Sep 22, 2023
Sep 22, 2023
by Kumud Biswas
In India once the British merchants got a foothold in Bengal they began to push further inland and in the course of a century gobbled up the greater part of the country. To tighten their grip over this country and explore and exploit it thoroughly they laid roads and railways and the areas which were so long out of bounds and where the aboriginals lived more or less unmolested became increasingly accessible and exposed. To augment their income, the chief source of which was revenues from the land, the East India Company began to reclaim lands wherever possible by draining swamps and clearing jungles and settlement of tenants. The areas around the Rajmahal hills hitherto covered by jungles were brought under the plough with the help of the hardy Santals who settled there in increasing numbers. All the paraphernalia of the new administration followed - different grades of zamindars, the court, the police, the traders, the moneylenders, etc. The minions who manned these organs of administration were mostly the cunning natives from lower Bengal who were more civilized than the Santals and had already become accustomed to and had adopted the Western ways. They followed the British as scavengers follow the predators. Like a swarm of locusts they descended on the unwary Santals who were illiterate and ignorant about the niceties of the new administration. They were a simple folk like the West Indians described by Columbus. Through various sharp practices the Bengali 'Dikus' (foreigners) began to exploit the Santals in a systematic manner. The Santals failed to get justice from the native officials who were hand in glove with the exploiters. And when this exploitation became a torment beyond endurance these traditionally peaceful people first petitioned the 'Sahibs' (Englishmen) for redress. But their prayer went unheeded. In despair they rose in a body in defiance against their tormentors. They were suppressed by brute force. What really happened, according to the testimony of one of the army officers engaged in the suppression of the rebellion as quoted in Hunter's Annals of Rural Bengal, was cold blooded murder of thousands of innocent people, for the primitive bows and arrows of the Santal rabble were no match for the fire arms of a well organized army. The relentlessly exploited Santal prayed for justice which he failed to get from the unsympathetic and indifferent Company officials. He was pushed to the end of his tether and he rebelled in utter perplexity and despair. He was ruthlessly punished whereas his unscrupulous exploiters - the root cause of all his miseries - got all the sympathy and protection of the administration. Ultimately it dawned upon the East India Company that the simple Santal in his illiteracy and ignorance was not clever enough to adjust to the complexities of the new administration - its innumerable regulations and complicated procedures - and the cunning 'dikus' were taking advantage of this situation. As a remedy, though belated, a new district was formed comprising the areas inhabited by the Santals to be called after them - the Santal Parganas - where many of the regulations prevalent in other parts of the province of Bengal would not be applicable. It would be placed under the charge of a specially appointed official empowered to administer it according to the usages and customs of the Santals.
The Santals were not the only backward community of Chotanagpur who rebelled against the inroads of an alien culture. Others like the Kol, the Munda and the Bhumij communities also rose in revolt against the British rule about the same time. The tales of these uprisings told usually in a few sentences or paragraphs form a part of the general freedom struggle no doubt but in the compilation of their accounts the historians rely mostly on official records. Other source materials, though meager, to be found amongst the tribals themselves, are almost totally ignored. As a result the tribal point of view is not taken into account. A fuller account of these insurrections is therefore yet to be reconstructed. W.G.Archer, a Bihar cadre ICS officer, collected some Santal rebellion songs and published them in the anthropological journal Man in India in 1945. In an essay co-authored by W.J.Culshaw and W.G.Archer and published in the same issue of the journal there is a mention of a memoir -- Chotre Deshmanjhi Reak Katha-- of a Santal who had taken part in the rebellion. It also mentions a novel, Harma's Village, the subject matter of which is the Santal rebellion. No historian is known to have used these sources. In order to be scientific historians may refuse to accept them as valid. The memoir and the songs are first hand accounts and cannot therefore be invalid as historical evidences only because they are by illiterate tribal people. The novel itself was written by a civil servant, R.Castairs, who as Deputy Commissioner served the newly created district for long thirteen years. About the validity of a literary work of this kind as historical evidence one can only cite the views of no less an authority than Toynbee expressed in his A Study of History.
