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Alien Construct and Tribal Contestation in Colonial Chhotanagpur: The Medium of Christianity

Taking the case of the Mundas and Uraons of Chhotanagpur, this essay looks at the encounter between the colonial state and the tribals of India. It first examines how the term "tribe" evolved to designate a set of negative traits, shaped under colonialism's response to escalating tribal resistance to their rule. It then studies Christianity in its dual role of providing support to colonial rule as well as succour to the "tribals". The paper argues that the colonial state merely transformed pre-colonial prejudices of brahmanical texts and gave them a social Darwinian twist. Unfortunately, the view of tribals as a lower evolutionary form of civilisation continues in nationalist India.


Alien Construct and Tribal Contestation in Colonial Chhotanagpur: The Medium of Christianity

Joseph Bara

Taking the case of the Mundas and Uraons of Chhotanagpur, this essay looks at the encounter between the colonial state and the tribals of India. It first examines how the term “tribe” evolved to designate a set of negative traits, shaped under colonialism’s response to escalating tribal resistance to their rule. It then studies Christianity in its dual role of providing support to colonial rule as well as succour to the “tribals”. The paper argues that the colonial state merely transformed pre-colonial prejudices of brahmanical texts and gave them a social Darwinian twist. Unfortunately, the view of tribals as a lower evolutionary form of civilisation continues in nationalist India.

Joseph Bara ( is with the School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

he Oxford English Dictionary, Compact Edition (1971)

explains the original meaning of “tribe” as “a group of

persons forming a community and claiming descent from a common ancestor”. The etymology changed it in course of time as “a race of people ...applied, especially to a primary aggregate of people in a primitive or barbarous condition under a headman or chief”. The change of tribe from being a kinship-based simple community to a group in “primitive and barbarous condition” marks distinct derogation of the term. The shift indicates an imperialist slant since the latter idea was indiscriminately used in various parts of the colonial world to stamp certain groups as incorrigible backwards. Especially, in the early 20th century, the Darwinist theory of race was brought into use to depict tribes as less human and more beastly, somewhat in a following way: “There is less difference between the highest type of ape and lowest of aborigines than there is between the latter and the modern English gentleman”.1 Today, a tribe is universally understood as primitive, savage or wild in a routine manner. It has become an idiom of defining backwardness against advancedness.

This conceptual vilification was entirely based on non-tribal sources. Rarely were the tribal viewpoints taken into account, since those who indulged in it belonged to the exploiting classes. Colonially evolved concept was, thus, imposed on the tribals. The imposition meant suppression of the tribals’ own idea of self and community which insisted on a tribe being simply a human, no less or no more.2 Based on this conviction, recently an Indian tribal group resented:

… little respect is today, shown to our culture, social systems, political structures and economy. Efforts are made to integrate us into the mainstream society as a low caste, though traditionally we have lived in an egalitarian and casteless society.3

This essay attempts to examine, taking the case of the Mundas and Uraons of Chhotanagpur, how the term “tribe” was shaped under British colonialism and how tribes of India responded to the conceptual cultural imposition.

Resilience of the Inner Voice

Under the British colonial rule, most of the tribal populations have a history of resistance of the outsiders for their nefarious acts of encroachment and exploitation.4 Even after independence, many, with a strong sense of sons of the soil, have continued to assert for their rights. This tempts one to project tribes as avowed subaltern fighters for property rights, but nonchalant on their cultural identity. Even where tribal cultural distinctiveness is recognised, depiction usually is as cultural quaint, of museum

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piece value. The tribals are shown as statically clinging to certain archaic system and practices.

A careful observation indicates that the tribal societies are a ctually highly aware of their self-defined cultural identity. A live indigenous tribal identity is an integral part of any tribal awakening for rights, whether a revolt or a movement, though its e xpression might be latent in some cases. The tribals’ tribal identity, often reiterated and redefined, differed distinctly from what was imposed. There are instances where the Mundas and Uraons based the claims of rights on their self-defined identity. Perhaps, one of the best examples in this respect is their maiden demand for autonomy under the Indian polity, as a remedy to internal c olonialism in their region, before the Indian Statutory Commission (1928). In their petition the tribals professed:

We aborigines, sir … as descendants of the earliest known owners of Indian soil and with more hoary traditions of sovereignty in the land, … are entitled to as much or perhaps greater indulgence and an equal, if not a larger, share in the government of our own people… These alien landlords despise us as “Mlechhas” and despicable creatures – more brutes than men, and actually stigmatise us as “Kols” which we understand is a Sanskrit term for “pigs”. But we too, sirs are human beings with a long past – longer than that of any other race in India, with a native genius for democratic government.5

Voices like this did not surface from, what is generally presumed, a cultural vacuum, or “silence” of the suppressed subalterns.6 They emanated rather from certain vibrant cultural undercurrent of the tribal society that found articulation under certain specific situations. The western forces coming under the bogey of colonialism provided stimulus to the expression. But they were, it should be emphasised, not the source, as authors tend to argue fallaciously.7 In 1831-32, for instance, when western forces had hardly reached Chhotanagpur, the tribals, being harassed and labelled as Kols by their adversaries, spontaneously felt “being of one caste (meaning tribe) and brethren” to rise against the enemies.8

Against live and resilient self-defined cultural identity, from the mid-1830s, the Mundas and Uraons closely encountered the forces of colonial education, British idea of rule by law and Christianity. These were introduced to pacify or tame the tribals, whom the colonial ethnography of the time portrayed as “belligerent” or “beastly”, having animal-like loose emotions and low intellect. The interplay of these developments created a queer situation: more the cultural abuse of the tribals, more was their cultural consciousness. If cultural impositions were innovative and sublime, the tribal responses were no less dynamic and reconstructive. In their cultural assertion, the tribals employed missionised Christianity markedly to define a respectable concept of tribe, which is shown in the paper in the last part.

