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.”