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The Hill Kharia of Purulia (Impact Of Poverty On A Hunting And Gathering Tribe)

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The Hill Kharia of Purulia (Impact Of Poverty On A Hunting And Gathering Tribe)
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Item Code: NAE094
Author: Dikshit Sinha
Publisher: Anthropological Survey of India, Kolktata
Edition: 2010
Pages: 105 (5 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details: 9.5 inch x 6.5 inch
weight of the book: 393 gms
About the Book

The Hill Kharia, traditionally hunting and gathering tribal, live in the tract adjoin the three states of W. Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. Hopelessly outnumbered and encysted by other tribal and non-tribal communities they find it difficult to eke out an existence. Their forest niche has been more or less destroyed. In agriculture, late comer as they are, they find only one entry open, as laborers and that too to a limited extent. At one time they ware known as a criminal tribe. Although the Act has been withdrawn the name and behavior still persist.

In this purposive ethnography the impact of poverty on the Hill Kharia’s social institutions and culture has been examined. Marshal Sahlins described the unalloyed existence of the primitive hunting and gathering tribe as “original affluent” condition. But where they live cheek-by-jowl with other communities and have an unequal access to the basic resources the condition is drastically altered. Although the Hill Kharia cannot be considered as suffering from culture of poverty they do suffer from relative deprivation. The author describes how this lead to attenuation in some social institutions and especially, in the concept to reciprocity which is corner-stone of all social interactions. The participation in criminal activities is also an extension of their deprived condition.


In his book, the Hill Kharias of Dhalbhum (1931), professor T.C. Das had observed that living as marginal hunters and gatherers, the Hill Kharia appeared to him as suffering from depletion of culture under conditions of perpetual poverty. The Hill Kharia came under the purview of Criminal Tribes Act of 1924 for their alleged habitual tendency to commit crimes. Although this Act was repealed in 1952 and the Hill the Kharia of Purulia and adjacent regions were designated as a ‘denotified tribe’, the stigma of criminality continues to hang on them and they are under perpetual surveillance of the local police.

Dr. Dikshit Sinha wasinterested in probing deeply into the impact of economic deprivation of social marginality on the socio-cultural life of the traditional hunting and gathering Hill Kharia tribe of Purulia District. The monograph is based on field research between 1974 and 1975 and then again in 1977. He was particularly interested to find our the reasons for the alleged widespread participation of the Hill Kharia in criminal activities.

Dr. Sinha observed that the traditional forest resources of the Hill Kharia had been rapidly depleting and they were depending more and more on daily agricultural labor. They are, however, virtually landless and precariously stick to the dwindling forest resources. The forests, however, no longer carry a message of bounty and assurance. There is no trace of the “original affluent hunters” among the Hill Kharia.

The Hill Kharia suffer from a perpetual feeling of poverty and deprivation and consider the peasant way of life as not only more procperous, but more full and desirable. Dr. Dikshit Sinha has demonstrated how this condition of poverty has been internalized through myth often creating an image of role inversion: the noble and powerful Kharia ( Savar) vis-à-vis the greedy, jealous and incompetent heroes of the plains.

There is no doubt that elemental hunger and deprivation have moved the Kharia toward stealing and other criminal activities. Dr. Sinha has shown how the Kharia have been entrapped into criminal activities by their patrons who usually belong to the dominant peasant castes and have powerful linkages with the police.

In successive historical periods the Kharia appears to have had increasingly withdrawn into hill forests environment in the course of their encounters with the more dominant and numerous Bhumij, Santal and the Kumri-Mahato. The Hill Kharia carry the marks of this spirit of withdrawal of a ‘refuge community’ passing through a phase of ‘secondary primitivisation’. Although poverty curtails the optimization of culture of the group, they have been able to preserve the basic fabric of social structure, particularly the roles in the family. They have learnt to live with scarcity and periodic hunger.

This carefully analyzed ethnography suggests the need for controlled comparative study of the secondary hunters and gatherers in Purulia and neighboring regions: the Hill Kharia, Birhor, Pahira and the Lodha. What are the specific contexts of ecology, techno-economy, demography and of inter-ethnic encounters which are leading some groups towards hostile and so-called criminality and others to relatively peaceful withdrawal and co-existence.

Dr. Dikshit Sinha has proved that an anthropologist has special advantage over the conventional social surveyors in establishing rapport with the people because they genuinely present themselves as learners from the indigenes. I expect that this important monograph will be carefully studied by interested social scientists and also by administrators and social workers entrusted with the welfare ad development of marginal tribal group.


