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By Barnes Mawrie


August 9 is observed as International Day of Indigenous Peoples. I am inclined to offer a reflection on this topic. Dictionaries define indigenous as “originating in a particular region or country, native, innate, inherent, natural.” The word dates back to the Latin word indigena, meaning native or original inhabitant. The word indigenous has many meanings. In every region of the world, many different cultural groups live together and interact, but not all of these groups are considered indigenous or native to their particular geographic area. In fact, it is those groups who claim a shared sense of identity who are internationally recognized as “indigenous peoples.”

Throughout human history, peoples have migrated to various regions of the Earth, and cultures have mingled and exchanged influences. For these reasons the identification of indigenous peoples is not always straightforward and simple. Indigenous peoples inhabit large areas of the Earth’s surface. Spread across the world from the Arctic to the South Pacific, they number, at a rough estimate, over 370 million people in 90 countries. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. They make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest.

Indigenous or Aboriginal peoples are so-called because they were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere. They are the descendants—according to one definition—of those who inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived. The new arrivals later became dominant through conquest, occupation, settlement, or other means. Most indigenous peoples around the world have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national populations.

Throughout human history, whenever dominant neighbouring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers from far away have acquired new lands by force, the cultures and livelihood—even the very existence—of indigenous peoples have been endangered. The threats to indigenous peoples’ cultures and lands, to their status and other legal rights as distinct groups and as citizens, do not always take the same forms as in earlier times. Although some groups have been  Indigenous Peoples of the World  relatively successful, in most of the world indigenous peoples are still actively seeking recognition of their identities and ways of life. In spite of cultural and ethnic diversity, there are often striking similarities between the problems, grievances, and interests of the various indigenous peoples and, therefore, in their presentations to international forums. Participation of indigenous communities and organizations in United Nations meetings has served to highlight these similarities. It has often been the case—particularly since the emergence of new nations in the wave of decolonization which followed the Second World War—that indigenous peoples insist on retaining their separate identity and cultural heritage. It is now generally admitted that policies of assimilation and integration aimed at bringing these groups fully into the mainstream of majority populations are usually counter-productive.

Coming to North-east India, the tribal communities in this region, are the indigenous peoples. So by the very definition of indigeneity, they are the rightful owners of the land. The current NRC issue in Assam is a clear manifestation of a struggle of indigenous peoples to recuperate their ancestral land which they have lost due to an unchecked immigration from bordering countries and states. Other tribal areas like Meghalaya, Nagaland and others are experiencing the same threatening demographic phenomenon. Perhaps Tripura presents the worst situation of all, where we see the indigenous communities being reduced to a small minority and have lost much of their land and sovereignty due to the overwhelming influx of outsiders especially from Bangladesh.

As always and anywhere in the world, the indigenous communities are victims of exploitation of every sort, political, economic etc. For centuries, the tribal communities of North-east India have been experiencing discrimination and marginalization right from the time of the British Government to the present day. Today another form of exploitation is cropping up, namely an exploitation along religious sentiments. There are external forces which are trying to divide the tribal communities along religious lines. This is posing a greater threat to the identity and integrity of the tribal communities. All these negative factors are creating a fear psychosis among indigenous peoples of our region and naturally they fall into a defensive mode. At times we witness a violent reaction in the form of militancy which has become a scourge of our region. However, on this day it is appropriate to think of the plight of indigenous peoples all over India. They are still a section of the population that is being discriminated in every way and are being exploited in every sense. Will the Government be still immune to their sufferings and deaf to their constant plea for justice?


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