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India's tribal communities have little to celebrate

Aug. 9 marked International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples but India's ethnic minorities struggle for their rights

India's tribal communities have little to celebrate

Women perform a traditional tribal dance during celebrations of International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples in New Delhi on Aug. 9, 2019. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

As tribal people across India observed International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9, a Catholic leader said their rights were being steadily destroyed.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, this year’s celebrations saw virtual meetings and panel discussions on issues such as indigenous youth, women, culture, language, tradition and tribal people's representation at global and national levels.

The theme of the day this year was “Covid-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience.”

“During the pandemic, it looks like constitutional rights given to us like equality, unity and brotherhood are being steadily destroyed,” Archbishop Felix Toppo of Ranchi said during his virtual address on Aug. 9.

“The rights of tribals, minorities and downtrodden people are being trampled on. Even the four pillars of democracy — the legislature, executive, judiciary and the media — are caught in a web of political activities.

“There is unease among all faiths, anger and disbelief in the air, but even during this time God tells us not to be afraid but to remain steadfast in our belief in him.” 

India voted in favor of the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on condition that after independence all Indians were regarded as indigenous.

This year’s theme covered the innovative ways indigenous people continue demonstrating resilience and strength in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The aim was to highlight how the preservation and promotion of their traditional knowledge and practices can be leveraged more fully during the crisis.

“Since meetings and gatherings are restricted during this pandemic, we have decided to observe and celebrate it through organizing virtual meetings,” said Father Vincent Ekka, head of the department of tribal studies at the Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi.

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More than 1,300 people including tribal leaders, activists, academics and experts from across the country joined the virtual meetings.

Father Ekka said India has several laws and constitutional provisions, such as the Fifth Schedule for Central India and the Sixth List for certain areas of the Northeast, that recognize the rights of indigenous people to land and self-government, but their implementation is far from satisfactory.

“They have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their rights to traditional land, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated,” he said.

Indigenous people today are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

Although tribal communities are found everywhere in India, they have a significant presence in Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, West Bengal, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Tripura, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram. A total of 100 million tribal people live in India, constituting 8.6 percent of the population.

Some 705 ethnic groups are officially recognized as scheduled tribes, although there are several ethnic groups that are also considered scheduled tribes but are not officially recognized.

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