American killed by protected Andaman tribe: What missionaries need to understand about conversion

Sanghamitra Baruah
Sanghamitra BaruahNov 22, 2018 | 19:13

American killed by protected Andaman tribe: What missionaries need to understand about conversion

I was born a Hindu, grew up to be a sceptic. They later rechristened me an atheist, though I needed none of the identifiers. I believe I do not need anyone to concoct faith for me. I can choose my own — or none. 

When I heard that a 26-year-old American missionary had been killed by members of the tiny Sentinelese tribe, after he visited their restricted island in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in an attempt to convert them, I, like most of you, naturally felt bad. 


Death can't be the punishment for any 'crime'. My non-religious mind tells me to be more liberal about life and living. In letting others live.

John Allen Chau is believed to have paid fishermen to ferry him to North Sentinel Island. (Credit: Instagram/John Allen Chau)

But what shook me more than the tragedy was how obsinate our belief systems are — the faith that we have in ourselves that we can, and should, change somebody and impose our own beliefs on them.

Yes, John Allen Chau travelled to the Andaman Islands apparently to make contact with members of the protected Sentinelese tribe to convert them to Christianity. The Sentinelese tribe have remained aloof for centuries. They are believed to be extremely private people — a reason why the island, under Indian law, is off-limits to visitors, to protect and preserve the unique Sentinelese culture.

A journal of his last days has been shared by his mother with The Washington PostAccording to The Post, "Chau's riveting journal of his last days shows a treacherous journey by dark in a small fishing boat to the area where the small tribe lived in huts."


"The men — about 5 feet-5 inches tall with yellow paste on their faces, acted angrily to his presence as he tried to attempt to speak their language and sing 'worship songs' to them."

"I hollered, 'My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you,'" he wrote in his journal. He also described how one of the juveniles shot at him with an arrow that pierced his 'waterproof Bible'.

"You guys might think I'm crazy in all this but I think it's worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people," he wrote in a last note to his family on November 16, shortly before he left the safety of the fishing boat to meet the tribesmen on the island.

"God, I don't want to die," were among his last words.

A file photo of a Sentinel tribal man aiming with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter. (Credit: Reuters)

His family in a post on his Instagram page said, “We recently learned from an unconfirmed report that John Allen Chau was reported killed in India while reaching out to members of the Sentinelese tribe in the Andaman Islands." “He loved God, life, helping those in need and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” the family said. “We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death. We also ask for the release of those friends he had in the Andaman Islands.”


While it's gracious of the family to forgive his alleged killers, it's also difficult to understand what caused this tragedy here.

Was Chau a victim of the ire of the Sentinelese or of his own faith — proselytising to the point that he thought it would be worthwhile to declare Jesus to the tribesmen? 

What makes us think that everyone else needs to eat, pray and love the way we do? It is our quest for homogeneity that has created further divides and resistance among us. Try putting yourself in Chau's shoes, and you will find a similar tendency driving you to convert and mould people into what you want them to be.

Look around yourself and you will find everybody trying to tell everybody else how their faith is better and stronger than others. They will also try to tell you not just how right they are but also what is right for you.

Those living in the North Sentinel Island are still lucky to have been left alone to live the way they are. There are a number of others who also want to cling on to their "unique culture and sentiments", but have to face the ire of conformists. It's either accept their truth as religion, or start looking at belonging to a different group. 

Sadly, the conformists have been indoctrinated to believe that they can change others. They don't realise it's actually they who have been proselytised in the process and forced to believe so strongly about their own powers to brainwash people.  

Of course we can't stop missionaries from preaching faith, they have legal and social authority. Just like Chau tried to take gifts and his 'love' to the islanders, there is no dearth of religious missionaries proselytising, colonising people's minds, even controlling their lives. India, for that matter, has been a victim of such proselytisation and conversions by missionaries of all faiths. It is indeed surprising that all those missionaries have been successful in their own ways, to various extents. 

Chau too must have been tricked into believing that it's easy to convert people here. What nobody perhaps told him was that not everyone has a religion. Nor does everybody need one. 

Last updated: November 23, 2018 | 16:38
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