Christopher V. Hill - Draft: Not for citation without the author's approval.
The Peasants of Jharkhand and the Peasants of Jharkhand:
A Preliminary Appraisal

Christopher V. Hill
Peasant Symposium Draft, May 1997

The kisans are victim to a continuing series of exploitations. For example, if they were able to meet their needs of woods from the jungle, then what would be left for the forest officials, great and small to do. In fact these "rangers," "foresters," "patrolmen," and others seek out any opportunity to oppress the people, very much like beasts of prey. If they are not bribed, their sole object is to harass the poor. My blood begins to boil when I recall the many stories told to me by the Adivasi kisans of the harassment they have had to endure at the hands of forest officers.(1) --Swami Sahajanand Saraswati

In previous works I have argued at some length that subjugation of nature was part and parcel of the legitimizing aspect of imperialism in colonial India. If the "White Man's Burden" provided the rationale for Eurocentric approaches to the issues of politics, education, and economy, so did European notions of the purpose and uses of nature result in Western forms of land control, public works, and forestry management in the colonial period.(2) Sir Arthur Cotton, the director of the Mahanadi River Management System, made this point quite clear in arguing to dam the Mahanadi: "In [any] district where our Western knowledge and energy have been brought to bear, the people freely acknowledge that it is to Europeans and Christians that they are indebted for benefits which they never received from their own Government, and their own gods."(3) While Cotton's comments revolve around the tired clichés of imperial justification, they are still a telling example of the link between social and environmental attitudes brought forth by the colonial infrastructure.

In this paper, however, I would like to turn this equation upside down, turning away from my contention that colonial ideology, which defined the role of government in "civilizing" the Indian population, also defined the function of nature. I will instead argue that concepts of nature in turn affected European ideas of the worthiness of certain ethnic groups, especially non-sedentary ones. This view of what constituted civilization and modernization led the Raj to view swidden agriculture as standing in the way of progress; as such, given this prevailing philosophy, the government was determined to eradicate this cultivating process, always under the guise of British trusteeship. No where is the implementation of this policy more obvious than it is with the Santal adivasis located in the Jungle Thanas of Jharkhand.

It is not my purpose here to detail Santal ethnography, studies of which are in abundance. Suffice it to note that the origin of the Santals is a matter of some dispute. We do know that they came from an area which was extremely hilly and forest covered; as such, the Santals had practiced shifting cultivation well before their move to Chotanagpur. Between 1790 and 1810, however, due to population pressure and a severe decrease in land, the Santals moved north into the area known as Damin-i-koh, which comprised the hilly portions of what would become the Santal Parganas.

The migration of the Santals to the Damin-i-Koh in the early nineteenth century set in motion a livelihood that would come to be inextricably tied to the advancing market economy of the British Empire, which carried with it the notion of nature as capital. Between 1838 and 1851, some 80,000 Santals were encouraged by the East India Company to migrate to the Damin-i-koh, clear the forests, and settle the land. This they did, as was their tradition, in clusters; the Santals were a communal society, and always settle as a body and with a headman. And here their problems began, for under the aegis of the emerging world economy, the Santals were now fixtures in a settled, commercial, cash enterprise. Never having been involved in cash ventures, the tribals soon found themselves in debt to the local landlords and mahajans, or moneylenders. The mahajans were non-Santals (often Bengalis), collectively referred to by the tribals as dikkus, or outsiders. As W.W. Hunter noted, the Santals were ignorant of adjudication regarding commercial revenue, while the mahajans were well-versed in the letter of the law; Hunter's understanding of the consequences of capitalism in this tribal community, although imbued with colonial rhetoric, are nonetheless sophisticated, and as such his views need to be quoted to some extent:

