Police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands say they are proceeding with the “utmost sensitivity” as they investigate the death of an American man by an isolated island tribe, with experts pushing for the suspension of efforts to recover his body.
John Allen Chau, 27, is said to have been killed by the indigenous Sentinelese inhabitants of North Sentinel Island on November 17 when he went there in a kayak in a reported bid to convert them to Christianity.
The ancient tribe has lived on the remote forested island for thousands of years with little contact to the outside world. Visits to the island are prohibited, as members of the tribe are vulnerable to infection and are known to attack outsiders.
The fishermen who took Chau to waters near the island say they saw tribesmen shooting arrows at him and later burying his body in the sand, according to police.
The police do not intend to disturb the protected tribe but are in a quandary on how to handle the situation.
“This case involves other cultures, a different civilizational view, so we are taking the help of anthropologists and psychologists who have expertise in this field to figure out how to take this investigation forward,” the island group’s police chief Dependra Pathak said over telephone on Tuesday.
Pathak said police have no intention of landing on the island. “Our trips were intended to reconstruct the scene of incidence and the scene of the crime, we don’t want any confrontation,” Pathak said.
Seven people, including five fishermen who helped Chau reach the island, have been arrested. Pathak said that from entries in Chau’s diary, which he left with the fishermen, it was clear he was aware that visiting the island was illegal.
Pathak said the police were examining a similar case from 2006 in which the Sentinelese killed two fishermen whose boat broke loose from an anchor and drifted onto the shore of North Sentinel Island. The tribe first buried the fishermen’s bodies and then hung them up on stakes on the beach.
Pathak said police consider it possible that the Sentinelese may do the same with Chau’s body.
A group of researchers and local journalists have urged officials to suspend efforts to retrieve Chau’s body.
“The rights and the desires of the Sentinelese need to be respected and nothing is to be achieved by escalating the conflict and tension, and worse, to creating a situation where more harm is caused,” a letter from the researchers and anthropologists read.
Tribals rights organization Survival International also urged the Indian government to abandon attempts to retrieve Chau’s body.
“Any such attempt is incredibly dangerous, both for the Indian officials, but also for the Sentinelese,” it said in a statement.
“We have no plan to barge in on the tribals, but we are obligated to carry out an investigation and know the truth,” Pathak said.
Chau’s family in a post on his Instagram account said they forgave those responsible for his death. The post described Chau as a Christian missionary, a wilderness expert, a medical technician, an international soccer coach and a mountaineer.