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Chapter: 12th Political Science : Chapter 12 : Environmental Concerns and Globalisation

Indigenous People and their Rights

In a popular sense, the very meaning of cultural diversity is often represented by indigenous peoples.

Indigenous People and their Rights


In a popular sense, the very meaning of cultural diversity is often represented by indigenous peoples. Approximately 350 million indigenous peoples belonging to 5000 different cultures are residing over 20 percent of the Earth’s territory. Of all the challenges concerning the realm of indigenous people and their rights, the most arduous has been the inability to reach a consensus on who are indigenous peoples. Hence, the dilemma centres on the fundamental question vis-à-vis the factors that converge in building what indigeneity means. Even the UN Working Group on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples could not arrive at a formal definition that explains the true identity of theirs. The primary dilemma that made this process a rigmarole was the inconclusiveness on working out a set of absolute parameters that assign indigeneity to a group


There is no international agreement on the definition of indigenous peoples. Indigenous communities decide their case of indigeneity. It is called “Self-Identification”.

Is it the smallness in the population that matters? Or is it the proximity to one’s own land, and the corresponding longevity, and a conventional non-industrial lifestyle that make up the indigenous identity? An element of uniformity was achieved on defining certain groups such as the First Nation/Native American of North America, the residents of the Amazon jungles, Inuit from the far North and the indigenous groups based in Papua New Guinea. Out of the multiple attempts in search of a universally recognized definition, the one by Julian Berger, a UN official, stands important. According to him, “the notion of belonging to a separate culture with all its various elements – language, religion, social, political systems, moral values, scientific and philosophical knowledge, beliefs, legends, laws, economic systems, technology, art, clothing, music, dance, architecture, and so on – is central to indigenous people’s own definition”. He further states, indigenous peoples

1) Are the descendants of the original habitants of a territory which has been overcome by conquest;

2) Are nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, such as shifting cultivators, herders and hunters and gatherers, and practice a labour-intensive form of agriculture which produces little surplus and has low energy needs;

3) Do not have centralized political institutions and organize at the level of the community and make decisions on a consensus basis;

4) Have all the characteristics of a national minority: they share a common language, religion, culture, and other identifying characteristics and a relationship to a particular territory but are subjugated by a dominant culture and society;

5) Have a different world view, consisting of a custodial and non-materialist attitude to land and natural resources, and want to pursue a separate development to that proffered by the dominant society;

6) Consist of individuals who subjectively consider themselves to be indigenous, and are accepted by the group as such.

The contemporary understanding is that the indigenous peoples, in general, are marked by deficits in authority and political power, and the corresponding absence of inclusion. Their existence is also characterized by subordination to an immigrant or ethnic group-dominant state. It is important to note that their indigeneity is not a product of the lack of power. Rather, the powerlessness emanates from their indigeneity. These groups, with their inherent and inviolable constancy to the conventional way of life-based on the endemic values and traditions, kept them aloof from the evolution that helped advance the social, political and economic establishments. In turn, the indigenous peoples were looked upon as a threat to this “march of progress” and the changing order of life. It is also important to know that the indigenous populations are not essentially “socially-static” or status-quoists. The global tendency to accuse them as conservative is a result of their slow pace of response to the assimilation and adaptation against the increasing complexity of the macro-social systems.

World Indigenous People Day

International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is celebrated on 9th August every year.


Let’s have a look at some of the most important indigenous societies in the world:

Building an Indian conceptual case of indigeneity receives both theoretical and empirical setbacks. Officially, the Government of India hardly recognizes any community in the country as indigenous. However, experts are of the view that there are three assumptions that help construct an Indian approach towards the puzzle of indigenous identity. They are: a) Indigenous are those groups of people who have lived in a region or country to which they belong before colonization or conquest by people from outside that region or country. b) They have become marginalized as a result of colonization or conquest of that region or country. c) Such groups are governed more by means of their own social, economic and cultural institutions rather than the laws which are applicable to the society or country as a whole. Besides, the concept of indigeneity in India is a product of the prevailing “tribal consciousness”. The idea of tribal identity has more often than not guided the national debates on what constitutes indigenous populace in India.