The law of supply and demand operates in the long-run as effectively, although more tardily, in the valley of the Ganges as on the banks of the Mersey or the Clyde....Hindu merchants flock thither every winter after harvest to buy up the crop, and by degrees each market-town throughout the settlement had its own grain dealer....They cheated the poor Santal in every transaction. The forester brought his clarified butter for sale; the Hindu measured it in vessels with false bottoms; the husbandman came to exchange his rice for salt, oil, cloth and gunpowder; the Hindu used heavy weights in ascertaining the quantity of grain, light ones in weighing out the articles given in return....The fortunes made by traffic in produce were augmented by usury. A family of new settlers required a small advance of grain to eke out the produce of the chase while they were clearing the jungle. The Hindu dealer gave them a few shillings worth of rice, and seized the land as soon as they had cleared it and sown the crop....Year after year the Santal sweated for his oppressor. If the victim threatened to run off into the jungle, the usurer instituted a suit in the courts, taking care that the Santal should know nothing of it until the decree had been obtained and the execution carried out. Without the slightest warning, the poor husbandman's buffalos, cows, and little homestead were sold, not omitting the brazen household vessels which formed the sole heirloom of the family. Even the cheap iron ornaments, the outward token of female respectability among the Santals, were torn from the wife's wrists. Redress was out of the question; the court sat in the civil station perhaps a hundred miles off. The English judge, engrossed with the collection of the revenue, had no time for the petty grievance of his people. The native underlings, one and all, had taken the pay of the oppressor; the police shared in the spoil. 'God is great, but He is too far off,' said the Santal; and the poor cried, and there was none to help them ..(4)

In short, the Santals were thrown smack against the harsh reality of a commercial economy. While they served a necessary function in clearing away wilderness, the pursuant market commodity was too valuable to allow the Santals to control it. They were soon alone, alienated from the land, disenfranchised from the economy.

By the summer of 1855 the Santals had had enough. Venting their fury against sarkar, sahukar, zamindar (government, moneylender, and landlord), the Santals attacked moneylenders and policemen.(5) Some thirty thousand tribals took up their bows and arrows; they were met by fourteen thousand well-armed government troops. In the pursuing conflict, over ten thousand Santals were killed.

This ruthless and disastrous encounter eventually led to a reaction on the part of the Raj to the plight of the Santals. In late 1855 "the district called the Damin-i-koh and other districts which are chiefly inhabited by the uncivilized race of people called the Sonthals" were incorporated into the Santal Parganas.(6) Two stipulations of the covenant with the Santals need to be emphasized: The agreement was not retroactive in terms of loss of land, and it did not cover the Jungle Mahals of Birbhum, Bankura, Burdwan and Midnapur, all of which were located southwest of the Santal Parganas.

The exclusion of the Jungle Mahals was made all the more pertinent by the provisions for revenue administration in the Santal Parganas. Under the provisions set forth in 1855 (and amended in 1886) the adivasis within the Santal Parganas received specific protections for their agrarian enterprises. Within the district there were to be no under-raiyats, nor could rents be raised arbitrarily. Rather, provisions were made so that the raiyat could petition the Deputy Commissioner of the district to settle the rent. Of primary importance, however, was the clause that exempted the raiyat from liability to eviction except by the direct offer of the Deputy Commissioner.

None of these protections applied to the Jungle Mahals, which were instead guided by the provisions of the Bengal Tenancy Act. Under the Bengal Tenancy Act, as Swami Sahajanand Saraswati has noted, "an occupancy tenant is considered to be the owner of his land. He has the right to plant trees and bamboos on this land, to make bricks and tiles and dig wells and tanks.....But non-occupancy tenants have no such rights. (7) The Santals were, of course, considered non-occupancy tenants. Furthermore, instead of protecting the land rights of these adivasis, the government argued that local customs, which effectively put the control of land into the hands of powerful zamindars, must prevail. This policy was ludicrous; as Sahajanand noted, "the very idea of local customs involving zamindars is meaningless," since the adivasis were on the land well before zamindars appeared on the scene.(8)

Given the fact the colonial officials knew full well that zamindari rights historically did not prevail in Jharkhand, why would the government put forth such a basis charade? It is here that I would come to the heart of my argument: Colonial actions were guided by an inherent suspicion of impermanent populations.

This distrust of shifting cultivators did not germinate in India; rather it was imported from Europe. One need only look at European attitudes towards gypsies (who ironically originated in India) to see the genesis of this view. Gypsies were viewed as extremely untrustworthy; they were vagabonds, in the very pejorative sense of the word. They were always sneaking off into the night; since they did not settle down, they must be up to something illegal. This attitude was popular throughout Europe, so much so that the gypsies were the only non-Jewish group that the Nazis marked for complete eradication.

This basic suspicion of wandering ethnic groups was carried to India on the shoulders of physiocracy and utilitarianism. Once there, two policies immediately reinforced the distrust of adivasi land management: The Permanent Settlement of 1793, and the introduction of the concept of Criminal Castes and Tribes.

