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Sentinelese Tribe: Case Study of Most Isolated Tribe

There are many tribes in India, each possessing a distinctive culture and tradition. Sentinelese belongs to few remaining isolated tribes in the world. It is believed that they are a direct descended from the first human populations to emerge from Africa and have inhabited the Andaman Islands for more than 60,000 years.

What is a Tribe?

A tribe is a social division in a traditional society consisting of families linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect. A tribe possesses certain qualities and characteristics that make it a unique cultural, social, and political entity.

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Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar

  • Oraons
  • Onges
  • Sentinelese
  • Shompens
  • Great Andamanese
  • Nicobarese
  • Jarawa

Who are the Sentinelese?

The Sentinelese, also known as the Sentineli and the North Sentinel Islanders, are an indigenous people who are inhabitants of North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal in India. As North Sentinel Island is part of the Andaman Islands, the Sentinelese are considered to be one of the Andamanese peoples. They are designated as a Scheduled Tribe. The Sentinelese tribes, living in the North Sentinel Island are assumed to be direct descendants of the Negrito origin and have inhabited the island since 60,000 years.  They speak the Sentinelese language, an isolated language. Sentinelese have always refused any interaction with the outside world and are hostile to outsiders; they have killed people who have intruded their island. The 5 principles of ‘Tribal Panchsheel’, promulgated Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister still governs our relationship with them.

Important current affairs for UPSC: 8.6% of India’ population belong to the scheduled tribe, and highest of them live in the Northeast region and Lakshadweep. In term of absolute numbers, tribal people reside in maximum numbers in Madhya Pradesh (Source: Ministry of Tribal Affairs)

Population

The population of Sentinelese is estimated to be anywhere from 40 to 400. Though the group managed to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami relatively unscathed, it is unknown how many islanders died as a result and what affect the disaster had on the population

Practices

The Sentinelese are hunter-gatherers. They use Stone Age practices like using arrows and bows for hunting and using elementary methods to catch local seafood. They have no idea about agriculture or fire. They recognize the importance of metal, having used outside metal to create tools and weapons. They do not practice cannibalism which is evident from the recovered bodies of two fishermen killed by Sentinelese in the year 2006.

Appearance

The Sentinelese are believed to be Negrito, the earliest humans who came from Africa. They have dark skin and short height may be because of Island Effect, genetic heritage or lack of nutrition. They don’t wear any clothes.

Language

The Sentinelese tribe communicates in an isolate language known as Sentinelese language. Not much is known about this language because the inhabitants do not interact with outside people.  Some research has shown that the language is somewhat related to Onge language spoken by the Onge tribe of Little Andaman Island.

sentinelese tribe

Threats and Challenges faced by the Sentinelese tribes

  • Primitive Practices: The tribes are hunter-gathers and still practice Palaeolithic lifestyle, depriving them the fruits of the technological advancements.
  • Decreasing Population: They are believed to be less than 150 and as low as 40.
  • Immunity: Isolation from the outside world makes them vulnerable to germs and pathogens. Even a common flu virus carried by a visitor could wipe out the entire tribe.
  • Preservation of their culture and traditions: which may be diluted with outside contact.
  • Natural calamities, epidemics, and climate change: Geographical location and dependence on the natural resources make them very venerable.
  • Loss of natural habitat: Rising population and resource crunch may lead to exploitation of their natural habitat.
  • Scarce resources: They depend only on the meager source of livelihood; basically dependent on fish and coconut.

Measures in place for the protection of Sentinelese

  • Andaman & Nicobar Regulation 1956 and Indian Forest Act 1927 – Government of India has declared this island and 28 others of the Union Territory as “reserved”. This means a complete prohibition on the entry of foreigners. This provides them and their habitat protection from the outside world.
  • Restricted Area Permit (RPA) – This restricts certain areas from access without permission from the competent authority. However, numerous areas have been excluded temporarily, subject to certain conditions in order to boost tourism.
  • Photographing or filming the tribe members is also an offense.
  • Article 29 of the constitution provides a fundamental right to the Sentinelese to preserve and maintain their distinctive identity.
  • Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGS): Development of PVTGs a scheme implemented by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.

