Minority Issues – SC, ST, Dalits, OBC, Reservations, etc.

[op-ed snap] Why isolation of indigenous groups is crucial today


Mains Paper 1: Indian Society | Salient features of Indian Society, Diversity of India.

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Basics knowledge of indigenous groups.

Mains level: The news-card analyses the need for the isolation of the indigenous groups, in a brief manner.


  • The remote, coral-fringed North Sentinel Island made headlines last year, after an American Christian missionary’s covert expedition to convert its residents—the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal group—ended in his death.
  • The episode has cast a spotlight on the threats faced by the world’s remote indigenous groups.

Sentinelese tribe: most isolated tribe

  • The Sentinelese people targeted by the slain evangelist John Allen Chau are probably the most isolated of the world’s remaining remote tribes.
  • These people are keen to stay that way.
  • They shoot arrows to warn off anyone who approaches their island, and attack those, like Chau, who ignore their warnings.
  • However, this has not always been like this. When Europeans first made contact with the Sentinelese, the British naval commander Maurice Vidal Portman described them in 1899 as “painfully timid.
  • Tribes like the Sentinelese have learned to associate outsiders with the ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by European colonization.

Effect of British colonialism on indigenous tribes

  • British colonial excesses whittled down the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands, which includes North Sentinel Island, from more than two dozen tribes 150 years ago to just four today.
  • The tribes that escaped genocide at the hands of the colonizers did so largely by fleeing to the most inaccessible parts of jungles.

No Contact policy

  • After the decimation of indigenous peoples under colonial rule, the countries where isolated tribes remain—including Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India, and Peru—have pursued a “no contact” policy.
  • This policy is anchored in laws that protect indigenous people’s rights to ancestral lands and to live in seclusion, and reinforced by an international convention obligating governments to protect these communities’ lands, identities, penal customs, and ways of life.

Is there a need to reverse the no contact policy?

  • It is illegal for outsiders to enter India’s tribal reserves.
  • But the threat to the Sentinelese people and to all isolated tribes is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that we should reverse the policies protecting isolated tribes.
  • The reasons for some could be of good intentions such as to provide access to modern technology, education, and health care but for others it is not.
  • For example, Brazil’s new far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has threatened to repeal constitutional safeguards for aboriginal lands in order to expand developers’ access to the Amazon rainforest.

Why the need for isolation?

  • The first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of indigenous societies through violence and the introduction of infectious diseases, like smallpox and measles, to which the natives had no immunity.
  • In Brazil, three-quarters of the indigenous societies that opened up to the outside world have become extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines.
  • Over the last five centuries, Brazil’s total indigenous population has plummeted from up to 5 million to fewer than 900,000 people, with the introduction of constitutional protections for indigenous territories in the late 1980s aimed at arresting the decline.
  • In the Andaman chain, of the four tribes that survive, the two that were forcibly assimilated by the British have become dependent on government aid and are close to vanishing.
  • Indigenous communities’ combined share of the world population is now at just 4.5%.

Will the isolation help increase their population?

  • Leaving secluded tribes alone is no guarantee that they will survive.
  • These highly inbred groups are already seeing their numbers dwindle, and face the spectre of dying out completely.
  • But they will probably die faster if we suddenly contact them.

Consequences of Extinction of these isolated tribes

  • These tribes might be isolated, but their demise will have serious consequences.
  • With their reverence for and understanding of nature, such groups serve as the world’s environmental sentinels, safeguarding 80% of global diversity and playing a critical role in climate change mitigation and adaptation.
  • When the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, more than a quarter-million people died across 14 countries, but the two isolated Andaman tribes, which rely on traditional warning systems, suffered no known casualties.
  • However, the indigenous societies have been pitted against loggers, miners, crop planters and other interlopers.
  • In the last 12 years alone, according to satellite data, Brazil’s Amazon Basin has lost forest cover equivalent in size to the entire Democratic Republic of Congo.


  • Indigenous people are an essential element of cultural diversity and ecological harmony.
  • They are also a biological treasure for scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories.
  • The least the world can do is to let them live in peace in the ancestral lands that they have honoured and preserved for centuries.
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