a crowd of women dressed in black  face the camera

Kuki women attending a protest in Churachandpur District in the northeastern state of Manipur, India, 22 July 2023. Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters


India and indigeneity

In a country of such extraordinary diversity, the UN definition of ‘indigenous’ does little more than fuel ethnic violence

by Dikshit Sarma Bhagabati + BIO

Kuki women attending a protest in Churachandpur District in the northeastern state of Manipur, India, 22 July 2023. Photo by Adnan Abidi/Reuters

In early May 2023, a video surfaced on social media of a mob of young men parading two naked women. With the women’s faces, bosoms and genitalia blurred, the boys could be heard chastising them: ‘Your men raped our women, now we will rape you.’ This happened in Manipur, a state in northeast India. ‘We’ denoted the Meiteis, the dominant tribe in the state, and ‘you’ the Kukis, their hill neighbours.

In December 2019, on the plains of neighbouring Assam, a huge civil-society movement against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was taking shape. The CAA is a controversial law that grants fast-track citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian – but not Muslim – immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. People across religions and classes took to the streets, raising slogans that ultimately boiled down to a common sentiment: ‘We are the sons of the soil, and they must be deported.’ Here, ‘we’ represented Assamese speakers, and ‘they’ referred to the Bangladeshi immigrants against whom the Assamese have been rallying since the mid-1970s.

The Assamese and Meitei nativists both drew on a common impulse to prefigure themselves as indigenous while reviling another as a threat to the purity of their indigeneity. However, against the claims of the Meiteis and the Assamese, the Kukis and the Bengali-speaking immigrants also maintain avowals of indigeneity.

Assam and Manipur are bordering states in the northeastern stretch of India. Located at the confluence of South Asia and Southeast Asia, the region serves as the country’s gateway to Tibet, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Since May 2023, the Meiteis and the Kukis have been engaged in an ethnic strife that has killed at least 175 people, injured 1,000 more, destroyed more than 4,000 houses, and left close to 70,000 displaced. Though the anti-CAA movement in Assam took far fewer lives, mostly resulting in the death of Assamese protesters due to police brutality, it brought civic and economic activities in the state to a standstill for close to two months. As much as the political conflicts in Manipur and Assam differ in important ways, both also feature groups with overlapping, at times even mutually exclusive, claims over land, nativity and nationhood that rest on the mantle of indigeneity. From caste-Hindu communities to tribes living in the contiguous highlands between India and Myanmar, multiple groups identify as indigenous. Yet none of them can fully satisfy the definition of indigenous peoples that has emerged in international law and Indian jurisprudence.

What international law has to say about indigeneity has repercussions outside courtrooms and global organisations. Since the 1960s, there has been a flow of ideas from decolonial struggles on the margins to influential legal institutions, defining who is indigenous and who is not. These definitions have then travelled back to the grassroots in vernacularised idioms. The intellectual itinerary of ‘indigeneity’ has been a circuit back and forth between the UN and its allied institutions, on the one hand, and societies in the Americas and Oceania that have experienced a wholesale replacement of their native populations, or settler colonialism, on the other. India, meanwhile, is mired in its own squabbles over tribality, caste and religion. Indian contests over forms of belonging do not quite accord with the efforts underway in the West to internationalise indigeneity.

Until about 50 years ago, indigenous peoples were completely absent from global institutions. Their legal personality arose in contrast to the enduring effects of the European conquest and the genocides in the Americas and Australia. It was only in 1971 that the UN finally admitted in ECOSOC Resolution 1589 (L) that ‘indigenous populations often encounter racial prejudice and discrimination’. Special Rapporteur José Martínez Cobo was then tasked with compiling a detailed report on the status of indigenous groups around the world. The prevalent belief at that point in time favoured the integration of these disenfranchised communities within their parent states. Cobo’s 25-chapter report, published over 12 years, offered a definition of indigeneity that still remains the dominant legal standard.

