As a massive debate rages over the actions of a Christian missionary which led to his death at the hands of one of the world’s most isolated tribes — a man who survived meeting the Sentinelese over several decades has been thrust into the spotlight.
T N Pandit, an 84-year-old anthropologist and regional head of India’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs, paid a number of visits to the lost tribe’s North Sentinel Island home in the Indian Ocean between the 1960s and 1990s.
After John Allen Chau, 26, died on November 16 in a bow and arrow attack by tribesmen desperate to keep him off their remote island home off the coast of India — Mr Pandit has broken his silence on the tragic incident which has made headlines around the world.
Trying to spread the message of Christianity, Mr Chau, 27, illegally set foot on the territory after paddling there in a kayak. Family and friends even believe there is a chance he may still be alive.
In response to the attack Mr Pavan told the BBC, the tribe are largely “peace-loving” and believes their fearsome reputation is unfair.
“During our interactions they threatened us but it never reached a point where they went on to kill or wound. Whenever they got agitated we stepped back,” he told the broadcaster.
“I feel very sad for the death of this young man who came all the way from America. But he made a mistake. He had enough chance to save himself. But he persisted and paid with his life.”
He believes there should be no rush to make contact with the Sentinelese after the tragedy.
Even Mr Pandit has never been allowed to venture on to the island itself. He would always approach in boats and then stand in the water off the shore to hand over gifts.
Even them it didn’t always go smoothly.
One time he said a young tribesman brandished a knife at him and warned him to stay off the island — so Mr Pandit quickly fled to his boat.
The community of between 60 and 100 men, women and children have no immunity to disease and exposure to a relatively minor virus like the common cold could wipe them out.
Any mission to retrieve Mr Chau’s body could result in further deaths on both sides.
“Of the four Andaman tribal communities, we have seen that those in close contact with the outside world have suffered the most. They have declined demographically and culturally,” Mr Pandit told Down To Earth magazine in a recent interview.
The Sentinelese “are a highly vulnerable population and would disappear in an epidemic,” he added.
“The government’s responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense (that) no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone.”
Mr Chau travelled to the island by paying fishermen to smuggle him. The fishermen told authorities they saw the Sentinelese bury Mr Chau’s body on the beach.
Notes that Mr Chau left behind say he wanted to bring Christianity to the islanders along with gifts of fish, scissors, safety pins and a football.
Indian officials have travelled repeatedly in recent days near the remote island but have not set foot on it.
Scholars believe the Sentinelese are descendants of Africans who migrated to the area about 50,000 years ago and survive on the small, forested island by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. Almost nothing is known of their lives, except that they attack outsiders with spears or bows and arrows.
Mr Chau is the latest in a long line of American missionaries who voyaged to the world’s most isolated regions to spread Christianity.
The first Christian missionaries set sail from the United States for Asia more than 200 years ago, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.
Adoniram Judson and his wife, Ann, left Salem, Massachusetts, in February 1812 for India but eventually ended up in Burma, where Adoniram spent most of the next four decades.
“That’s the beginning and then there were several other mission agencies that grew up after that,” Dr Johnson said.
There were more than 127,000 Americans working abroad as Christian missionaries in 2010, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
“It’s gone up a little bit since then,” Dr Johnson said, adding that the figure includes “Christian missionaries of all kinds — Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Protestants and others”.
“Historically, Catholics have had quite a large portion of that, but Mormons I think probably have the single largest number of any group.”
Mr Chau was exceptional in that he appeared to be a “complete lone ranger type of missionary,” Dr Johnson said, — meaning he was not sponsored by a particular church or organisation.
Mr Chau received missionary training from a Kansas City, Missouri-based group called All Nations, but his ill-fated voyage to remote North Sentinel island where he was killed appears to have been his own initiative.
On its website, All Nations says its mission “is to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples of the Earth.”
“All Nations aspires to see disciple making movements in every people group of the world so that Jesus may be worshipped by every tongue, tribe and nation,” it says.
— with wires