Pre-Colonial Setting and Sensitivity

The Mundas, joined by Uraons later, made Chhotanagpur their home since ancient times, after constantly been pushed from one place to another. The habitat of Chhotangpur became for the tribals a “resource” for a specific local culture. Trickling in of outsiders reinvigorated in them a new sense of “identity by contrasts”.9 The tribals accommodated them in their settlement, but in a separate part of the village and sans certain privileges of traditional tribal rights.10 This way they became bhuinhars or proud

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d escendants of the first original settlers before the migrants. Traditional attachment with land and the rise of Parha, a loose political confederation of villages (the affairs of which were managed by a chief called Manki and a council of elders), gave rise to an idea of Chhotanagpur being their disum or homeland.

The tribal society was based on democratic principles. The tribal chiefs were simply primus inter pares, who received chanda (voluntary grant) and services from fellow tribals in lieu of their services to the community. The democratic norms came to be challenged when the idea of ruler-and-the-ruled came in with the outsiders. In the beginning, the tribal cultural verve forced the Nagabansi raja, a migrant ruler who had usurped power from Manki, to accept the tribal way of life. Things changed from the medieval times, when the raja distanced himself from the tribals and invited a horde of outsiders as confidants and subordinates. The immigrants were sublet the tribal lands fraudulently and were provided with rukumat (free service) and bethbegari (forced labour) from the tribals. The raja also Hinduised himself. This inspired some tribals close to him to follow, but probably more as a strategy to protect the tribal culture, since one finds simultaneous process of “tribalisation” of migrants in some parts.11

This medieval episode set the tribal society from “ethnic mosaic” to “ethnic hierarchy”12 and a consequent conceptual malady. The raja now projected himself as superior and the tribals as people of “low caste, turbulent wretches, in person like men, but in mind like beasts”.13 Thus, the annals of the Nagabansis traced the lineage of Phani Mukut Rai, the first raja who was an ordinary migrant, to a respectable brahminical ancestry, whereas that of Madra Manki (whom the raja had dislodged) to a “cook” of “one Bairaja Dom”.14 The tribal chiefs, who defied the raja, were called daitya or raksal.15 Under “feudalism giving rise to every species of extortion and plunder”,16 the Moghuls, ruling Chhotanagpur through Nagabansi raja and his coterie, knew the tribals mainly as the “original savage race” or the “barbarous Hindus of Jharkhand”.17

Cultural disfiguration and slandering at the hands of the migrants was not taken kindly by the Mundas and Uraons. They did not spare the enemies uncontested. The aliens – initially simply “others” to the tribals – became their hated dikus or exploiting aliens. To express their hatred for them, the tribals used the choicest metaphors, such as “greedy vulture”, “ravenous crow”, “upstart peacock”, “ominous owl” and so on.18 From their cultural standards, the tribals even looked down upon them as people of “low birth”.19

Denunciation and Disinformation

Already on the anvil of alien construct, the concept was in for more rigorous hammering under the colonial state, making the tribals increasingly contemptible. The deprivation and exploitation of the tribals always went hand in hand with conceptual despicability of tribe. Thus, innocent-looking and frequently used 18th century British term “Hillman” or dhangar (deriving from dangaor hill) for tribe20 came to be replaced by such brutish variants as “semi-barbarous”, “demon” or “kol”21 by the early 19th century. A statement of 1832 reflects the change:

The inhabitants, neighbours to Coles (generally spelt Kol) are a simple and in-offensive race, are chiefly Hindoos and talk the Ooriah language.


They have the greatest dread of the Coles, whom they consider as demons, and no doubt, from their former frequent aggressions, in which they usually exercised every species of cruelty, the former has sufficient cause for doing so. Having no religion, the Coles, during their incursions never hesitated to enter the temples.22

In this shift, invariably essence was drawn from the popular Purana of the 18th century, the Bhavisyata Purana.23 The colonial ethnological exercise this way recycled and ratified the precolonial Indian idea of tribe of beastly and demonic connotation. The traditional idea, subsumed in the Aryan concept of mlechchh24, came in use in the post-1850 colonial Bengal. A peer group of intelli gentsia conjectured the following Indian tribe: The Hindu books in poetical legends describe those aborigines as monkeys, so Megasthenes writes of Indians one-eyed, without noses, wrapped up in the ears (hastikarnas): even Marco Polo and Ptolemy believed that men with tails had a real existence...25 The Mundas and Uraons were described by the same forum as “Dhangars and other low caste people in the jungles: still impure, as probably unconverted mlechchhas”.26

When colonial ethnography embarked upon defining the tribe, it relied upon the traditional Sanskritic sources – now “Orientalis ed” for the colonial cultural project – which were replete with alternatives of the beastly image of tribe. The local Indian idea of tribe, thus, colluded with the western racist idea,27 demeaning the concept doubly. The idea worked some times in a subtle way. The tribes, though beastly and monstrous normally, were, in exceptional cases, considered gentle and humane. But it was so only under godly influence or brahminical ambassadorial touch of “civilisation”.28 The term Uraon was, thus, said to have derived from recitation of “O! Ram” by a grieving banara, when Lord Rama left his forest abode of 14 years.29 Such supposed link was probably the consideration why the Mundas and Uraons, d espite defined as dregs of the Hindu society, were labelled as Hindus in the first census of Bengal (1871).30

