“They were just 200 metres away and were attacking my helicopter with everything they had – arrows were flying everywhere. I was on the ground on North Sentinel Island. The rotors of my chopper were running. In moments, my crew and I would have been captured and killed.”
Less than an hour earlier, Commandant Praveen Gaur, the Coast Guard pilot flying a Chetak helicopter, had been deployed on a rescue mission in 2006.
Two fishermen in a motorised fishing boat were missing from a village in Port Blair. He was tasked to locate and rescue them. “We carried out a search south of the main island and covered South and North Sentinel Island. While flying close to North Sentinel, I spotted what appeared to be their boat and I flew lower to investigate.”
Fully aware of the risks his crew could face from the hostile tribe on North Sentinel, Commandant Gaur decided to land his chopper on the beach anyway so that an aircrew diver, part of his team, could try and spot the missing fishermen or gather some clues.
“As we were going down, we were attacked by the Sentinel tribals who were using bows and arrows and had spears as well. The arrows were coming up to a height of 100 feet,” says Commandant Gaur who realised he needed a Plan B if this rescue mission had any hope of success. “There would have been more than 50 warriors – the hunters wore a red kind of skirt. There were no women present.”
Commandant Gaur realised the only way to get access to the boat would be to divert the islanders to another location a short distance away. So he flew his helicopter, slowly, about 1.5 kilometres away from the location of the fishermen’s boat. The Sentinel hunters chased the chopper along the beach. When they were reasonably far from the boat, Commandant Gaur quickly flew back to his original location, and was about to land, when he saw two clumps a short distance away from the boat.
“Once I landed near the boat, I could make out two ‘heaps’ in the sand. I told my air crew diver to get down and to dig it up. They found the remains of one man who appeared to have been strangled by a rope which was from their own boat. Once our diver found one body, they dug up the other heap which was two feet away. But by this time, the hunters were returning.”
Hastily taking off, Commandant Gaur, who was commended in a citation for his role in this operation, flew back to Port Blair to return the body to relatives of the fishermen.
But his mission was far from over.
“I was told to bring the other body back to Port Blair. So we went back but as we landed, it was clear that they were aware of our previous trick and split into two groups, one ran towards our chopper while the other guarded the body and the boat.”
The situation was quickly becoming critical again as arrows shot past the Coast Guard helicopter. “Even though we carried light machine guns, there was no question of firing.”
With no option left, and alert to the need to protect his own crew, Commandant Gaur aborted the mission without retrieving the second body.
“The Sentinel hunters were not going to make the same mistake twice. They adapted to the situation with one group staying with the boat and the body of the dead fisherman. We did not think they would be such proficient fighters.”
Commandant Praveen Gaur was awarded the Tatrakshak Medal for Gallantry on Independence Day, 2006 for his role not just in this mission but also in rescuing two fishermen from the sea in poor weather conditions.
Earlier this month, an American evangelist, 27-year-old John Allen Chau, managed to sneak onto the North Sentinal Island in an apparent attempt to convert the Sentinelese tribe to Christianity, where he was killed by them with arrows. Efforts to recover his body, supposedly buried by the tribals, have been unsuccessful so far.
The North Sentinel Island was out of bounds for visitors until recently. However, in a major step earlier this year, the government excluded this island and 28 others in the union territory from the Restricted Area Permit or RAP regime until December 31, 2022, news agency PTI reported. The lifting of RAP would allow foreigners to enter the island without permission from the government, it added.
The Sentinelese are assumed to be direct descendants of the earliest humans who emerged from Africa. Their numbers are believed to be less than 150 and as low as 40.