Chapter 4. Tribals, Dikus & Vision of a Golden Age

• Today, we all live in cities with all amenities available to us, but did you know that there are still some people who live in forests, called tribal people? In this chapter, we will look at some of our country’s tribes and their fight against dikus, or outsiders, as they were known to tribals.
• Most tribes’ customs and rites differed significantly from those established by Brahmans. Caste divisions were not present in these communities. Those who belonged to same tribe considered themselves to have common kinship links. Within tribes, however, there were social and economic inequalities.

How Did Tribal Groups Live?
• The tribal people of India were involved in a variety of activities by nineteenth century.

Some Were Jhum Cultivators
• Jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation, was used by some indigenous groups. The planters trimmed down treetops to allow sunlight to reach ground and burned foliage to clear soil for agriculture on small plots of land.
• They were moved to another field once produce was ready to be harvested. In hilly and forested areas of north-east and central India, shifting cultivators were discovered because these indigenous people were able to travel freely throughout woodlands, they practised shifting farming.

Some were hunters and gatherers
• In many areas, tribal people subsisted by hunting animals and harvesting forest vegetables. The Khonds (of Orissa) were a nomadic people that hunted in groups and divided meat among themselves.
• This tribe ate fruits and roots and cooked using oil made from seeds of sal and mahua trees. Forest shrubs and herbs were employed for therapeutic purposes, in order to be able to obtain commodities that were not produced locally.
• In exchange for their precious forest output, these forest dwellers swapped commodities with things they needed. When forest’s bounty dwindled, indigenous people were forced to seek work as labourers.
• Tribal groups relied on traders and moneylenders since they frequently needed money to buy and sell in order to obtain products that were not produced locally. However, interest rates on loans were quite expensive.

Some herded animals
• Many tribal groups lived by herding and rearing animals. They were pastoralists who moved with their herds of cattle or sheep according to seasons. When grass in one place was exhausted, they moved to another area.
• The Van Gujjars of Punjab hills and Labadis of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders, Gaddis of Kulu were shepherds and Bankarwals of Kashmir reared goats.

Some took to settled cultivation
• Even before nineteenth century, tribal groups began to settle down. The Mundas of Chottanagpur had land that belonged to entire clan.
• The clan’s members were all considered to be descendants of early settlers who had cleared area. Hunter-gatherers and moving cultivators were seen as less civilised by British officials than permanent tribal groupings.
• British officials saw settled tribal groups like Gonds and Santhals as more civilised than huntergatherers or shifting cultivators. Those who lived in forests were considered to be wild and savage: they needed to be settled and civilised.

How Did Colonial Rule Affect Tribal Lives?
• The lives of tribal groups changed during British rule. Let us see what these changes were.

What happened to tribal chiefs?
• Tribal chiefs were powerful people before British arrived. They had economic power and authority to administer and rule their domains.
• However, under British administration, their functions and abilities were altered. They were stripped of their administrative rights and obliged to obey British laws enacted in India.

What happened to shifting cultivators?
• The British wanted tribal groupings to settle down because settled peasants were simpler to manage and administrate. Land settlements were implemented by British to provide a steady stream of revenue for state.
• The British measured land, determined rights of each individual to that area and set revenue requirement for state through land settlement. The British attempt to settle jhum cultivators failed miserably.
• Faced with widespread opposition, British were forced to grant them authority to continue shifting agriculture in some areas of forest.

Forest laws and their impact
• The changes in forest rules had a direct impact on tribal lives. Because they produced timber that British desired, some forests were designated as Reserved Forests.
• The British were able to prevent indigenous people from entering woodlands, but they had difficulty finding labour. As a result, colonial officials devised a remedy.
• The colonial officials decided to give jhum cultivators small patches of land in forests and allow them to cultivate. In return, those who lived in villages had to provide labour to Forest Department.
• Many tribal groups disobeyed new rules, continued with practices that were declared illegal and at times rose in open rebellion.

The problem with trade
• Traders and moneylenders began to visit woodland more frequently in nineteenth century. They wanted to buy forest products, so they gave monetary loans and demanded that tribes work for long periods of time. Indian silk was in high demand in European marketplaces in seventeenth century.
• The East India Company pushed silk production as silk market grew. The Santhals of Hazaribagh raised cocoons and silk traders provided loans to tribals in exchange for cocoons. The intermediaries made a lot of money.

The search for work
• The plight of tribals who had to go far away from their homes in search of work was even worse. From late nineteenth century, tea plantations started coming up and mining became an important industry.
• Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work at tea plantations of Assam and coal mines of Jharkhand. They were recruited through contractors who paid them miserably low wages and prevented them from returning home.

A Closer Look
• Tribal groups from all around country rose up in protest of new laws, limits on their practises, new taxes they had to pay and exploitation by traders and moneylenders.

Birsa Munda
• The Birsa was born in mid-1870s and as an adolescent, he heard tales of Munda uprisings of past and saw sirdars (leaders) of community urging people to revolt. In local missionary school, he heard that it was possible for Mundas to attain Kingdom of Heaven and regain their lost rights.
• Birsa spent some time in company of a prominent Vaishnav preacher. Birsa started a movement and it aimed at reforming tribal society. He urged Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery.
• Birsa pushed his followers to reclaim their golden past in 1895. He spoke about a glorious age in past, a satyug (age of truth), when Mundas lived happily, built embankments, accessed natural springs, planted trees and orchards and earned their living via cultivation.
• The Birsa movement’s political goal was to drive away missionaries, moneylenders, landlords & government and replace them with a Munda Raj led by Birsa. Because movement was so widespread, The British officials decided to intervene.
• Birsa began touring villages, pushing people to kill ‘Ravana’ {dikus (outsiders) and Europeans} and form a kingdom under his rule, using traditional symbols and language to excite people.
• In 1900, Birsa died of cholera and movement faded out. But, movement was significant in at least two ways. First – it forced colonial government to introduce laws so that land of tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus. Second – it showed once again that tribal people had capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule.

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