Under the idea of beastly tribe, the Mundas and Uraons were scandalised in a new way during the later half of the 19th century. This was the period when the tribals were deprived most thoroughly. It was also during this time that, they after an interregnum, fought the longest battle for their rights under the movement of Sardari Larai (1858-1890). The composite of the two phenomena despised and demonised the tribals as sar kols (dirty kols), “impure and illiterate savages”, “stubborn kols”, “restless junglies”, “chuar” and “dakait”.31 Most of these terms found their way in the official proceedings in common usage and were used mainly for the participants of the Sardari Larai. The irony was that the agitating tribals associated with this movement made advanced use of recently-acquired skill of rudimentary literacy in petitions and depositions for radical claims.32

In the making of the new usages, an important role was played by the local informants of the Europeans coming from the plains, who, as internal colonisers of the tribal region, were highly prejudiced against the tribal people. They were not only gatekeepers of information on the tribals, but were also active disinformants, out to prove that the tribals were by no means landowners, but non-descript “turbulent rebels”.33 From around the mid-19th century, some European administrator-ethnographers stationed themselves in the tribal regions and encountered the tribals direc tly. This accessed them to a new kind of information: the tribals possessing certain noble human qualities – b ravery, fidelity, honesty, diligence and intelligence – tempting the authorities as “splendid material for recruiting regiments equal to best of our native army”.34 But this did not lead to any conceptual rediscovery.

In the face of escalating tribal resistance to the colonial rule, the colonial state was bent upon showing the tribes as barbarous backwards. This inspired the colonial ethnographical project to remain firm on its charter and comfortable with the existing approach and information syndicate. Moreover, the outsiders, now migrating into the region in larger numbers and having greater economic stake, came to monopolise the expanded British bureaucracy at the crucial subordinate level. The period, thus, became the informants’ paradise, suppressing the tribal viewpoints and nicknaming the tribals by “all intents and purposes, for the real name”.35

Mutant Mind and ‘Godsend’ Christianity

The heightened cultural denigration under British colonialism was unable to domesticate the Mundas’ and Uraons’ conceptual sensitivity. The tribal mind actually could not be numbed even in the event of, what is believed to be, their “complete silence” or “sullen silence” as a result of stern actions of the powerful British military in the early 19th century.36 The suppression of the great revolt of 1831-32 actually became an opportunity to ruminate over the efficacy of the mode of violence for cultural rehabilitation and exploration of an alternative.

At this stage the British gestured to the tribals a policy of friendship and assured them redress for injustice in the post- revolt administrative measures of 1834. The British polity, insisting on administration by rule of law and justice, came to the doorstep of the tribals with headquarters at Kishenpur (present Ranchi). The first European officials posted in the region, led by political agent to the governor-general, T Wilkinson, established personal rapport with the tribals. After studying the tribal system and sentiments, Wilkinson upheld the indigenous bhuinhari status of the tribals and promised to be their protector. The British overture of goodwill, coming against the tribals’ long experience of systematic deprivation by deceit and treachery by all the incoming social groups, was most appealing.

Yet, even as the tribals responded to the British overture and tried to understand the “benevolent” administration, they found the ground reality unchanged. The alien landlords and the subordinate officials continued with their usual excesses, at times in a more reactionary way. For instance, the tribals, who had fled their villages fearing British reprisal in the course of the 1831-32 revolt and returned later to claim their land, were resisted.37 This way the hollowness of British “benevolence” was gradually vindicated and the measures of 1834 proved to be a mirage to the tribals. Deprivation of the tribals actually became more rampant and thorough. The euphoria of close connection to the European officials also dissipated. The officials were too preoccupied with the nitty-gritty of administrative reclamation of the region.

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Swinging between hope and despair, the tribal psyche came across another possible “resource”38 – the Christian missionaries. The urge of making the troublesome tribals a peaceable colonial subject in the British colonialist mind prepared a background for the coming of the missionaries. The colonial managers invited them as “colonial social workers” to educate and “civilise” the tribals.39 The Gossner Evangelical Lutheran missionaries of Berlin responded to the colonialists’ call and positioned themselves among the tribals from 1845. Two and a half decades later, since 1869, they were followed by the Roman Catholic Jesuits from Belgium and the Anglicans of the Society for the Propagation of Gospel.

To pursue their object of winning coverts, the missionaries adopted, since 1850, a humanitarian approach to the tribal a grarian problems. From their experience of contemporary E urope, they equated the tribal bhuinhari rights on land with peasant proprietary rights and the imposition of bethbegari as a form of slavery. With this notion, the missionaries demonstrated their sympathy to the tribals by providing consultancy in their legal battle with the landlords. As a result, many tribals actually won back their lost rights. Reciprocally, the tribals converted to Christianity, which they found as such a simple belief, in large numbers.40 Even as evangelical romanticism of humanitarian flair progressed spectacularly, what is noteworthy is that, it was unable to refine western racist arrogance on the idea of tribe. To a typical 19th century missionary, therefore, the M undas and Uraons were “heathen Coles”, comparable to “bears and wolves” – an image that was deeply embedded in the missiona ry mind.41

Arming by Appropriation

The Christian missionary support, though re-energised the tribal mind, was hardly consequential in the colonial process of tribals’ deprivation and denunciation. Yet, while dispossession was widespread, the colonial administrative discourse continuously rejuvenated the tribal psyche with the sense of distinct cultural identity and tribal territoriality. This occurred, since the maiden m ediation of Wilkinson, through a series of surveys, reports and other official transactions of the colonial state – a body of suborientalist data.42 The new facts not only upheld the bhuinhari status of the tribals and their distinct cultural identity, they also accorded formal recognition of Chhotanagpur as the Munda and Uraon homeland.43 From the beginning, recognition ramified a non-regulation status of the region which continued in some or the other form throughout the British rule.

