Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples

In general, Indigenous Peoples or Aboriginal Peoples are those who were living on their lands before settlers came from elsewhere. In India the Indigenous Peoples are those who are included in the List of Scheduled Tribes.

There has been some International action to protect the Human Rights of Indigenous peoples. In 1991, The International Labour Organisation brought into force a Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. Other International Declarations were also passed, the latest being the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by The United Nations General Assembly in Sept. 2007.

‘The Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. It also “emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations”.’

Not all countries ratified the Convention, some countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States expressing reservations about it

Protection of the rights of Indigenous peoples has been a highly controversial issue in many countries, open to different interpretations.

In Australia, the term the Stolen Generation is used to describe those children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, who were taken from their families by government agencies. The Aborigines Protection Amending Act 1915 empowered the Australian government to forcibly take aboriginal children from their parents. The reason given for this was parental neglect and also a fear that the population would die out. However in practice this was done even there was no parental neglect evident. In Western Australia, The Aborigines Act, made all aboriginal and half-caste children wards of the State, removing the guardianship of the parents.

For the most part, the children were placed into institutional facilities operated by religious or charitable organisations and punished if caught talking in local indigenous languages.

On February 13, 2008, a public apology for past injustices was made to the Aboriginal peoples on behalf of the Australian government by PM Kevin Rudd.

Just yesterday, Friday April 3rd, 2009, Australia has endorsed the United nations Declaration.

A heart-wrenching movie on this topic, Rabbit Proof Fence, was made on this subject a few years ago.

In the case of Canadian Indians, a similar apology was tendered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on behalf of the government.

In part, it says-

‘Today, we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, has caused great harm, and has no place in our country.

Most schools were operated as “joint ventures” with Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches.

The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities. Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed.

All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities.

First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools.’

In India there is some confusion about which populations to include in the term Indigenous, but generally it means Tribal populations. In general these tribes are geographically isolated and live very simply using very basic technologies. Some tribes are the Gond, Santhal, Banjara in Jharkhand, the Meena, Bhils. The Gujjars of Gujarat, the Katkari and Thakars in Maharashtra. In the North-eastern states, there are some 200 tribes.

India has pledged to safeguard the Human Rights of the Tribals.

In reality this presents many problems. The government has pledged itself to safeguard the right of the Tribals to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, economic, social and cultural characteristics. For this they must be allowed to continue with their traditional ways of, say, living in the forests. In many cases they have their own traditional customs which may not be in tune with laws prevalent today.

Policies of the Indian government have rarely been formulated with the interests of the Tribals in mind. The creation of states in India was on the basis of the languages of the mainstream caste groups. However in the process, areas of various Tribal groups were split up in several states. So it became difficult to continue with their old political/ economic systems.

Another problem is that if it is their custom to live in the forests under trees, what about the rights of their children to a safe environment, their right to education, their right of access to adequate health care?

Also we can say that the only constant is change. If the Tribals do not want their environment to change , we must see how realistic this demand is. Everywhere life is changing- in the cities as well as in the villages. The forests are shrinking, whether we like it or not. For how long can the tribals cling to their old lifestyle?

On the other hand- who are we to say that they must embrace the ways of modern society? Maybe we can learn something from their “sustainable subsistence economy “?

What do you think?

[ I saw the movie- ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’, recently and became interested in the subject of Indigenous Peoples. I have somewhat limited knowledge about this subject- what I have written here I have mostly found on the Internet. ]

edited to add:- According to this source India has not yet adopted the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples due to several obstacles.

However, “True to its tradition of cultural assimilation and spirit of accommodation the Indian constitution presents the picture of the larger system of permitting the smaller political systems of tribal populations to be part of the system to remain distinct culturally but to be part of the larger system politically with sufficient autonomy wherever necessary and possible.”



  1. Manju, I agree too.. It is a very complex issue.. This time I met several tribals, when I was in Wayanad, and it does feel sad that they have not been able to progress(in terms of materialistic things) as much as the rest of India.. But they certainly seem to have traditions that in some cases are far more progressive that most other communties – esp in terms of equality of women.. But yes, ‘safe guarding their rights’ has a lot of angles and there is no ‘one’ solution… I guess, the goverment, in partnership with representatives from these communities need to come up with the best possible solution…


  2. I am not too sure whether it is easy or even possible to accurately identify “indigenous” people on the Indian mainland. Many of the 200 tribes of the North East, for example, have Mongoloid connections. It is only in the Andaman Islands that four distinct indigenous tribes, including the famous Jarawas, have been identified.There is little doubt about the indigenous people of Australia, the Americas and New Zealand because their colonisation by Europeans is rather recent.Wholesale and willful destruction of indigenous cultures as witnessed in these lands and elsewhere too is condemnable.As you have said, change is a reality that no one can escape. Therefore all people have to embrace lifestyle and developmental changes. But that should not be accompanied by systematic “cultural” annihilation and programmed religious conversions that cut them from their roots completely.


