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Indigenous Peoples in Liberal Democratic States: A Comparative Study of Conflict and Accommodation in Canada and India

By Haresamudram Srikanth

Review By Hugh Johnston

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 175 Autumn 2012  | p. 138-39

The author is a professor of Political Science in Shillong, the capital of the tiny hill state of Magalaya in the tribal area of North Eastern India. This is a state that, by official figures, has a population that is over 85% made up of scheduled tribes—indigenous people whose status is recognized in Indian national legislation. It is one of several states in North Eastern India that have been carved out of greater Assam since the 1960s in response to vigorous agitation by their tribal peoples. Prof. Sriknath is a student of the politics of this region, and in an area of over thirty major tribal groups –racially, linguistically and culturally diverse—he has a complex subject.

In 2005, Prof. Srikanth extended his research to Canada thanks to a Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute Fellowship. His project has been comparative, involving a search for lessons that Canada and India could share in developing progressive policies to meet the demands of indigenous people. As he explains it, these are the demands of people who—contrary to past expectations—have not disappeared but have survived the onslaught of the market economy and the invasion of external values and who have increasingly made their presence felt over the last half-century. He did his research in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia and focused on policies affecting First Nations people to complement his earlier studies in India. This book is a result; and he has signalled his purpose by publishing with an American press that specializes in activist research on indigenous issues, both American and global.

Prof. Srikanth has attempted to narrow his Canada-India comparison to British Columbia and the hill regions of North Eastern India—reflecting the research opportunities he has had. But because major policy directions and decisions have come from the national centre as well the outlying region in each country, he has devoted considerable space to the broader national pictures. He has also attempted an historical view with a starting point in the nineteenth century. Here, he emphasizes the break between the colonial and post-colonial periods, which has a clearer, more definitive meaning in India than in Canada. This is a weakness in his chronological framework. And because he has had much to master in the Canadian research he has done, one cannot take his account as authoritative in every detail. There are slips that will be obvious to many readers. None the less, if one accepts his notion of 1867 or thereabouts as the end of the colonial period in Canada, then it is both striking and convincing to have his judgment that First Nations in British Columbia suffered much more than the hill communities of North East India under colonial rule.

When one comes to the last forty years, to developments since the 1960s, Prof. Srikanth helps show the global context of the agitation of indigenous peoples and of the accommodating responses of governments. In this book, he is more optimistic about what is happening in British Columbia, in the negotiation of treaty rights and in progress towards indigenous self-government, than in North East India. Neither story has run its course, so it would be interesting to have his reassessment after another ten or fifteen years.

Indigenous Peoples in Liberal Democratic States: A Comparative Study of Conflict and Accommodation in Canada and India
By Haresamudram Srikanth
Boulder, Colorado: Bauu Press, 2010.  243 pp. Maps and tables. $24.95 paper.