Andaman Islands (India) are in news again after the death of American evangelist John Allen Chau while trying to proselytize the inhabitants of North Sentinel Islands.
It is sad to hear the death of a young man in his misplaced adventures and goals. The whole incident reminds me of the time I spent in Andaman islands between the years 2005 & 2006 while working on endangered language of Great Andamanese people.
The project was to document the Great Andamanese Language, and produce a Trilingual dictionary (of which I was in-charge) and a descriptive Grammar of Great Andamanese language. Our small team of 3 linguists from JNU had to camp in Port Blair (the capital of Andaman & Nicobar islands) for almost 3 Months in order to get the restricted area permit from Andaman Adim Jan Jati Vikas Samiti (AAJVS) of Dept. of Tribal welfare. This permit was needed to visit the Strait Island (home of the Great Andamanese community) and making contact with them.
Of the 38 or so inhabited islands of Andaman and Nicobar’s total 306 islands, 11 are in Andaman group of islands. And Strait Island (located in North & Middle Andaman District) was not included in that list.
Despite having all requisite permissions from our university, Union home Ministry and Andaman Bhawan in Delhi, AAJVS took almost 2 & half months to finally allow us to visit the Island for the period of 9 months.
We waited patiently in Port Blair before we could embark on our journey to Strait island. In the process of getting our Permits, we had to undergo several medical tests at G B Pant General Hospital, Port Blair for ensuring that none of us are carrying any serious bacterial or viral infection. For that could prove lethal to 50 or so indigenous inhabitants of the Strait island.
While we waited for the permits, we utilized the time by collecting as much information from local libraries and resource persons. Never ever we thought of illegally visiting Strait Island. I believe Indian researchers more or less abide by the law of land when doing any kind of anthropological or linguistic fieldwork in the islands or restricted areas. Foreign researchers on the other hand are willing to go to extremes to achieve results in a time bound manner. I remember, I met a lady Ethno-musicologist from Finland, who was desperately trying to visit Nicobar group of islands by hook or by crook.
Anyways we waited and finally took our maiden boat ride to Strait Island. From the Port Blair harbor, there is a bi-weekly ferry service which is the only mode of conveyance available to Strait Island. While living and working together with GA people, I had several encounters with Jarawa people and also some Onge people. But we knew our boundaries. I wish Allen knew his limits too.