In the summer of 1844, writes Sangeeta Dasgupta, four missionaries arrived in Calcutta from Berlin without any clear instructions about what they should be doing in India. Indeed, they did have a project of ‘conversion’ but it apparently failed because the Hindus did not respond. However, they noticed something strikingly different.

These were people who were neither ‘Hindoos’ nor ‘Musalmans’, and they were, “engaged in the most menial of occupations, and yet ‘always happy and light-hearted in their work. These were men who swept the streets, cleaned the canals, and performed the meanest offices’; their wild look, dark skin and semi-nudity was a strong contrast to ‘the better clad Hindus’, looking down with lofty contempt on these ‘poor outcastes’.”

They were the Kols or Dhangars, while Kol was basically a Sanskrit term which meant pig or ‘outcaste’, Dhangars were the Oraons, who worked as slave labourers across the country. Hence, the Missionaries chose Chotanagpur (now in Jharkhand) for their ‘conversion project’ targeting these ‘poor and neglected mountain inhabitants’.

Dasgupta writes that for the Missionaries, the journey from bustling Calcutta to the pristine mountains and forests of Chotanagpur was a “movement from civilization to wilderness, from the familiar to the unfamiliar, or, if expressed in missionary metaphor, a shift from light to darkness. The ‘sun of righteousness’ would eventually rise in Chotanagpur even if ‘the full clear day’ was ‘yet very far off’.”

For them, this was darkness at noon. They were now entering the nether-world of the demonic ‘other’, the evil, with dark beliefs and traditions, sacrifices to devils and spirits of the dead, godless, a dark, dark world of “bloodthirsty and malignant spirits”.

Writes the author: “At the same time, the ‘simple earnest faces’ of the Kols showed ‘minds of …attractive and promising order’. Ascribed innocence and purity, they were willing to learn and were possible subjects of conversion. They were superior to the ‘civilised heathens like the Hindoos’ who followed ‘time-honoured traditions’ and were difficult to convert.” She writes that if the Kols had been ‘savage’, this grand project of the allegedly civilized white world would definitely have collapsed.

They observed the refined manner in which the adivasis lived and cherished their pastoral life in an agricultural community whereby individual tasks in the collective were well laid-out. They not only did cultivation, but organized themselves in a meticulous and myriad manner of shared activity.

They collected fallen wood and grass, honey, cotton, silk cocoons, fixed up their humble homes, hunted and gathered food and fruits from the forest, their original homeland. While they loved and cared for their little ones, the elderly went with the goats to the mountains, made straw mats and baskets, and spun cotton.

Over the years, the Colonial era entrenched itself in what used to be an isolated terrain of a sublime landscape inhabited by beautiful indigenous communities with ancient memories and primordial oral traditions, the occupation led to a predictable pattern of resistance.

While the Santhals waged an armed struggle led by Sidhu and Kanu, and Birsa Munda became a revolutionary prophet, all of them legendary cult figures across the tribal terrain of India, the Tana Bhagats, that is, the Oraons, surprisingly, adopted a parallel stream of consciousness.

Writes anthropologist KS Singh, in his book, ‘Birsa Munda’: …“The movement was agrarian in its roots, violent in its means and political in its end. Birsa, in his speeches, emphasized the agrarian factors and sought a political solution to the problems his people were confronted with, that is, the establishment of a Birsaite Raj under the new king (Birsa). …Birsa’s violent anti-diku and anti-British outbursts, and his references to the spilling of blood following the war with them, underlined the agrarian substratum of the movement…”

They refused to accept the new masters in the form of Brahmins, Muslims, Marwaris, Banias and Rajputs. Dasgupta writes that in the hilly countryside of Palamau and Hazaribagh, “where boundaries could not be distinctly demarcated, where the landscape of forests and fields were intertwined and boundaries continually shifted, and classifying land through the standardized methods of survey and settlement operations had failed, Tana modes of protest differed. Here, the Tana Bhagats refused to pay the zamindar bankatti for grazing cattle in the jungle.”

In the chapter ‘Gandhi, Charkha, Swaraj – Congress Symbols and Tana Meanings’, Dasgupta has tried to comprehend the Tana Bhagat’s relationship with the Congress, ‘Gandhi Baba’, his charkha and swaraj. By 1921-22, she writes, the community was in total and whole-hearted solidarity with the Congress and had become ‘the bastion of the freedom struggle in tribal areas,’ as documented by K. S. Singh.

“She writes: “We need to note that there were several processes in operation:

Congress ‘nationalists’ adapted their politics to local conditions, refiguring thereby their slogans in locally cognizable terms; local elements, more aware of the Tana cultural world, adopted a different mode of propaganda to popularize their messages in Gandhi’s name; Tana leaders and their Bhagat followers, as they spoke again in the name of Gandhi, interpreted these open-ended message in many ways, but continued with their earlier modes of protest.”

She quotes K. S. Singh: “The significance of the Tana movement lay in the fact that it was one of the few tribal movements to be integrated with the political mainstream of the freedom struggle… Almost in one leap, this group, which was seeking restoration of its land, joined the struggle for swaraj under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, and, thus, significantly, widened its area of activities and expanded its consciousness from the local to the national level.”

According to Gandhi, “They should sever the connection with the government… children should leave their schools; and they should use swadeshi articles. The women and girls of India should take to the charkha or spinning wheel… Hindus and Muslims are one…”

Rajendra Prasad, leader of the Congress in Bihar, wrote about the resistance of the Tana Bhagats, “They carried the idea of non-violence to the extent of abjuring eating anything red, because blood was red. When they heard that Mahatma had arisen and was asking the people to stick to non-violence, they felt that the rearing of goats which would ultimately go to the slaughter-house, was against the creed of non-violence, and, therefore, drove out their goats from their houses to the jungles…

“They gave up red chillies, because they looked red. The songs which they sang had the refrain that even an ant has life, just as a man has and so should not be hurt.”

Dasgupta writes that the Tana Bhagats might be dwindling in terms of their population and social and political status, but their leader, Jatra Bhagat, has become an icon of adivasi resistance in contemporary times. “… For the Oraons, who, unlike the Mundas and Santhals, did not have icons such as Birsa Munda or Sido and Kanhu Murmu, the resurrection of Jatra has great significance.

“As the years rolled by, Jatra, as a historical figure, was relegated to the colonial archive. But, as a part-historical figure and part-mythical figure, he emerged as the son of God who had descended on earth to save his people, the deliverer of the Oraons, who continues even today communication with his followers through akashvani… Both Jatra and Gandhi are ultimately babas, deities in the Tana pantheon of gods…”

Sangeeta Dasgupta teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies in JNU, New Delhi. In the contemporary context, when the tribals of India, invisible and pushed to the margins in their own homeland, are fighting a protracted and peaceful struggle to reclaim their ancient and inherited forest rights, this meticulous academic study is another addition to a precious body of work.

It is an important read not only for students and teachers, but also for those rare journalists who dare to venture into the deep and dense forests, in search of forgotten and real stories, of great civilizations and communities. The stories of a beautiful people, who smile with such innocence, who move like the north wind, and who sing and dance all night, singing their heady songs on full-moon nights.

Reordering Adivasi Worlds: Representation, Resistance, Memory

Author: Sangeeta Dasgupta

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Price: Rs 1695

Pg: 345