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The Santals of Bangladesh : An Ethnic Minority in Transition

The Santals of Bangladesh : An Ethnic Minority in Transition

Paper Presented at the Sixth Workshop of the European Network of
Bangladesh Studies (ENBS) held at Oslo
During 14- 16 May, 2000
Kazi Tobarak Hossain
Department of Sociology
Rajshahi University

The Santals of Bangladesh: An Ethnic Minority in Transition
Kazi Tobarak Hossain
Department of Sociology
Rajshahi University
Present paper is an attempt to discuss some of the important facets of cultural traditions and
changes among the Santals ( an ethnic minority ) of Bangladesh. Santals are known as one of
oldest tribal populations in Bangladesh, having their own religion (known as sonaton
dharma), traditions, and customs. Their social solidarity, religion, and traditions as a distinct
culture is at stake today. A large number of this ethnic minority have converted into
Christianity, leaving aside their age-old traditional religion. Christianization process has
brought tremendous change in their beliefs, traditions and life styles. In addition to that,
influence of education, market penetration, and increasing interaction with mainstream
population are also working as important forces for the Santals to undergo cultural changes. It
is then important to know why they are becoming Christians. After becoming Christians, do
they retain any of their traditional cultural traits and traditions? Other than conversion into
Christianity, what other changes are taking place among the Santals due to external forces?
These questions deserve investigation. Accordingly, in the light of answering these questions,
present paper attempts to discuss the changing patterns of culture among the Santals.
In the present paper I have attempted to discuss the changing pattern of culture and
traditions among the Santals of Bangladesh. It is observed that the age-old
traditions and culture of the Santals are undergoing changes due to the intervention
of external forces, such as Christianization, education, market penetration,
interaction with mainstream population. This paper discusses how these forces are
working for the disintegration and transformation of the distinct archaic ethnic
culture of the Santals.
In Bangladesh, we find a number of tribal populations such as, Chakma, Marma,
Rakhaine, Murang, Khasi, Garo, Santal, Oraon, Munda, Malpahari. More than 20
tribal groups with their distinct culture and traditions are found in Bangladesh
(Dalton 1973, Ali 1998). The major bulk of the tribal populations are concentrated
in areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts, Sylhet, Mymensing, Rajshahi, Dinajpur and
Government and non-government organizations recently have undertaken different
development programmes (such as education, infrastructural development, rural
electrification, health facilities) in most of the tribal inhabited areas of Bangladesh
(Shelly 1992). These programmes are aimed at social and economic upliftment of
the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh and integrate them socially and economically
with the mainstream population of Bangladesh. However, on the flip side of the
coin, implications of these development strategies tend to work as forces of
disintegration and cultural transition of the ethnic minorities of Bangladesh. With
this brief introductory overview of the tribal populations of Bangladesh, I would
now limit my discussion on the Santals only.
The Santals are one of the oldest tribal populations in Bangladesh. They are
largely concentrated in the districts of Rajshahi, Dinajpur and Rangpur. Rough
estimate from different sources reveals that there was approximately 1,50,000
Santal population in Bangladesh in 1984 (Ali 1998:13, Sarkar 1998:147).
However, updated information on the number of Santals can not be provided in the
absence of tribewise breakdown of national population census report. The Santals
were originally inhabitants of Chotonagpur, Santal Pargana of India. During
British period they migrated to different areas including Bangladesh in search of
employment, such as agricultural laborers, laborers for installing railway tracks,
laborers for clearing forest and reclamation of agricultural land (Anwar 1984,
Hossain and Sadeque 1984, Siddiquee 1998). Zamindars to their advantages used
to employ them as laborers in the agriculture and agriculture related activities.
This ethnic group was originally hunters and gatherers and used to live in hill
forests of middle-eastern India. But over time due to increase of population,
deforestation and scarcity of wild animals and birds, they had to move out to
different areas, mainly plain land areas, for their livelihood.
Santals are known as one of the oldest ethnic groups of South Asia.
Anthropologists tend to identify the santals in the racial category of Proto-
Australoid (Siddiquee 1984, Ali 1998). It is assumed that the ancestors of this
stock of people migrated from the mainland of Australia to India some ten
thousand years ago (Maloney 1974). Santals skin colors is dark, hair is black and
smooth to wavy, they have broad nose with thick lips and they are of medium
height (Samad 1984, Hossain and Sadeque 1984).
It may be mentioned that studies on Santals of Bangladesh are very few in
number. Present study cannot be claimed to be an indepth and comprehensive one,
however this exploratory research may pave the way for the enthusiastic
researchers and scholars to come forward for further studies on the Santals.