It is this new sense of cultural identity, ownership and sons-ofthe-soil, besides a new-found faith in British constitutionalism (exemplified by the missionaries), which inspired the tribals for the protracted course of the Sardari Larai.44 Various petitions of the tribals associated with the Sardari Larai reflects this well. Imbued with new confidence, the first thing the tribals did was to retort the Nagabansi raja’s claim of superiority under kingship and his ownership of large portion of land as rajhans (raja’s personal property) by asserting that they, as bhuinhars, were actually the owners of the land of Chhotanagpur and the raja was originally just their “servant”.45

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While the Mundas and Uraons were busy experimenting with the appropriated resource of British constitutionalism and western education in the Sardari Larai, their engagement with Christianity became impassioned and deeper. From the beginning, the missionary actions fixed in the simple tribal mind the idea that the white missionaries were the right route to reach the white masters towards resolution of their problems.46 Further, the missionaries continuing to help them, even at the risk of their own life, assured the tribals that they were indeed their friends in need. This paved way for an intimate interface between the tribal society and Christianity.

In evaluating the role of Christianity in the tribal society, scholars generally obscure the picture of reception by the tribals.47 In their impatience to gather vertical “impact” of the “alien” force of Christianity – bringing in instant cloud of Pax Christi or Pax Brittannica in a dormant “primitive” society – they leave no scope of the tribal mind being active and receptive.48 This prevents them from recognising that the tribals actually made use of Christianity to protect themselves as a cultural group, than Christianity subduing or deactivating them by way of impact. To start with the tribals valued the German missionaries as expedient means for the restoration of their lost rights. But soon, within two decades, seeing Christianity as a potential force for wider cultural protection they adopted and internalised it in the tribal society.49 Since then Christianity stayed as a permanent and integral part of the tribal culture.

Resourcing Christianity for Reasoned Reconstruction

The integration of Christianity in the tribal culture reflected mainly in the social sphere. Christianity, the religion, had largely an imperfect hold over the tribal masses. The conversion, it should be recalled, was administered impromptu and on a large scale. Obviously most of the converts were neophytes, and many, in fact, just nominal Christians. There were even cases of men calling themselves Christian as soon as they simply enrolled themselves as catechumen.50 Yet, it is this tenuous adherence that the tribal leaders made adroit use of. In their various petitions to the government, they invariably introduced themselves as 12,000 to 14,000 “native Christians”, no matter many had a ctually turned apostate.51

Highly conscious as a “Christian” group, the tribals asserted their claims on cultural and ethical grounds. Hitherto somewhat reticent, they made best use of their newly developed v ocal cord to explain the whole case. They, thus, rationalised their claim by insisting that “other castes than us do not engage themselves to making the jungle clear”.52 The tribal voice soon acquired a radical primordial tone. Striking a deeper cultural base of the tribal claims, a Munda was heard stating before E T Dalton, commissioner of Chhotanagpur in 1869: “We consider Nagpore (Chhotanagpur) our Gya, Ganga, Kasi and Prayag. The bones of our ancestors lie buried in the bowels of Nagpore. We are no colonists from other countries, but derive race from Nagpore”.53

The argumentative tribal mind employed the adopted Christianity not only for cultural rationalisation of the tribal rights, it also engaged it as a potent resource at a higher pedestal, i e, to


contest the imposed concept of tribe and construct a new one, towards the effort of regaining their lost status. In that direction, the tribals drew analogy of their being bhuinhars with episodes of the Old Testament. That is how a group led by one “John the Baptist”, which has been mocked as “ludicrously comic[al]”,54 named itself as the “Children of Mael”.55 Implicit in the assumption of these names was to describe the tribals as special people, like the “chosen” Israelites. A letter from two former Munda students of the GEL mission school addressed to the mission authorities makes it explicit:

We Mundas used to have a patriarchal form of government. We gave taxes to the patriarchs (makshays), not rent for the land, but a religious type tax. Anyone, who reads Leviticus, chapter 25 (of the Old Testament) can understand the conditions of our people; they were similar to those of the Israelites....56

The leaders re-asserted the idea in a petition of 1881 to the government: “We do not beg Your Majesty for a … right (different) than that of the Israelites, who after wandering in the jungles, and suffering many trials became heir of the holy land….”57 Christianity to the tribals, in short, became an advanced weapon to fight for a “human” social status under a dignified term of tribe.58

Around the period of these developments in the tribal world of the Mundas and Uraons, the outcastes in various parts of India also converted into Christianity, defying the domination of the upper classes. This was preceded by, like the Munda-Uraon case, their “unprecedented restlessness”.59 The outcastes were sensitised by the colonial system of their age-old suppression under the caste-ridden mainstream society and they took Christianity as an escape route. In this sense, the outcaste conversion movement has rightly been explained as “the first stage of dalit movement”.60 The outcaste move essentially stood for self-respect in the existing social set-up. In the case of the Chhotanagpur tribals, who were cultural exclusives, Christianity became a means for cultural restoration that would yield them their rights and h uman dignity. Their effort for recovery of the lost rights and dignity led them to, as indicated by the Sardari Larai, the idea of autonomous status in the region.

Conclusion: Implications and Impasse

Making of the concept of tribe in pre-colonial and colonial India is a succinct symbol of the tribals being culturally most suppressed. Under British colonialism, the colonial ethnography integrated the concept in the caste frame. The tribes, placed as dregs in the caste hierarchy, formed the “brahmanical opposite”.61 The conceptual denigration culminated in “criminalisation” of tribes, as pronounced in the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871.62 Close association of such conceptual making with colonialism has led scholars to believe “tribe” as “colonial creation”.63 The proposition ignores heavy reliance of colonial ethnographers upon the same traditional Sanskritic data that the pre-colonial idea was based on. This substantially renders colonial depiction of tribe as beastly as earlier. Colonialism, however, gave the concept a new dynamism and currency. Especially, it added the ingredient of social Darwinism and sprouted a number of regional terms, all equally despicable.

