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In solidarity with indigenous people


European countries physically eliminated and destroyed the identities of indigenous peoples; the world has much to learn from India and its Constitution

Christopher Columbus embarked on an expedition in search of India in 1492 and reached the Western Islands. The Spanish travellers mistakenly thought, in their search for gold, that they had reached India. So, this new world was given the name of India and its residents came to be known as Indians.But when the team led by Vasco-de-Gama that had set sail to search for India landed on the east side on the Calicut port of India, this time the real deal, in 1498, the local inhabitants were naturally called Indians.

People in the area that had been searched for by Columbus had a reddish tinge to their complexion and ended up in popular parlance being called Red Indians; there were at least four major such Spanish expeditions. An Italian, Amerigo Vepucci went on two expeditions and wrote a letter saying. “(Here is) A new world -— more densely peopled and full of animals (much more) than our Europe or Asia or Africa.Based on this letter by Amerigo, German map-makers named the landmass ‘Land of Amerigo’ on their maps, which gradually and over time came to be known as America (in 1507) and is today known as the United States of America.

Columbus, at the head of seven ships, started from Spain with 90 fellow Spaniards and landed on the sea coast of present-day Salvador on 12 October, 1492.  The local ‘Araawak’ tribe welcome them with an open heart and honoured them by giving gifts to all the members of the expedition. Columbus wrote to the King of Spain: “How peaceful and supportive these people are. On the basis of this, I say with certainty that there is no other nation superior to them in all the world. They behave politely with their neighbours. Their speech is accompanied by a very sweet and gentle smile. Although they remain naked, their behaviour is very gentle and commendable” Bur even after such praise of the locals, the Spanish unleashed a reign of terror over the next 50-60 years in the region subjugating the native population, their well-documented tyranny marked by oppression, exploitation and genocide. It was the start of the Spanish Empire. In 1493, Columbus came again with 17 big ships. Around 1,500 soldiers were accompanying him this time. He took control over many other islands in the region including Puerto Rico as his men slaughtered the native inhabitants of these territories. A large number of indigenous people of the many native tribes were taken captive.

After the death of Columbus in 1506, the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez arrived in Cuba with 500 soldiers in 1519 and reached Mexico for the first time. While the indigenous ‘Aztec’ tribal people welcomed him and gifted him gold, the Spaniard exploited some local discontent against tribal chiefs and a section of the Aztec people collaborated with Cortez in attacking their own capital or seat of power. Though he was supposed to return with gold, Cortez impounded all Aztec gold and more —he also established the Spanish Empire over the whole of Mexico. In a backlash, Aztecs rebelled and forced the Spanish army along with Cortez to flee. But the Spanish colonists returned in 1520 with enough firepower and heavy arms to create havoc and massacre the indigenous population where they resisted. The Aztec capital was destroyed and a colonial administrative capital called Mexico City was established.

During the expansion of this empire, Spaniards exploited both natural and human resources of the Americas ruthlessly, committing barbaric atrocities including exploitation of women. A large number of massacres were carried out repeatedly over the next 200 years. According to historical documents, in 1517, the Spanish first took five thousand Africans as slaves in several ships and transferred them to the neighbouring countries (the current West Indies) to work as bonded labourers. In the year 1607, the ‘Virginian Company of London’ was formed, and for the first time, one hundred English merchants were sent to that new area. A local tribals welcomed them. Using negotiations and what could be termed colonial diplomacy, the local tribal chief ‘Vahunsonakuk’ was declared the king of that tribe. This newly anointed ‘King’ was then ‘persuaded’ to get his daughter married to a prominent Englishman named John Rolf on 5 April, 1614.

With a matrimonial alliance in place, the British started to cultivate tobacco on the land of the people there on a large scale; the indigenous tribal people fought back. The conflict started in 1622. Although the indigenous peoples fought valiantly and killed hundreds of their British oppressors, they were defeated. The British created the first settlement named Jamestown. In 1675, Nathaniel Bacon attacked the native inhabitants of Virginia’s intermediate areas along with a 1000Englishmen. The tribal population in the area got reduced from 8000 to less than 1000 and the population of White men rose to 40,000. The saga of loot and plunder continued.

Similarly, during the age of empire, many European countries invaded the territories of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australia and Africa. They destroyed the identities of the indigenous peoples who are till today searching for their pre-imperialist identities, before the ‘civilised’ savaged them. To remember the history of these indigenous peoples, we observe World Native Day on 9 August each year.

It is an acknowledgement of their sufferings and an attempt to strengthen their efforts to protect their culture. Bharat has stood with them in the fight for their rights.Ours is the only country in the world where we recognised rights of tribal/indigenous people in our Constitution, that is 55 years before the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (107th plenary meeting September 13, 2007).

A representative of the Government of India in the United Nations, while signing the declaration in 2007, had said that all the people living in our country are ‘native’. No one came here from outside and managed to de-populate local communities wherein the settlers became the ‘natives’ unlike what happened in Australia and the Americas. Therefore, to protect the native inhabitants in the other countries of the world, India’s Constitution must be studied by these countries and they can follow in our footsteps.

-Atul Jog

(The writer is the All-India Organising Secretary of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and has worked among tribal communities for decades)

Courtesy: Daily Pioneer