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Clearing The Confusion On ‘Minority’ and ‘Indigeneity’: What Makes A Population Indigenous

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By Bikash K Bhattacharya:

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.

Definitional Dilemma: Who Is Indigenous?

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.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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.

Sacred history:

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.

Ceremonial cycles:

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.

Ancestral homelands:

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.

Confusing ‘Minority’ And ‘Indigeneity’

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.

The States’ Stand

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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