The Permanent Settlement, with its policy of an unchanging revenue on fixed estates had no place for shifting cultivation. I have looked at this aspect in some detail with regards to surveying land on the always-shifting Kosi River in North Bihar; suffice it to say that implementation of the Permanent Settlement led to numerous survey and settlement operations, and thousand of lawsuits.(9)

In the Jharkhand, however, the administration had much more flexibility in forcing the Santals to change their lives, since adivasi homelands were under special direct control of the government. As such, Revenue Officers could force sedentary agriculture upon them in the guise of "civilizing" the backwards tribes. If the adivasis refused to accept the beneficence of the Raj, they were labeled a Criminal Tribe and dealt with by the law.

This process can be seen more clearly in confrontations between the adivasis and the Forest Service. In a remarkable new study, Mahesh Rangarajan has detailed this conflict in the Central Provinces from 1860-1920. The Forest Act of 1878 essentially changes the way the government looked at the woods. As forests became increasingly commodified, the authority of the Forest Officers grew, increasing the conflict between revenue officers, who wanted the forests cleared for cultivation, and the Forestry Service which wanted the timber for revenue. In most arenas the Forest officers won. These men, trained as silviculturalists, knew little or nothing of the customs of the adivasis, nor did they care. They instead concentrated on production, by excluding cattle grazing from the forests and increasing the proportion of "superior" trees, such as teak and sal. This meant a complete change in life for swidden agriculturalists.(10)

In Jharkhand the implementation of forest policy was carried out in several ways. One was to turn to the zamindars to help establish commercial forestry. Land was increasingly settled with dikkus, under the provisions of the Bengal Tenancy Act, with the stipulation that forests were to be managed and lumber was to be sold to the government. As for the Santals, the administration simply waited until they ran out of room; as noted by Revenue Officer M. C. McAlpin "The Sonthals are on the verge of the purely Dikku areas, where reclamation is drawing to a close, and where there is jungle possessing any terror for the mahajan....The Sonthals have been reduced to the status of a raiyat or under-raiyat rack-rented on a large produce rent being reduced to the position of a labourer."(11).

I would argue that this is precisely the state the government wanted them in. The Revenue Department soon realized that the Santals would never practice settled agriculture in the way it was performed in Britain. They also realized the skills of the Santals at clearing jungle and reclaiming land. As such, the government was able to kill two birds with one stone: On the one hand they could put the land in the hands of the Dikkus, who would practice orthodox cultivation, while on the other they now had a disenfranchised group to work on clearing the land in other districts so that they too could be brought under cultivation. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, thousand of Santals were encouraged to migrate to other areas either to clear the jungles or work on plantations. With little alternative, large numbers often complied.

The state of Jharkhand that the Swami found in 1941 was largely a product of the policies listed above. Santals in Jharkhand found themselves completely disenfranchised from their lands. They either worked as laborers, migrated, or starved. As the quote at the beginning of this paper demonstrates, it was a fate that affected Sahajanand deeply. After seeing the circumstances in Jharkhand, the Swami put forth a list of demands, including: Fixed rates of rents only after five years of cultivation; no restrictions on the use of jungle products; Paharias to be allowed to continue swidden agriculture; and one uniform tenancy act for all of Jharkhand.(12)

Of doubtless little surprise to the Swami, none of the demands were addressed. As Sahajanand later concluded, "the law in practice is neither that of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act nor the inherited experiences of Adivasi culture...but rather...'it is the zamindar's will which is the law.'"(13) This is still the situation of much of Jharkhand today.


It seems to me that the major question that needs to be addressed here is why the government was so adamant about changing the culture of the adivasis. From the advent of British rule, adivasis were dealt with separately from the rest of India. They came under a special administration; their boundaries were marked on ethnicity rather than geography. They were flooded with hordes of missionaries, unlike that seen in other parts of India. What made the adivasis different in the eyes of the Empire?

The answer to this, I think lies in the fact that the adivasis were different. The only comparable group the British had dealt with in the past were the gypsies. Just as the British relied on European conceptions of the place of nature in dealing with the ecosystems of India, so too did they rely on their sense that vagabonds were dangerous and untrustworthy. They were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the adivasi culture, and were determined to change it, either by persuasion or sanction--hence the use of the Criminal Castes and Tribes Act. Much as with nature, they attempted (and succeeded, although perhaps not in the way they had planned) in radically altering the adivasi society. Also as with nature, they brought about these changes all under the guise of noblesse oblige.