The colonial term has stayed unquestioned. This is because scholars rigidly stick to the belief that tribe is a stage of human progress and not an autonomous unit of human progress. Tribe is, thus, prmitivised or “savaged”, as R C Guha would like to call.64 That accounts for why tribes generally meant to the Indian nation either “tiresome savages” or “colourful folks engaged in sexual

o rgies, human sacrifice and head-hunting”65 on the basis of such trite reason as “inferior in mental capacity, military organi sation, material advancement and social efficiency”.66 While scholars recognise stereotyping on the basis pre-colonial data, they lack the boldness of exploring varied and alternative, including tribal, sources for an objective understanding of the concept.67

Under static mindset, the best of western humanitarianism or of Indian nationalist thinking would not be able to raise any diffe rent idea of tribe.68 The latter instead harboured the idea of tribes as “backward Hindus”.69 From such notion, the Indian nation coined first the term adimjati or primitive people and later, after independence, with same connotation vanavasi, i e, forest-dwellers.70 In recent times, the Hindu right wing sought to popula rise vanavasi, and from that, the name Jharkhand was to be Vananchal.

Taking tribes as “backward Hindus”, the nationalist humanitarian concern toyed with a romantic move to facelift the concept by according the tribals kshatriya status or “civilised” label.71 The effort was bound to fail, but the idea motivated in Chhotanagpur, in the early 20th century, concerted effort to mainstream the tribals: through “shuddhi” programme of the Arya Samaj to win back “the lost brethren” from the fold of Christianity, by enumerating them (especially, the followers of Sarna, the indigenous tribal religion) as Hindus in various decennial censuses since 1921, and by their political mobilisation by the Indian National Congress. Except a small segment of the Hinduised Tana Bhagats, who responded to the Congress call, the Mundas and Uraons cold shouldered these overtures.72

The tribals’ indifference indicated their firmness of belief in a different idea of tribe and associated cultural values, to which the Sarna faith was well coordinated and adopted Christianity conformed. That was how, in 1930s, when the embryo of the Jharkhand movement assumed shape as Adivasi Sabha (1938), the Christian and Sarna tribals shared the platform, spurning Congress as the outsiders’ “Hindu” party. Christian preponderance of Adivasi Sabha instigated the Congress politicians in the region to discern the factor of “separatism” in the Jharkhand movement, as an “imperialist” impact on the “simple” people. The tribals took pains to clarify that the movement depicted simply the tribals’ aspiration for cultural autonomy.

The tribal response underpinned a spontaneous conceptual a rticulation. An eloquent Jaipal Singh, the president of the A divasi Sabha stated in 1939 that the tribals, “as citizens of this country”, were “equal in status to others”; and that as “adivasis – the original settlers” they wanted “to remove the stigma of a dalit jati”.73 This marks a new initiative of the Mundas and Uraons for concept-based cultural claim for human dignity vis-à-vis superimposed sub-human status. They took adimjati or vananchal as pejorative and made their choice clear for adivasi, denoting the sense of indigenity.74 In that sense, adivasi became a f ought-andwon term of the tribals, as independent India accepted it in

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p opular use. However, this did not liberate the term from inher-faltered. In Americas and Australia, especially respective governited bias. In independent India, adivasi officially became “sched-ments, in recent decades, have realised the colonial wrongs uled tribe” or anusuchit janajati, with parenthetic presence of jati wrought on the “indigenous people” and have publicly apologised. (caste) as a legacy of colonial ethnography. The governments saw the reason behind these people’s cultural

Today the term adivasi has become contentious because of assertions, and ultimately, as a token of compensation, accepted certain political ramifications, centring on the claim of first right their aspirations by according them the status of “first nation”. by the local tribal people over local resources. Many among the Widespread recognition by individual states forced the United general population disapprove it for the tribals and section of it, Nations to open a Permanent Forum on the subject and declare an espe cially the Hindu right wingers, has even resorted to tamper-International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People in 1993. ing with Indian history to prove their indigenity prior to the The Indian state is aware of these developments, but has t ribals. The term is also detested by sections of tribals of north-r efused to join the UN Permanent Forum. The plea is that the east India, since it is in use for the tribal migrants there from the country has no “indigenous people”! At the back of the denial inner parts of India. The crux of the matter is not so much which are i nveterate prejudice of the average Indian mind in respect group settled in a region when, but rather which group has to the idea of tribe, inherited from history, and the political continuously settled in a particular region for a period longer implications of the tribals’ indigenous status. The government’s than others.75 abnegation has, however, not restrained a number of Indian tribal

Equally important at stake is the need of appreciating the cul-o rganisations to join the UN Permanent Forum. The adivasi versus tural sentiments of the local tribal people, especially their sensi-scheduled tribe stalemate symbolising alien-tribal conceptual bility of being equal humans with others. This is where India has contention, thus, persists.

NotesA Critique (New Delhi: Manohar 2002). One is 26 Ibid. also reminded here of the Mundas and Uraons 27 A Bavarian tourist in Chhotanagpur in the early

1 J Hoffmann, Encyclopaedia Mundarica, Vol I,

claiming their ancestry to the Mahabharata fig-20th century remarked to his local host pointing (Patna: Government Printing, Bihar, 1950), p 1117.

ure, Jarasandha, while arguing for their “Indige-at a Munda sitting on the roadside: “That Fellow 2 The tribals addressed each other as “Horo”, nous” tribal status in Chhotanagpur before the Sitting there is Either a Monkey, and then I am a “Maleh” and so on – that meant man.

