“A mine of information” that questions earlier writings on tribals, colonial history and the effects of globalization: Book review – Jharkhand and Bihar

A plateau accounting for half of the country’s mineral wealth comprising coal, iron-ore, copper, bauxite, chromite, dolomite, limestone, manganese and mica in erstwhile Chotanagpur area deserves to be studied in depth not only for the minerals but for its human endeavour to liberate itself from exploitation by greedy industrialists and insensitive rulers, be it colonialists or Indian, from time to time. This collection of papers, packed with well researched articles from different authors, and edited by Lata Singh and Biswamoy Pati, does full justice to the cause and effect of the subaltern people’s suffering and uprising. A well-crafted introduction by the editors explains the need to study the areas of colonial and contemporary Bihar and Jharkhand from different angles. They note that, “Earlier writings on tribals glossed over the question of hierarchies and differentiation within the tribal community locating the ‘tribe’ as a homogenous category.” This, the editors feel, gave an incorrect picture of their struggles and needed to be set right. An important point to be considered in the introduction is the mention about emergence of women as an instrumental vehicle of folk philosophy presenting an alternative epistemology through their songs. […]

Jharkhand — or the land of forests — with nearly 40 % of India’s mineral resources was carved out of the southern part of Bihar on 15 November 2000. According to the 2011 census the percentage of tribal population of India stood at 8.6 and in Jharkhand of the state population it is 26.2%. This collection therefore concentrates on the tribal population, its identity and its struggles. When the colonial regime intensified the transition of the tribal agrarian system into feudal state, and when the indigenous people lost their holdings, there was an uprising led by Birsa Munda in the late 19 century.

Munda’s rebellion had shaken the foundations of the British empire, fighting the British army’s advanced weapons with bow and arrows. He died under mysterious circumstances in the Ranchi jail, and has, since then, been remembered as a martyr. – Sushmita in The Wire >>

Pati’s paper ‘Beyond Geographical Boundaries’ deals with the wisdom related to the meaning of territories and geographical spaces. During the process of colonisation, resistance was witnessed in the Chotanagpur area as it meant serious problems for the people. Under the theme ‘Colonial Christianity and the Munda rebellions the author deals with possible reasons for conversion of tribals to Christianity as this remained a largely un-researched area. Unseen powers like witchcraft gave theOraaons community reason to convert as it thought Christianity protected it from certain dangers. Many conversions took place to Hinduism (though there are no systematic methods of becoming a Hindu, the tribals became Hindus for similar reasons as they embraced Christianity) both such converted tribals maintained their traditional practices intact. The community felt that even other grievances like dealing with zamindars, could be solved by conversion, as propagated by the German missionaries. […]

In one of the best articles of the collection Vinita Damodaran exposes the danger caused to environment especially to that of Chotanagpur forests during colonial regime. When the forests were left undisturbed and the region was populated by 33 different tribal communities, there was peace among the inhabitants. When the migration started from outside, there was gradual alienation of Adivasis caused by the new landlord and money lending class. This process was accelerated during the colonial period. Building of railways hastened the process of more people coming in because of the natural wealth and eventually such migration based on exploitation destroyed the normal ways of life of the tribes. […]

She concludes that the process of globalisation and colonial intervention transformed the region bringing poverty and immiserisation to the majority of the tribal groups.

Another impressive paper is by Sandali P. Sharma on ‘The Contested Canvas of Mithila Paintings’. When introduced to the world by W. C. Archer, discovered after an earthquake in Bihar in 1934, Mithila or Madhubani paintings became highly popular. Originally done on mud walls, using natural colours, after a major drought in 1966, the All India Handicrafts Board encouraged the art by making the women paint on paper for generating income. The author investigates the contexts and processes of marginalisation of cultural production by way of caste. She questions the earlier assumptions of superiority of the paintings by upper castes. Several authors are quoted by her that makes the reading more meaningful. A complementary article to this is by Dev N. Pathak on the songs of Mithila. […]

The article on witch-hunting reads like a thriller and gives much information about this dark area.

