure Tourist was reported to be killed by ‘Sentinelese Tribe’, a protected tribe in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Read the following from the horse’s mouth-who has not only photo documented a tribe’s entire life cycle but also is currently working on publishing a photo book on them. Toto tribe
Of the four years that I stayed with the Toto tribe; in the beginning itself I told them my intentions of making a detailed photo book of their entire life cycle, traditions and customs; lest they should be lost. Only after they okayed it; I went ahead with the plan. The primary thing I noticed was how modernization was affecting the tribe in a big way. From mobile and smart phones paving the way in children’s hands to packets of Lays & Kurkure; everything seemed to disturb the ethos of the tribe.
Most of the tribes have an oral tradition. From stories to language, things are passed down orally. While it is very important to safeguard tribal tradition and culture by documenting them; there is a way to do it. In the case of Toto tribe, an Australian by the name Toby Anderson and his family of wife Mary-Grace and their 3 kids have been staying in Totopara since 2013 to script the language, ‘Toto’ with the help of the locals. Of course, he has got an astounding support from the local Totos; the kind I never got- even being an Indian! The question here is why does an Australian have to be on the tribal land to document and script the language? Are Indian linguistics department of the State of West Bengal and the Centre in New Delhi inept to do it? This situation still haunts me.
There are four schools in Totopara; two government schools. Third one, a missionary school and a hostel- some say it is defunct and the fourth is Chittaranjan Toto Education Centre, an English medium school. It is founded and run by Lissa Davis, from London. This school admits all children from Totopara and teaches them till standard four. The teachers here are local Totos and the funds to run the school come from various sources including crowdfunding. Many volunteers from various countries have dropped in Totopara to help local teachers in this school. The motive here seems to be positive, and the Toto tribe members have extended full support to them. But did the foreigners take due permission from the local police or the district authorities to enter and work in the tribal land? Would the foreigners allow any Indian in their tribal or protected land, just as they do it here?
Next was conversion to Christianity. Totopara has only one PHC but 3 churches in that 8 sq. km. village periphery. I have been told by some members of Toto tribe (who do not wish to be named) that many resisted to the conversion in the beginning and were shooed away the missionaries from Totopara. The missionaries, lured some Totos’ to north east India, got them converted and sent them back. In the conversion process many have changed their names; adopting Christian names and ways of living. In this process, the originality of the tribe and its culture is getting receded way too fast than expected. Many tribe members have told me that it is being increasingly difficult to strike a balance between modernity and their culture.
First things first- ‘Do not disturb any tribe, they have their own ways of living and coping mechanisms. Importantly they have their own customs and traditions; which they would not like to be parted with.’ If any tradition does not fit in mainstream religions; it is not our job to pull them into mainstream. Period.
Second- Understand that tribes are already endangered with dwindling numbers. They aren’t immune to all diseases and pathogens that the general population is immune to. Essentially you are posing a risk to their health and happiness by blindly venturing out in their land.
The ‘Sentinelese’ are hostile to the outside world and have been reported to act hostile against the so-called modern population. I am sure the fishermen who took Chau there knew it and warned him against. Still, to satisfy his adrenaline, he ventured out by luring them with money. Not the fishermen’s mistake that Chau was attacked and later seen dead. Because of this incidence (which Chau himself had asked for it) there has been a case of murder registered at the police station. The question arises against whom are you going to file a case? The buck stops at the face of now dead Chau and Chau only. Of course, there were major security lapses wherein he was not spotted on his way to the Sentinelese island, poses grave concerns. *C Uday Bhaskar, rightly pointed out the similarities between the ghastly incidence of 26/11 and breach of Andaman island’s security protocol. He points out that Chau had visited the islands four times since 2015 and must have slipped through various filters, including the one that regulates the entry of foreign nationals to Restricted Area Permit zones. The same way David Headley had made multiple visits to Mumbai had evaded scrutiny.
While it is more than important to document the tribes and their life cycle; how are you going to do it? Via coercion or via dialogue? If they aren’t in for a dialogue like in the case of Sentinelese, send a team of experts to do it. If still not- Leave them alone! They are telling you non-verbally to stay away from them. That is what the Sentinelese have been doing for decades now.
To Chau’s family, ‘Don’t get magnanimous by saying we have forgiven the killers.’ Your beloved son, brother, uncle, best friend had made a deliberate mistake and has paid for it. Lesson to Indian government- Foreigners to stay off limits in any tribal land. Indians, try and detest taking money/ gifts from anyone for costly actions like these.
Rest In Peace; Mr. Chau, hope you have learnt your lesson for the next life. I hope other Missionaries and adventure tourists have also learnt a lesson now.
*Indian Express, Editorial, 28-11-18
-Photographer, Abhijit. Eternal Happiness™