Indian fishermen granted bail after ferrying American missionary to restricted island

NEW DELHI— The five fishermen and two other locals who ferried 27-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau to a remote island with restricted entry were granted bail Wednesday, Dec. 19 by a court in Port Blair, Andaman, an island territory of India.

Chau, an Instagram adventurer, knew the trip would be dangerous and had even trained for the encounter in a mock village missionary bootcamp in Kansas. The Sentinelese tribe on the island are known to resist outsiders with spears and arrows.  The fishermen who brought Chau Nov. 14 told police they anchored their boat at night about 500 meters from the beach, and Chau rowed a canoe to shore the next morning, continuing to row even as arrows flew his direction.

That afternoon, Chau returned to the fishermen for some medicines and food. He had some injuries from the arrows, but they were not life-threatening. He left his journal with the men, which describes how the tribal men, about five feet five inches tall with yellow paste on their faces, reacted angrily when Chau tried to sing worship songs.

“I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you,’” Chau wrote in his journal. One of the juveniles shot an arrow through his waterproof Bible, he wrote.

“You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people,” Chau wrote on Nov. 16 from the fishing boat. “God, I don’t want to die.” 

Then Chau set off again for the island in the dark.

The next morning, the fishermen saw his body being dragged on the beach by some of the tribe, and they told the police, who began an investigation.

The seven men were arrested Nov. 20 under various charges, including culpable homicide, conveying a person by water for hire in an unsafe vessel, endangering human life and breaking various laws meant to protect aboriginal tribes.  

The court granted bail because the investigation is proceeding and “the accused have been detained for a considerable time,” a person who attended the hearing but does not want to be named said.

A local friend of Chau’s named Alexander, who is a pastor and electronics engineer, and Saw Remmis, a local water sports help, along with fishermen Saw Jampo, Saw Taray, Saw Watson, Saw Molian and M. Bhumi helped Chau visit the island. Chau reportedly paid the fishermen Rs. 25,000, or about $70 each.

“The fishermen are innocent and they were only doing their job of ferrying people from one place to another,” another person familiar with the case said. “Chau was well aware of the consequences and no body else should be held responsible.”

Many Indian Christians have expressed sorrow at Chau’s death but also concern about the consequences of his actions, such as the families of the fishermen who had lost their husbands, fathers and household incomes while the men were in jail, and may lose them again if they are sentenced to jail time.

“They have been in custody long enough and it was only proper that the court granted them this relief,” Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of Evangelical Fellowship of India, said. “The case, however, will go on.”

There will be no further attempts to recover Chau’s body, since doing so would disturb the tribe.

Two Americans also being investigated

Police have relied on Chau’s journal to piece together what happened on his last days. In Chau’s Nov. 14 journal entry, three days before he was seen dead, he wrote that, “Bobby and Christian left five days ago and it was such an encouragement to see them.”

Christian Vaughan and Bobbie Stratman are involved in the same church as Chau, called All Nations, headquartered in Kansas City. All Nations hosted the mock village training Chau attended to prepare for meeting an uncontacted tribe.

Police are examining the legal culpability of Vaughan and Stratman in Chau's death.

“Efforts are on to identify other persons who assisted the American national in the misadventure,” Nand Kumar Sai, the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), told the media.

Vaughan and Chau both attended Oral Roberts University, an Evangelical Christian school in Oklahoma. In one Instagram post, Vaughan called Chau his “MCM”, short for “Man Crush Monday”, and called him the “most adventurous man” he knows.

Statman, a woman in her fifties, had come to India at least four times before and to Nepal, Thailand and Hong Kong to meet with people in need, “pastor wives” and educational institutions, according to her social media.

Foreigners allowed to visit the island with government permission

In August, the Indian government excluded North Sentinel Island and 28 others from the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) until December 31, 2022. 

The lifting of RAP means that foreigners could be allowed to visit these islands, under certain conditions. One of those conditions is that anyone visiting a tribal reserve needs “separate approvals of the competent authority”. (Chau did not have approvals.)

The decision, meant to boost tourism to the islands, was criticized by tribal protection groups for the major change it could mean for the Sentinelese, who have lived for hundreds of years with very little outside contact.

"These people are not specimens for tourists to see,” anthropologist PC Joshi said. “They are extremely vulnerable to diseases and any contact might lead to their extinction. We cannot expose them for a few dollars. We need to respect their choice.”

The Indian Coast Guard has also come under fire for not catching the fishing boat in the waters near North Sentinel Island.

Indian Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, from his annual press conference, rejected the idea that the death of Chau was an example of a failure in India's coastal security.

Lanba said that Chau came to the Andamans and had the required permissions to be there.

According to Andaman police, a committee has been formed to review the details of Chau’s death and the legal procedures meant to protect restricted areas.