Bihar’s past struggles reconstructed

Early writings glossed over hierarchies in the tribal communities and gave an incorrect picture of their struggles

September 22, 2014 10:28 pm | Updated September 23, 2014 07:53 am IST

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

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

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.

Bihar contributed significantly to the uprising against the colonial regime in India and Mahatma Gandhi started his freedom movement from Champaran district of Bihar in 1916, after his return from South Africa. The area witnessed a strong anti-imperialist struggle. Bihar was a centre of power, learning and culture in ancient India and more recently it saw the emergence of Jayaprakash Narayan’s Movement.

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.

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 the Oraaons 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.

P. S. Shukla’s article narrates the story of transition of communal property to private ownership and establishes that this resulted in the disintegration of the village community into various categories with individual rights over such divided properties. This paper assumes importance as it throws light on the changed land ownership due to the introduction of Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 by Cornwallis, which brought about the system of zamindars becoming revenue-generating centres and serving as intermediaries for the Company. Sanjay Das Gupta discusses the insider-outsider problem in his interesting article, narrating how an Adivasi developed distrust towards an outsider.

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.

The author quotes from several researchers to show how the tribal community lived on the products of forests and how they had knowledge of the forest habitats. The local food habits and strategies minimised the risk of drought, thus developing a symbiotic relationship between human life and nature. She quotes William Schlich (1840-1925) who was the conservator of forests to show from his statistics how the destruction of forests took place systematically and its impact on wildlife.

Another important quote is from a note of Dr. John Davidson, who reported as early as 1839, the plight of bhuinhari tenants which if taken note of could have protected their interest, thus faulting the very idea of Bhuinhari Act 11 of 1869. 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.

Equally interesting articles are about the communal riots by Imitiaz Ahmad, and on the problems of indentured labour by Mrityunjay Prabhakar. Ahmad draws attention to the necessity to ponder over the reasons for the mysterious silence on the part of large number of Urdu authors and poets about the tragedy that has affected three generations of Bihari Muslims. Prabhakar quotes extensively from various folklore and poems and provides statistics. 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.

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