The zeal among Christian missionaries to convert others to their faith often becomes so overwhelming that it leads to personal disasters. The American, John Allen Chau, is a sad example of this misplaced enthusiasm. He ventured into an off-limits island in the Andamans inhabited by the Sentinel people who are both an endangered and a protected tribe, and is feared to have been killed.
Investigations are currently on into the incident, but the following developments have so far been reported. One, Chau was obsessed with bringing the Sentinelese into the Christian faith because he wanted to conquer this remote ‘bastion of Satan’. Two, he misused his visa to make the visit; he didn’t even possess a missionary visa. Three, he went to the island surreptitiously and illegally. Four, he had partners with whom he had finalised his plan in a ‘safe house’.
After his disappearance and death, one of his friends called him a daring adventurer. That is giving credit where none is due. An adventurer seeks to explore new lands and peoples with a view to understanding and appreciating them. Chau had taken the trip with a preconceived view that the Sentinelese were in immediate need of ‘help’ — and that could happen only if they embraced Christianity. He undertook the mission in the full knowledge that he was conducting an illegal act, and that by seeking to mix up with the protected tribe, he was endangering not just his safety but also the health of the indigenous people. In his journal, he had noted, “God, I don’t want to die.” But he seemed, like most missionary zealots, to be consumed by a sense of religious superiority, adding in that journal, “Who will take my place if I die?”
Even if we take a more sympathetic view — that he wanted to live among the Sentinelese, learn their language, understand their culture etc — there were less dubious ways to do so. In any case, when the zone was off-limits for unauthorised people, he had no business to undertake even a humanitarian venture. Surely, there are dozens of places on earth where he could have put his supposed Good Samaritan values to use.
It’s not that he went in for the first time and was instantly killed by the tribals. According to media accounts, Chau had repeatedly gone into the region, annoying the Sentinelese. Once, he went into the dark of the night by avoiding the patrol boats. During the following day, he encountered a group of the indigenous men armed with bows and arrows, and declared: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!” It was a rather silly thing to do, given that the Sentinelese would not have understood one word of what he said. Instead, they would have turned even more hostile by such invasion. Chau ought to have got the message, but he didn’t.
He returned, this time with ‘gifts’ — fish, safety pins, scissors — and burst into loud prayers. The Sentinels were unimpressed by both the offering and the hymns and one of them shot an arrow at him. He escaped, but later on the fishermen there saw the tribesmen drag his body away.
Chau was not the first to go overboard in his conversion drive in the country, though most others before him fortunately didn’t meet his fate. The activities of Christian missionaries have been documented in detail over the decades. The Niyogi Commission’s report of 1956, titled, ‘Christian Missionary Activities Enquiry Committee, Madhya Pradesh’, made a scathing indictment of the conduct of missionaries in the State in the fifties in the conversion of “illiterate aboriginals and other backward people”, and the fact that the feelings of non-Christians were being “offended” by such behaviour. The missionaries and their outfits, obviously, protested against the accusation and called them baseless and motivated. There was no ‘pro-Hindutva’ regime either at the Centre or in the State then!
Historian Sita Ram Goel, writing an introduction to the report published in its entirety by Voice of India in its 1998 edition, observed the many phases of Hindu-Christian encounters and said, “In all of them, Christian missionaries “stick to their dogma of One True God and the Only Saviour which Hindus should accept or be made to a accept.”
But for the missionary, Hindus are not the only target — as the Sentinel case shows. In changed times, it may not be that easy to harvest souls, but apparently there is no stopping the likes of the unfortunate Chau.