A few weeks ago I had gone to Kabliwadi in Odisha’s Keonjhar district. For ages it has remained one of the traditional habitats of the indigenous Juang community. The settlement is surrounded by thick forests and hills and at the centre is the mandghar, the sacred place of the Juangs. A thick wooden log burns in it perpetually. The lineage of that never-extinguished fire goes back to the era when our prehistoric ancestors migrated out of Africa and made hundreds of small settlements across the long coast of India. The fire has witnessed all important events in the long history of the Juangs; and the Juangs have seen in its warmth and light all that has happened around them in the subcontinent. But today, their situation is unenviable. A single primary school is their only hope to shape the future of the new generation. Despite a rather lonely hoarding of the Prime Minister hanging uneasily at the entrance to the village and proclaiming “Great days ahead”, the present and the future of the Juangs are filled with uncertainty and desperation.
The mandghar, which is non-negotiably the most sacred space for them, has no formal legal sanctity. If a uniform civil code is imposed on them, many of their established social practices are going to come in clash with it. Their identity and belief system, too, are under threat from what is given to them as “development”. Sadly, the Juang is not the only indigenous community that is in for a cultural and ecological devastation. That appears to be the future for indigenous communities all over the world.
Identity, environment, language, gender, belief systems, performance traditions, and rights are some of the central issues relating to the struggles and survival of the indigenous all over the world. Their local features vary from community to community and from country to country. However, the general narrative is fairly common. Quintessentially, this narrative refers to a colonial experience that hammered a break in the long-standing traditions of the indigenous, and their staying close to their traditions and to nature, losing in the process control over natural resources and facing a radically different framework of justice, ethics, and spirituality. For the indigenous, there are two points in time marking their emergence: one that is traced back to a mythological time enshrined in their collective memory and expressed in their community’s “story of origin”, and the other that is synchronous with a Columbus, a Vasco da Gama, or a forest officer setting foot on the land that was once their dominion.
It is true that no established research or theory in archaeology, anthropology, genetics, cultural geography, historical linguistics, agriculture, and forestry goes to show that all or any of the indigenous people have been inhabitants of the land where they were when colonialism was inaugurated, and that a very small portion of them have been associated with their present habitat since the time homo sapiens have inhabited the earth. There were migrations from place to place and from continent to continent during the prehistoric times as well. Yet, despite these migrations, it is true that the indigenous communities have been associated with their habitats for a considerably long time.
- The UN declared 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”.
- The communities identified as indigenous on the basis of their location, uniqueness of tradition, social structures, and community law number close to 5,000 and are spread over 90 countries.
- A comprehensive survey of the 780 living languages in India that I conducted in 2010 showed that nearly 300 of the languages, all spoken by indigenous people, may disappear in the next few decades.
The European colonial quest, the territorial and cultural invasion associated with it, and the interference of alien political, ecological, and theological paradigms brought a threat to the traditions that the indigenous had developed. The absence of desire on their part to accept new paradigms and to internalise them make them stand out, marking them as “others”, which is interpreted as “primitive” and represented as “indigenous”. It is common sense that the term “indigenous” as part of a binary can have meaning only when there are other terms such as “alien”, “outsiders”, “non-native”, and “colonialists”.
Though the census exercises in different countries do not use a uniform framework, methodology, and orientation, data available through the census carried out by different countries show that approximately 400 million of the world population is indigenous. The communities identified as indigenous on the basis of their location, uniqueness of tradition, social structures, and community law number close to 5,000 and are spread over 90 countries. Several different terms are used to describe them in different continents: “aborigine”, janjati, “indigenous”, “First Nations”, “natives”, “Indian”, and “tribe”. In most countries, the identification and listing of such communities is by no means complete and has remained, over the last seven decades, since the United Nations was established, an unfinished process.
Given that the indigenous constitute less than 5 per cent of the world population, and that they are sharply divided in terms of tribe and community within a given country, every indigenous community exists as a minuscule minority within its political nation. To be indigenous, in our time, is to be severely marginalised in economy, politics, institutionalised knowledge, and institutionalised religion. The space for the indigenous is rapidly shrinking.
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The UN declared 2019 as the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”. Official celebrations and academic conferences to “celebrate” the year were held. However, it is a fact that several thousand of the indigenous languages are close to extinction. A comprehensive survey of the 780 living languages in India that I conducted in 2010 showed that nearly 300 of the languages, all spoken by indigenous people, may disappear in the next few decades. In India, the Union government passed a law in 2008 requiring land ownership of tribal communities to be returned to them. However, nearly half of the claims are yet to be settled and the Supreme Court has already asked families whose land title claims have not been accepted to evacuate the land.
Despite legal provisions aimed at safeguarding indigenous communities and their cultures, they are diminishing and suffering an undeserving obsolescence in a world that is considering when to officially announce that the Anthropocene, the epoch of unprecedented interference with nature that is fundamentally altering the earth, has commenced. Ironically, to be indigenous is to be steamrolled by the totalitarian idea of nation.
Ganesh Devy is Obaid Siddiqi Chair Professor, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bengaluru.