American Killed in Andaman: Did John Chau Break Law to Visit Isle?

Despite the removal of the RAP from the North Sentinel Island, did John Chau still break the law by visiting it?

4 min read
American Killed in Andaman: Did John Chau Break Law to Visit Isle?

Following the untimely death of 26-year-old John Chau, the American who was allegedly killed by the indigenous Sentinelese tribe in Andaman, an important question being asked is – did Chau break the law by visiting the North Sentinel Island, which is known to be off-limits and a tribal reserve space.

Speaking to The Quint, Pankaj Sekhsaria, author of Islands in Flux, the Andaman and Nicobar Story, opined that Chau’s visit to the North Sentinel Island was a “violation of law”.

Speaking about the Sentinels, Sekhsaria said all that is known about the community is based on assumption, as no real contact has been made with the tribe, up until now. Further, he said the Sentinel tribe live on the island of North Sentinel with a special status and that it “is a tribal reserve under the provisions of the Andaman and Nicobar Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (ANPATR) of 195.”

“They’ve been living on this island for hundreds if not thousands of years, and it is the accepted opinion, including that of the government, that they should be left alone... and whoever went there went in violation of the law.
Author Pankaj Sekhsaria told The Quint

Sekhsaria also said it would have been impossible for Chau to get official permission to go to North Sentinel in the first place.

“The person who went into the island did so in violation of the law and in the full knowledge that he was violating the law... and sadly lost his life,” he said.

Sekhsaria’s comments come amid reports that Chau’s visit to the North Sentinel Island was not “illegal”, as the Ministry of Home Affairs had in August withdrawn the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) from 29 islands in Andaman, which meant that foreigners would now no longer require the RAP to explore the 29 islands in the Union Territory.

Did Withdrawal of RAP Lead to Chau’s Death?

The MHA’s decision to withdraw Restricted Area Permit (RAP) from 29 islands in Andaman meant that foreigners would no longer require the RAP, till 31 December 2022, to explore the 29 islands in the Union Territory.

The RAP is a permit that, under the Foreigners (Restricted Areas) Order 1968, is required for non-Indians to visit certain parts of India.

These 29 islands include: North Sentinel Island, Strait Island and Little Andaman Island. Islands opened up in the Nicobar District with PVTGS include: Chowra, Tillangchong, Terassa, Katchal, Nancowry, Kamorta, Pulomilo, Great Nicobar and Little Nicobar, as per an article by Down to Earth.

This decision by the MHA was possibly undertaken to open up the Andamans as a tourist destination. However, the Down to Earth article claims that the seemingly “hurried and ambitious” move to open up these islands to the tourists “will ensure a hasty decimation” of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) – a category that the Sentinels fall under.

More importantly, the choice of the islands in which RAP will no longer be required, seems to have been a selection made with the purpose of boosting “tribal tourism”, the article suggested. 
Indigenous tribes in the North Sentinel Island.
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)

According to this article, although tourism in the Andamans began in the late ‘90s, there was never any “Tourism Development Policy” in place, one that would keep in mind the protection of the PVGTs – from the prospective tourists.

The article further said that the decision to withdraw RAP to visit these 29 islands, was undertaken without the consent of the islanders. Especially, when it comes to tribes such as the Sentinels, who have been known to resist attempts of communication beyond their own tribe.

“The indigenous tribal communities have traditionally thrived on shared community knowledge and we can expect increased marginalisation and creation of cultural and monetary gaps with the introduction of tourism enterprises among the tribal community by the removal of RAP,” the article said. 

Despite Withdrawal of RAP, Other Laws Protecting Islands

Now it’s important to note that despite the removal of RAP to visit the North Sentinel Island, there are still a dozen laws in place in the Union Territory which would not legally allow one to travel to it.

Sources in the MHA told The News Minute that the removal of the RAP requirement does not mean that “anyone can travel anywhere on the North Sentinel Island”.

North Sentinel Island. 
(Photo courtesy: Pinterest)
“There are three other requirements to visit the island. You need to inform the local Foreigners Regional Registration Office, and also take approval from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs as well as the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. He (John Chau) had not done any of these things.”
A source in the MHA told The News Minute

Further, the source also mentioned that the Andaman islands, which have tribal populations and are protected, can only be accessed by people who want to do serious anthropological work. “There is no question of tourism in these islands,” the source told The News Minute.

Going by the statements of both Pankaj Sekhsaria and the source in the MHA, Chau seemed to have violated the laws kept in place concerning the protection of tribes such as the Sentinels, by visiting the North Sentinel island without informing any kind of authority and in the process, did not take the correct legal steps required to receive permission for the same, in the first place.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Andaman Islands   Sentinelese   John Chau 

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