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International Indigenous development research
conference 2012 Proceedings

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December 2012
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Proceedings of the International Indigenous Development Research
Conference 2012


A staggering situation in sociocultural development
A.  H. M. Zehadul Karim*
The Santals’ religion is based absolutely on the traditional belief system of this ethnic group
of people who strictly adhere to their sanatani (traditional) religious practices. But the Santals living in the north-western part of Bangladesh are now being converted to Christianity in largenumbers, and they have been seemingly formalised to a newly evolved, maladaptive religiosity.For many years, the Santals in Bangladesh have maintained their own sanatani practices withoutany socio-political interference from the larger Bengali communities. But as time has passed, theyhave now become the victims of circumstances. The Santals are now almost landless, and manyof them have been uprooted from their own settlement. In consequence, they are migrating tothe urban city centres, where they seek employment in different Christian-based professionalorganisations. When Christianised, the Santals usually change their parental names, acceptingtheir new Christian names indicatively as a mark of religious compliance to their conversion.
Interestingly, however, it is found that the converters nevertheless retain their patronymic titles,having shown a kind of ethnic attachment to their tradition and genealogy. This abrupt shift in religious allegiance of the Santals precariously puts them in a world of contradiction and fluctua-tion with respect to their religious practices. This paper explores their sociocultural, religious and environmental adjustment in the context of their liminality and staggering situation.

Santal religiosity, conversion to Christianity, sociocultural development

Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, International
Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Introduction and background – theme
The Santals in Bangladesh are an auto chtho-nous ethnic minority group that have long
been living in a very widely dispersed area ofthe Barind region, a different kind of environ-
ment in the north-western part of the country(Karim & Karim, 2006; Karim, Chowdhury,
& Karim, 2008). Such ethnic minorities in Bangladesh are often referred to by the term
adibashis or early settlers, and among these adibashis, the Santals are the most prominent
and influential, having inhabited a special type of ecological setting fully based on their tradi-
tional sedentary economy, partly supplementedby fishing and horticulture (Datta-Majumder,1956; Thompson, 1921). They have remainedquite adaptable to this environment, being sup- ported by their own techniques of farming. As
an indigenous group, they have always lived inthis area as a significant, small-scale subculture. They claim this land as the original inhabitantsof the territories, which they have occupied for roughly 300 years, having been driven outby the British colonial power from the Indian part of West Bengal. But it has been learnedfrom recent evidence (Karim et al., 2008) that the Santals have now been marginalised to agreater extent, and at the same time, they have been uprooted from their own original paternalhomes in the Barind region. Being pauperised, the Santals now live in a very deplorable eco-nomic condition, which effectually forces them to seek shelter in the urban and peri-urban areasof Rajshahi City. These people in the villages are totally alienated from their original economic
and cultural habitats, enduring very depressivesociocultural humiliation. Paradoxically, the
major causes of their miseries emanate fromthe process of their pauperisation, which has
occurred to them due to multifarious reasons(Karim & Karim, 2006; Karim et al., 2008).
Being a threatened subculture, the Santalsnow strategically migrate to the urban areas,
seeking religious and sociocultural shelter inthe Christianised professional organisations
located in the city. The Christian churcheslocated in Rajshahi City provide these Santal
groups of people with total economic support inthe catchment areas surrounding their churches. They dispense economic patronage to them indifferent ways and forms. Many of the Santals, for that reason, have converted to Christianity,leaving behind their traditional sanatani reli-gion. This abrupt shift in religion suddenly puts the Santals in a contradictory situation in regardto their religious and ritual practices. This paper explores the sociocultural, religious and eth-nic adjustments and the controversies of the converted Santals in their new environmentalsituation. The research reported here is a field- based ethnographic study conducted amongthe Santals in the Rajshahi City area, which provides us with a kind of empirical database oftheir conversion situation. The paper provides
a prototypical case study focused on the bar-riers of the Santals in regard to their cultural
assimilation, and it clearly depicts the socio-psychological problems they encounter after
their conversion to Christianity. Contextually,our argument in this paper is to focus on the “liminality situation” of these groups of Santalpeople, as evidenced in our data.

Ethnographic base and data sources Data for this paper have been gathered from
four adjoining areas of Rajshahi City as anintegrative case study based on an ethnogra-
phy, which was constructed under my directparticipation as a principal researcher and the
author of this paper. It was based on extensiveformal interviews of all the heads of households with an all-inclusive questionnaire during themonths of January through March 2012. The ethnographic survey was conducted among theSantal households found to have settled in four selected peri-urban areas of Rajshahi. Theseurban areas are: Aliganj (N = 35), Haragram
(N = 55), Mahisbatan (N = 43) and Tallypara
(N = 30). A total of 163 converted Santalfamilies that had settled in these areas were identified and interviewed most extensively.

