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India is a country of different groups of people. It is inhabited by a variety of
tribes. There are six hundred and thirteen tribes living in this sub-continent. These tribes
are the earliest inhabitants of India. Today we find them settled all over India. They live
in the remote places of India such as hilly and thick forest regions. Tribes are well
known by the name ‘Adivasis’, which was used to mean those original inhabitants of
India. These people have their own way of living, customs, traditions, faiths, beliefs and
practices. They constitute the groups representing the primitive stage of life and so they
are called ‘Aboriginals’. In the Indian constitution they are classified as ‘Seheduled
tribes’. Tribes constitute about eight percent of India’s population. This paper is an
attempt to study the plight of the Santals, the largest tribal group in India. I will try to
explain their identity, their social, economical and religious oppression. I will also deal
with the steps taken by the different movements to overcome those oppression and the
role of the Church in this situation.
Santals are one of the most important and largest homogenous tribes of India. In India
they are found in five states such as Bihar, Orissa. West Bengal, Assam and Tripura. We
find the largest number of Santals in Chotonagpur plateau in Bihar, which is regarded as
their traditional home. Their population is 3,164,107 consisting of 1,594,714 males and
1,609,393 females.
After the division of Santal parganas, they are not only remembered for their remarkable
patriotic role in the war of Independence but also are admired for maintaining a distinct
cultural personality.
The Santals are frank, open, honest and gentle and also have a natural love for calm,
conscientious and happy life. They believe in social justice, and so any immoral act does
not go unpunished. Naturally they are simple at the same time they have a highly
respected social code of morality which helps them to maintain their social solidarity,
integrity and identity.
One of the most enhancing characteristics that we find in Santals is their community life.
It is well organised and may be called a ‘model of corporate living’. It is based on the
concept and practice of equality, fraternity and social justice permeated through the
idealism of socialism and democracy. The Santals are having a very high level of social
cohesion and social identity. The principle of togetherness and the spirit of brotherhood
are some of the values which could be attributed to them.
The history of Santals is a history of oppression and alienation. Once they were the
original people of the land and today they are an oppressed lot. Once they were a happy
group and today they are an alienated group. Once they ruled the jungles but today they
are driven out of their lands. In this part of the paper I will try to focus my attention,
briefly, to the Social, political, economical , religious and moral life situations of the
The Santals are agriculturists. Agri-culture is the back bone of their economy. Their life
is greatly influenced by the forests, on which they depend for their supply of food,
firewood, building materials and materials for tools and machines. Today they are
displaced from their lands. The lands are taken forcefully for the establishment of
various industries in Jamshedpur, Bokaro, Dhanabad and other places and thousands of
Adibasis gave their land for national interest.
Many Santals are employed in the factories, only as collectors and carriers of coal in the
lowers. Many poor Santals are exported as brick field labourers, with minimum salary.
They are hired to work in the railway tracts and the national highways by the government
employers. In private houses and convents Santal girls are being employed to sweep and
wipe the house, washing the clothes, vessels and clean the toilets, though their
qualification is high. These people are terribly discriminated. In the tribal belt there is
90% production of electricity in Bihar, but it is pity to hear that non of the tribals enjoy
the fruit of electricity. Mr.Sibu Soren the president of Jharkhand Party is right in saying
“Though most of the coal, iron, copper, alluminium and hundreds of other minerals
including uranium come from tribal belt, we (Adivasis) never had any control over our
wealth, while the rest of the country benefits by using our resources.”
Another reason for their socio-economic oppression is that they are made foreigners in
their own land. Santals have lended money from Non-Santals and Mahajans. They could
not return it back in time as a result their lands are taken away forcefully by the money
lenders. The Santals are continued to be under the thump of Mahajans and Zamindars.
It is interesting to note that the connotation of Zamindars has changed from time to time.
Originally it used to mean non tribals. Later it was meant for upper caste people. At
present it is used to mean ‘the people of North Bihar’, who earn their living here and
send them out to their own homes in North Bihar. As a result hunger and poverty has
become normal life of the Santals.
