The killing of American John Allen Chau reportedly at the hands of the Sentinelese on their isolated island in the Andamans has triggered international outrage and spawned debate on twin issues — conversion by missionaries and integration of tribals into the mainstream. The Sentinelese are an indigenous Andamanese tribe inhabiting North Sentinel Island and are perhaps one of the world’s last uncontacted people. They are living in the Stone Age or the pre-historic era, and have violently resisted any attempt by anyone to get in touch with them. Thus, they are away from what is called the “culture contact”, which is contact between peoples of different cultures impacting the lifestyles of both. The acculturation leads to changes in artifacts, customs and beliefs. But there is an inherent danger in it of the recessive culture being trampled by the dominant one. The unsophisticated are generally affected by the recherché.
That is why Verrier Elwin was of the firm view that tribals must be kept separate from the rest of society so that their special ethnic identity, culture and social structure remain intact and unadulterated. He felt their interaction with outsiders would expose them to utter exploitation as the relationship between tribals and non-tribals would not be based on parity. Jawaharlal Nehru wanted the integration of tribals into the mainstream and the elimination of differentiation between the rich and poor, but Elwin felt that the gap between the savage and the civilised should be bridged. However, Nehru listened to Elwin, and it was on his advice that the Government of India created Scheduled Areas and Inner Line Areas which were not accessible to outsiders without a permit. Nehru enunciated the Tribal Panchsheel whose salient features were: Allow them to develop on their own genius; Rights over land and forest should be respected; Train and build up teams of their own people; Not to over-administer their areas and overwhelm them with a multiplicity of schemes; Judge the results not by statistics or amount of money spent but by quality of human character evolved.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation 1956, promulgated under this policy has protected local tribals from any interference from outside. In 1999, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court for integrating the Jarawas, another tribe from the Andamans, into the mainstream. The court set up an expert committee which recommended in 2003 a policy of non-intervention. However, the Jarawas have been subjected to all sorts of exploitation. In July 2015, a video surfaced showing Jarawa women dancing in front of tourists. It shocked the entire country and reignited the debate on whether it is at all desirable to bring them into the mainstream. It is well known how the indigenous people of America were overpowered, subjugated and killed by Europeans when they started colonising that continent. They brought diseases with them which quickly infected Native Americans and wiped out their populations in many native cities. With horses and guns, they easily overpowered the natives armed with only hand weapons and arrows and captured their lands.
Chau was trying to contact the Sentinelese cut off from the rest of the world. According to the local police, Chau may have been part of a larger group or organisation trying to introduce religion to them. He had gone with the Bible and cross. Before his tragic death, in a letter to his parents, he wrote that they might think that he had gone insane but it was essential to take the message of Christ to the Sentinelese. Christian missionaries were the first to reach Nicobar and the entire local population was converted to Christianity.
There is no gainsaying the fact that Christian missionaries have been active in the tribal regions for centuries. They have done a lot of commendable work to impress them, like helping them financially through cooperative banks, retrieve their lost lands through litigation, etc. besides establishing high-quality educational institutes and hospitals. It is a slap in the face of the majority Hindu community, which hardly did anything in the field of education and health for the impecunious sections. However, missionaries have also resorted to chicaneries and shenanigans for proselytising others. In the 18th century, missionaries in France claimed to have the Fifth Veda called Ezourvedam (not Yajurveda). It was claimed to be the French translation of the original text in Sanskrit. In 1760, Louis-Laurent de Federbe, Chevalier de Maudave, presented it to Voltaire, who was greatly impressed by it, and brought it to the notice of others. It was first published in 1778. Voltaire wrote in a letter that it was a commentary on the Vedas which proved that Indians did not believe in idols. So he called it the pure Veda, which depicts pre-idol Hinduism. The authenticity of the text was first questioned in 1782 and ultimately it turned out to be a fake, written in order to proselytise Hindus to Christianity. There was a plan to translate it into Sanskrit and proclaim it to be the original text, which was suppressed by Brahmins. Some scholars have guessed that Italian Jesuit Roberto di Nobilli (1577-1656) was the author of the forged book, though Max Mueller has challenged that. Anyway, Nobilli came to India and settled in Madurai. He dressed like a Sannyasin wearing a white dhoti and wooden sandal, and got his head shaved keeping only a tiny tuff to look like a traditional Hindu saint. He called himself a “teacher of wisdom” and claimed the Bible to be the distilled version of the Vedas. He mastered the Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu languages and literature, and explained the Bible to the people in their own language. He would say that initially Hindus did not worship idols. In fact, some scholars trace the genesis of the Dravidian movement to the propaganda of missionaries who convinced the locals that Brahmins who were Aryans spoke Sanskrit while they (locals) were Dravidians, and thus different.
From the information available so far, Chau was on a proselytising mission. He had gone there with local fishermen who belong to the Karen tribe inhabiting Mayabunder. The tribals need to be protected, more so in case of endangered ones like the Sentinelese. Outsiders not only vitiate their culture but also bring in diseases which they cannot combat. Besides it also poses a huge security risk to the country. A middle way has to be found so that such secluded tribes do not keep wallowing in the quagmire of backwardness, and at the same time their ethnic culture is also preserved.