Jan 29, 2023
Jan 29, 2023
by Kumud Biswas
Bibhutibhusan's Aranyak, unquestionably the greatest epic of the wilderness in Bengali literature, has a small chapter which narrates the visit of the storyteller to the king of a lost kingdom. The capital can boast of no princely palaces or victory towers on a grand scale but consists of a cluster of modest mud huts in the forest, the mud walls of only one of which are reinforced with ordinary stones where the king himself lives. The king is not at home. He has gone to the forest to tend his cattle. His great-great-grand-daughter, princess Bhanumati, a girl of some fourteen summers, clad in the short length of a sari and adorned only with a necklace of the seeds of wild fruits and colored stone chips, ushers the visitor in the king's presence. The king is found to be a very old man approaching his century and seated under a tree smoking a cheroot of Sal leaves. His vision has become dim but his hearing is still quite good. He receives his guest in a graceful manner and instructs his grandson to make suitable arrangements for his entertainment. Having treated him with a meal of wild porcupine meat and buffalo milk he takes his guest around to show the remains of his kingdom. According to the tradition of his people the kingdom extended over a vast area from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north to the Chotanagpur plateau in the south. For ages they lived in this land in peace. But when the Mughals came and set up their outpost at Rajmahal they started to make inroads into these territories. From their forest fastness armed only with bows and arrows they kept the Mughal hordes at bay, never allowing them complete sway over their kingdom. At last whatever was left of that land they lost forever after their defeat in the battle with the British known as the Santal Rebellion. At that time the king was in the prime of his youth and had taken part in that unequal fight. The kingdom is now a mere memory. Its only reminders are the habitual respect he receives from his people, a couple of caves which once served them as their fortress and an ancient banyan tree under whose shadows sleep their glorious dead.
The visitor is an English educated Bengali Babu from Calcutta. He has been engaged by an absentee landlord, also a Bengali Babu of Calcutta, as the manager of a large jungle mahal estate which once formed a part of the forgotten kingdom. He has been entrusted with the task of surveying and clearing it for settlement of tenants. The manager is not impressed by what he has seen. Dobru Panna the king is no more than a mere tribal chief, uncouth and illiterate, poor and primitive; his squalid cabin is no better than a hovel or a rabbit hole and Bhanumati the princess is like any other tribal girl in the bloom of her youth. However, in the declining light of the westering sun he senses a solemnity about the burial ground which casts a kind of spell over him. And in his mind's eye he visualizes a vista of prehistoric times when the nomadic Aryans were pouring into non-Aryan India through her north-western mountain passes. The encounter between the original inhabitants and the newcomers ended in the victory of the latter. While the victors have chronicled the story of their conquest and expansion of their domain and culture there is no record of what happened to the vanquished. Whatever traces of their history exist may be found not in the handiwork of man like an epic or a Purana nor in the relics of a stately city or a kingdom but in the primordial things of nature like the deep dark forests and caves and mountains. The arrogant Aryan in the pride of his civilization has never felt the urge to find out that history. Since those ancient times to the present these hapless people have been neglected and humiliated and kept outside the pale of civilized society by the Aryans. Acutely aware of his racial superiority the manager sees himself as a representative of the victors and Dobru Panna as that of the vanquished.
In prehistoric times racial encounters such as this were not infrequent, stories of which are not fully known to us because, according to Darwin, no tradition has been preserved by the present inhabitants about the ancient monuments and stone implements found in all parts of the world. With patient and painstaking labors the anthropologists and antiquarians have sought to reconstruct them on the available evidence. And the conclusion they have arrived at about the outcome of such encounters is indeed revealing. In The Descent of Man Darwin cites a number of cases where some races living in very harsh and inclement environment have managed to survive and have not become extinct: 'Man can resist conditions which appear extremely unfavorable to his existence. He has lived long in the extreme regions of the North, with no wood for his canoes or implements and with only blubber as fuel, and melted snow as drink. In the southern extremity of America the Fuegians survive without the protection of clothes, or of any building worthy to be called a hovel. In South Africa the aborigines wander over arid plains where dangerous beasts abound. Man can withstand the deadly influence of the Terai at the foot of the Himalaya and the pestilential shores of Africa'. Whereas 'extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe and race with race' and 'when of two adjoining tribes one becomes less numerous and less powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery and absorption'.
