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Tribals, Dikus and the Vision of a Golden Age

Life of Tribals in Colonial India

Jhum Cultivators: Shifting cultivation is also called jhum cultivation. The shifting cultivators were living in the hilly and forested tracts of north-east and central India. Their life depended on free movement within forests as it enabled them to use the land and forests for growing their crops.

Hunters and Gatherers: Many tribal groups depended on hunting the animals and gathering forest produce; for their survival. The Khonds of Orissa are example of such community. They used to go on a collective hunting. They ate fruits and roots collected from the forest. They extracted cooking oil from the seeds of sal and mahua. Forest shrubs and herbs were used for medicinal purposes. They also sold some forest produce in the nearby markets.

Some of the tribals also did odd jobs in villages; like carrying loads and building roads. Some others worked as farm labourers.

Shrinking supplies of forest produce to the tribals. As a result, many tribal people began to wander around in search of work. But many of them were not willing to do work for others because they thought it below their dignity to work for others. The Baigas of central India were such community.

Interaction with traders and moneylenders: Tribal people also needed certain goods which were not produced within the forest. This resulted in their interaction with traders and moneylenders. Traders used to come to sell some items. They also purchased certain forest produce from the tribals. Moneylenders gave loans to the tribals. But the rate of interest was very high. Interaction with merchants and traders usually meant debt and poverty for the tribal. Hence, moneylenders and traders were seen as evil outsiders. They were seen as the cause of the misery of tribal people.

Animal Herders: Many tribal groups were pastoralists. They used to move with their herds of cattle or sheep as per seasonal changes. The Van Gujjars of the Punjab hills and the Labadis of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders. The Gaddis of Kulu reared sheep, while the Bakarwals of Kashmir reared goats.

Switch Over to Settled Cultivation

Many from the tribal groups had begun to settle down; even before the nineteenth century. They were changing from the shifting cultivation to settled cultivation. In many cases, the land belonged to the clan as a whole, e.g. the Mundas of Chhotanagpur. All members of the clan had rights on the land. However, some people within the clan acquired more power than the others. Some became chiefs and others followers. Powerful chiefs often rented out their land, instead of cultivating it themselves.

The settled tribal groups were seen by the British as more civilized, e.g. the Gonds and Santhals. On the other hand, the hunter gatherers or shifting cultivators were seen as wild and savaged. The British felt that those tribal groups needed to be civilized and settled.

Status of Tribal Chiefs

In most of the tribal areas, the tribal chief was an important person. He enjoyed considerable economic power. He had the right to administer and control his territory. Some tribal chiefs also had their own police. They even decided on local rules of land and forest management.

But the functions and powers of the tribal chiefs changed considerably under the British rule. They lost much of their administrative power. They were forced to follow the laws made by the British. They had to pay tribute to the British. They were expected to discipline their people on behalf of the British government. However, they were allowed to keep their land titles over a cluster of villages and could rent out lands. Thus, the authority of the tribal chiefs significantly reduced under the colonial rule.

Status of Shifting Cultivators

The shifting cultivators were a problem for the British. The colonial rulers wanted tribal groups to settle down and become peasant cultivators. It was easier to control and administer the settled peasants than people who were always on the move. The British wanted a regular source of revenue for the state. In order to do so, the British introduced land settlements.

Some peasants were declared landowners, while others were declared tenants. The landowner had to pay revenue to the state which was to be collected from the tenants in the form of rent.

The British made efforts to settle the jhum cultivators but with little success. It is important to note that jhum cultivation is done in those areas where water is scarce and soil is dry. Hence, it was difficult to get good yield by settled cultivation in those areas. The jhum cultivators in north-east India protested to the British attempts to settle them. Widespread protests forced the British to allow them the right to carry on shifting cultivation.

Forest Laws and Their Impact

The changes in forest laws had deep impact on tribal life. The forests were declared as state property. Forests which produced useful timber were declared as Reserved Forests. The tribal people were not allowed to move freely in the reserved forests. They could no longer practice jhum cultivation, collect fruits or hunt animals.

Many tribal had to move to other areas in search of work and livelihood. But this created the problem of labour shortage for the British.

The British officials came up with a solution. The jhum cultivation was allowed on the condition that those tribals would provide labour to the Forest Department and would look after the forest. Thus, forest villages were established in many regions.

Many tribal groups reacted against the colonial forest laws. They disobeyed the new rules. They continued with practices which were declared as illegal. At times, some of them also rose in rebellion. The revolt of Songram Sangma in 1906 in Assam, and the forest satyagraha of the 1930s in the Central Provinces are examples of such revolts.

The Problem With Trade

The traders and moneylenders often came to the forests to buy forest produce. They also offered cash loans and asked the tribal people to work for wages. But they used to exploit the innocent people which increased the misery of the tribal people. The tribal people did all the hard work to collect forest produce but were paid meager amount. The middlemen, on the other hand, used to earn huge profit. This was the reason the traders and moneylenders were viewed as enemies by many tribal groups.

The Search for Work

Tea plantations and mining became important industries from the late nineteenth century. Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work in the tea plantations of Assam and in the coal mines of Jharkhand. They were paid very low wages. They were not allowed to return home.

Birsa Munda

Birsa Munda was born in the mid 1870s. He grew up around the forests of Bohonda. His father had to move from place to place in search of work. During his adolescent years, Birsa had heard the tales of the Munda uprisings of the past. He had heard about the sirdars (leaders) of the community urging people to revolt. The sirdars talked of a golden age. This was an age when the Mundas had been free from the oppression of dikus (enemies). They visualized of a time when the ancestral right of the community would be restored.

Influence of Many Schools of Thought

Birsa went to the local missionary school. He was highly influenced by the sermons of missionaries. Birsa also spent some time in the company of a prominent Vaishnav preacher. During this phase, he learnt to value the importance of purity and piety.

He wanted to reform the tribal society. He wanted the Mundas to give up liquor, clean their village. He wanted them to stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. Birsa wanted his people to once again work on their land, settle down and cultivate their fields.

Reaction by British

The Birsa movement wanted to drive out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords and the government. It wanted to set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head. The British officials were worried by the political aim of that movement.

End of Birsa Movement

Birsa was arrested in 1895 and was jailed for two years. He was released in 1897. After that, he started to spread his ideas. People were highly motivated by his call and began to attack anything associated with outsiders. Birsa died in 1900 and after that the movement fizzled out. However, the Birsa movement succeeded in forcing the colonial rulers to change the laws to suit the needs of tribals.


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