The killing of an American adventurer who traveled to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal – allegedly to convert them to Christianity – has confused Indian police.
Authorities in the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain between Myanmar and India are reportedly unsure how to retrieve the young American’s body and how to proceed given the drama occurred in an isolated location where all visitors are banned.
Some commentators say there is even doubt on whether the killing of John Allen Chau last week will have legal repercussions, because of the extraordinary circumstances of the Sentinelese Islanders, who have rarely had contact with the modern world.
Chau, 27, was shot with arrows after setting foot on North Sentinel Island, which is home to about 150 people, believed to be the last pre-Neolithic tribe in the world.
Chau allegedly hired a fishing boat then paddled a kayak to the shore carrying fish and a football as gifts, according to a journal quoted by different media, AFP reported.
Tribespeople fired arrows at him, one of them reportedly piercing his Bible. He returned to a fishermen’s boat and spent the night writing about his experiences before going back to the island the next day – and getting killed.
Indian police are said to have charged the seven fishermen who took Chau to the island, but are allegedly not able to charge any of the tribespeople given the island’s sovereignty.
‘Can’t be arrested’
Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik told the BBC the special status of Sentinel Island has complicated matters for legal authorities.
“It’s a difficult case for the police,” he said. “You can’t even arrest the Sentinelese.”
The Indian Government has sought to protect the Sentinelese and respected their wishes to be left alone. It is illegal to get within three nautical miles of the island, and last year the Indian Government introduced a law banning people from taking photos or videos of the Andaman tribes.
In 2010, Indian Coast Guard officials arrested more than 100 Burmese fishermen within a short period for endangering the people.
The tribe is known to be hostile to outsiders, having reportedly killed two fishermen whose boat drifted onto the island in 2006, and to have thrown spears at a helicopter checking for damage after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Part of the reason for keeping them isolated is a lack of genetic immunity to common diseases like influenza and measles.
Indian authorities in the Andamans, just east of North Sentinel Island, say that Chau paid local fishermen to take him off the shore so he could paddle the rest of the way himself.
The fishermen have said they saw the tribe burying Chau’s body on the beach the following day, a fellow missionary wrote in an email to his mother, the Washington Post reported.
‘Don’t get angry at them if I’m killed’
Other reports have quoted a letter that the young American allegedly sent to his parents. “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed.”
Indian police have consulted field experts including anthropologists, and tribal welfare and forest officers to help them try and retrieve Chau’s body.
“We have to take care that we must not disturb them or their habitat by any means. It is a highly sensitive zone and it will take some time,” Dependra Pathak, the local chief of police, told AFP.
He said a helicopter and a ship were sent to the area to identify where the incident took place, and that they were holding talks with experts on how best to handle the delicate situation.
“We maintained a distance from the island and have not yet been able to spot the body. It may take some more days and … [reconnaissance] of the area,” Pathak said.
A local report said that a murder case has been registered against “unknown” tribespeople. But with Indian authorities keeping away from the island it is unclear whether they will seek to act on the killing of Chau.
A spokesperson for the US consulate in the southern Indian city of Chennai told AFP they were aware of “reports concerning a US citizen in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.”
– with reporting by AFP