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JHARKHAND: March To Extreme Tribalism?

Paper No. 506                                             09/08/2002

by R. Upadhyay.  

The recent turmoil over the controversial domicile policy, which has rocked the newly born state of Jharkhand is nothing but an extension of the century old malaise of the tribal groups of central India settled in Chotanagpur plateau of this country for their emancipation from the non-tribal emigrants.  For a better understanding of this social conflict, we may look at it from in a wider perspective. 

Geographically, the present Jharkhand State is a part of Chotanagpur plateau of Indian Peninsula, which was the abode of racially and linguistically different tribal groups mainly the Munda, Ho, Santal, Kharia and Oraon.  While the first four belong to Austro-Asian group the last one is known to be of Dravidian origin.  All these tribes speak different dialects.  Though, for anthropologists the region is a cultural synthesis converging three racial streams namely Aryan, Austro-Asian and Dravidian, historically, these tribals pursued their calendar of activities in their respective societal norms and preferred to lead a life in isolation.

Prior to the effective penetration and establishment of British colonial rule the principal contradiction in Jharkhand region was between the tribals and those non-tribal emigrants, who settled there permanently under the influence of the then Hindu and Moghul feudal powers.  These permanently non-tribal-settlers in the region, who are called 'Sadans' remained the dominating class and maintained their hegemony over the tribals with the help of the contemporary feudal lords.  The tribals on the other hand persistently refused to reconcile with the feudal character of the Sadans, who though lived in the area  maintained their separate identity. 

To retain their isolation and separate identity from the rest of non-tribal population, the respective ethnic groups launched various localised movements like Maler revolt (1772), Tika Manjhi revolt (1784), Kol insurrection (1832), Ganga Narayan revolt (1832), Santal Hul(1855) and Birsa Revolt(1895) , which were all against the outsiders.  

By nature these primitive people are militant, which they have even proved today.  Tribalism prevented them from coming under unified leadership.  Remaining in isolation and aversion to non-tribals were common meeting points for these different ethnic groups, they failed to develop a qualified and united leadership in the absence of an educated class,  required for any movement.  Thus, the sporadic and localised revolts in absence of any unified leadership and ideology could not turn into a social or economic revolution.  

The British colonial power in order to create a class for manning its ruling apparatus utilised Christian missionaries to open educational institutions in the area, which produced a section of tribal people educated in western pattern.  Thus, "with sword in one hand and Bible in other" as pointed out by American Indians the Britishers succeeded in creating a class within the otherwise classless tribal society. Their shift from SARANA"(Animism) to Church was in fact the beginning of the dilution of tribal identity.  

Owing to the exposure given to them by the Christian missionaries a sense of new political awareness developed among the tribal people in the national context.  Emergence of some semi-political organisations like Catholic Sabha, Chotanagpur Unnati Samaj (1915) and Chotanagpur Adivasi Mahasabha (1938), which finally turned into the first political Party of the tribals  (1949) known as Jharkhand Party. Ironically, except one Bandiram Oraon all the prominent leaders of the party were Christians..

After transfer of power in 1947 the indigenous governments both at centre and state initiated the developmental process in the area like other parts of Bihar.  But the extension of the same policy of governance as adopted by the Britishers and continuous influx of non-tribal population created further animosity between the tribals and non-tribals. In the process of commercialisation of forest, rapid growth of industrialisation and consequential urbanisation and implementation of various community development projects, there was a huge influx of non-tribal emigrants, which created a demographic imbalance in the area.  Unfortunately, the Government did not formulate any mechanism for assimilation and integration of the tribals with rest of the non-tribal population. 

The Jharkhand movement, which was basically for the cause of tribals, got momentum, when Jharkhand Party won all the 33 reserved tribal seats in Bihar assembly in 1952 and became the main opposition party.  Later in 1955 it placed a demand for a separate Jharkhand state comprising of the contiguous regions of Bihar, West Bengal , Orissa and Madhya Pradesh before the State Reorganisation Commission. The demand was however rejected on the following grounds:-

* The area was having only little more than one third of tribal population.

* Different tribes in the region have no common language.

* Majority of the people was against the demand of a separate state.

Jharkhand movement got a set back in 1963 when the Jharkhand Party merged with Congress with ministerial berth to Jaipal Singh, the main tribal leader belonging to Munda tribe.  Gradually, leaders emerging from different ethnic groups in the name of  Jharkhand movement also became commodities in the market of politics to be purchased by the highest bidder of the contemporary ruling party.  This political turmoil however provided an opportunity to the forces like Left Extremists, Social Action Groups and Christian Action Groups to infiltrate into the Jharkhand movement.   