Indian Statutory Commission, 1928; see “Memo-Man, or if He is a Man, and then I am God”, J Hoff3 Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal randum submitted by the Chhotanagpur Improve-mann, Encyclopaedia Mundarica, Vol IV, p 1117.

Peoples, Indigenous and Tribal Solidarity (New

ment Society”, p 447.

28 The latter phenomenon is explained more explic-Delhi: ICITP 1997), p 105.

12 Guha, Environment and Ethnicity in India, p 199. itly in case of the Gond tribes of central India. See

4 K S Singh, Tribal Movements in India (New Delhi:

13 Anonymous, “The Kols of Chhotanagpur”, Calcut-W G Griffith, “The Folklores of the Kols”, Man in Manohar 1982) in Chhotanagpur the first revolt ta Review, Vol XLIX, No XCVII, 1869, p 140. India, Vol XXIV, No 4; J Forsyth, The Highlands of took place in 1789, closely following the actual

14 Roy, “An Abstract of the Annals of the Nagabansi Central India: Notes on their Forests, Wild Tribes,

occupation of the region in 1772.

Raj Family”, Man in India, Vol VIII, 19, pp 269-70. Natural History and Sports (London: Chapman 5 “Memorandum Submitted by the Chhotanagpur and Hall, new edition 1919). In Chhotanagpur, it 15 Ibid, p 268.

Improvement Society”, Report of the Indian Statu

reflects abundantly in the annals of the Nagaban

16 S C Roy, “Ethnological Investigation in Official

tory Commission, Selections from Memoranda and

sis See Roy “An Abstract of the Annals of the

Records” (Report of S T Cuthbert 1827), Journal

Oral Evidence by Non-officials (Part I) (Calcutta:

N agabansi Raj Family”.

of Bihar and Orissa Research Society, Vol VII,

Government Printing), 1930, p 447.

29 “Srimati Satyawati Gaur Gahi Bakhni” (in Ku

part 4, 1931, p 5 (Hereafter “Cuthbert Report

6 This is what cultural theoretician, Edward Said rukh, the dialect of the Uraons), Dhumkuria, May1827”).

perceived in his Orientalism (New Delhi: Penguin June, 1952, p 10.

17 E T Dalton, Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal (Cal-

Books, 1978). The view has since been critiqued

30 H Beverley, Report on the Census of Bengal

cutta: Indian Studies 1872, rpt 1960), pp 162-63.

by a host of writers. I take cue mainly from And( Calcutta: Government Printing 1872).

18 S C Roy, The Mundas and Their Country (Bombay:

rew Porter, “‘Cultural Imperialism’ and Protestant

31 J Hoffmann, Encyclopaedia Mundarica, Vol V

Asia Publishing House 1970), p 93.

Missionary Enterprise 1780-1914”, Journal of (Patna: Government Printing, Bihar 1950),

Impe rial and Commonwealth History, Vol 25, No 3, 19 Ibid.

pp 1449-50; Ibid, Vol II (Patna: Government September 1997. 20 See, for instance, C P N Sinha (ed.) India Tracts: Printing, Bihar 1950), pp 462; Letter dated 22 May

7 The scholarly tendency in the context of the Major J Browne’s Report of Jungle Tarai People of

from R D Haldar, Special Commissioner to Deputy growth of the Jharkhand movement in late 1930s South Bihar during 1774-79 (Darbhanga: Maharaja-Commissioner, Lohardugga in Papers relating to has been to discern tribal “separatism” in Chho-dhiraj Kameshwar Singh Foundation 1996); James Chhotanagpur Agrarian Disputes, Vol I, p 82; tanagpur, chiefly “Sustained by Continuous Flow Long, Selections from Unpublished Records of Gov-L S S O’Malley, Census of India, 1911, Part Iof External Stimuli”, see P G Ganguli, “Separatism ernment for the Years 1748 to 1767 (Calcutta: Firma B engal, Bihar and Orissa (Calcutta: Bengal Secrein Indian Polity: A Case Study” in M C Pradhan et K L Mukhopadhyay, second edition 1973); Reginald tariat Book Depot), p 234.

al (ed.), Anthropology and Archaeology: Essays in Heber, Narratives of a Journey Through the Upper

32 The details of this movement is well-documented

Honour of Verrier Elwin 1902-64 (London: Oxford Provinces India from Calcutta to Bombay 1824-25, in MacDougall, John, Land or Religion? The

University Press 1969); K S Singh, “Tribal Ethni-Vol I (Delhi: B R Publishing, rpt 1985), p 258.

S ardar and Kherwar Movements in Bihar 1858-95

city in a Multi-ethnic Society: Conflict and Inte-21 British linguist of the late 19th and early 20th cen(New Delhi: Manohar 1985).

gration in Colonial and Post-colonial Chhota-tury, G A Grierson sees the meaning of “Kol” as

33 M G Hallet, Bihar and Orissa District Gazetteer:

nagpur” in UNESCO, Trends in Ethnic Group Rela-dirty pig, which the tribals also believed.

Ranchi (Patna: Government Printing, Bihar 1917), tions in Asia and Oceana (Paris: UNESCO 1979).22 Report entitled “The Coles”, The Bengal Harkaru p 32. The early 60 years of the British rule, espe

8 J Reid, Final Report on the Survey and Settlement and Chronicle, Calcutta, 24 February 1832 in

cially facilitated this politically. The authorities

Operations in the Ranchi District, 1902-10 (Cal-J C Jha, The Tribal Revolt of Chhotanagpur

governed the region from camp offices at Chatra cutta: Bengal Secretariat Book Depot 1912), p 22.(1831-32) (Patna: K P Jayaswal Research Institute and Sherghati in central Bihar, which meant to 9 Sumit Guha, Environment and Ethnicity in India, 1987), Appendix 2, p 269.

the tribals a distant “Delhi Durbar”; Reid, Final1200-1991 (Cambridge: Cambridge University 23 Sinha, India Tracts, p 15.

