Indian officials urged ‘not to recover’ US missionary’s body from isolated tribe’s island

Indian police have been urged to abandon efforts to recover the body of an American missionary killed by an isolated tribe on a remote island, amid warnings any contact could have "catastrophic" consequences.

Survival International, an NGO working for tribal rights, said the Sentinelese people could be wiped out if outside diseases were introduced onto the island. Any such mission would also pose extreme danger to Indian officials, the group said.

John Allen Chau was killed by the people of North Sentinel earlier this month after paying fisherman to smuggle him to the island, where outsiders are forbidden from venturing under Indian law.  The fishermen later said they saw the Sentinelese bury his body on the beach. The 26-year-old left notes saying he wanted to bring Christianity to the tribe and knew he was risking his life. He also detailed an attempt at contact a day earlier, when he was forced off the island amid arrow fire.

Believed to be the last pre-Neolithic tribe in the world, there has been no significant contact with the Sentinelese for generations. 

“The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every such contact," Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said in a statement yesterday (Monday). "Such efforts in similar cases in the past have ended with the Sentinelese attempting to defend their island by force."

Authorities should leave Chau’s body and the Sentinelese alone, Mr Corry said. He also called for the weakening of restrictions on visiting the area to be revoked, and the exclusion zone around North Sentinel properly enforced.

"All uncontacted tribal peoples face catastrophe unless their land is protected," he added.

The call came as Indian police said they were still working with anthropologists and psychologists to see if a plan could be forged to recover the missionary’s body. 

However they were treading carefully and "at this stage" had no plan to confront the Sentinelese, said Dependra Pathak, director general of police in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

"If they suggest any methodology to interact without disturbing them then we can draw (up a) strategy," he said.

"They are a treasure," the police chief added." We cannot go and force our way in. We don’t want to harm them."

A police boat approached the island on Friday and Saturday, on the latter occasion finding the tribespeople armed with spears and bows and arrows. 

"We watched them from a distance and they watched us from a distance," Mr Pathak said.

P.C. Joshi. a professor of anthropology at Delhi University, said he understood why authorities wanted to recover the body. But he noted the islanders could not be prosecuted under Indian law, and said it was likely already too late to learn much from the body as conditions on the island would cause rapid decomposition.

"Ultimately, it’s becoming futile," he said, according to AP.

Chau’s family have said they have already forgiven the tribe, as well as the fishermen who aided his journey who have been arrested.

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