The effect of poverty has been variously examined in the context of stratified civilized societies and there already exists a wide body of literature on the subject (whyte 1943, Harrington 1962, Lewis 1965 lewis adequately been examined at the level of preliterate tribal communities. In this small book, a slightly modified version of the dissertation submitted to the University of Calcutta in 1979, I will try to trace the impact of poverty on the Hill Kharia society and explore how far some of their intra –community behaviour as well as the pattern of intercommunity interaction may be explained as due to the consequence of their socio-economic condition.

Anthropologists have long been accustomed to view the “primitive culture” in the Rousseauan mould as being homogeneous, satisfying, having a perfect fit between nature and society, and above all possessing a “genuine culture” (Sapir 1964). Therefore, instaces of study showing disorganization or drastic alteration in the “primitive culture” have been very few with the exceptions of Holmberg (1950), Honigmann (1949) and Gardner (1966). With the kind of perception that Anthropologists have about the tribal life it is not surprising that the existence of concept of poverty and its impact on the “primitive culture” is even more emphatically denied. Thus Oscar Lewis whose heuristic concept of “culture of Poverty” attracted much criticism on methodological, analytical and ethical grounds, repudiated that poverty had any impact on the preliterate people. He averred that :

Many of the primitive or preliterate peoples studied by anthropologists suffer from dire poverty which is the result of poor technology and/ or poor natural resources, or of both but they do not have the traits of subculture of poverty…… In spite of their poverty they have relatively integrated, satisfying and self-sufficient culture (1966,XLVIII)

Although Lewis reasoned that the analytical concept of culture of poverty was not applicable to the preliterate communities anthropologists, in general, were of the view that hunting and gathering societies all over the world led a wretched existence, hard put to meet their basic needs until Marshal Sahlins made a reappraisal of the “material process of life” of these societies. After examining the economic condition of hunting and gathering tribes of Africa, Australia, Oceania and South America Sahlins came to the conclusion that these societies far from being poverty-stricken were really the “original affluent society” (sahlins (1972). Deprecating the tendency among anthropologists to impute the so-called “bourgeois” concept of civilized societies’ needs on the hunting and gathering communities the pointed out that there could be more than one way to cope with want. Apart from the civilized societies’perennial one effort to bridge the irreconcilable gap between scarce resources and human wants there may also b another solution to poverty, namely the Zen solution which views the “human material wants” as “finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate”. Sahlins pointed out that by “adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty-with a low standard of living” He demonstrated that hunting and gathering societies enjoyed a “kind of material plenty” which the underutilized and generally remained contented with the fulfillment of their limited culturally determined requirement.

The World’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not certain small amount of good, not is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is relation between people. Poverty is social status. As such it is the invention of civilization

But not all hunting and gathering societies all over the world enjoy material plenty which they can exploit at their will. Sahlins himself also noted that in many places hunting and gathering tribes were pushed to inhospitable terrains. In the Indian mainland, most of the hunting and gathering societies have long been denied isolation and surrounded by more dominant ethnic groups who have literally encysted them. Consequently, they have also been denied the privilege to exclusive exploitation of an ecological niche. Sinha (1969) characterized the hunting and gathering societies of the Indian mainland as “secondarily primitivized”. He pointed out that the exclusive dependence of hunting and gathering tribes of mainland India is case of “devolution” from shifting cultivation, “in response to the penetration of caste based economy into these areas and extensive deforestation which make the earlier pattern of primary dependence on shifting cultivation untenable:”

Some anthropologists have noted that even in this “secondarily primitives” condition hunting and gathering tribes of Indian could not rely exclusively of forest. Bose (1965) described the Birhor as a sort of caste performing and enjoying an exclusive economic role vis-à-vis the peasants. Fox(1969) saw their role as “professional primitives” who, because of their knowledge of forest ecology, could gather various forest produce and supply these to the peasants who needed these and had otherwise o avenue to acquire them. But within the past few decades the insistent demand of and by peasants also destroyed their last refuge the forest. As an inevitable consequence they are now being increasingly drawn into market relationship. The peasant societies that are already entrenched in the area made their effort to acquire new means of production, namely, land all the more difficult. Barring a few cases of exceptional success most of these relentlessly-pushed-about-people set up a marginal economic and social relationship with the peasants. From the view point of relations of production and access to the means of production they now constitute a category of “ have nots” living in the village, their relation with the landed peasants and perception of the situation have a close similarity with the “class situation” that is hard to ignore.