Report of the Survey and Settlement Operation of

Press 1999), p 26. 24 Romila Thapar, Ancient Indian Social History Ranchi, p 34.

10 They came to be known as “sadans”, who consti-(New Delhi: Orient Longman 1978), pp 152-92.

34 Roy, “Cuthbert Report, 1827”; S C Roy, “Ethnolotute a sizeable community in the state of This is often overlooked, and the rise of beastly or gical Investigation in Official Records” (Report of Jharkhand today. demonic portrayal of tribe is exclusively linked John Davidson, 1839), Vol XXI, Part 4, p 243; 11 B B Choudhuri, “Society and Culture of the Tribal with Darwinian racism of modern times.

H Ricketts, Selections from the Records of the

World in Colonial India: Reconsidering the No-25 James Long, “Report of the Sociological Section”,

Govern ment of Bengal, No XX, Calcutta, 1855, p 36;

tion of ‘Hinduisation’ of Tribes” in Jha, Hetukar Proceedings of the Transactions of the Bethune

P C Roy Choudhury, 1857 in Bihar (Chhotanagpur

(ed.), Perspectives on Indian Society and History: Society (Calcutta: Bethune Society 1870), p 414.

and Santhal Parganas), second edition (Patna:

Economic & Political Weekly

december 26, 2009 vol xliv no 52


Revenue Department 1959), p 39; Indo-European Correspondence, 22 January 1890, p 77.

35 F A Grignard, “The Oraons and Mundas: From the Times of Their Settlement in India”, Anthropos, Vol IV, 1909, p 7.

36 Jha, The Tribal Revolt of Chhotanagpur (1831-32), p 259; Ganguli, “Separatism in Indian Polity”, p 100, A reflection of this theory is found in Weiner, Myron, Sons of the Soil: Migration and Ethnic Conflict in India (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1978), which sees “Passive Protest” in the emigration of the displaced tribals vis-à-vis active protest in the form of revolts and movements. The emigrants actually left their land nostalgically, often with a resolve to get it back. Some of them did return with savings in hand and joined the Sardari Larai. Some others converted to Christianity in the migrated land to empower themselves. This indicates that emigration was not really passive exit.

37 Letter dated 22 December 1871 from E T Dalton, Commissioner, Chhotanagpur to Secretary, Revenue, Bengal, in Papers relating to Chotanagpur Agrarian Disputes, Vol I, p 21.

38 MacDougall, Land or Religion?

39 Joseph Bara, “Seeds of Mistrust: Tribal and Colonial Perspectives on Education in Chhotanagpur, 1834-c 1850”, History of Education, Vol 34, No 6, November 2005.

40 See for detailed description of the circumstances in Joseph Bara, “Colonialism, Christianity and the Tribes of Chhotanagpur in East India, 1845-90”, South Asia, Vol XXX, No 2, August 2007.

41 Report of the Chhota Nagpore Mission for Year 1863, Calcutta, 1864, pp 9-10.

42 This took place, especially between 1855, when Henry Ricketts, visiting member, board of r evenue, prepared a report and 1880, when R D Haldar, special commissioner to the bhuinhari survey submitted his report. Haldar’s note entitled “An Account of the Village System of Chhotanagpur”, appended to the main report, e specially became an authoritative reference m aterial on the subject of bhuinhari.

43 In place of “Khukra”, “Chutia Nagpur” or “Jharkhand”, the names of the region in the medieval period, the British called it “Ramgarh Tract” (1765) and “South-West Frontier Agency” (1834) before opting for “Chhotanagpur” in 1854.

44 Scholars have either overlooked this movement or have failed to recognise its importance. In the entire set of “Subaltern Studies” of the Oxford University Press, the subject is unattended. K S Singh, whose scholarship on tribal movement of Chhotanagpur is well-known for over three decades, is more concerned to see how Birsa movement was an “advance” over this movement and assigns the latter the role of a second fiddle; see his Birsa Munda and His Movement 1874-1901: A Study of a Millenarian Movement in Chhotanagpur (Calcutta: Oxford University Press 1983). Historian Sumit Sarkar in his authoritative survey of popular movements in colonial India explains the “primary resistance” led by traditional chiefs in Chhotanagpur before this movement and the “reviv alist” movement led by Birsa following it, but skips comment on Sardari Larai; see Sarkar, Sumit,

“Popular” Movement and “Middle Class” Leadership in Late Colonial India: Perspective and Problems of a “History from Below” (Calcutta: Centre for Studies in Social Sciences 1983).

45 Petition dated 25 March 1879 of “14,000 Christians” to the Commissioner of Chhotanagpur in Roy, The Mundas and Their Country, pp 162-63.

46 A tribal saying is Topi Topi ek Topi, which means hat donning whitemen, whether a colonial official or a missionary, were the same.

