Tracing the History of Tribal Exploitation
Historically, the tribals had always lived as masters of their lives and their system of communal holding of agricultural land continued uninterrupted. There was no system by which land could be owned as private property by individuals. It was one of the best egalitarian and democratic system of land holding known to the best civilized region. But once the colonial British arrived they also brought with them corrupt practices and exploitative system of governance.
In Munda areas the village headman was called the Munda. The head of a cluster of villages – killi – was called Manki who was always elected. The clusters of villages were created for mutual help during war. The local chiefs received no rent, rather only assistance in war and “salami” (gifts given as a mark of respect) at festivals. In Oraon areas, community ownership of land was known as “bhuinhari” held by the original settlers; it was also rent free. The Raja of local chiefs had separate land known as “Majhas”. The rajas gave the land to the tribals, who cultivated and paid a share to the Rajas (kings). There was a similar system among the Cheros and Kharwars of Palamau.
However, during the Mughal regime the regional “jagirdars” began controlling almost all lands of the tribes and of Rajas also. They collected pre-decided revenue on behalf of the Mughal rulers. When the British snatched territories they started serving the new masters and their exploitative commercial interests. The white rulers were far more exploitative and demanded hefty revenues which turned the jagirdars and their middlemen far more oppressive.
They soon started taking possessions of land themselves and made the tribals cultivate these lands for free. Thus, the simple and naïve tribals were reduced to the status of slave laborers on their own lands. It was for the first time that land owning tribals were reduced to the status of tenants. This process started among the Cheros and Kharwars of Palamu, and later among the Oraons, Santhals and then among the Mundas and the Hos. The net result was a severe blow to the community oriented lifestyle and land ownership of the adivasis.
Tribal Resistance and Aspirations for Self Rule
It might sound strange to many but the native tribes – considered illiterate, naïve, and backward by rest of the people from the so-called modern society – are among the first torch bearers of protest against invasion of forests by the outsiders. The British know it only too well. The subjugation and colonization of Jharkhand region by the British East India Company resulted in spontaneous resistance from the local people. Almost hundred years before India’s First War of Independence (1857), tribes of Jharkhand were already engaged in a series of armed struggle to liberate their land from the British colonial rule.
There is a glorious history of resistance by the forest dwelling tribes who stood up to protect their community based governance and control on the surrounding forests. Even non-tribal Jharkhandis feel proud about the legendary tribal leaders such as Tilka Majhi (Jabra Pahadia), Sidhu Kanhu, Birsa Munda, Kana Bhagat, etc who not only caused heavy damages to the powerful White invaders but also forced them to enact legislations to protect their land rights. The historic acts such as Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1908) and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (1912) are two examples of the impact of tribal struggle against oppression.
Here is a brief account of their persistent resistance to the British rule and then political struggle for self-rule in free India:
“Jharkhand is located on the Chhota Nagpur Plateau and Santhal Parganas and abounds with forests, minerals, and scenic beauty. The subjugation and colonization of Jharkhand region by the British East India Company resulted in spontaneous resistance from the local tribes. In fact, the adivasis frequently engaged the British in armed struggle in order to take control of their lands from 1771 to 1900 AD.
The first ever revolt against the landlords and the British government was led by Tilka Manjhi – a valiant Santhal leader in Santhal tribal belt – in 1771. Then in 1779 the Bhumij tribes rose in arms in Manbhum, now in West Bengal. It was followed by the Chero tribes’ unrest in Palamau in 1800 AD. Seven years later in 1807, the Oraons in Barway murdered the powerful landlord of Srinagar, West of Gumla. Soon the uprisings spread throughout Gumla. Then it spread eastward to neighboring Tamar areas of the Munda tribes who rose in revolt in 1811 and 1813. The Hos in Singhbhum came out in open revolt in 1820 and fought against the landlords and the British troops for two years. This is known as the Larka Kol Risings 1820–1821.
Then came the great Kol Rising of 1832 which was quite strong and greatly upset the British administration in Jharkhand. It was a determined attempt to resist attempts by the Zamindars to oust the tribal peasants from their hereditary possessions. The Santhal rebellion broke out in 1855 under the leadership of two brothers Sidhu and Kanhu.
Towards the end of nineteenth century the Birsa Munda’s “Ulgulan” (revolt) broke out in 1895 and lasted till 1900. Though the revolt initially started in the Munda belt of Khunti, it soon spread to other areas. It was the longest and the stiffest tribal revolt against the British occupiers. It was also the last organized armed tribal revolt in Jharkhand. Needless to say this uprising was also quelled by the superior firepower and Birsa was soon killed.
In the 20th century tribal uprising was influenced by the mainstream freedom movement of Mahatma Gandhi and the focus shifted from sporadic uprising to party politics led by urban intelligentsia. In 1914 Jatra Oraon started what is called the Tana Movement. Later this movement joined the Satyagrah Movement of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 and stopped giving land tax to the Government. In 1915 the Chhota Nagpur Unnati Samaj was established for the socio-economic development of the tribes. In 1928 it petitioned to the Simon Commission for a separate tribal Jharkhand State which was ignored. Then in 1931 Theble Oraon organized Adivasi Mahasabha which merged with the Chhota Nagpur Unnati Samaj in 1935 in order to become a stronger political force.
In 1939 Jaipal Singh from Darjeeling became the president of the Adivasi Mahasabha, which was renamed “Jharkhand Party” after independence. Jaipal Singh remained its president from 1939 to 1960.
Post independence, the Jharkhand party became a prominent force in the Bihar politics until its decay in the sixties. Then one of its splinter groups lead by Shibu Soren the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha continued the struggle for a “Greater Jharkhand.”
In the meantime the BJP came out with its demand for a separate “Vananchal” state comprising 18 districts of Bihar, arguing that demand for a “Greater Jharkhand” including areas from neighboring states was “not practical”. In 1988, Ram Dayal Munda committee submitted a report to the Union Home ministry advising it to grant ‘autonomy’ to ‘Greater Jharkhand’. After yearlong discussions at various levels the idea of creating a “Union Territory” or “Jharkhand General Council” emerged.
In 1995 the Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council (JAAC) was set up after a tripartite agreement between the Union government, the Bihar government and group of Jharkhand leaders including Soren, Munda, Mandal, Besra and Tirkey. Some Jharkhand tribal leaders like Horo opposed the agreement, calling it a farce and stuck to the demand for Tribal Homeland. But the road map to a separate Jharkhand state was already laid down.
Aspirations of Jharkhand tribes came to fruition when the Jharkhandis got their separate Jharkhand State in November 2000. But did they really achieve more dignity and security? The answer is a loud NO.
Find out how: Jharkhand State and Betrayal of Tribal Population