Calls have mounted for Indian authorities to abandon efforts to recover the body of a young American killed apparently attempting to convert a hunter-gatherer island tribe to Christianity. John Chau was killed in a hail of arrows almost two weeks ago as he went ashore on North Sentinel island in the Indian Ocean, fisherman who dropped him off nearby told police. The off-limits remote island the size of Manhattan, part of the Indian Andaman Islands, is home to the Sentinelese, one of the world’s last tribes “uncontacted” by civilisation.
Indian police on Saturday took a boat 400 metres (yards) offshore and spotted men on the beach with bows and arrows, but they do not want to disrupt the tribe or provoke more violence. On Monday Survival International, which seeks to protect the rights of tribal peoples, said Indian authorities should call off an operation which is “incredibly dangerous” for both sides. “The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every such contact,” the group’s director Stephen Corry said in a statement.
“Mr Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese.” This was echoed in a joint statement by a group of Indian anthropologists, authors and activists including Pankaj Sekhsaria, Vishvajit Pandya and Madhusree Mukerjee. “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,” they said. Chau, according to his purported Instagram account a “Wilderness Emergency Medical Technician” and an “ambassador” for a US brand of beef jerky, interacted with the Sentinelese before he died and returned to the fishermen’s boat.
There he recorded in writings given to US media that he had shouted “My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you”, only to be shot at with arrows, one of them piercing his Bible, and beat a hasty retreat. Chau went back to the island the next day, but never returned. Police say that when two Indian fishermen were killed by the tribe in 2006 after their boat drifted ashore, the tribe had hooked their bodies on bamboo stakes facing out to sea. “It was a kind of scarecrow,” the region’s police chief Dependra Pathak said. The fishermen who took Chau to North Sentinel, some of whom have been detained by police, said they saw the tribe burying the body on the beach.