Nor did this subjugation of adivasis end with Indian independence. It tells us something about nature and society that, while the ideology of empire has been discredited, the ideology of the utility of nature has not. It was, after all, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who proclaimed dams to be the "new temples" of India. Social groups which refuse to accept this view of ecosystems as commodities are still labelled as either dangerous or uncivilized. To make this point, I quote from a weekly magazine.:

Across the length and breadth of the country, marriage may be a time for noisy revelry, but fore the 25,000 strong Dafer community spread across Gujarat, it calls for certain degrees of secrecy. Known throughout the state as a criminal tribe, a wedding among them is a police officer's dream--a convenient gathering where several suspects could be rounded up at one go.....Why should the police harass them? The answer comes promptly. Says state DGP P.K. Bansal: "Among the criminal tribes of Gujarat, the Dafers would top for their cunning, shrewdness, and modus operandi."...Before Independence, it is said, many petty rulers would encourage Dafer gangs in the states of their rivals. The fear and hatred have travelled down the ages.....Although they are technically OCBS, the government has done little for them. For want of a marketing outlet, the elaborate embroidery work done by the women is usually sold at throwaway prices....Landless, homeless, and unlettered, they are left to rally around themselves.(14)

This quotation us taken from an article in the April 30th issue of India Today.

In her recent study on Jharkhand, Susana B.C. Devalle makes this contemporary context more clear. Devalle sees three distinctive groups that have used ethnicity as an excuse for subjugation: the colonial rulers, who used tribalism as a process to forcefully incorporate adivasis into the emerging world economy; the elite in post-colonial India, for whom "ethnicity can serve as an element of support for the hegemony of the dominant classes and of the state;" and finally, those whom she calls "Reformist ethnicists," mainly missionaries and educated adivasis, who perpetuate the stereotype of what in the United States has often been labeled "the noble savage."(15) As such, the colonial attitude toward migratory groups is still running strong fifty years after Indian independence.

In his work on deforestation in colonial Burma, Michael Adas quotes a revenue department office who argued for the forced implementation of more modern methods of rice-cropping:

"We are dealing with semi-civilized race; we should assist them in advancing themselves; they cannot without our assistance; we should induce them--I go further, we should press them --to accept our system beneficial to advancement; our superiority as a nation warrents us to do this."(16) This same attitude evolved into policy in South Bihar, and irrevocably changed the lives of the adivasis of Jharkhand.


1. Walter Hauser, ed., Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand: A View from 1941 (Delhi: Manohar Press, 1995), p. 107.

2. See Christopher V. Hill, "Ideology and Public Works: 'Managing' the Mahanadi River in Colonial North India," in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol.6, No. 4, December 1995, pp. 51-64; and Christopher V. Hill, River of Sorrow: Environment and Social Control in Riparian North India, 1770-1994 (Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies Monograph Series, 1997).

3. Sir Arthur Cotton, "Report on the Cutting of a Canal between the Ganges and the Hooghly," 15 June, 1858. Bengal Public Works Proceeding, Vol. p/16/33, January to February 1859.

4. W. W. Hunter, The Annals of Rural Bengal, (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1898), pp. 227-230.

5. Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 27.

6. P. C. Roy Chaudhury, Bihar District Gazetteers: Santal Parganas (Patna: Superintendent, Secretariat Press, Bihar, 1965), p. 73.

7. Hauser, The Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 82. Sahajanand was referring to the Bihar Tenancy Act, however in this case it is identical to the one in Bengal.

8. Hauser, The Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 93.

9. Hill, River of Sorrow, Ch. 2.

10. Mahesh Rangarajan, Fencing the Forest: Conservation and Ecological Change in India's Central Provinces, 1890-1914 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), Chs. 1 and 3.

11. M. C. McAlpin, Report on the Condition of the Sonthals in the Districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Midnapore and North Balasore, (Calcutta: Government Printing Office) 1909, p. 34

12. Hauser, ed., The Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 199.

13. Hauser, ed., The Peasants of Jharkhand, p. 82

14. "Marked Men," India Today, April 30, 1997, p. 10.

15. Susana B.C. Duvalle, Discourses in Ethnicity: Culture and Protest in Jharkhand (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 1992, p. 16

16. Michael Adas, "Colonization, Commercial Agriculture, and the Destruction of the Deltaic Rainforests of British Burma in the Late Nineteenth Century," in Richard P. Tucker and John F. Richard, eds., Global Deforestation in the Nineteenth Century World Economy (Durham: Duke University Press) 1983, p. 101.

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