Present study is an outcome of a short fieldwork that I conducted in Jheolmari
village under Deopara union* of Rajshahi district. Secondary sources of data were
also used while writing this paper. The village Jheolmari was selected purposively
where sizeable number of Christian and non-Christian Santals were found. The
village is located approximately 13 kilometres westward from Rajshahi centre city
Anthropological techniques of observation and intensive interviews of the subjects
were adopted for collecting data. The fieldwork for the study was extended for
more than a month (from November 20 to December 30, 1999). Secondary sources
were used to substantiate the primary database collected through fieldwork. It may
* A number of villages constitute a Ward, and a number of wards constitute a Union.
be noted that during fieldwork, emphasis was given on collecting qualitative
(rather than quantitative) information in order to understand the processes of
cultural change. Household census could not be done due to time constraint.
Intensive interviews of some randomly selected subjects, reports of the key
informants, informal discussions with the Santals and my own observations in the
study area are the major sources of primary information collected for the present
study. I as well made casual visits to some neighboring villages where the Santals
live in order to have a better understanding of their traditions and change. In
addition to that I made a casual visit to one periurban locality Tallipara, where
almost all the Santals are found to be converted Christians with non-agricultural
During the period of fieldwork, I made frequent visits to the study area (Jheolmari
village) and interviewed both Christian and non-Christian Santals in order to
comprehend why they are becoming Christians and also what other external
factors are adversely affecting their cultural solidarity and traditions. Informal
discussions with the Santals, author’s own observation and reports provided by the
key informants were also important sources of information which I needed for
understanding the pattern of cultural change among the Santals.
In village Jheolmari there are 75 households of which 40 are Santals and the rest
35 are Muslims. Out of these 40 Santal households, 25 are not Christians and 15
are converted Christians. Santals are located contiguously in the same
neighborhood of the village.
Changing Cultural Traditions of the Santals
The Santals were originally hunters and gatherers. However, when they migrated
to Bangladesh, they were engaged primarily as agricultural laborers. These people
are very poor as they do not generally own land for cultivation. As a result they
work as laborers in agriculture and agriculture related activities. They are
generally employed by the Muslim landowners who represent the dominant
culture of Bangladesh. While talking to some respondents of the study area and
adjacent villages, I learnt that the Muslims often exploit them by paying relatively
low wages. Some of the Santals who had small amount of cultivable land before,
leased them out to Muslim landowners for immediate need of cash and eventually
lost their land. This happened because they could not repay the money in due time.
It is interesting to note that among the Santals, both men and women work for
wages in agriculture and related activities in rural areas. In the study area, I have
found 39 (out of 40) Santal household heads are engaged as wage laborers in their
own village and outside (neighboring villages). Only one household head is found
who works as sweeper in the City Corporation office at Rajshahi city. He
commutes on working days. Along with the male household heads, their adult
female counter parts are also engaged as wage laborers in post-harvest activities,
earth work, carrying and grinding bricks required for construction works in the
nearby urban areas.
I have learnt from key informants that due to scarcity of employment opportunities
in village areas, a good number of Santals (mostly Christians) have migrated from
Jheolmari and other villages to urban fringes of Rajshahi city in search of nonagricultural
employment opportunities. Karim and Mahbub (2000) observed
similar pattern in their recent study on periurban Santal neighborhoods adjacent to
Rajshahi city. I learnt that Christian Mission and Catholic Bishop’s Organization
for Charity and Development (CARITAS) located at the outskirts of Rajshahi city,
generally helped these Santal migrants by offering material help and, sometimes
by providing them with jobs. They also provided them with shelters. Their
cooperating and helping attitudes motivated the non-Christian Santals to get
converted into Christianity later on.
The Santals are generally not literate. They however, have their own language
known as Santali language. In Santal inhabited rural areas, as I observed in
Jheolmari village, they speak to each other in Santali language. But when they
speak to others, they speak in Bengali. Children generally learn both the languages
at their early ages. But in the periurban setting of the Santal neighborhoods,
picture is quite different as reported by the key informants and my observation
also confirm this in the casual visit to one such area namely, Tallipara (located at
the outskirts of Rajshahi city). Here, the Santal Christians who are more or less
educated and economically reasonably well off, do not speak within themselves in
Santali language. They speak in Bengali. Interestingly enough that third/fourth
generation converted Christian children usually do not even know the Santali
language. It may be mentioned that Tallipara is mostly inhabited by the Santal
Christians (about 95%).
Though literacy rate among the Santals is generally very low in rural areas,
recently changes are apparent. Christian Missions have established schools in and
around the Santal villages that the Santal children get inspiration to go to schools.