  3. Bones- You are right, nothing should be forced on them. However, they may be forced to change their way of life, not because of compulsion from the Indian government, but because of changing circumstances beyond anyone’s control.Smitha- Yes, it is a complex issue. And there may be no one solution that will be suitable for all the situations.


  4. Vinodji- The word ‘indigenous’ has been used by international agencies to describe various tribes/ communities in different countries. As I understand it, the word has been used by the Indian government while interacting with international agencies like the UN and with international NGOs in reference to Indian tribals in general.As you have pointed out, it may not be possible to identify tribes as ‘indigenous’ on the Indian mainland. Actually I had started to write an explanation of this point in this pos,t but it became too lengthy. I’m afraid I took the easy way out and deleted the paragraph.The situations of communities referred to as ‘indigenous’ in countries like the US, Canada and Australia is very different from that of those referred to as ‘indigenous’ in India.It has to be noted that there was never any forced destruction of culture by the Indian government of tribal communities as in other countries.


  5. We have the Adivasis in Maharashtra, tribes of Dangs on Guj-Mah border.Typically these would be forest tribes here. Then we have Bastar tribes again forest based and different from the agro-based communities living on flat lands.I am not sure if we can term Gujjars or Meena as tribes in the conventional sense. They are part of mainstream society and powerful political groups.Our social and educational system may ensure that in a couple of generations, we may assimilate them in a more majoritarian way of life and this process may not be forced or painful.


  6. Well, this far too complex than what is immediately comprehensible. i guess the essence will revolve around who are the original ‘originals’ !?! When do we draw the line ?!?


  7. On the other hand- who are we to say that they must embrace the ways of modern society? Maybe we can learn something from their “sustainable subsistence economy “?This is absolutely right.Who are we?What is ‘modern’?Its all a mass of confusion….maybe we are the confused ones really.Thought provoking post Manju!


  8. Manju, thank you for bringing up this topic. It is a complex situation in all countries involved, I’m sure. I’m not sure that there is any right solution. So much damage has been done.


  9. Informative post, Manju. Change is inevitable and keeping with the times may seem to be wise, but I agree with Indyeah that we cannot be judgemental about the ways of the tribal’s lifestyles. Someday we may want to return to that lifestyle.


  10. Mavin- The article I read that listed these names of tribal groups had included both Meenas and Gujjars. But, yes, I agree that these are powerful political groups. And I seem to remember reading at the time of the agitations in Rajasthan over reservations, that the Gujjars are OBCs.Kavi- I have not gone into this question in this post because it is far too complicated. I have just tried to discuss, as Bones puts it, “Assimilation v/s Traditional”


  11. Indyeah- I certainly agree with you there- it’s all confusion!Weeble- Complicated it is. And now highly politicised- so it’s hard to say who is actually thinking about what is best for the Tribals.Gopinathji- That is certainly correct- we cannot be judgemental about their lifestyle. How can we be sure that we are right?


  12. Manju, That is a thought provoking post and many times we really don’t have a solution for it.Long back I had read and article about one Adivasi village where people eat only raw things. They don’t cook at all. They eat raw rice, mud, fruits etc. Still they are healthy and have same health problems as the ones who cook food.


  13. survival of the fittest —in the US, the native americans (the first immigrants to the americas were asians ) are today given some reservation land “far in the deserts of arizona, new mexico — and the european americans say that they have been given human rights ! –Who is original to america –the correct answer is NOBODY — first come first serve policy seems to rule the land.if i may use the word commodity — life is a commodity and people have immigrated from lands afar escaping persecution to live. the jews are a fine example — apart from the “nazranis” who belongs to one of the 12 jewish tribes ( who majorly live in kerala) , some of the ckp’s ( of the mahastraian caste or tribe –not sure–you would know better ) are the jews who have assimilated with the people of the land — isn’t that correct ?what is important is the basic value of life itself be not tarnished.assimiliation, tradition are the names of “fight ” that societes have evolved –just for one right –“right to live”.


  14. Anrosh, yes it is the survival of the fittest. And in most cases we see that the settlers who arrive later with more sophisticated weapons can subjugate the earlier ones.I read that in Australia, the aboriginals did not even know how to fight back, it was not in their nature.But as humans evolve, we have to substitute ‘justice for all’ in place of ‘survival of the fittest’- wherever it is possible, I feel.


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