India and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

India is home to the largest population of indigenous peoples of any country in the world. Roughly a quarter of the world’s indigenous population – around 80 million people – are scattered across India, their numbers a staggering diversity of ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic situations. They range from some of the last uncontacted indigenous communities in the world, like the Sentinelese of the Andamans, to some of the largest, such as the Gonds and Santhals of central India. They include not only communities who live under conditions of extreme destitution, but also communities with social indicators well above the national average. But across circumstances and areas, like other indigenous communities around the world, India’s indigenous peoples do share one characteristic – social, political and economic marginalisation.

In recognition of this fact and reflecting more than a century and a half of continuous struggles by indigenous people, India has a panoply of laws, policies and Constitutional provisions aimed at protecting the rights of such communities. Yet India is also distinguished by the extreme reluctance of the government to acknowledge or accept the international framework for such protections, embodied primarily in International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, 1989 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), 2007. While India is a signatory to ILO Convention No. 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (the predecessor to Convention 169) and voted in favour of the UNDRIP, it has adamantly insisted that its own indigenous peoples cannot claim status or protection under these laws. The government rejects the very term ‘indigenous peoples’, insisting that all Indians are indigenous, and is particularly hostile to any reference to the rights of indigenous people to autonomy, self-governance or self-determination. This is despite the fact that India’s own laws provide for varying degrees of such protection - in some cases, far reaching - to certain communities.

This report examines the Indian policy and legal framework on indigenous peoples’ rights through the lens of the values and spirit of international law on the subject. Part I of the report describes the social and political situation of indigenous communities in India, while Part II examines the policy and legal framework on specific areas of indigenous peoples’ rights. The report is primarily focused on the extent to which the Indian political and legal situation conforms to the principles of equity, self-governance and justice that underlie the international instruments. We find that on all three fronts, India falls far short of international standards on indigenous peoples’ rights. The seemingly impressive range of legal and policy instruments that exists in Indian law for indigenous peoples’ rights is vitiated by one fundamental flaw – the Indian state’s reluctance to respect the political rights of indigenous peoples and the subsequent widespread violations of these.

(This is an excerpt of a recent book published by the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact)
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