I may mention that recently a school (up to primary level) has been established in
Jheolmari village by the Christian Mission. This has specially motivated the
children of this village and neighboring villages to go to school. Also Christian
Missionaries make routine visits to villages for motivating the parents to send their
children to schools where they can have free education, free books and other
facilities. Samad (1984) and Ali (1998) observed similar situations in their
respective studies. However, along with spreading education and advocating for
education, they as well try to motivate the Santals to get converted into
Christianity saying that if they become converted Christians, they will have better
prosperity and socio-economic security.
Kinship and Social Network
Santals are a patrilineal ethnic group where descent is reckoned through male
lines. Patronyms are as well inherited through male lines. They are a patrilineal
society where father is generally the household head. But females are also given
significant importance as they also contribute economically in the household. It is
observed in the study area that the females almost equally participate in income
earning activities for the household. Household structure is generally joint in
nature. With the diffusion of modern values, nuclear households are emerging as
well in rural areas. I found 5 nuclear households (out of total 40 Santal housholds)
in Jheolmari village.
The Santal tribe is divided into 11 clans. They are (1) Hasda, (2) Murmu, (3)
Kisku, (4) Hambrom, (5) Mardi, (6) Sauren, (7) Tudu, (8) Baski, (9) Besra, (10)
Chaure, and (11) Pauria. In my study area and adjacent villages, I found these 11
clans. However, Ali (1998: 125) found one more clan, namely Bedea. These clans
are totem based. The Santals believe that each clan has its own totem and there
exists certain relationship between a clan and its totem. Totems are generally
animals (such as Bison, sheep), birds (such as goose, pigeon), plants (such as a
grass) (Ali 1998: 45).
It may be mentioned that this clan-based society of Santals are exogamous.
Marriage is prohibited within the same clan. Females after marriage adopt the
husband’s clanic status and no longer remain in the father’s clan (see as well
Hossain and Sadeque 1984:160). It may be noted that Santal Christians who are
educated and well off, do not always strictly follow the rigid rule of exogamy.
Instead, they prefer to choose spouse of the similar socio-economic status even if
he/she is from the same clan. It is interesting that the Santals who are converted
Christians, do retain their clan patronyms. I observed this pattern in the study area
and adjacent villages.
Major functions of the clans are to regulate marriage, inheritance, succession and
affiliation (See Ali 1998). One becomes a clan member by birth or by marriage
(applicable for females only). It is believed that these clans are hierarchically
ordered on the basis of occupation (e.g. Kiskus were kings, Murmus were priests,
Sauren were warriors, Baskies were traders). This kind of occupation related clan
patronyms are somewhat like the Hindu caste system. But today, as I observed in
the study area, these occupational heirarchies of status do not seem to have any
impact on the Santals.
The Santals today are no more confined within their own village. Their mobility
and interaction with the mainstream population have tremendously increased due
to expansion of market mechanism and employment opportunities outside their
own villages. For employment, they often go outside their own areas, for buying
necessary goods they go to different nearby market places as well as distant urban
market places. Females also do the same for buying their necessary items.
I found a few converted Christian Santal students (both male and female) of the
neighboring villages of the study area who go to colleges located in the Rajshahi
City area. All these tend to indicate that they are having greater interaction with
the mainstream population and having wider networks.
Christianization and Cultural Disintegration of the Santals
Religion is a very important element of culture for any group of people. Like
many tribal groups, the Santals believe in various impersonal spirits and forces
which control human life. They believe in a number of deities of which Bongas
are very powerful and can do harm to mankind (Ali 1998: 207, Hossain and
Sadeque 1984). The Santals worship the supernatural powers. They call their
religion as Sonaton Dharma. The rites and rituals, belief in a number of deities,
etc., tend to be quite close to Hinduism (Sarkar 1998). Dancing, music, and
drinking alcohol are embedded in their important religious rites and rituals.
Enjoyment and pleasure are most important charactristics of their rituals and
festivals (Culshaw 1949, Hossain and Sedeque 1984). This distinct religious and
cultural ethnic heritage of the Santals are undergoing rapid changes, particularly
through the unending process of Christianization. This animist tribal people are
generally adopting Christianity under the influence of Christian Missions (Samad
1984, Anwar 1984). This process of conversion of the Santals into Christianity
started during British period and is still continuing unabated. It is observed that the
Santals who are converted were more attracted by the prospect of social
advancement and political protection (generally promised and/or offered by the
Christian Missions) than by the promise of spiritual salvation (Anwar 1984: 366).