47 Some see Christianity playing the role of a mere “Catalyst” in the tribal society, where the chief role was played by market forces, giving rise to a “Well-Off” tribal peasantry. See Romila Thapar and M H Siddiqi “Chhotanagpur: The Pre-Colonial and Colonial Situation” in UNESCO, Trends in Ethnic Group Relations in Asia and Oceania (Paris: UNESCO 1979), p 39. Others discern a


direct role of it. See especially Roy, The Mundas Discourses of Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in
and Their Country. Jharkhand (New Delhi: Sage Publications 1992).
48 K S Singh, for instance, finds a proactive working 64 R C Guha, Savaging the Civilised: Verrier Elwin,
of Christianity which “radiated deeper” into the His Tribals and India (Delhi: Oxford University
tribal society and raised a band of “Reactionary” Press 1997).
tribal leaders, see Singh, Birsa Munda and His 65 Verrier Elwin, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin:
Movement, p 20. An Autobiography (New York: Oxford University
49 For a vivid picture of it from contemporary writ- Press 1964), p 290.
ing see, Mullens, Joseph, Ten Years of Missionary 66 L S S O’Malley, Modern India and the West: A Study
Labour in India between 1852 and 1861 (London: of the Interaction of Civilisations (London: Oxford
James Nisbet & Co 1863), p 43. University Press, 1941), p 726.
50 W W Hunter, Statistical Account of Bengal: The 67 See, for instance, a number of essays dealing with
Districts of Ranchi and Lohardaga, Vol XVI (Delhi: “construction” of “Tribe” and “Adivasi” in Indian
Concept Publishing Company, rpt 1975), p 443. Historical Review (Vol XXXIII, No 1, January 2006)
51 Report of the GEL Mission for the year 1874, quot devoted to the theme “Adivasis in Colonial India”.
ed in ibid, p 436. 68 The former was represented by the Jesuit mis
52 Petition to the Lt Governor of Bengal, 1881 in Mac sionaries in Chhotanagpur in the early 20th cen-
Dougall, Land or Religion?, Appendix B3, p 261. tury. This was the period when the Jesuits led by
53 Quoted by R D Haldar in his “An Account of J B Hoffmann fought an in-house battle for the
V illage System of Chhotanagpur”, appended to cause of social uplift of the Mundas and Uraons.
Resolution dated 25 November 1880 of the Gov- The missionaries generally still took the tribals as
ernment of Bengal on the Report of the Special incurable “Drunkards and Liars”, who preferred
Commissioners, in Papers Relating to Chhota the “bliss of their primitive simplicity”; Sevrin,
nagpur Agrarian Disputes, Vol I, p 103. Oscar, “Village Schools in Chota Nagpore”
54 Roy, The Mundas and Their Country, p 163. (mimeo) (Ranchi Jesuit Archives), pp 1-2.
55 Letter dated 19 November 1887 from Stevens to 69 This was academically adopted by G S Ghurye,
Chief Secretary, Bengal. The Aborigines – So-called – and Their Future
56 Undated (but dating sometime before 1887) peti (Poona: Gokhale Institute of Politics and Econo
tion by two former students of the Lutheran mics 1943).
M ission School, in MacDougall, Land or Religion?, 70 Both the terms were closely associated with the
Appendix B2, p 261. Adimjati Seva Mandal, a nationalist non
57 Petition dated 1881 to the Lt Governor of Bengal, governmental organisation, engaged in welfare
in ibid, p 262. works among the tribal populations.
58 The idea of “Chosen People” has pushed some sec 71 The idea of Kshatriya status was floated on the
tions of the Mizos and Kukis in North-East India eve of independence by some philanthropists; see
to define themselves as one of the lost tribes of the Verrier Elwin, Foreword (written in 1944) to All-
Old Testament, leading some even to migrate to India Arya (Hindu) Dharma Sewa Sangha, Reli-
Israel. Under what specific circumstances it has gious Banditry (Delhi: AIADSS, undated), p 15. As
taken that turn needs to be studied. for the tribals being called “Civilised”, see Elwin,
59 Forrester, B Duncan, Caste and Christianity: A ttitudes The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin.
and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant 72 See the details of these political moves in Joseph
Mission in India (London: Curzon Press 1980), p 73. Bara, “Western Education and Rise of New Identity:
60 Webster, C B John, The Dalit Christians: A History Mundas and Oraons of Chhotanagpur 1839-1939”,
(Delhi: Indian Society for Promoting Christian Economic & Political Weekly, 12 April 1997.
Knowledge 1992), p 70. 73 Jaipal Singh, “Success of the Mahasabha”, A divasi:
61 Crispin Bates, “Race, Caste and Tribe in Central Mahasabha Special Issue, March, 1939, p 10.
India: The Early Origins of Indian Anthropmetry” 74 As indicated above, besides forming a political
in Peter Robb (ed.), The Concept of Race in South f orum with the word “Adivasi”, the tribals also
Asia (Delhi: Oxford University Press 1995). published an organ Adivasi since 1938.
62 Yang, A Anand (ed.), Crime and Criminality in 75 Virginius Xaxa, “Tribes as Indigenous People of
British India (Tucson: The University of Arizona India” in Joseph Bara (ed.), Ordeals and Voices of
Press, 1995). the Indigenous Tribal People of India (Guwahati:
63 Among many works on the subject, see specifi- Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal
cally on the Jharkhand tribes, Devalle, B C Susana, Peoples, North-East Zone 2006).
Review of Labour
May 30, 2009
Beyond the Factory: Globalisation, Informalisation of Production and the New Locations of Labour – Kalyan Sanyal, Rajesh Bhattacharyya
Neoliberal Subjectivity, Enterprise Culture and New Workplaces: Organised Retail and Shopping Malls in India – Nandini Gooptu
The Effects of Employment Protection Legislation on Indian Manufacturing – Aditya Bhattacharjea
Power, Inequality and Corporate Social Responsibility: The Politics of Ethical Compliance in the South Indian Garment Industry – Geert De Neve
Revisiting Labour and Gender Issues in Export Processing Zones: Cases of South Korea, Bangladesh and India – Mayumi Murayama, Nobuko Yokota
Defragmenting ‘Global Disintegration of Value Creation’ and Labour Relations – G Vijay
For copies write to: Circulation Manager, Economic and Political Weekly,

320-321, A to Z Industrial Estate, Ganpatrao Kadam Marg, Lower Parel, Mumbai 400 013. email:

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