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International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

by RTD Journal
International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

By resolution 49/214 of 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People shall be observed on 9 August every year during the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People.

It is a day that is aimed at raising awareness about the indigenous populations around the globe; educating people about indigenous people’s rights. Indigenous people make up around 6.2% of the world’s population.

Indigenous peoples, also referred to as first people, aboriginal people, native people, or autochthonous people, are culturally distinct ethnic groups who are native to a place which has been colonized and settled by another ethnic group. The term indigenous was first, in its modern context, used by Europeans, who used it to differentiate the indigenous peoples of the Americas from black people who were brought to the Americas as slaves from Africa.


It may have first been used in this context by Sir Thomas Browne in 1646, who stated “and although in many parts thereof there be at present swarms of Negroes serving under the Spaniard, yet were they all transported from Africa, since the discovery of Columbus; and are not indigenous or proper natives of America.”

The non-recognition of the religion of indigenous peoples (Tribes and Scheduled Tribes) in the Census of India reports is a glaring example of killing by silence. The Census 2011 report explains this:


“The collection of data on religion has been a part of Census since 1872. In the Pre- Independence Census reports, the data on religion was being presented for nine major religions namely Hindu, Muslim, Tribal [emphasis mine], Christian, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Parsi, Jew, and others. However, since the Census 1951, the data on religion has been presented for six major religions namely Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist. Besides, all the other minor religions have been classified under the category of ‘Others’.”


Notice that the religion named “Tribals” was removed by the Indian government from the census operations, and it was clubbed under a vague word “Others” which indicates that the religion(s) of those which are categorized under “Other” either are not significant or do not deserve to be named in the census reports. This raises the question how far does the Constitution of India, which promises equal treatment to all religions, permit such discrimination against religions of Tribals or indigenous peoples (Nongkynrih, 2010). It also raises a question of how far non-recognition, through the removal of the religion called “Tribals” from the census operations in 1951, might have affected the number of those who practice this religion.

India’s recognition of Indigenous Peoples in international and domestic law, policy, and practice

is paradoxical. While India voted in favour of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous

Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007 and signed the ILO Convention 107, the government continues to deny

the term and concept of “Indigenous Peoples” claiming that all Indians are Indigenous. Despite

governmental posturing, Indigenous groups in India internalize and assert rights protected by

international laws. In 2012, ILO Committee Experts noted that the national tribal policy was being

considered but had not been finalized.


The challenge for Indigenous rights advocates in India is the historically accepted view

that all Indians are Indigenous. In responding to a criminal appeal case involving physical and

mental abuse of a tribal woman, the 2010 Supreme Court case of Kailas & Others .


State of Maharashtra observed that Scheduled Tribes (Indigenous Peoples) are the original inhabitants, constitute 8% of the population, and that the Mundas language predates the Dravidian languages –

making pre-Dravidian Aborigines the ancestors of the present Tribals or Adivasi (Indigenous

Peoples) who were persecuted in the 17th century.

The rights of indigenous peoples have, over the past three decades, become

an important component of international law and policy, as a result of a

movement driven by indigenous peoples, civil society, international mechanisms and States at the domestic, regional and international levels. The United Nations human rights system—its mechanisms, laws and policies—have been at the heart of these developments with bodies such as the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations playing a groundbreaking role, which is continued by the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms, in cooperation with other key actors, including the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

By Bhitika Mohanty




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