Santal ethnicity, Christianisation impact and occupational diversities In order to understand the Christianisationimpact on the Santals, it is essential for us
to know about the ethnicity, socio-religiousbackground and economic status of this ethnic
group. As mentioned, a total of 163 Santal fami-lies were identified from four neighbourhoods of Rajshahi City. From an ethnic point of view,the Santals use a different kind of patronymic title inherited from their predecessors; and all
these titles are mostly connected with theiroccupational groupings, religious positions
and leadership categories or, often, they areconnected with religious practice. It is evident
from Table 1 that a total of 12 broad catego-ries of patronymic titles are found among the Santals in our study area. The table also showsthat the most numerous groups are: Soren
(14.72%), Biswas (14.72%), Tudu (12.27%)and Marandy (9.82%). Many of these titles
are now changing and it is suspected that afew low-caste Hindu groups of people are also
claiming to be adibashis, perhaps with an inten-tion of availing some socio-political privileges that are retained exclusively by the governmentfor the adibashis as a tribal minority. It may be mentioned here that the title “Biswas” doesnot belong to the Santal “exogamous sect- grouping” as enlisted by other researchers (Ali,1998), and thus it is suspected that this title might have been fictitiously taken by some non-tribal groups of people from other communities.
    It has also been observed that, after their conversion, the Santals do not change their pat-ronymic titles right away, and it is assumed that it will take a few generations to change theirtitles after they are fully Christianised. Our eth- nographic documentation clearly depicts that,after conversion, almost all the Santals changed their first names and, in their place, took all Christian names as desired by the missionarypeople. But their conversion to Christianity does not show any impact on their ethnicityas such, as most of the Santals, even after their conversion, have been found using their samehereditary and ethnic patronymic titles. Many

TABle 1: Distribution of the Santal families based on their patronymic titles.
Patronymic titles                                   number of families (N = 163) %
Soren                                                   24 (14.72%)
Biswas*                                                                                                  24 (14.72%)
Tudu                                                     20 (12.27%)
 Marandy                                              16 (9.82%)
 Hembrom                                             16 (9.82%)
 Murma                                                 15 (9.20%)
 Hansda                                                            12 (7.36%)
 Kisku                                                   9 (5.52%)
 Mardy                                                  5 (3.07%)
 Minch                                                  4 (2.45%)
 Larke                                                   3 (1.84%)
 Others**                                                15 (9.20%)

* It is uncommon among the Santals to bear a title such as Biswas, which is believed to be taken
** The “others” category includes a few recently exotic Christian titles such as Rosario and

researchers rightly point out that the Santals,having been brought up and socialised in one culture and religiosity for many generations, arenow in a dilemma of ambiguity. Anthropologists suspect that, through an acculturative processof some generations, they might get used to a
new way of life and, until then, they will retain heir past cultural heritage through holding pat-ronymic titles and preserving their old identity. People typically have difficulties when moving
across cultures. On one hand, they find theirold behaviours and attitudes fully maladaptive
to their new life; on the other hand, they find itnecessary to have a new change and directions
to obtain their futuristic cultural goals andaspirations. The main argumentative narrative of this paper is to know about the practicabilityof the socio-religious situation of the Santals in
terms of their future cultural survival.

Analytical discussion
As described, the Santals are the most poverty-stricken early settlers in the Barind region in
the north-western part of Bangladesh, and hadbeen residing in that area since the time of the
British 300 years ago. The British ruler haddriven them out from the Indian part of West
Bengal to Bangladesh, with the motive of sub-duing their continuous revolution, which had
created a political tension among them at thattime. Finding no way out, the Santals from
those Indian areas started going to Bangladeshin a continuous flow for socio-political shelter.
But under the political and economic man-agement system during the Pakistani period
(1947–1970), the Santals started degeneratingfrom this land, moving back again to India.
In the last few decades, the fate of this com-munity has largely been interfered with due to
the expansionist attitudes of a few Bengali landgrabbers, who forcibly took away their land and
expelled many of the Santal families out of theBarind. Under this situation, it becomes quite
obvious that, being defenceless as a threatenedsubculture, the Santals again started moving to
Rajshahi City for their own protection. Thisbrought them closer to the Christian commu-
nity in the Rajshahi church areas. The resultis nothing but a kind of self-induced and self-
designated conversion to Christianity, which

TABle 2: Distribution of the Santal families based on their principal occupation in Rajshahi City.
Occupations                                                     number (N = 163) %
Service holders*                                                                                                                         79 (48.47%)
Retired service holders                                      6 (3.68%)
Day labourers                                                   25 (15.34%)
Sweepers**                                                                                                                13 (7.88%)
Rickshaw pullers***                                                                                           12 (7.36)
Housewives                                                      6 (3.68%)
Farmers                                                                        5 (3.07%)
Carpenters                                                        4 (2.45%)
Businessmen                                                    3 (1.84%)
Others****                                                                                                                       10 (6.14%)

Most of the service holders are working in hospitals, schools and other professional organisa-
tions and non-governmental organisations run by Christian-based people.
     Sweepers are also employed in the hospitals and churches.
      Santal rickshaw pullers usually receive a loan given to them from different sources to buy
their rickshaws.
       The “others” category includes many more occupations selectively chosen by the Santals.