The Problem
The Hill Kharia of Purulia and Singbhum districts, with whom we are concerned here, underwent secondary primitivization descending down the evolutionary scale from shifting cultivation to hunting and gathering (sinha 1969). In the 1930’s they were studied by two perceptive practitioners of of anthropology, namely, Das (1931) and Roy (1937) The impression of the quality of life of the trible that these two anthropologists gave were polar opposites. Das who studied the ill Kharia for a short period in a hamlet of a village situated near Ghatsila in Dhalbhum district of Bihar found them morose and dejected. While Roy (1937) found in the Hill Kharia living in the adjacent district of Mayurbhanj of Orissa nothing abnormal. The people were happily pursuing their way of life and generally gave a impression of having great repose their way of life and generally gave an impression of having great repose in their existential situation.

Now-a-Days the Hill Kharia find that due to large scale denudation of forest hunting and gathering as an exclusive mode of subsistence is no longer possible. Instead they are now compelled to seek anchorage n the agricultural economy of the region. In the present day they are frequently found as an appendage of the village society frantically searching for an existence in receding forest and as agricultural laborer. Not only has their previous base of economy been destroyed but their concept of “good life” has also been irrevocably changed. The Hill Kharia view their situation in contrast to the peasant as lacking certain desirable things like cultivable land and food. This has generated a notion of being poor relative to the peasant. Although this is subjective assessment of the situation it fairly corresponds to the reality.

Periodic hunger perhaps, is a part of huntersand gathers’ way of life. That the Hill Kharia also know the existence of such contingent situation is evident from their adage, “shikar naite bhikari” (with failure of hunting one becomes destitute). But previously they were secure in their belief in the bounteousness of the forest. If one failed to hunt on a particular day it was looked upon as due to sheer concatenation of several uncontrollable factors, mainly of magical nature. It was believed that in the next day they were bound to reap rich harvest. But now- a days the Hill Kharia do not have any faith I the bounteousness of the nature. Rather the specter of starvation stares them in the face constantly. Their heart is not kindled by any hope that the morrow will bring better prospect. it is noteworthy that of the three kinds of starvation reported by Gupta (1977:88) from among the tribals of Gujarat the Hill Kharia suffer from the most severest kind of starvation, that is, they have to go without the two principal meals for days on end periodically and practically subsist on one meal a day for a prolonged period.

It may also be pointed to that the peasant society has become the reference group for them to emulate. They are constantly reminded that although they are severely handicapped by lack of food, the peasants, at lealest a major section of them, are relatively free from it.

Another additional feature of the Hill Kharia society is the “stigma” of being “criminal”. We use the word “stigma” in the sense that Goffman(1963) has used.

While the stranger is present before us evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others in the category of persons available for hi to be, and of a less desirable kind-in the extreme, a person who is quite thoroughly bad, or dangerous, or weak.. He is thus reduced in our mind from a whole and usual person to a tainted , discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma.

How the hill Kharia came to be know as “criminal”, though could not be ascertained, it was known to be fairly old. Even at the beginning of early part of twentieth century Copland (1911)mentioned the hill Kharias’ participation in various kinds of criminal activities like burglary, stealing, etc. As a consequence of this stigma they cam under the purview of “Criminal Tribe Act” of 1924 declared by the then British Government . Although this act was repealed in 1952 and the Hill Kharia were designated as a “Denitrified Tribe” the stigma has stuck. The police behave towards the tribe as if any person born as hill Kharia automatically becomes a criminal and makes oneself a possible target of arrest at the slightest pretext. This situation, coupled with the marginal position of the tribe in the regional society, has generated in the mind of the tribe a notion of powerlessness and anxiety.

Thus the relative deprivation suffered by the Hill Kharia may be categorized under three head. 1.felt economic deprivation, (2) marginality of the hill Kharia vis-avis the rural society. (3) notion of powerlessness vis-avis the peasant society. All the three factors act in unison and have a cumulative effect to generate the notion of relative deprivation and its consequence on the Hill Kharia society.


List of tablesX
List of FiguresX
List of MapX
List of IllustrationsXI
Note on Local words used in the textXI
Chapter 1Introduction1
The Problem3
The Area of Study5
Research Method5
Chapter 2Back ground information10
The Tribe10
The Setting12
Chapter 3The Pattern of Economy18
The fight to Extract a Living18
Erosion of Technology and Knowledge of Ecology25
Agriculture and Employment of Young Boys26
Work, food and Leisure27
The Economic Situation as Perceived by the Hill Kharia29
Chapter 4Poverty and Social Relationship33
Life Crisis Rituals42
The Supernatural World50
The community Life52
Poverty and Reciprocity55
Chapter 5Poverty and Crime61
Chapter 6Internationation of Deprivation74
The Feeling of Powerlessness and Anxiety78
Chapter 7Summary and Conclusion82
Appendix I98
Appendix II102
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