Anthropologist who bridged gap with hostile Sentinelese

Report by: 
Port Blair
2 Dec 2018

Perhaps no people on earth remain more genuinely isolated than the Sentinelese, one of the few un-contacted people in the world, who have lived in the North Sentinel Islands of the Andamans for more than 60,000 years shunning any contact with the outside world. There have been many attempts previously to establish contact with the Sentinelese, which however failed with contact parties being received with arrows. Given the hostile nature of the Sentinelese, the contact parties would avoid approaching the tribe directly and watch them from the safety of their ships or leave gifts in remote part of the island. Back in 1991, history was created when a woman was made part of a contact expedition with the Sentinelese and they put their guard down. The presence of a woman indicated that the contact party meant no harm.
Speaking to the Editor-in-Chief from New Delhi over phone, this daring anthropologist, now a senior official in the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, Dr Madhumala Chattopadhyay said that they conducted as many as three contract expeditions in DSS vessel MV Tarmugli. At two occasions, they could successfully contact the tribe but in the third occasion, due to inclement weather, the Sentinelese did not come to the seashore and the team has to back off. Narrating her experience of contacting the Sentinelese, Dr. Madhumala said that a 12 member expedition team headed by then Tribal Welfare Director, Mr S Awaradi sailed for the Sentinel Island on 3rd January 1991. “We reached the spot on 4th January and saw some tribes near the seashores. Then we boarded a small dingi and ventured neared to the shore. Our team started dropping coconut in the seashore, which the Sentenelese, consisting of few males and females collected. Find no danger, the team then approached them up to the coast and gifted coconut to them by hands. Having worked extensively with the indigenous tribes of A & N Islands, I knew the language of some of the local tribe like Jarawa and Onge. I told them “Nariyali Gabha Gabha” which means come and collect the coconuts. By hearing these works, the Sentinelese seemed happy and immediately rushed to us to collect the coconuts. Some even touched us and our boats. When the gift brought by us finished, the team returned home,” narrated Dr Chattopadhyay.
The second contact expedition started on 21st Feb 1991. This time also Dr. Madhumala and her team were able to contact the tribe, reached the shore and gifted them coconuts. This time, things started to mess up with the Sentinelese touching the Police rifle brought by the cops for security. The Sentinelese wanted to take away the rifle for making their arrows. However, vigilant Police Personnel did not allow them to take the rifle with them. The contact was successful and the team returned back successfully. After few days, a third expedition team sailed for the Sentinel Island. But due to bad weather, the team would not contact them as the Sentinelese did not come to the shore this time.                           
A native of suburban Howrah in West Bengal, Dr Madhumala completing her schooling from Bhabani Balika Vidyalaya, Shibpur. She then pursued BSc (Hons) Anthropology from the University of Calcutta. She then applied for a PhD fellowship to the Anthropological Survey of India for doing field research with the tribes of the Andamans. The committee tasked to decide on the fellowship initially objected in view of the prevailing notion being that it was not safe for a woman researcher to do field work amongst the tribes. However, Dr Madhumala’s impeccable academic record and her previous research work was hard to overlook. A way was proposed by the fellowship committee that Dr Madhumala would be allowed to work in these islands on an Anthropological Survey of India fellowship if Madhumala’s parents were to sign an undertaking that if anything untoward happened to their daughter while doing research amongst the primitive tribes, including loss of life, Anthropological Survey of India was not to be held responsible. Little was it known then that Madhumala would go on to create history.
On 4 January, 1991, MV Tarmugli, the Andaman Nicobar Administration ship, put down its anchor off Allen point on the southwest part of the North Sentinel Islands. Not much was expected, probably like many futile missions in the past. However, unlike in the past, this mission had one difference; there was a women anthropologist in the contact team. The team started dropping coconuts in the water. After a bit of trepidation, a few Sentinelese men came sprinting and waded through the shallow waters to collect the floating coconuts. The team leader then instructed that more coconuts be dropped and this time the Sentinelese brought a canoe to collect the coconuts in cane baskets. The women and children, however, maintained a distance and remained on the shore. An invisible wall stood between the islanders and the contact team. No party made the first move to bridge the gap further. Four hours rolled by, the contact party kept floating coconuts and the Sentinelese kept collecting them. With their stock of coconuts over, the team went back to the ship to replenish. It was 2 pm when the team returned. The process of dropping coconuts started again, and this time the tribe welcomed the contact party. The Sentinelese in the second round had become bolder. A young Sentinelese youth waded up to the boat and touched it with his hands. Following him, more men closed in to collect the coconuts.
In an ice-breaking moment, a Sentinelese youth who was sitting on the shore got up and aimed his arrow at the contact party. Unfazed, Dr Madhumala gestured at the youth to come over and take his share of the coconuts. With arrow refusing to go down and Dr Madhumala refusing to remove eye contact, the arrow was released but luck intervened. A Sentinelese woman standing nearby gave a push to the marksman and the arrow missed its mark and fell harmlessly in the water. What probably changed the equation that day was the presence of a woman in the contact team who maintained her calm and took the initiative. A woman in the contact party indicated to the Sentinelese that the boat people meant no harm. For a brief moment, the Sentinalese let their guard down, and allowed outsiders into their world. Dr Madhumala again came back to the North Sentinel Islands as a member of another contact party on 21 February the same year and this time the welcome was enthusiastic as the Sentinelese climbed up on the boat to receive the coconuts.