The Sentinelese have violently resisted any contact with outsiders. The government has for years placed the island off-limits to visitors to protect the tribe.
Recounting his travel to the North Sentinel Island on January 4, 1991, SA Awaradi, former director tribal welfare, said it was an official expedition to establish contact with the Sentinelese.
Awaradi, who is now director of Andaman & Nicobar Tribal Research Institute, Port Blair, was leading a 13-member team onboard an administrative ship.
The expedition started from Port Blair on January 3, 1991 and after travelling 60 km on rough sea, the team reached the North Sentinel Island the next day. The contact mission was organised by the Tribal Welfare to find out the health condition of Sentinelese and their behavioural pattern.
Speaking about the expedition to News18, Awaradi said that throughout the journey he was “scared” but also “thrilled”.
“I usually don’t discuss such experiences in public, but since the North Sentinel Island is in the news, I thought of sharing my experience of leading the first successful friendly contact with the Sentinelese.”
“During the entire journey, I had mixed feelings. I was scared… I was thrilled… and I was excited,” he said.
Awaradi said his team was “absolutely clueless” about how the Sentinelese would behave. “I was clueless what would they do if we approached them. Would they attack us or would they welcome us, I didn’t know. My mind was occupied with these thoughts all the time.”
On January 4, 1991, around 4:30am, Awaradi decided to embark from the mother ship and head towards the North Sentinel Island on a small boat.
“After few minutes, I saw some members of the Sentinelese tribe coming out of the forest. They were 27 in number. I was thrilled but also scared,” Awaradi recounts.
Talking about his preparation of the trip, Awaradi said he studied books on Jarawas as they too were hostile once upon a time.
He said he was standing on the shore and some of the Sentinelese came close to him. None of them were armed with bows and arrows. “This was surprising. We offered them coconuts and they accepted it. It seemed that they welcomed us,” Awaradi said, adding that one of them accepted coconut from him personally.
The team stayed on the shore for around 30 minutes and then returned to Port Blair.
“It was a memorable journey. I still wonder why they came to me without being armed with bows and arrows. They said something in their language. I wish I could understand what they said to me,” Awaradi said.
Awaradi’s successful friendly contact with the Sentinelese was followed by another expedition led by Triloknath Pandit, who was then in-charge of the Anthropological department in Port Blair. Pandit led his expedition in February 1991 (a month later).
Awaradi was part of this expedition too. Before the 1991 expedition, several attempts were made during 60s, 70s and 80s, but none was able to strike a “friendly contact” with the Sentinelese.
Speaking about his expedition, Pandit said, “I was in the second trip to the North Sentinel Island. My colleague SA Awaradi led the first expedition.”
When asked about the ongoing investigation into the death of John Allen Chau, the 27-year-old US national who was killed on the island on November 16, Pandit said the tribe should be left alone.
“I have only one thing to say. Please let them live in peace,” he said.