Expansion of Christian Missions and educational institutions run by them in the
Santal inhabited areas of Rajshahi, Dinajpur and Rangpur districts tend to have
increasing impact for accelerating the process of converting the Santals. The
Santals who are converted Christians and who are not converted often confront
conflicting social and cultural values, resulting disintegration of their cultural
solidarity as an ethnic minority. In my study area of Jheolmari village, I observed
that those who are not converted, feel isolated and ignored by those who are
converted Christians. A few of the Santals (who are not yet converted) told me
that the situation is as such that eventually they will have no option other than
becoming Christians and cope with the current. In this village out of total 75
households, 25 are converted Santals, 15 are Santals (non converted) and the rest
35 are Muslim households. While talking to them I learnt that out of total 25
converted Christian households, 15 were converted three generations ago, 5 of
them two generations ago and 5 are first generation converts. It is generally
observed that when the household head becomes converted, other members also
become converted Christians. Interviewing some converted Santals of the study
area and some adjacent areas, and information collected from key informants,
some major causes of their conversion into Christianity are identified. They are as
1. Spreading of education through Christian Missions is an important cause. In
the Christian Mission run schools, Santals get free education and sometimes
other fringe benefits such as, books, hostel accommodation etc. It is reported
that behavior and attitude of the Missionaries toward the Santal children in
these schools are very loving and convincing. In other words, it is an indirect
way of motivating the students.
2. It is already said that the Santals are generally very poor. If they come across
some kind of economic crisis (such as house repair, money needed for
treatment) Missions often help them in kind or with cash. Also during severe
winter, they distribute blankets among the poor Santals. These humanitarian
activities often influence the Santals to get motivated for conversion.
3. It is reported that the Christian Missionaries make routine visits to different
Santal inhabited villages and inquire about their problems and advise
accordingly. The missionaries in such routine visits often profess the social and
economic benefits they would usually get after being converted.
4. Christian Missions in collaboration with voluntary Christian organizations such
as CARITAS sometimes provide them with jobs in their organization, help
them with cash in times of need, and also in kind such as, materials for
repairing house, giving shelter who have migrated from other areas in search of
5. Communal tension (often riots) between Hindus and Muslims, particularly
during 1940’s, was also a cause for some of the Santals to become Christians
during that period in Bangladesh. The religion and rituals of the Santals are
close to that of the Hindus. As a result before and after Partition of India in
1947 whenever communal tension and riot took place, they felt insecured and
were vulnerable for being considered as a part of the Hindu community by the
Muslims. In order to get rid of this insecurity, some of them preferred to get
converted into Christianity and become safe and secured. I learnt this while
talking to some long ago converted Christians in the study area.
6. It is interesting to note that the Santals are not becoming converted Muslims
though they are surrounded by the Muslim majority culture. One of the
important reasons for this is that, no Islamization programmes are found to be
in operation among the Santals. Mosques do not perform such duties and
strategies among the ethnic minorities as done by the Christian Missions. As
reported by the key informants and my observation confirm that the Muslim
landlords often exploited the Santals. This tend to have developed negative
attitude of the Santals towards the Muslims.
These are some of the major causes that could be identified for Christianization
among the Santals. It may be noted that the converted Santals call themselves
Santal Christians. However, I observed that converted Santals do retain some of
the cultural traditions and traits of the non-converted Santals. They do not forgo
their clan patronyms and often retain the previous names as well after becoming
converted Christians. But even when they change the names, they retain the Clan
patronyms. For example, in village Jheolmari a male Santal whose name was
Horen Tudu, after becoming Christian changed his name to Samuel Tudu.
Similarly a female Santal whose name was Mungli Hambrom, after becoming
Christian changed her name to Maria Hambrom. The Christian Santals and non-
Christian Santals speak within themselves in Santali language in rural areas as I
observed in village Jheolmari. However in periurban Santal localities like
Tallipara, I observed that the more or less educated and well to do families do not
speak within themselves in Santali language. They speak in Bengali.
In different yearly festivals of the Santals, Christian Santals participate mostly as
observers. It may be mentioned that due to poverty, glamour of their festivals is
gradually decaying. Under these circumstances they are limiting the profuseness
and elaboration of their rites and rituals.
Santals migrated to Bangladesh in search of employment and livelihood. But
Christianization among the Santals brought tremendous change in their traditions
and beliefs. Their traditional religion of sonatan dharma is at stake today. The
information and discussion provided in the present paper tend to indicate that the
social solidarity and homogeneity of the ethnic minority of Santals are weakening
and disintegrating. In effect, culturally they are in a transitional state of situation.
If this process of cultural disintegration and transformation continues under the
intervention of external forces, time may come when they will have a new social
and cultural formation, leaving behind their distinct cultural traditions and traits.
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