The majority of Santals are illiterate. Parents do not have any interest to educate the
children. The children have to take care of the animals for crazing and have to go to
school with empty stomach. The education system itself is oriented towards upliftment
of the rich dikus. The teachers are never bothered about the tribal children. There are
many S.T.(Seheduled Tribes) schools but they do not have a single S.T. teacher .
S.T. boardings illegally admit the non Santals by change of name. Therefore Santal
children lose the chance of admission. The central problem is syllabus. Each school has
got its own syllabus and books. The Santals are not able to meet the heavy expenses of
books and school fees. In most of the hostels and schools Santals girls are ill treated and
used for manual works. Above all the interference of politics in school administration
corrupt the mind of the Santal boys and girls.
Values are internalised during the process of socialisation. Parents and other primary
care takers as well as other members of society play an important role in this process.
Santals are more religious and are very particular about the need of their children to learn
religious ways, principles and values.
They worship the spirits. The Spirits are calm and helpful, if they are pleased with the
sacrifice. They are harmful, if they are displeased . This is the common belief of the
Santals. There are two traditions of belief about their religion.
(a) Thakurji is the Supreme God. He has a court of super natural spirits called “Bongas”
to help him. The court consists of a hundred and seventy Bongas, and these bongas
are grouped into three major categories.
i. The spirit of the dead ancestors
ii. The house hold and tutelary spirits
iii. The spirits known as village deities
(b) The Supreme God of the Santals is said to be ‘Sing Bonga’ and his entire court is
divided into 6 categories of bongas.
The bongas occupy the central place in the religious consciousness of the Santals. They
believe that only by coming to terms with bongas can they be happy and free from
diseases and disasters.
Beliefs in bongas are horrible form of oppression. The poor Santals could not satisfy the
demands of the Ojha Nacke (priest) and Jan Guru (high priest). So they became worse in
sickness and loose all their wealth. Now they are fed up of offering sacrifices to the
bongas. They long for a total liberation. They want to get away from the oppression of
bongas. Therefore thousands of Santals embraced Christianity as the true religion and as
hope of transformation and salvation.
The Political life of the Santals were intimately connected to the different political
movements, such as Jharkhand Party, Seva Dal etc.
The Santals had taken refuge in their own home land at different periods of history and
lived in comparative isolation for a long time. In the history of Santals we find that their
blood were shed and lands were usurped by money lenders for many decades. When
almost all the land were taken away and when they found nothing in their hand, they
started to protect themselves and their lands. They were in need of an organization. Thus
the Jharkhand Movement came into existence.
The movement was started already during the time of the British. When the British
government captured Chotonagpur in 1857 this movement was known by different
names such as, the Gepoy Meeting, Military Pensioners’ Movement, Headmen villagers
Movement, Mass Movement and so on.
It will be difficult to support the theory that the disturbances were only sporadic and there
was no organised movement among the Santals as a whole. Among the Santals a
movement spread far and wide and was deeply supported from the different sections of
the population. The Santals, the cultivators, the ex-military pensioners, the headmen, and
the landed proprietors had all joined the movement. At the same time there is also a
presumption that the movement may have been started by a section of the military.
It was true that the movement had not been publicised or declared openly due to fear.
This movement remained only in the heart level. Actually it did not bring any change in
the society or among the exploited communities.
Unnathi Samaj was organised on 1928 by a few educated tribal Christians for the
upliftment of the tribals. Latter it was renamed as the adibasi sabha. It was decided at
the annual conference of May 1938 that the adibasi sabha would serve as the only
political party to represent tribal interests. As we know the farmers were the majority
community in chotonagpur and Santal Parganas. The proposition of welfare work for the
adibasi was neglected in comparison to the income from mineral wealth and forest
produce of the area. The adibasis were loosing their identity, as primary education was
being imparted through the medium of Hindi which was for them, only a market
language. In fact in the population of Bihar, the Adibasis were a minority. It was not
given prime consideration. As a result adibasis demadnded a separate Jharkhand
province which comprises of Chotonagpur and Santal parganas.
