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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I will never meet the Sentinelese

Have you ever imagined taking a sailing trip through the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal? I have. And though I hear the scuba diving is excellent and the sunsets are spectacular, my greatest interest is not in the water or on the horizon but for the little known island of North Sentinel. What would it be like to step ashore, I've wondered.

Welcome to a version of the Stone Age, where sure death is the answer. For on that tropical islet, among lush vegetation and behind a ring of white sandy beaches, resides a group of people for whom outsiders are unwelcome, and time has stood still --- meet the legendary Sentinelese.

In visiting North Sentinel, one has to move cautiously. In an article on the website AtlasObscura, it is reported that two fishermen who made the mistake of illegally casting their lines within the shadow of the island were killed in a barrage of arrows. Even the helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies nearly fell prey to the tribesmen's expert shots.

No, the Sentinelese don't take to strangers, and for that and other reasons, their idyllic speck of real estate has been declared off limits by the Indian government, which oversees the area --- and that has been the saving grace of their society and culture.

When we talk about culture, I like the definition set forth by Lederach (1995) in the book Preparing for peace: Conflict transformation across cultures: "Culture is the shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them" (p. 9). 

The social reality for the Sentinelese, we might surmise, is one in which the idea of in group and out group is very strong. If you are one of us, you look like we do, you act like we do, you speak like we do, and you live in the lean-to next door --- then you're safe. If you don't fulfill those criteria --- you are a danger for us, and if you get too close, you will die.

The Sentinelese "perception" of outsiders as dangerous aliens who merit a response of finely-crafted iron-tipped arrows has been corroborated by the experience of other islanders in the Andamans. Without the protection of the Indian government, the Jarawa, the Onde and others have been individually and collectively exploited, their social universes broken apart in much the same way as those of the native Americans from the 17th through 19th centuries: men forced into working as cheap laborers, women conscripted into the invaders' kitchens and beds, and children stripped of their sense of identity as the tsunami of outside influences rushes in.  

There are different perspectives, of course, on what action a government can and should take in this case. Some would argue that it is better for the inevitable to happen, that the assimilation/integration of "primitive" groups to the dominant, more "civilized" society is social evolution, a necessary stage in historical development, and the sooner the better. That argument gains strength when one considers, for example, the advantages of giving these people access to modern health care. 

Still, as the experience of the Penan in East Malaysia and countless other tribal groups from Borneo to West Papua shows us, forced assimilation -- with reneged upon promises of health care, housing and formal education -- can come at a high price: thwarted expectations, dire new living conditions and cultures in decay.

So India's current policy of enforced protection of the isolation of the Sentinelese stands, and my dream of visiting their island will never be realized. Good for them.

For more information on the culture of various tribes in the Andaman Islands, see this link.

1 comment:

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