Indigeneity has become just another ambivalent and opportunity-costed postcolonial identity

To put it succinctly, Cobo constructed two objective markers of indigeneity: precolonial continuity and territorial rootedness. The first seeks to carve ‘historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies’. The second captures the intimate relationship that the indigenous share with their lands to differentiate them from ‘other sectors of the society’. In law and international covenants, these two criteria have become a hard-and-fast matrix to distinguish communities as indigenous and vest them with certain cultural and material rights. To this objective roster, the International Labour Organization’s handbook Understanding the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989) added a subjective element, allowing groups to self-identify as indigenous. We now have an awkward juridical position where the capacity to call oneself indigenous exists, but, in order to translate the entitlement into concrete rights, communities must rely on courts and international institutions that still encourage Cobo’s formula. Notably, Cobo’s objective criteria, along with subjective self-identification, loosely compose the putative understanding of indigeneity in the dialogue between international law and the struggles of the marginalised.

Over the past half century, the progress of indigenous rights has been so significant that communities today can harbour aspirations in international law to transcend the nation-states responsible for their historical enslavement. When municipal constitutionalism fails, the language of human rights provides an alternative framework for activism and action at multinational platforms – the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for example. Creation stories, traditions of Dreaming, and other mythological or religious methods of land ownership can now be translated into the grammar of modern law to converse with the state and the civil society in the only voice they recognise. In India, on the contrary, competition over such strategic benefits has concocted a systemic trend of killing and maiming over who is more indigenous and to the exclusion of whom. Amid the country’s extraordinary diversity, indigeneity has become just another ambivalent and opportunity-costed postcolonial identity. Any liberatory promise of freedom contained within the concept has been obscured by violent recurrences of one Assam after another Manipur. In India, there really is no determinative way to spell out who is indigenous.

Let’s consider the insistence on precolonial continuity in Cobo’s definition, which has also become a commonsensical notion. The Meiteis in Manipur, who populate the plains, portray themselves as more indigenous since they have purportedly been living there for longer than the Kukis in the nearby hills. The Meiteis are largely Hindu, hence their sense of being there concomitantly fuses the Hindu Right’s impossible assertion of timeless sovereignty over India. The Kukis are predominantly Christian, and their conversion in the past 200 years is derided by the Meiteis as a break from their indigenous or tribal faith. The Kukis in turn dismiss Meitei indigeneity on the grounds that their Hindu affiliation should curtail any minority status. The recent violence in Manipur, after all, started after a High Court judgment recognising the Meiteis as a Scheduled Tribe, which would have given them affirmative action measures of a similar kind to that enjoyed by the Kukis. Tribality, or indigeneity, in India is not a trait to be determined once and for all, but is a dynamic assemblage of affinities and differences with respect to the caste-Hindu mainstream. Different communities can shift registers to indigeneity to proliferate a seemingly historical, anthropological or legal claim of belonging. But these truths, Manipur teaches us, are usually circumscribed by violent political or fundamentalist clashes.

The problem in Assam stems from the Assamese-speaking majority fearing that they will be rendered a minority in their own home if immigrants from Bangladesh are naturalised. Two facts cannot be denied. First, immigration is a reality in Assam. It began in the 19th century as a colonial policy of transporting labourers to cultivate inhospitable sandbars in the Brahmaputra basin, and was aggravated in the aftermath of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Second, unlike the Hindu Right’s paranoia of Muslim domination, demographic overhauls are not uncommon to the Northeast. Between 1881 and 2011, the tribal population in the neighbouring state of Tripura dropped from 63.77 per cent to 31.78 per cent, turning them into a minority against Bengali immigrants. The Assamese thus have long been afraid of becoming homeless in their own home.

So, who is indigenous to Assam? In the 15th and 16th centuries, the caste-Hindu population was consolidated by a priestly class that came from mainland India. The Ahoms – the people who unified Assam and ruled the area until the British dethroned them in 1826 – themselves arrived here in the 13th century from South China. The tribes, likewise, can trace unhindered presence in the state only from the recent past, and have much older cultural ties across the Southeast Asian highlands. In protests, these communities all identify as Assamese speakers although some speak it only as a second language. They celebrate themselves as indigenous in distinction to Bengali immigrants. Most of these groups can show some magnitude of cultural uninterruptedness, truncated simply by an act of migration that clearly did not have colonial motives. But they also exhibit a xenophobia that frequently erupts as riots and the internment of Bangladeshi immigrants in premises harrowingly akin to concentration camps. To speak of precolonial continuity in this situation does not lead to any ascertainment of indigeneity; for the question of varying degrees and dynamics of continuity within the category of Assamese speakers cannot be resolved through Cobo’s criteria. The Assamese themselves do not care for greater clarity in their movements for belonging and self-determination. As a result, we have another instance where indigeneity in India is linked to exclusion and violence.

