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Indigenous Peoples Day: Meaning and Importance

Samaan Shekhar

In July 2014, a delegation of some tribal communities came to Jhabua (a district in Madhya Pradesh) District Collector Office and handed over a representation to me. The representation mentioned that 9th August is celebrated collectively, at many places, on a large scale as ‘International Tribal Day’ by tribal communities in Jhabua District and hence government holiday should be declared on that day. Prima facie the demand appeared very logical; the tribal population in the district is 87 percent and if they celebrate a particular day on a large scale, the day deserves to be declared as government holiday. But I had two challenges before me. First, there was no documentary evidence available to prove that 9th August was celebrated on a large scale in the district. Second, the three holidays that a collector had the power to declare for the district had already been notified in the month of January that year by my predecessor. But driven by sheer rationale in the demand, I decided to go ahead with the process.

I constituted a committee under the chairpersonship of the Additional Collector, with a few subject matter experts as its members. The mandate of the committee was to do necessary fact finding and report on the scale on which the day is celebrated in the district and also to suggest if it is required to be declared as holiday. After a week or so the committee submitted its report, stating that the day was indeed celebrated on a large scale, collectively at many places in the district by tribal communities. It also said that it was advisable to declare it as a holiday. The first challenge was thus taken care of; now documentary evidence was available about the scale of celebration of the day in the district!

The second challenge turned out to be more difficult to deal with. I had to cancel one of the three holidays notified by my predecessor and declare 9th August as a new holiday. It was of course within my powers as Collector to do so but there was no precedence in recent history of changing the already declared holiday. And which one of the three holidays (which happened to be festivals) to be dropped was not easy to decide. But I was more than convinced by the rationale and need of declaring 9th August as a holiday, given the fact that none of the three holidays declared earlier were directly related to the tribal communities which formed 87 percent of the district’s population. So, after some enquiry, and going by my own understanding, I cancelled one holiday on Shitla Saptami and declared holiday on 9th August as ‘International Indigenous Day’.

The issuance of the order led to a fresh slew of challenges of different kinds. The next morning when I went to my office, I found more than a hundred people staging a dharna in the collector office premises. On enquiry I came to know that they were from Hindu Jagaran Manch. They demanded recall of the order and threatened to continue the dharna until their demand was met. I talked to them and shared with them the rationale and need of the change. But as rationale often finds limited scope in matters of religious emotions, here also it failed to make any impact and the dharna continued.

By the evening, the news had reached the highest offices of the government in the state. I received a phone call from the administrative head of the state. He scolded me furiously for the ‘blunder’ I had made, called for my explanation and suggested me to withdraw the order. He was completely right in doing so. I also knew that my act was not in line with the then understanding of and stand taken by various governments on this issue. In 1994, when the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to celebrate 9th August as ‘International Day of the World’s Indigenous People’, the government of India took a stand that all Indians are ‘indigenous’ so there are no ‘indigenous’ people in India! The result of such a stand was that the governments, Madhya Pradesh in particular, were wary of this issue and avoided acknowledging the day, leave alone celebrating it. In such a backdrop, a collector declaring a government holiday on such day can rightly be considered as going against the government’s position.

After a couple of days of ‘moral dilemma’ I decided to continue with the order and let people know about it. The dharna came to an end after a few days and I did not receive any further call from any higher office on the issue. That year, the ‘International Indigenous Day’ was celebrated on a much larger scale and with a lot of enthusiasm by indigenous communities in the district.

In next few years, many such representations were made to the collectors of predominantly tribal districts, citing the example of Jhabua. And some collectors followed the suit. Interestingly, after a few years of this episode, I happened to join and work in the Chief Minister’s Secretariate and that very year 9th August was declared as government holiday for the entire state by the State Government of Madhya Pradesh.

There is a reason behind narrating this longish story here. Some of the roots of the uncertainty over the celebration of the day, its meaning, its objectives, its political implications, etc. can be traced in the story. Let’s try to understand this by asking some questions. Why did the government of India take a stand that there are no ‘indigenous’ people in India? If they took such a stand then why do they celebrate the day on such a large scale with government money? Why is there a tussle between the political parties to take credit for the day? Is the way the day is celebrated by governments the right way to celebrate it? If not, then what is the right way to celebrate it and what is its meaning and importance for us? Let’s try to find answers to these questions.

Irrespective of the party in power, the opinions of the governments are determined by the opinions of the so-called ‘intellectual class’ of the society. It is needless to say that these ‘intellectuals’ generally come from certain section of the society that have been consciously trying to keep the ‘indigenous’ people of this country ignorant of their identity. It is obvious that the governments took such a stand and continued to deny the existence of ‘indigenous’ people in India. However, with the advent of social media, surge in awareness among the ‘indigenous’ people in India, particularly among tribes, 9th August acquired importance and they began to celebrate it as assertion of their rights. In some parts of the country this took form of peoples’ movements and rallied people. Movements like pattalgarhi brought the issues of self-determination and tribal rights over the water-forest-land to the centre stage of the discourse on the subject. The governments found it increasingly difficult to avoid the issue and they also saw political-electoral opportunity in celebrating the day and influencing people through it. The governments of all political hues were quick to jump on this bandwagon of celebrating the day to reap electoral benefits. Today, we see governments spending huge amount of money (meant for tribal development) on organising political, pseudo-government programmes on this day. Can we say that electoral-political necessity has overcome ideological positioning? Yes, to some extent but to no avail for the indigenous people!

The peoples’ celebration of their ‘Indigenousness’ has been taken over by governments and is being used as a tool by the political parties in power to attract tribal voters. The way they celebrate it has taken away the spirit of the ‘indigenousness’ and has reduced it to just another political gimmick of the governments to distract people from real issues by engaging them in trivial peripheral aspects.

The ‘International Day of World’s Indigenous People’ needs to be understood in the right perspective. It is meant to draw our attention to the crucial issues facing these communities and address them in right earnest. The day should be celebrated as an acknowledgement and appreciation of the living cultural practices and traditions of the ‘indigenous people’ which continue even today and keep alive our ancient historical values of social and gender equality. The ability of the indigenous people to live in harmony with nature needs to be celebrated and learnt from, on this day. This day should be celebrated to ensure the protection the nature on which the livelihood and life of indigenous people depend. The vulnerability of indigenous youth who seem to have been cut off from their roots amidst the onslaught of ‘modern world’ and have not found roots anywhere else, needs to be addressed. This day should be celebrated to make the indigenous youth aware of their cultural-traditional humanistic values, so that they seek pride in them instead of being ashamed of it and become agents of change for their self-determination. This day should be celebrated to acknowledge the rights of the indigenous people living in the lap of forest on their land, water and forest resources. This day should be celebrated to ensure human dignity of the indigenous people. Wishes on the ‘International Day of the World’s Indigenous People’.


Samaan Shekhar is a former IAS Officer. He now works on social and educational issues.

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