Thus, practically, the Indian authorities have understood and accepted that the Sentinelese wants to stay away from the rest of the world. For now, the government is remotely monitoring the island.

What is a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime?

  • RAP regime was notified in the year 1963. Under it, foreigners are not permitted to visit the restricted area unless the Government is satisfied that there are extraordinary reasons to justify the visit.
  • Every foreigner, except citizens of Bhutan, has to obtain a special permit from the competent authority.
  • Citizens of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan and foreign nationals of Pakistani origin are an exception and are not allowed to enter such areas.

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Measures needed to protect vulnerable tribes

  • Technology can be deployed such as drones to keep a track on their population and any threat to them.
  • People entering these islands should be trained properly so that they can make effective communication with them and do not pose threat to their survival.

Contacts

  • First sighting:A hydrographic survey vessel of East India Company in 1771, sighted Sentinelese. This was the island’s first recorded mention. The crew did not investigate further.
  • First contact: In 1867, British merchant-vessel Nineveh went to North Sentinel Island. All 86 passengers and 20 crewmen were attacked by the Sentinelese. They were later rescued by a Royal Navy rescue ship.
  • In 1880, with the objective to establish contact with the Sentinelese, British naval officer and administrator to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Maurice Vidal Portman, led an armed group of Europeans and convicts to North Sentinel Island.
  • After a few days of search, they captured six Sentinelese, an elderly man and woman, and four children. Both adults died shortly after their arrival in Port Blair and the children sickened. Portman quickly sent back children to the North Sentinel Island.
  • N. Pandit (1967–1991): In 1967, a team of 20 people, comprising the governor, security forces and naval officers and T. N. Pandit, an anthropologist from Anthropological Survey of India, went to the Island, with the objective to explore the island and befriend the Sentinelese.
  • They found evidence of fire, roasted fish, wild fruits, spears, bows, and arrows. The team failed to establish any contact and left the island after leaving gifts for the Islanders.
  • Between the 1970s and 80s, Pandit made several visits to the island as an “expert advisor” for the dignitaries who wished to contact the Sentinelese.
  • National Geographic (1974): In 1974, a National Geographic crew went to the island to shoot a documentary, Man in Search of Man. The crew was attacked by the Sentinelese.
  • The Primrose (1981):  In August 1981, a cargo ship named Primrose, carrying freight between Australia and Bangladesh was stuck at North Sentinel Island because of the rough sea. The stranded crew was later evacuated by a helicopter of the Indian Navy.
  • Madhumala Chattopadhyay:  In 1991, the first instances of peaceful contact by the Sentinelese were recorded by an Indian anthropological team lead by Dr. Madhumala Chattopadhyay.
  • Indian government (1990s):  The Indian government set up a welfare agency to look after the welfare of the islanders, this continued until 2000. The program was later abandoned.
  • 2004 Tsunami: Indian government had sent helicopters to provide aid to the Sentinelese. The islanders reacted by shooting arrows at the helicopter.
  • Deaths of two fishermen: On 27 January 2006, Indian fishermen Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, illegally attempted to harvest crabs off North Sentinel Island.
  • Sentinelese attacked and killed the fishermen with axes. Their bodies were later discovered by an Indian Coast Guard rescue helicopter.
  • Death of John Allen Chau:  In November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American missionary traveled illegally to the Island with the help of local fishermen in the hope of converting Sentinelese to Christianity.
  • Chau only had an ordinary tourist visa and he did not seek the special permission required to visit the island from Indian authorities. He undertook his journey in the night to avoid detection and he also bribed the local fishermen.
  • On 15 November, Chau attempted his first visit by a fishing boat. On 17th November, Chau in his final visit instructed the fishermen to leave without him. Chau was later attacked and killed by the Sentinelese.
  • Police arrested seven fishermen for assisting Chau to visit the restricted island. Indian authorities made various attempts to recover Chau’s body, but on 28th November they decided to abandon those efforts.

Conclusion

This article covers an important topic in current affairs for UPSC and other state exams. You can be asked questions in UPSC prelims or in UPSC Mains regarding tribes of India. Hence this topic should be studied carefully for UPSC IAS exam preparation.

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