About the Book
While recent research on adivasis under colonial rule tends to focus on issues of identity politics, categories and definitions, it is important to emphasise that the histories of adivasis were shaped by the constantly evolving British policy towards them, their own unique features, socio-cultural traditions, and the nature of their integration within the colonial state, which in turn determined their self- definitions and their relations with others.
This book brings back a focus on the colonial history of adivasis and discusses the issue of their identity against this background. It is a study of the Hos of Chota Nagpur from 1820, when they first came into contact with the British, to 1932, when their protests took the form of religious reform movements in an attempt to develop a distinct tribal identity.
In their encounter with the British, the Hos were confronted with several challenges, such as their role in the changing political system; their right of access to local territory and forest resources; the growing influx of outsiders into their villages; and the restructuring of indigenous institutions of authority. While dealing with these circumstances, albeit with varying degrees of success, the Hos developed an ethnic and political awareness vis-a- vis the British, other adivasis, and the non-adivasi population, leading to the Haribaba movement for self-purification and other socio-religious reform movements.
Meticulously researched and replete with statistical data, a detailed glossary and bibliography, this insightful volume will be useful for scholars and students of history, sociology and anthropology.
About the Author
Sanjukta Das Gupta is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Calcutta.
British rule in India was extended over a multiplicity of communities, each endowed with specific political, cultural and economic traits. The impact of colonialism greatly varied among these, and produced a wide range of responses in the transition to, and elaboration of, modem and contemporary India. Among such communities, the ‘Scheduled Tribes’, long considered to be primitive and backward, are today increasingly becoming visible in the national arena. However, even today there is a tendency to view ‘tribes’ as a given, both in academia and in the popular sphere, with a homogeneous pan-tribal identity replacing individual specificities. This has been partly fostered through identity movements which lay emphasis on the perceived similarities between different communities living within the same region. Such ideas have also been expressed in a diverse spectrum of writings ranging from commentaries in early twentieth century literary journals to the output of nationalist historians, anthropologists, political scientists professing a ‘sons of the soil’ approach and proponents of ethnoregionalism Tribal communities, moreover, have been considered to be isolated and static, whose traditional society and economy collapsed under the pressure of new economic and political forces unleashed under colonial rule.
Historians of tribal communities, particularly in the Chota Nagpur region, have for long concentrated on the theme of protest movements and rebellion, although Sarat Chandra Roy had, in the early twentieth century, attempted to reconstruct tribal history from documentary evidence. Much of these histories focused on the clash between tribals and outsiders in course of British rule and the disintegration of the relatively isolated tribal societies as a result of the colonial encounter. The resultant tribal revolts have been variously interpreted as ‘a crude form of protest’, as part of the freedom struggle, as religious revitalisation and millenarian movements, as instances of the ‘first war of Independence’, as class struggles and in terms of autonomous ‘subaltern’ protests. Despite differences in their theoretical framework, such interpretations in general tend to perpetuate the notion of an undifferentiated and exploited tribal population, often bearing a striking resemblance to colonial depictions of tribal society. Some studies have, however, highlighted the fractures and cleavages that had emerged in certain communities as a consequence of British rule. Later researches have explored new issues against the backdrop of tribal insurgency, such as the visual images of colonial coercion and the interface between the ‘primitive’ Santal and the colonised bhadralok historian of Bengal.
Together with portrayals of tribal rebellion, there has been considerable research in the economic history of adivasis which, for instance, have investigated into the growth and development of the agrarian settlements, the linkages between the agrarian society and the new mining systems, famines, and also the issue of labour and migration Other notable works have focused on the history of the relationship between forests, the state and the forest dwellers, so much so that the latter has come to be considered as the rightful subjects of environmental history. In fact, it was since the seminal study of Ramachandra Guha, which identified colonial rule as a watershed marking a major break with the past, that the notion gained ground that pre-colonial adivasi societies in South Asia were natural conservators of the forest. Recent researches, which blend history, anthropology and the sociology of development, have also interpreted tribal communities as groups inhabiting a liminal zone between nature and culture and have given rise to what Ajay Skaria calls ‘hybrid histories’, or what Nandini Sundar terms ‘anthropological history There are also studies on tribes and criminality and on identity and gender.
While adivasi history has thus definitely enlarged its scope and is no longer confined to stories of momentous rebellions, much of the recent research tends to be preoccupied with the issues of identity, categories and definitions. As a consequence, we still know too little of certain groups, their changing historical reality and what actually happened to them. In this sense, adivasis continue to remain marginalised in historical research. This book, on the contrary, focuses on the internal life of a tribal community. It traces the long term continuities and discontinuities with the pre-colonial past in narrating the story of the Ho people of Singhbhum under colonial rule in order to arrive at a nuanced understanding of the colonial impact.
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