Indigenous people and their web of apathies

Monikangkan Barooah

The century old struggle that culminated the habitat rights of Baiga tribes of Madhya Pradesh and the battle won over Niyamgiri by Odisha’s Dongria Konds   may have established the first ever indigenous rights that bestowed upon to the people they belong, but these developments alone won’t undermine the challenge that lies in promotion and protection of rights of indigenous peoples. A three-judge bench, headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi, of the Supreme Court on 6th May, 2016, rejected Odisha government-owned miner, Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC)’s petition for mining rights in the Niyamgiri hills, in the sacred hills of the primitive tribe, the Dongria Kondhs. The judgement is a decisive victory for the Dongria Kondhs who have been opposing mining right from the beginning in the Niyamgiri hills. The Baiga community is one of the 75 particularly vulnerable tribal groups, or PVTGs, who are entitled to get habitat rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). A gazette notification, issued by the the British Government, dating back to 1890 provided the basis for giving habitat rights to the Baigas

The Northeast region of India is home to more than 300 communities speaking their own languages, and dialects.  It has its population of nearly 50 million (including illegal immigrants). Despite the apparent diversity, the region and its people however have evolved into a common identity as the people of Northeast. The existence of these indigenous people and their identity, culture, economy are endangered. The last few decades, these indigenous people have seen much conflict and violence that has been caused by the plunder of their resources. The conflict, despite some constitutional safeguards and autonomous arrangements etc. has led to widespread unrest and has become more critical now. As legal loopholes, poor enforcement of existing safeguards, bureaucratic apathy etc. further tries t isolate these indigenous people and muffle their voices, the time has come to look into the encouraging and disturbing developments that took place over the last few years. Over and above the cynical politics that seeks to divide the communities, to achieve their political mileage adds as salt that stops the process of reconciliation and finding common grounds for dialogue between indigenous communities.

The Dongria Knods and Baiga Indigenous tribes,  habitat rights may have won against the Government apathy and the corporate neglect of human rights, the plight of Northeastern people a mere political construct.  Despite the safeguards the battle over oil, coal and forests are not over yet. The oil spills from abandoned rigs  at Nagaland, the rat mining  of coals at Meghalaya, the Palm oil tree cultivation replacing the traditional Jhum cultivation of Mizoram etc. are all a web of apathies that faced by the indigenous communities. The states of Arunachal and Manipur are also in the line to be exploited for their resources. The aggressions of foreigners that have migrated with refugee status as well as illegal immigrants have changed the very demographic nature of the indigenous people in the Northeast. Their existence has been threatened by the large scale illegal immigrants and their systematic, step by step, assimilation with the mainland people. It has been perceived that the influx of illegal immigrants to this region is a deliberate policy of the successive governments with an aim to assimilate local culture with mainstream Indian people by diluting the population composition. The more the population pattern evolved to be divisive, the more the mileage of benefit to be derived to a vested political circle.

Significantly, the issue of indigenous people has been politicised by certain anti-indigenous circles with a design to keep the issue alive. In absence of an unanimity and consensus the vested circle created controversies to stall the process of granting constitutional, legislative, legislative safeguards to “Assamese” as envisaged under clause-6 of Assam Accord. The definition of Indigenous people has already been accepted by various national and international organisations which includes United Nations. However for the reasons best known to the political leaders the issues of indigenous people’s definition in India and the Northeast has been perpetually alive and hence politically volatile. It is in this context said that the government do not want to recognise the “indigenous people” as people.

The web of apathies face by the indigenous people of northeast has not been addressed with earnest interest. It is always the lackadaisical attitude on the part of the government to make the issue ever alive, be it Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram or Arunachal Pradesh. Whereas the rest of the states of Indian union going up and up, the people of northeast has to take the route of agitation for every single demand they have. The Indigenous people of Northeast are negotiating the aggression and cultural invasion of foreigners, mainly from Bangladesh. The demographic pattern especially in Assam have changed and the illegal immigrant have become majority in many districts of Assam. There are also conflicts of granting citizenship to certain communities in Arunachal Pradesh. In Tripura the indigenous people have become minority and reduced to mere twenty six percent of the population. The political leaders refused to address these issues, instead used to make it an electioneering   slogan to catch upon the votes to win the mandate to rule. The democratic system of administration by itself is essentially good and best for the people, but the very best system is not properly implemented as per constitution, it becomes a mockery to the people they govern.  In Assam the very terminology of the “Khilonjiya”, mentioned in the clause 6 of the Assam accord has not been defined and thereby implemented even after 36 years of signing the accord. The MOU that has been signed and agreed upon have failed to define the “Indigenous people” of Assam so far. The people at the helm of the power spoke of the bullet train, smart cities etc., but are not capable to come to a consensus to define the very term of “Khilonjiya” or “indigenous people”. So it is in the best interest of the region the terminology of “Khilonjia”, be defined to protect the indigenous people from the onslaught of cultural, economic and political aggression.

The definition of indigenous people has been accepted by United Nations organisation. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN general assembly in 2007, recognises that indigenous peoples have the rights to maintain and strengthen their distinct political, legal, economic, social and cultural institutions, while retaining their right to participate fully, if they so choose, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the state.

While the United Nations declared the rights of indigenous people, countries like Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand had opposed it and cast their vote against the declaration. These were all countries occupied by the Westerners. They occupied the land of the original inhabitants. They simply did not want to recognise the rights of the indigenous people. But later they
apologised. First, Australia expressed its apology. New Zealand followed suit. Canada also did the same. Finally, the US was forced to change its stance too, and recognised the rights of indigenous people.

The plight of the rights of the indigenous people has been fought across the countries and the rights have been recognised and conferred to people they belong. The battle of Baiga and Dongria Konds may have won but it can also be perceived as a tip of the iceberg to the Indigenous communities of India.

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