The contours of that indigenous personality are contested, so territory affords little help in identification

Cobo’s idea of territorial rootedness has produced another share of dangers. Territory in indigenous struggles entails more than land ownership. It often becomes a material venue that hosts fights against resource extraction. To talk of territory is to inaugurate dialogue between various indigenous peoples and between the indigenous and their settler neighbours about self-determination, co-managing resources, and apportioning legal entitlements. In India as well, marginalised communities have highlighted their profound associations with where they live to combat the militant-managerial state’s hunger for natural riches that lie beneath their sacred hills and rivers. But when these justified claims are redirected against rival groups for control over scarce resources, indigeneity becomes a morbid weapon.

The Kukis contend that the Meiteis’ preponderance in the Imphal Valley has enabled a monopoly over developmental initiatives. The Meiteis, on the other hand, allege that the Kukis threaten the territorial integrity of India. By accommodating ethnically similar immigrants from Myanmar in their villages, the Kukis supposedly have managed to boost their population to the brink of a demographic replacement. Their territorial relationship to an imagined ethnic terrain spread across the international border is taken by the Meiteis and Hindu nationalists as a token of disrespect to India’s sovereignty. Territory, by definition, is a political construction of geography. This is as valid elsewhere as it is in India. But in Australia and the Americas, movements around territorial control are oriented towards reclaiming the authority that European colonialism had invaded under the guise of terra nullius or barring the state from further expropriating these lands. In the settler-colonial societies of these continents, we can see coherence, in principle, in a reflexive distinction between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. In India, the contours of that indigenous personality itself are murky and contested, so territory affords little help in identification. It becomes another battleground.

In Assam, inclusion in the National Register of Citizens (NRC) required proving ancestry or residence in the state before 24 March 1971 through any one of 14 possible documents, among which were property records and electoral rolls. Many immigrants who had arrived recently managed to forge documents. Many who had been living in the state for generations lacked the necessary papers, and the state declared them foreigners. The government then planned to regularise the possession of numerous sandbars, the main home of immigrants, into ownership based on the new NRC. This project of who gets to rightfully call certain lands their own and who must be imprisoned prompted groups to manufacture nativity through a legal device to win property awards.

Unlike the Aboriginal peoples in Australia, very few communities in South Asia can backdate where they currently live to originary creation stories. For most, their communitarian folk identity is constitutive of constant movements. One can move upwards from Assam towards the Himalayas and would chance upon the Lisu people in Arunachal. Although they had migrated from modern-day Myanmar and China, they learned to call their current villages their undisturbed home until the state evicted them from their forests to create a national park. Or one can travel south to Mizoram’s border with Myanmar’s Chin State. Here the Bru people have been living under the threat of constant pogroms at the hands of the majority Mizo population. But the Mizo were quite content to open the borders for their ethnic brethren from Myanmar following the 2021 coup. The Mizo, the Bru and the Lisu are all tribal communities. Movement is at the heart of their history and selfhood. Any attempt to freeze this indeterminacy under the guise of indigeneity will only incite such groups to fight among themselves for supremacy over the territories where they now find themselves trapped.

It might be possible to abjure Western notions of indigeneity drawn from their brush with settler colonialism and devise the concept anew for India. But doing so is not easy. Anthropologically, there remain doubts about how to objectively distinguish tribal formations. For the sake of argument, we can agree that those constitutionally designated as Scheduled Tribes are properly indigenous, irrespective of the heterogeneity within this classification itself. The difficulty arises when some tribal groups actually tend to fulfil Cobo’s criteria and still choose to represent themselves differently.

The word ‘Adivasi’ means original inhabitants. Some forest tribes use this self-referent as a more perspicacious name for their cultural uniqueness. Many present-day Adivasis trace their ancestry back by four millennia to the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Their association with their traditional forests, too, goes back to antiquity. Alas, we may have found the Indian indigenous. The Gond, the Oraon, the Santhals can well seek membership in the international cast. Adivasi is not an official term regulated by the state, thus all the other tribes in the Northeast may also join the bandwagon and begin to so denote themselves.