The primitive people were less civilized but not less savage than their modern counterparts. They fought their battles with no less savagery but with less civilized weapons which were crude and not as efficient as their modern prototypes as engines of mass slaughter. Hence whole enemy populations could not be eliminated with a single bomb in the twinkling of an eye and those who could not be clumsily clubbed to death were taken as captives and allowed to survive not so much out of mercy as out of necessity. In course of time the problem of these captives came to be solved not in concentration camps or gas chambers but by the evolution of the institution of slavery. It proved of much practical advantage to the victors. They could get their arduous tasks and unclean jobs done by the forced and free labor of these slaves and thus live a life of comparative ease. It served them also to satisfy their feeling of racial superiority and a perverted hunger for power and domination not only over the fowls of the air and fishes of the sea and all creeping things of the earth granted to the chosen people by an Old Testament God at the time of creation but also over their fellow human beings. Ancient Greece was the cradle of democracy yet its citizens were not ashamed to own slaves. The quarrel of their two great heroes Agamemnon and Achilles over a slave taken captive in the Trojan war forms the subject matter of the very first book of their epic Iliad. In ancient Rome the institution became so widely prevalent that in some parts of the empire slaves far outnumbered freemen. And ideologues were not wanting to find out its justification. In the opening book of his Politics Aristotle takes pains to refute the argument that slavery is unnatural. The reasoning he employs does not do much credit to a philosopher who is known as the father of syllogism. Some however escaped capture and slaughter by fleeing and taking shelter in inaccessible regions like forests and mountains. Darwin mentions such 'small and broken tribes, still surviving in isolated and generally mountainous districts'.
What happened in prehistoric India could not have been much different. Even on a cursory examination of the people of India both according to physical types and languages four broad classes are discernible - the Aryans, forming the majority of high caste Hindus, tall, fair-skinned and long-nosed and whose language is derived from Sanskrit; the Dravidians of peninsular India, of somewhat different physical features and whose languages are derived from sources other than Sanskrit; the primitive tribes - Kols, Bhils, Mundas, etc. - mostly living in the hills and jungles of high plateaus of the heartland of India, short in stature, dark-skinned and snub-nosed and speaking languages entirely different from both Sanskrit and Dravidian; and lastly the Gurkhas, Bhutiyas, Khasis, etc. concentrated mostly in the sub-Himalayan regions, with strong Mongolian features, almost beardless, yellow-skinned, snub-nosed with flat faces and prominent cheekbones. The last two classes are regarded by scholars as the descendants of the Neolithic peoples who once spread all over India. In course of time they had to yield first to the Dravidians and later to the Aryans both of whom were superior to them in culture. These racial encounters resulted in the extinction of many and absorption of some to form the lowest strata in the community of the conquerors, while a few tribes escaped a similar fate by taking shelter in inaccessible areas like forests and mountains. Segregated both geographically and culturally they pursued their age old ways of life in a kind of splendid isolation. Culturally they do not seem to have made any appreciable progress. The placid existence of the tribes of Chotanagpur plateau and its surrounding areas, however came to be disturbed during the medieval period when the Mughals had their cantonment established at Rajmahal for keeping the chronically insubordinate Bengal subah under watch from a strategically vantage post. The area they called Damin-i-koh, the foothills of Rajmahal, attracted their attention also for another reason - the prospect of diamond mining. As the tribals hardly had any political importance or knew the difference between a piece of diamond and ordinary stone, the activities of the Mughals were not actually directed against them and did not therefore amount to any real threat to their existence. Such a threat was however not long in coming.
Twenty-eight years - almost exactly to the day - before Babur won his victory at Panipat on the 21st of April, 1526, another adventurer, Vasco da Gama, had landed at the south Indian port of Calicut on the 27th of May, 1498. Babur was not aware of this, let alone of its far-reaching repercussions not only in Indian but also in world history, nor could he ever dream that the legacy of his descendants in India would ultimately pass on to these adventurers from the western world. Babur's was a land-bound world. Till the close of the 15th century land routes were the primary system of communication. It was very primitive and not very effective in bringing countries and regions within countries into close contact. For centuries they existed in comparative isolation, each like a little world in itself, populated by a vast majority of poor peasants, steeped in superstition and ignorance and technologically stagnant, and ruled over by a minority of aristocrats who enjoyed the monopoly of power and privileges. These aristocrats constantly scrambled amongst themselves, in the words of Milton, like 'kites and crows', for capture and retention of power which was their chief concern. As their power was won and maintained by force of arms and did not depend on the consent of the ruled the common people and their interests and well-being were their least concern. After their ambition for power was sufficiently satisfied some of the rulers might do some good for the common people. But they did do so not from a sense of duty but to satisfy their megalomania. The common people in their turn were least bothered about their rulers whose rule seldom interfered with their day-to-day life which flowed timelessly in an even rhythm. Empires and kingdoms rose and fell without raising any ripple in the placid flow of that life. Wars and political revolutions were temporary and passing phenomena like natural calamities which the people faced with stoical fortitude. Once these were over they resumed their accustomed way of life as usual. The surface of their social existence was often ruffled but its core rarely got seriously disturbed.
