Editor’s Note: This year International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, celebrated on 9th August, had the theme- Indigenous Languages. The UN Permanent Forum On Indigenous Issues was formed to cater to the issues raised by indigenous peoples across the world.
There is something of a dilemma in constructing indigenous identity, apparent in the debate over establishing definitional standards versus an unlimited right of indigenous self-identification. Though it is generally accepted in the global forums that indigenous peoples have unlimited right of self-identification, especially since 1977, when the World Council for Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) passed a resolution in its second general assembly stating that ”only indigenous peoples could define indigenous peoples”, the states ‘hosting‘ indigenous peoples within their borders have generally contested such an open policy.
Consequently, there have been innumerable attempts of defining indigeneity from different stakeholders which include ‘hosting‘ states, academics, NGOs, the UN and Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs) like the World Bank. But a consensus is yet to be reached because each group has attempted at a definition according to its own convenience and priority, and there has been little dialogue among them. The dilemma over ‘who is indigenous‘ has become increasingly politicized as indigenous peoples have acquired a distinct legal standing under international law.
Nevertheless, utilizing the Holm, Pearson and Chavis’ version of peoplehood model, Jeff J Corntassel has propounded a comprehensive definition of ‘indigenous‘ which is based on four interlocking concepts: sacred history, ceremonial cycles, language and ancestral homelands.
On the basis of oral and/or written history a group of people who believe they are ancestrally related and identify themselves as descendants of the original inhabitants of their ancestral homeland.
Peoples who may, but not necessarily, have their own informal and/or formal political, economic, social institutions, which tend to be community-based and reflect their distinct ceremonial cycles, kinship networks, and continuously evolving cultural traditions.
Peoples who speak (or once spoke) an indigenous language, often different from dominant society’s language — even where the indigenous language is not spoken, distinct dialects and/or uniquely indigenous expressions may persist as a form of indigenous identity.
Peoples who distinguish themselves from dominant society and/or other cultural groups, while maintaining a close relationship with their ancestral homelands which may be threatened by ongoing military, economic or political encroachment or may be places where indigenous peoples have been previously expelled/conquered, while seeking to enhance their cultural, political, economic autonomy.
United Nations working definition states that Indigenous peoples are those who inhabited a particular territory prior to ‘formation of a State‘ and being confronted by persons of a ‘different culture or ethnic origin‘.
On the other hand, the definition provided by the World Bank attempts at limiting indigenous peoples’ access to natural resources, only in clearly defined territorial holdings, rather than resources on or near indigenous homelands. Moreover it also suggests to remove one’s indigenous status if one moves to an urban area.
Miguel Alfonso Martinez, a former UN rapporteur pointed out in his report ‘Study on Treaties, Agreements and Other Constructive Arrangements between States and Indigenous Populations‘ about the serious confusion between ‘minority‘ and ‘indigenous‘ identities in peoples across Asia and Africa, which had arisen due to colonial and treaty-making contexts. In the Indian context the Assamese Muslims are such a group with whom this confusion is apparent. Though on the basis of religion- a minority group, they perfectly suit the Jeff J Corntassel’s, as well as the UN definition of indigeneity. They are a ‘pre-invasion‘/pre-colonial people in Assam. But during the British colonial era a large number of Muslim populace from Bengal migrated to Assam; they accepted Assamese language and acquired Indian citizenship and also the status of religious minority. This has overshadowed the ‘indigeneity‘ of the Assamese Muslim community. Of late, several Assamese Muslim organizations have asserted their indigenous ethnic identity, and condemned attempts of identifying them on the basis of religion, according to a report.
State governments have adamantly insisted that the term ‘peoples’ while indicating to the indigenous groups be eliminated from all international legal instruments involving global indigenous rights, due to the term’s implications for self-determination in international law, which has often been construed as the right to independent statehood. In response to this, the indigenous organizations have asserted that right to self-determination doesn’t necessarily entail the right to secession but rather a right to greater self-rule and autonomy; and any compromise of this right is deemed detrimental to indigenous rights. Therefore, the ‘hosting‘ states which are rather reluctant to concede to the demand of ‘greater self-rule and autonomy‘ naturally come into confrontation with the indigenous peoples they are ‘hosting‘ within their borders; and consequently a process of forced ‘nation building‘ is initiated to nationalise the indigenous space.
Burma is a classic example to this. Indigenous peoples in India’s northeast have also witnessed such attempts since the country’s independence. However, the need of the hour is to develop conceptual approaches and models that balance and accommodate the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples within the ‘hosting’ state structure.