attracted them in different ways. The mission-aries greeted them with economic patronage,
offering them employment in the church-basedorganisations and pulling them up to regain
their social status in the community. It is inter-esting to note that all the conclusions derived
here based on our findings in Table 1 and 2 alsocorroborate our previous findings on the Santal
communities based on research conducted indifferent phases elsewhere in the country (Karim
& Karim, 2006; Karim et al., 2008).It is documented in the foregoing discussion
of the paper that the economic factor impor-tantly played a dominant role in the conversion
of the Santals to Christianity. However, it would be unjust to say that the Christian mis-
sionaries ever forced them to such conversion.It is reported that the missionary people are well
behaved, sociable and most frequently show a kind of extra modesty to everyone, which even-
tually attracted the adibashis to conversion. Bycontrast, the Bengali mainlanders simply failed

TABle 3: Some important church-based development programmes and organisations located in Rajshahi.
Development activities of Catholic Church in Rajshahi  Development activities of Protestant Church

CARITAS Development Programme,                              Christian Mission Hospital*
Mohisbatan                                                                   Institute**
Ashadan or Mother Teresa Orphanage,
   Mohisbatan                                                                Mission Girls School****
Sick Centre (or Hospital)***                                                                                            Santal Mission
Kapitanio School, Dingadoba                                        Students’ Hostel
Muktidata Non-Government Junior High
   School, Dingadoba                                                    Rajshahi Rural Development Project (RRDP)
Tuberculosis Treatment Centre, Dingadoba
Students’ Hostel, Aligang                                                          Micro-credit programmes
Development of six residential areas of the
   Church                                                                       Control of the City Church
Supervisory control of 27 smaller churches                                 RRDP programmes of Christian Aid, UK
NORAD’s assistance in a few selected pro-        RRDP programmes funded by Church of Bangladesh
   grammes (see Sarker, 2007)

The Christian Mission Hospital at Rajshahi was established in 1887. Dr Elizabeth Conan recon-
structed the hospital in 1950 by including all privileges of medical treatment for Christian and
non-Christian people. Dr Upendranath Malakar and his wife Dr Mina Malakar were renowned
doctors, who served this institution for several decades with high reputation and expertise in
    Dr Upendranath Malakar and Dr Mina Malakar first established this nursing institute in the
name of Dr Elizabeth Conan.
     Sick Centre is located at Dingadoba Mission Campus, which provides full facilities for sick
Santals coming for treatment in Rajshahi.
      The English missionary people initially established a primary school at Hetem Khan, which
was later shifted to the Haragram area near Court, and it was turned into a full-fledged high
school for both boys and girls. At present, this school has about 1,000 students mostly from the
Bengali Muslim community.from a cultural point of view.

Now, obviously, the question comes as towhat happens to their cultural identity, which
to some extent has already been dislodged dueto their conversion to Christianity. It has been
observed that being traditional inhabitants ofthe land, the Santals still preserve their own eth-
nic identity as members of a subculture. Thereappears a sharp contrast between ethnicity and
conversion; it has been observed that there isa clear reluctance on the part of the Santals to
change the ethnic features and cultural habitsthat they have inherited through generations.
They are solely conscious of their cultural herit-age and this has been proved by their retention
of their patronymic titles, having suffixed themto their newly taken Christian names.

Concluding comments
It is tempting to make a predicting statementabout the future cultural survival of these Santal
communities, as the issue seems to be veryprovocative in such a changing cultural situa-
tion. However, based on our research, it wasfound that the conversion to Christianity has
not totally overshadowed the Santal traditionalethnicity as yet, because of their ethnic orien-
tations, which have persisted in them throughtheir long-adaptive, enchanted cultural values
proliferated for generations. But the possibilityof their total acculturation in the near future
cannot be discarded fully. It has been observedthat the converted Santals now live in a stag-
gering situation and, contextually, a feeling ofcontradiction has already been rooted in their
mental make-up; therefore, anthropologistspredict that a change in their culture is almost
on the verge of emergence (e.g., Karim & Karim2006; Karim et al., 2008).

Ali, A. (1998). Santals of Bangladesh. Dhaka,
   Bangladesh: Institute of Social Research and Applied  Anthropology.
Datta-Mujumder, N. (1956). The Santal: A study in cul- ture-change, Delhi, India: Manager of Publications.

Karim, A. H. M. Z., Chowdhury, A. Q., & Karim,
   M. S. (2008). The socio-cultural diversities of the
   Navaho Indians in the United States and the Santals   in Bangladesh: A comparative study of culture   change. South Asian Anthropologist, 8(1), 1–7.

Karim, M. S., & Karim, A. H. M. Z. (2006). Impact of
   Christianization on the Santals of Barind Region in
   Bangladesh: A study on culture change. South Asian  Anthropologist, 6(2), 121-127.

Sarker, H-A. R. (2007). The Adibashi communities of
   Rajshahi: Conversion and cultural crisis. Dhaka,  Bangladesh: Mizan Publishers.

Thompson, W. J. (1921). Census of India, Vol. V.Kolkata, India: Bengal Secretariat Press.

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