NCERT Extracts - Tribals, Dikus and the Vision of a Golden Age
Category : UPSC
Tribals, Dikus and the Vision of a Golden Age
- In 1895, a man named Birsa was seen roaming the forests and villages of Chottanagpur. People said he had miraculous powers - he could cure all diseases and multiply grain.
- Birsa himself declared that God had appointed him to save his people from trouble, free them from the slavery of dikus (outsiders).
- Soon thousands began following Birsa, believing that he was bhagwan (God) and had come to solve all their problems.
- Birsa was born in a family of Mundas - a tribal group that lived in Chottanagpur.
- But his followers included other tribals of the region - Santhals and Oraons.
- All of them in different ways were unhappy with the changes they were experiencing and the problems they were facing under British rule.
- Their familiar ways of life seemed to be disappearing, their livelihoods were under threat, and their religion appeared to be in danger.
- Most tribes had customs and rituals that were very different from those laid down by Brahmans. These societies also did not have the sharp social divisions that were characteristic of caste societies.
- All those who belonged to the same tribe thought of themselves as sharing common ties of kinship. However, this did not mean that there were no social and economic differences within tribes.
Some were jhum cultivators
- Some of them practised jhum cultivation, that is, shifting cultivation.
- This was done on small patches of land, mostly in forests.
- The cultivators cut the treetops to allow sunlight to reach the ground, and burnt the vegetation on the land to clear it for cultivation.
- They spread the ash from the firing, which contained potash, to fertilise the soil.
- They used the axe to cut trees and the hoe to scratch the soil in order to prepare it for cultivation. They broadcast the seeds, that is, scattered the seeds on the field instead of ploughing the land and sowing the seeds.
- Once the crop was ready and harvested, they moved to another field. A field that had been cultivated once was left fallow for several years,
- Shifting cultivators were found in the hilly and forested tracts of north-east and central India.
- The lives of these tribal people depended on free movement within forests and on being able to use the land and forests for growing their crops.
- That is the only way they could practise shifting cultivation.
- In many regions tribal groups lived by hunting animals and gathering forest produce. They saw forests as essential for survival.
Forest laws and their impact
- The life of tribal groups was directly connected to the forest. So changes in forest laws had a considerable effect on tribal lives.
- The British extended their control over all forests and declared that forests were state property. Some forests were classified as Reserved Forests for they produced timber which the British wanted.
- In these forests people were not allowed to move freely, practise jhum cultivation, collect fruits, or hunt animals.
- How were jhum cultivators to survive in such a situation? Many were therefore forced to move to other areas in search of work and livelihood.
- Many tribal groups reacted against the colonial forest laws. They disobeyed the new rules, continued with practices that were declared illegal, and at times rose in open rebellion.
- Such was the revolt of Songram Sangma in 1906 in Assam, and the forest Satyagraha of the 1930s in the Central Provinces.
The problem with trade
- During the nineteenth century, tribal groups found that traders and moneylenders were coming into the forests more often, wanting to buy forest produce, offering cash loans, and asking them to work for wages.
- It took tribal groups some time to understand the consequences of what was happening.
- Birsa was born in the mid-1870s. The son of a poor father, he grew up around the forests of Bohonda, grazing sheep, playing the flute, and dancing in the local akhara.
- Forced by poverty, his father had to move from place to place looking for work.
- As an adolescent, Birsa heard tales of the Munda uprisings of the past and saw the sirdars (leaders) of the community urging the people to revolt.
- They talked of a golden age when the Mundas had been free of the oppression of dikus, and said there would be a time when the ancestral right of the community would be restored.
- They saw themselves as the descendants of the original settlers of the region, fighting for their land (mulk ki larai), reminding people of the need to win back their kingdom.
- Birsa went to the local missionary school, and listened to the sermons of missionaries.
- There too he heard it said that it was possible for the Mundas to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, and regain their lost rights.
- This would be possible if they became good Christians and gave up their "bad practices".
- Later Birsa also spent some time in the company of a prominent Vaishnav preacher. He wore the sacred thread, and began to value the importance of purity and piety.
- Birsa was deeply influenced by many of the ideas he came in touch with in his growing- up years. His movement was aimed at reforming tribal society.
- He urged the Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village, and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. But we must remember that Birsa also turned against missionaries and Hindu landlords. He saw them as outside forces that were ruining the Munda way of life.
- In 1895 Birsa urged his followers to recover their glorious past.
- He talked of a golden age in the past - a satyug (the age of truth) - when Mundas lived a good life, constructed embankments, tapped natural springs, planted trees and orchards, practised cultivation to earn their living.
- They did not kill their brethren and relatives. They lived honestly. Birsa also wanted people to once again work on their land, settle down and cultivate their fields.
- What worried British officials most was the political aim of the Birsa movement, for it wanted to drive out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords, and the government and set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head.
- The movement identified all these forces as the cause of the misery the Mundas were suffering.
- The land policies of the British were destroying their traditional land system, Hindu landlords and moneylenders were taking over their land, and missionaries were criticizing their traditional culture. As the movement spread the British officials decided to act.
- They arrested Birsa in 1895, convicted him on charges of rioting and jailed him for two years. When Birsa was released in 1897 he began touring the villages to gather support.
- He used traditional symbols and language to rouse people, urging them to destroy "Ravana" (dikus and the Europeans) and establish a kingdom under his leadership.
- Birsa's followers began targeting the symbols of diku and European power.
- They attacked police stations and churches, and raided the property of moneylenders and zamindars. They raised the white flag as a symbol of Birsa Raj.
- In 1900 Birsa died of cholera and the movement faded out.
- However, the movement was significant in at least two ways.
- First - it forced the colonial government to introduce laws so that the land of the tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus.
- Second - it showed once again that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule.
- They did this in their own specific way, inventing their own rituals and symbols of struggle.