Romanticisation of tribalism and its glorification became the political ideology provided by the forces referred to.  In fact the sole intention of these forces was to sell their borrowed ideology from the west at the cost of social balance in the region.  They did not want the tribal people to come out of their social and isolated graves and assimilate with the national identity of the country. Such romantic adventurism, however was neither for the benefit of the tribals nor in  national interest.

With a new ideology and support from anti-establishment forces some of the tribal intellectuals made sincere attempts to unify the various ethnic groups in the region for making Jharkhand a viable movement.  Opening of Tribal and Regional Language department in Ranchi University in 1981 was a landmark event in this regard. This department started post-graduate teaching of the following seven dialects of the region including five being spoken by the prominent tribal groups and two by Sadans:-

* Mundari, Santali, Kurukh, Kharia and Ho (Dialects of tribals).

* Nagpuria and Kurmali (Dialect of Sadan).

This newly created department, which worked as a midwife to help the delivery of a new concept of Jharkhand nationality - was entrusted with the task to develop these dialects into languages and to propagate the spirit of Jharkhand nationalism from urban centres to the remotest and nearly inaccessible parts of the region.  But the department, which has been producing about 200 postgraduates every year hardly had any infrastructure for their employment.  Most of the students of this department are those, who graduated without honours degree and therefore were not eligible for admission in the postgraduate class got an easy entrance in this department. In fact most of the tribal students took admission in this department for continuing their stipends. This department also provided leadership to the Jharkhandi students, who gradually became vanguard to the movement for the demand of separate Jharkhand State. 

With the natural growth of careerism among the students and unemployed youths passing out from this department, when the state of Jharkhand was born by the end of twentieth century the Jharkhandis came up with the demand for their employment.  Their main target therefore, were the non-tribals, who are still in commanding position in various government departments, public undertakings, private sectors, education, business etc.  

The on going turmoil as we see today is basically a manifestation of tribal youths' urge to identify the Jharkhand nationalism only with tribal nationalism in which there is no place either for Sadan or for the new emigrants. This state being susceptible to such internal danger may face the challenge of extreme tribalism with a possibility of its passing into the hand of divisive forces operating in the country in various forms - if  no remedial measures are not taken forthwith.  As a tactical move they have accepted Sadan as a part of Jarkhandi society, but the spirit of the movement has always been against the non-tribals. 

Since the political leadership of the state is not in a position to meet the expectations of the Jharkhandis, it initiated the controversial domicile policy to divert their attention.  Babulal Marandi , the  present chief minister,  has thus opened the Pandora's box as only Jharkhandis whose fore fathers’ names were recorded in 1932 would be benefited. He must understand that his influence is confined to only among the Santal tribe.  As a leader of a national party like BJP he should have risen above the sectarian politics. He appears to be devoid of any deep understanding of the social and ethnic contradictions  in the state.  The principal social contradiction in the region as we see today is between the Jharknandis (Tribals and Sadan together) and the new emigrants.  But he has not realised  that such contradiction is the legacy of the old social contradiction that was between the tribals and Sadans.   

Sadans, who are presently identifying themselves with the Jharkhand identity of the tribals are aware that a new class emerging from among the original inhabitants of the land are not ready to assimilate and integrate with them due to their social and ethnic closeness to the new emigrants.  In a seminar organised by Trbal and Regional Language Department of Ranchi University in May 1983, there was a serious difference among the participants over identifying the Jharkhandi nationality.  A section of tribal leaders refused to accept Sadans as Jharkhandis on the plea that they were the first exploiters of the tribals with the help of the then Moghul and British feudal lords. Today it is a conflict between the Jharkhandis and the new emigrants from the plains of Bihar but tomorrow it may turn into a clash between the tribals and Sadans as there is no unity of hearts and minds between them.

Emergence of new leaders from among the tribal youths and students, which is multiplying in number on every passing day has posed a challenge to the broader definition of Jharkhand nationalism, as they are mentally not prepared to accept Sadans as Jharkhandis. Unfortunately, there is no sincere attempt on the part of the political leadership in the state to educate the tribal society for their integration with national identity.   

As discussed above Jharkhand was basically a tribal movement but the new state of Jharkhand cannot be equated with tribal states like Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.  Tribals constitute even less than one third of the population in  Jharkhand and as such politics for tribalisation of state in this central region of the country is a disturbing trend particularly, when the country is facing the challenge to combat terrorism.

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