Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Dept of Environment and Climate Change
The need now is to reflect on the idea of indigenous

As August 9 Approaches, the Need is to Introspect on the Idea of Indigeniety in a Pluri-Culture


The word ‘indigenous’ could be a fashionable term for some, while others loathe it. This word serves as a cohesive glue for some communities while connoting the exclusivist sense at times. There is a partition between the ‘certain’ and the ‘sceptic’ mind. The ‘certain’ may be so sure of scanty parameters of truth, while the ‘sceptic’ may align to post-modernist thought of subjective reality. Is the word ‘indigenous’ an elusive terminology or a bone of contention for insiders, giving external forces to harvest in muddy waters? The first known use of the word ‘indigenous’ was in 1640s, then applied to plants and cultures in the New World (Peters & Mika, 2017). In any case, no one can domesticate the word ‘indigenous’ according to their whims and fancies. We have to be locally conscious but live with a global mindset in a multi-cultural society. It is time to wake from the ignoramus condition and enter the world of LPG (liberalization, privatization, globalization).

Indigenous people

The so-called indigenous people is a social formation, basically homogeneous, isolated from others, maintaining peculiar cultures and customs (Béteille, 1998). The general sense of the term applied to that produced, growing, living, or occurring naturally in a particular region or environment; also sometimes used as a synonym for ‘native,’ ‘innate,’ ‘aborigine,’ ‘endemic,’ and ‘inborn’ (Peters & Mika, 2017). To highlight the fundamental existence of indigenous people, in 1990, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 1993 as the International Year of the World’s Indigenous peoples. Further, the General Assembly established two International Decades of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: the first 1995 – 2004 (resolution 48/163), and the second 2005-2014 (resolution 59/174) with the chief aim of strengthening international cooperation for solving problems indigenous peoples face in areas such as human rights, the environment, development, education, health, economic and social development. Further, the United Nations General Assembly decided to observe 9 August every year as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People. Nonetheless, there is an opposition by various tribal groups and ‘first nations’ peoples to the terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘Aborigine’ (and its cognates) as these terms have often been “derogatory, historically inaccurate and contaminated by a colonial past based on the demeaning notion of ‘primitive’ peoples with its assumption of western cognitive superiority” (Peters & Mika, 2017). In 2002, United Nations officially used the word ‘indigenous’ for the first time in its political declaration of the World Summit on Sustainable Development. The term ‘indigenous’ is a rented terminology, not worth fighting over it. The next best alternative is to stick to the constitutionally enshrined words about tribals in the Indian constitution. At various historical eras, imperial anthropology has created these terms and expressions – sometimes uniting but most of the time divisive. In a nutshell, all the rights in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) aim to enhance harmonious and cooperative relations be­tween the State and indigenous peoples, based on principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, non-discrimination, and good faith.

Features of the indigenous populace

The world has about 250-600 million indigenous people in different countries, depending on the terminology and recognition accorded by various governments. Indigenous communities articulate their plight, needing diverse socio-economic frameworks. Virginius  Xaxa (1999), a prominent Indian tribal thinker, marks out three outstanding characteristics that qualify a group of people as indigenous; firstly, these are people who lived in a country before being colonized by others. Secondly, colonization has ultimately marginalized their living condition. Thirdly, such people are independently administered by the social, cultural and economic priorities of their societies, not necessarily dependent on the legal guidelines of a country. Some other features of indigenous people include peculiar customs, practices, simple institutions, primitive lifestyles, preliterate societies and beliefs (Béteille, 1998). Based on these essential parameters, one may include or exclude a community from being indigenous. In addition, each country has constitutional provisions for tribals/natives/original settlers of a geographical location. In India, people with indigenous characteristics are often called tribals, Adivasis, forest dwellers, original forest settlers, ST, SC, OBC, PVTGs, etc. In the international forums, they are also called – natives, Indians, first nations, autochthonous, first people, aborigines, indigenous, etc.

Common threats

While tribals are gradually gaining economic improvement, educational privileges, better housing, health facilities, employment avenues and modern lifestyle, the “local songs, dialects and folktales and folk-lore are facing a severe setback as its usage has no doubt declined in all the tribes and especially in the tribes that are most exposed to the outer world” (Tewari, 2013). The erosion of culture is a threatening phenomenon needing timely attention. Change in lifestyle and economic habits prompt overall change in other walks of life (Ghurya, 1943). The tension between ecology and the capitalist production and consumption approach (Munshi, 2000) is an undeniable common threat. Climate change and environmental crises are shared concerns. Environmental crisis adversely affects the populace where indigenous lives heavily dependent on nature (Tsosie, 2007). Exploitative economic projects can annihilate us and stunt our social growth. Lack of sufficient political representation is another concern setting us on the back foot. Internal skirmishes within a state or between states (Assam-Mizoram, Assam-Meghalaya, Manipur-Nagaland, Manipur-Myanmar, etc.) are another critical issue that obstructs the development and growth of a broader mindset. Infights slow down inter-generational social movement from the periphery to the centre. Obsessive and exclusivist ethnic consciousness is an emerging threat in India. Majoritarianism is a public threat to minority communities. More significant minority community depreciating smaller minority groups is a cancerous growth.

Indigenous Rights

Any form of right is accompanied by responsibility. A right is valuable when it is beneficial for others and self. Anything that is only beneficial for self or a few people but detrimental to the larger community is not alright. Is it your right to cause tension to yourself or others? Is it your right to live in misery? “Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occu­pied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their re­sponsibilities to future generations in this regard” (UNDRIP, Article 25.1). Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have tradi­tionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired (UNDRIP Article 26.1).  States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands, territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure sys­tems of the indigenous peoples concerned (UNDRIP Article 26.3). Tsosie (2007) posits that “environmental self-determination” entitlements depend upon indigenous peoples’ exceptional cultural and political position worldwide and evoke a human rights-based set of norms rather than a domestic sovereignty model. The truth is that each government has its set of normative principles upon which no other countries or organizations can infringe upon.

Indigenous duties

Our claim for rights should not blind us from acknowledging the rights of others. We must know: No right can exist bereft of reciprocal duties. No life can exist without faithfully guarding human rights. No society can exist without mutual co-existence and respect. No community can flourish without interacting with other communities. No state boundary can be safeguarded only by a community. No community can claim superiority over others. The age of ‘might is right’ has elapsed. Ideas and dialogues rule this age. UNDRIP affirms that indigenous peoples, in the exer­cise of their rights, should be free from discrimi­nation of any kind.


Life is not a race of gathering and owning land and property. Instead, life is a privilege to share what one has for ultimate happiness. Having things but not experiencing joy is one of the worst forms of life. Confrontations, fights, and wars are counterproductive to peace and progress. Conflicts disrupt mental health and relationships. Conversely, each community should acknowledge and respect the “diversity and richness of civilizations and cultures, which constitute the common heritage of hu­mankind” (UNDRIP). Now the question is, are the so-called indigenous people doomed to fight, claim, counter-claim, assert, remain in poverty? Is the claim to be ‘indigenous’ a trap or a way forward to universal peace and co-existence?

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