After the independence a democratic form of government was estabilished. It brought
new tendencies towards group solidarity. In 1591 the adibasi sabha took the name of
Jharkhand Party and organised as a full political party under the leadership if Jaipal
Singh. He succeeded in bringing together Christians and non-Christians, urban and rural
people under its common interest. The movement did not limit only in Bihar but spread
beyond Chotonagpur and Santal Parganas to the tea garden labourers in North Bengal,
who were immigrants from this are.
Meanwhile block development programmes came out with new vision. It also could not
satisfy the basic needs of tribals. The reason was that the blocks were staffed by non
tribals. Many new small scale and large scale industries came out in this region within a
short time. A large number of tribals were displaced due to the occupation of substantial
areas of land. Adibasis face the problem of alienation and frustration in their homeland
due to employment problems. This was the main problem which made Jharkhand leaders
to think and as a result adibasis were united and they have been fighting for the separate
Jharkhand State.
The Seve Dal was organised at the suggestion of Jaipal Singh in 1965. In the beginning
this Seva Dal advocated the cause of the adibasi students and workers. They dealt with
cases of delay in the payment of scholarships, difficulties in admission to the post
graduate classes and so on. When ever they came to know the cases of employment of
adibasi candidates had been suppressed, they brought it to the notice of the higher
authorities and sought justice. When the communal riots broke out in Ranchi on 22nd
August 1987 the Seva Dal organised a ‘peace dal’ which went round convincing the
adibasis that they should not get mixed up in that communal riot. In this incident many
people suffered, both tribals as well as muslims. Therefore Muslims too joined this
movement and they had supplied money to the seva dal and thus the adibasi maha sabha
was organised by a section of the Jharkhandis.
The Church has identified herself with the tribal communities, by participating in their
struggles and problems. Majority of the tribals, lived in utter poverty. When the
Missionaries came they opened schools in various places and educated them.
Missionaries respected their human dignity. Education coupled with training in human
values opened their eyes. They demanded their rights. They stopped working in the
landlord’s fields. The human resources development and education among the tribal
communities has been a great shock to the power centres of the State.
Today the landlords are well aware that the Missionaries educate the tribals, both
Christians and non Christians. Missionaries through quality education boost up the moral
of tribal communities. This atmosphere helps the tribals to build up their identity.
Through education tribals become aware of their rich culture and deep human values.
They were like lifeless bones. The work of the missionaries brought life into them and
today they stand as a powerful front of human persons, which is a sign of danger to the
communal politicians. They found out the way that is to create enemity among different
groups. They use this communal card very cleverly, dividing tribal Christians and tribal
non Christians for their electoral success. Moreover the missionaries will be accused as
the trouble makers.
As members of the society missionaries work along with many other like minded secular
groups to unite the tribals. Such work goes against the designs of the B.J.P and in their
anger missionaries are called ‘criminals’. Though their accusations are not based on
valid reasons but based on hunger for power and inhuman emotions.
The Christian missionaries are doing a lot of works for the tribals by opening schools and
hospitals. The politicians divide the human community work systematically for their end.
As a result Sr.Rani Maria gave her life in M.P., Fr. T.A. Thomas remained united with
the tribals of Hazaribagh, in Bihar. In Gumla, two fathers and a brother payed a price
for justice through giving their lives. Fr.Chritudass was paraded naked on the streets of
Dumka and the authorities sat tight on his complaint. The reason was that they
organised the bonded labourers against the local money lenders. These missionaries are
the modern day prophets who denounced the injustices and oppressions perpetrated by
the landlords on those hapless tribals.
In this paper we have come to know the life situations of Santals. Santals have given
their lands in the name of national interest. They are put down in various ways. What is
to be done to change this unjust and dehumanising situation existing in Santal society?.
The challenge before us is to build a new society based on a new vision of man. For the
construction of such a society, it is essential that we help the Santals to realise their
power through unity, co-operation and organisation. They must transform their selfimage
into one of free authentic human beings. A transformed self-image and people’s
power are the bases for the creation of a new society.
The transformation of self image is possible only through the creation of a new culture.
The new culture that is to be developed must be founded on equality, justice and
righteousness and supported by self - dignity and freedom.
Let me conclude with the saying of Martin Luther King, “Can have three meals a day for
their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for
their spirits"” . In this way each one can fully realise his or her authentic humanity.
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