The book is mine of information and most authors have articulated their original thoughts questioning some of the traditional knowledge about the tribal life and people, especially of the area they chosen to study.

COLONIAL AND CONTEMPORARY BIHAR AND JHARKHAND: Edited by Lata Singh, Biswamoy Pati; Primus Books, Virat Bhavan, Mukherjee Nagar Commercial Complex, Delhi-110009. Rs. 995.

Source: Bihar’s past struggles reconstructed by K. R. A. Narasiah, The Hindu, 22 September 2014
Address : https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/bihars-past-struggles-reconstructed/article6436022.ece
Date Visited: 15 November 2021

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

The tribes and castes in India are communities apart. Those who belong to castes belong to no tribes, and those who belong to tribes are outside the caste pyramid. What brings them together is probably their love for songs.

The tribes and castes in India are communities apart. Those who belong to castes belong to no tribes, and those who belong to tribes are outside the caste pyramid. What brings them together is probably their love for songs.
Ganesh Devy in What unites Indians is a love for songs >>

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“[A] common perception of conversion, prevalent in India, is that all conversions take place only among deprived lower caste or tribal groups, which are considered more susceptible to allurement or coercion. The reality of upper caste conversions is ignored in this climate of cynicism.”– Ivy Imogene Hansdak in “Pandita Ramabai Saraswati: the convert as ‘heretic’”

“Tribal men and women mix freely, but with respect for each other [but] caste Hindu society in India is so convinced of its own superiority that it never stops to consider the nature of social organisation among tribal people. In fact it is one of the signs of the ‘educated’ barbarian of today that he cannot appreciate the qualities of people in any way different from himself – in looks or clothes, customs or rituals.” – Guest Column in India Today >>

Image © The Hindu for “The Adivasi in the mirror: The lynching of Madhu in Kerala must shock our conscience into recognising the dispossession of India’s tribals” by Nissim Mannathukkaren >>

Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking, advantage, privilege, or to elevate yourself above others or keep others beneath you …. For this reason, many people—including those we might see as good and kind people—could be casteist, meaning invested in keeping the hierarchy as it is or content to do nothing to change it, but not racist in the classical sense, not active and openly hateful of this or that group.” | Learn more about India’s caste system and the effects of “casteism” on tribal communities >>

“The notion of ‘mainstreaming’ needs to be challenged not just because Adivasi culture is being crushed, but also because Adivasi values and ways of life offer insights that the ‘mainstream’ needs. If we are to halt the destruction of ecosystems, we need to understand how closely biodiversity and cultural diversity are intertwined. Perhaps it is time to reverse the gaze and begin to learn afresh from Adivasis.” – Felix Padel & Malvika Gupta (The Hindu, 13 February 2021) | Learn more about the role of tribal communities in fostering biodiversity, ethnobotany and cultural diversity >>

“The theoretical debate on caste among social scientists has receded into the background in recent years. [C]aste is in no sense disappearing: indeed, the present wave of neo-liberal policies in India, with privatisation of enterprises and education, has strengthened the importance of caste ties, as selection to posts and educational institutions is less based on merit through examinations, and increasingly on social contact as also on corruption.” – Harald Tambs-Lyche (Professor Emeritus, Université de Picardie, Amiens) in “Caste: History and the Present” (Academia Letters, Article 1311, 2021) | Learn more >>

“[T]here are three major rights on forests to be transferred to the forest-dwelling tribal people [including] Title for Forest Land Under Occupation, right of ownership, access to collect, use, and dispose of minor forest produce, [i.e.] all non-timber produce of plant origin, including bamboo, brush wood, stumps, cane, tussar, cocoons, honey, wax, lac, tendu or kendu leaves, medicinal plants and herbs, roots, tubers.”

 Implementation of Forest Rights Act: Towards an informed collective action by stakeholders by Azim Premji University Team, Initiative for Effective Implementation of FRA

More posts with information on India’s forest legislation are found on this website (in reverse chronological order): Forest Rights Act (FRA) | Illegal mining >>

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