But with the birth of the European Renaissance at the end of the 15th century maritime communication, so long only of secondary importance, became revolutionized. Geographical explorations not only broke down barriers of distance between countries and societies but also extended the frontiers of the known world by discovery of new lands. The European water gypsies were driven by greed of gold and glory and a zeal for spreading the Christian gospel. Exploration was soon followed by invasion to capitalize on the new discoveries. These were intensified by another revolution that was soon to come - the industrial revolution, which in its turn turned the value system of the traditional societies almost upside down. Freedom to do as one likes - the laissez faire - came to be regarded as more important than one's social obligations. Co-operation gave way to ruthless competition and accumulation of material wealth by means foul or fair for consumption here and now to one's surfeit instead of laying up something spiritual by acts of charity to be enjoyed in a life hereafter became the driving force behind all human actions. Insatiable greed, one of the seven deadly sins of the ancient and medieval society, became the greatest virtue of the newly emerging modern world. In their relentless search for more and more profits the mercenaries spread their tentacles far and wide so that no place or people was safe any more from their grabbing hands. They penetrated every nook and corner of the globe which were hitherto untouched by any sophistication of civilized society.
The old civilized societies first resisted but had gradually to yield to superior European technology and organization and finally to resort to cultural adoption and adaptation for survival. The reaction of primitive and less civilized societies was different. In the beginning they accorded a friendly reception to these newcomers as is evident from the letter of Columbus which he wrote to his royal patrons on his first voyage. Columbus found that the people of the islands which he discovered in the West Indies 'all go naked as their mothers bore them - 'they know neither sect nor idolatry, with the exception that all believe that the source of all power and goodness is in the sky and they believe very firmly that I, with these ships and people, come from the sky' and wherever Columbus went they announced with loud cries, 'Come, come! see the people from the sky'. 'And of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no; rather they invite the person to share it, and show as much love as if they were giving their hearts; and whether the thing be of value or of small price, at once they are content with whatever little thing of whatever kind may be given to them'. Columbus 'gave them a thousand good, pleasing things 'in order that they might be fond of us, and furthermore might become Christians .... and try to help us and give us of the things which they have in abundance and which are necessary to us'. Accounts such as this by Columbus and other voyagers made the savages and their societies topical subjects for an idyllic treatment in Renaissance literature. Theirs was a golden world, a Utopia, where these simple people lived a naturally virtuous life in an ideal state of nature, unpolluted and uncorrupted by civilization. Montaigne mused about them in his famous essay Of Cannibals. His contrast between the natural and artificial societies and men formed a kind of pastoral theme in many literary works of the time. This romantic attitude found its culmination in the 17th century English dramatist Dryden who, in his Conquest of Granada, went so far as to call these primitive people 'Noble Savages'. But the angels whom the savages believed to have descended on them from heaven - the explorers and the invaders - treated them in a manner which was far from angelic. By virtue of their superior technology and organization and through treachery, intrigue and other unfair means, these conquistadors conquered and massacred these savages, reduced them to slavery and made them aliens in their own native place. In their prosetilizing zeal they went to the extremes even of cutting off the hands and feet of recalcitrant natives to convince them of the omnipotence of Christianity. The attitude of the European settlers to these so-called 'noble savages' ultimately came to be epitomized in the saying 'the only good Indian is a dead Indian'. Old civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas were wiped from the face of the earth and the numbers of the primitive peoples of other newly discovered lands are today a fraction of what they were at the time of their first contact with the Europeans. The dark continent of Africa became a huge carcass of a mastodon to be carved up at will by the European nations among themselves. Its vast western coastline came to be known as the 'slave coast' after the slave trade which was shamelessly carried on till the other day by the civilized people of Europe. The descendants of these forcibly taken Negro slaves are often denied equal civil rights, while not long ago the native North American Indians had to acquire citizenship in their own ancestral home where many of them still live a segregated life in reservations. In chapter 31 of the first volume of Marx's Das Capital there is a description of the process by which the 17th and 18th century merchants thus plundered the whole world. The basis of their operation was slavery and slave trade. Whole continents were pillaged of their inhabitants for the benefit of the European merchants. It was one of the most frightful processes that have ever taken place in human history. It needs a strong stomach indeed to read this chapter. But these are historical facts which cannot in any manner be denied.
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