At present, however, these northeastern communities prefer their tribal identities over being hailed as Adivasi. Regardless of anthropological and historical uncertainty, both terms invoke similar attitudes, though ‘Adivasi’ foregrounds the entitlement of being original inhabitants, whereas ‘tribality’ underlines differentiation from the caste-Hindu, capitalist mainstream. Wanting to be indigenous as tribals is a political refusal to subscribe to Adivasi marginalisation. Still more, the Adivasis themselves hold on to their unique identification. It is not that they have never claimed to be indigenous. Nor is it the case that the concept has not been gaining popular appeal and theoretical currency of late. Rather, indigeneity for the Adivasis is a semantic gambit devoid of the conceptual baggage it carries in international law and popularly in the West. In their dealings with the state, civil society and mainstream populations, they present themselves by the chosen name of their organised solidarity – original inhabitants, quite indigenous, but à la an Adivasi, not an indigenous, people.

The Mizo, the Kukis, the Meiteis and others harness the term to help hide their wanton records

The Adivasis in the Chota Nagpur Plateau have grown tired of the Indian legal system’s prolonged failure to stop their lands from being mined and their forests from being cleared. In response, they conceived of a movement called Pathalgadi. They engraved their constitutional rights on gigantic stone tablets that are usually epitaphs to dead ancestors. The move signified the national civic legal order as dead to them because the communities wanted to show that they could represent their rights better than the Indian state. The solidarity they were striving to build was across Adivasi cosmologies and not the globalised index of indigeneity. For them, Adivasi was the politically loaded term, while indigeneity, when used intermittently, was just an everyday shorthand to translate the belonging they were fighting for into a language intelligible to all.

Even those who seem to fit the American and Australian template of indigeneity in India have an alternative way – an Adivasi way – to define themselves. This is in addition to the Mizo, the Kukis, the Meiteis and others who harness the term to help hide their wanton records. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gives us an alternative to the deadlock of whether indigeneity or being indigenous in India is a strictly legal matter. It advocates the subjective right of groups to self-identify, which opens up the possibility of fostering the term as a political comparative to link select organised movements around the world. The prospects of these struggles rely on agreement as to who is indigenous. In India, the established criteria in international law and the dominant scholarship make the matter of indigeneity itself a source of confusion, ending up as a racialised justification for violence.

Be it in Assam or Manipur, or of the Mizo or the Pathalgadi Adivasis, their struggles are all geared towards self-determination. Conversely, their travails stem from the intrusion, apathy and high-handedness of the state. Why should they not fight for complete sovereignty, for freedom from the state that has failed them? One, international law denies sovereignty to indigenous self-determination. In fact, The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 stipulates that ‘the term peoples’, when read with indigenous, ‘shall not be construed as having any implications as regards the rights which may attach to the term under international law’. Second, flirting with secessionism is a risky move, especially if the enemy now is not the courtroom or another community but the formal armed forces. Very few groups, therefore, exhibit consensus in desiring freedom at such high costs. And secessionism is not a guarantee against violence, however justified its cause might be. There is no assurance that partitioning Manipur into two separate states for the Kukis and the Meteis will ensure a peaceful population transfer or that xenophobia will wane out in an independent Assam. But a newfound zeal for full sovereignty in these places will disentangle indigeneity from what the people are actually struggling for – freedom from the disorder spawned by the Indian state.

Without any theoretical cohesion about what the term ‘indigenous’ denotes, it will continue to be an empty signifier that India has borrowed from elsewhere. The only substance behind it has proven to be violence. No doubt anthropologists, political theorists and critical legal scholars have also criticised the rigid Western design of indigeneity and cautioned against adopting it as a universally cogent concept. Many have also regretted the violence inflicted in its name. But in India these pathologies have become the rule. Since, as we saw, the fundamental method of designating indigeneity does not work here, there is no medium except violence to settle competing claims – neither a legal doctrine, nor any scope for public reasoning. This, in the end, brings us to two conclusions. First, no matter how vernacularised, localised or situated indigeneity gets as we move towards the grassroots, the persistence of a Western agent – be it in international law, academia or activism – means that the spectre of objective definitions will return every so often as conflicts even in places where they are supposed to work. Yet without transnational networks and some international supervision, there is no assurance that indigenous peoples anywhere will finally be free from pain and suffering in their home countries. Perhaps all experiences of oppression need not be articulated in the lexis of indigeneity. There are other political methods, like the Adivasis’, to envision a shared feeling of belonging somewhere before colonisers took over. Indigeneity may be useful for others, but we can pull the plug on it in India.