The indigenous groups in India have been referred under multiple titles. Adivasis (original inhabitants), Aborigines, Adim Jati (ancient tribes) or Vanavasi (forest dwellers). Under the constitution, they are recognized as “Scheduled Tribes” and their territories as “Scheduled Areas”. In spite of the absence of a formal definition by the Government of India, a loose definition in terms of reaching a legal consensus was constructed by bringing a set of features like “‘primitive’ traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large and backwardness”. Groups with a demographic base of millions such as Gondas and Bhils to the Great Andamanese, who are of around just dozens in strength, come under this category. Furthermore, Sharad Kulkarni, in his work “India: Indigenous communities in the sub-continent” (1988), says:

“The indigenous tribal peoples of India have lost most of their tranquil habitats; they have also lost some of their confidence and identity. Forces of oppression and exploitation have encroached upon tribal life and have reduced many of them to sub-human conditions. The laws meant for their protection have remained largely ineffective. However, efforts made some impact in raising their standard of living. Social activists have contributed to mobilizing them for the protection of their rights. The picture is rather gloomy and unclear but there are rays of hope on the horizon”.

Threats and Issues faced by Indigenous People

·           Discrimination and structural violence

·           Eviction from homeland resulting in the denial of land rights

·           Technology-driven forced resettlement

·           Exploitation of intellectual property such as traditional arts, stories etc.

·           Physical removal from native territories

·           Lack of access to traditional resources

·           Destructive development and forced displacement

·           Question of Autonomy and Self-Determination

·           Neglect by civil society

·           Only a few countries recognize indigenous peoples as legitimate groups

·           Minimal political participation

·           Poverty

·           Health issues

·           Unemployment

It is noteworthy that the Indian stance of indigeneity also coincides with the global strides of anticolonial imperatives supported by the canons of subaltern inputs. In addition, the concept of indigeneity in India more or less overlaps with what can be called “tribal consciousness”. Globally, the indigenous groups are subjected to a great deal of challenges. By virtue of their identity, they are often mistreated as second-class citizens by the so called “mainstream” citizens. The major challenges faced by the indigenous peoples are as follows:

Rights of the Indigenous People

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted on 13 September 2007 by the UN General Assembly. As the most comprehensive international instrument on the indigenous peoples’ rights, it seeks to ensure a “universal framework of minimum standards for the survival,dignityandwell-beingoftheindigenous peoples of the worlds”. The Declaration contains 46 Articles which is the outcome of a drafting process which began in 1985 by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In its essence, the UNDRIP is a manual for the governments of the world on how to revere the human rights of the indigenous communities. It also serves in helping the enforcement of other mechanisms, affecting indigenous groups, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ILo Convention 169, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women


Human Rights, Self-Determination and Nationality

Articles 1 – 6

o Right to all human rights

o Right to freedom and equality and right against exploitation

o Right to self-determination

o Right to autonomy or self-government

o Right to maintain their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural identity

o Right to nationality


Life, Liberty, Culture and Security

Articles 7 – 10

o Right to life, liberty and security

o Right against forced assimilation or destruction of culture

o Right to belong to an indigenous community or a nation

o Right against forced removal or relocation


Culture, Religion and Language

Articles 11-13

o Right to culture

o Right to spiritual and religious traditions and customs

o Right to know and use language, histories and oral traditions


Education, Media and Employment

Articles 14-17

o Right to establish educational systems and access to culturally sensitive education

o Right to accurate reflection of indigenous cultures in education

o Right to create media in their own language and access to non-indigenous media

o Right to employment


Participation and Development

Articles 18-24

o Right to participation in decision making

o Right of free, prior and informed consent for laws and policies

o Right to their own political, economic and social system, subsistence and development

o Right to economic and social well-being

o Right against violence and discrimination of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities

o Right to set priorities and strategies for development

o Right to health


Land and Resources

Articles 25-32

o Right to spiritual relationship with traditional land and resources

o Right to own, use, develop and control traditional land and resources

o Right to indigenous laws and traditions on land and resources

o Right to get back or to be compensated against the land acquisitions without their free, prior and informed consent

o Right against militarization on indigenous land without their free, prior and informed consent

o Right to cultural and intellectual property

o Right to decide on land and resource development


Self-Government and Indigenous Laws

Articles 33-37

o Right to identity, membership and citizenship

o Right to distinctive institutional structures and customs

o Right to individual responsibilities

o Right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation

o Right to recognition, observance and enforcement of treaties and agreements



Articles 38-42

o Right to be consulted by the states in taking measures to achieve the ends of the Declaration

o Right to financial and technical assistance from States for the enjoyment of the rights contained in the Declaration

o Right to just and fair procedures for the conflicts and disputes with States or other parties

o The responsibility on the UN system and other intergovernmental agencies to contribute towards realization of the provisions of the Declaration.

o The responsibility of the UN, its bodies, including to Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, to promote respect for and full application of the provisions of the Declaration.


Nature of Guarantee

Articles 43-44

o The rights as enshrined are considered the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous people.

o Equal guarantee of all rights to male and female indigenous individuals.



Identify the indigenous peoples based in the state of Tamil Nadu.

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