Among the uprisings of the time the Santal Rebellion occupies a unique position because it was caused primarily by economic reasons. The Santals were culturally backward no doubt but they were not the practitioners of scalping, human sacrifices and other savage practices and the new administration's attempts to suppress them did not therefore affect them culturally or socially. They were not a band of freebooters whose opportunities for depredations had come to an end because of the British. Nor were they required to do anything which outraged their religious beliefs and sentiments, as it was in the case of the sepoys of the Bengal Army who feared the loss of their religion when required to go on a campaign across the seas or bite cartridges soaked in cow or pork fat. Their revolt was not so much against the British as it was against the agents of the process which was operating at the time in Damin-i-koh. It was the same process which Marx describes in Part VIII of the first volume of his Das Capital, the process of primitive accumulation preceding capitalist accumulation - the expropriation of the agricultural producer, the peasant, from the soil, which Marx held to be the basis of the whole process of capitalist accumulation. 'The history of this expropriation, in different countries, assumes different aspects, and runs through its various phases in different orders of succession, and at different periods'. In its mature stage of development it becomes a vicious circle in which the labouring masses are caught and are condemned to eternal slavery. The Santals rebelled against such an attempt at their enslavement. Marx's clarion call for revolution, given about the same time that the Santals rebelled, would take years to reach this country. Without the advantage of an acute analysis of their predicament by an ideologue like Marx the Santals themselves seem to have intuitively realized the working of the capitalist process in their society. About the same time the indigo planters had set the same process afoot in other districts of Bengal. But it is a pity that the Santals did not find a Dinabandhu Mitra or a Harish Mukherjee or a Reverend Long to agitate their cause. Again, no other rebellion of the period threw up a revolutionary character like Sidhu. He was not a mere village-Hampden who with dauntless breast withstood the little tyrant of his fields. From whatever little is known about him it appears that by the standards of the Santal society he was a prosperous cultivator and was not personally a victim of exploitation. He had therefore no personal cause or grievance for the redress of which he felt impelled to give leadership to the uprising. This revolutionary character of both the rebellion and its leader seems to have been completely lost sight of and Sidhu's so-called revolutionary countrymen draw their revolutionary inspirations not from his long march but from the long march of a foreign revolutionary.
The storyteller of the novel Aranyak is none other than Bibhutibhusan himself who was a great lover of nature. For some time he actually worked as the manager of a jungle mahal estate owned by a Bengali zamindar in the same area. And he did as the manager of Aranyak did. He was instrumental in the wanton destruction of the sylvan serenity of a vast forest tract. Like the ancient mariner of Coleridge his telling of the story is in atonement of a sin -- a sin committed against the deity of the forest. The expropriation of the Santal was the first act in the exploration and exploitation of Chotanagpur and its surroundings. It was followed by the exploitation of its rich natural and mineral resources and within a short time what was a virgin woodland was turned into a carbonaceous jungle. What the change means particularly to those who have been woodlanders for time immemorial is very difficult, if not impossible, for the modern man, almost completely divorced from nature, to realize. For a fuller understanding of such a change he must listen to the speech which was delivered by the North American Indian Chief Seattle of the Duwamish League in 1854, a year before the Santal rebellion, in answer to President Franklin Pearce whose government had proposed reservations for the Indian tribes of the North-West of the United States:
The Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land.
The Great Chief also sends us words of friendship and goodwill. This is kind of him, since we know that he has little need of our friendship in return. But we will consider your offer. For we know that if we do not sell, the white man may come with guns and take our land. What Chief Seattle says, the Great Chief in Washington can count on as truly as our white brothers can count on the return of the seasons. My words are like the stars'they do not set.
How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us?
Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.
The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man. The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters: the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and man - all belong to the same family.
So, when the Great Chief in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, he asks much of us. The Great Chief sends word he will reserve us a place so that we can live comfortably to ourselves. He will be our father and we will be his children. So we will consider your offer to buy our land. But it will not be easy, for this land is sacred to us.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you land, you must remember that it is sacred, and you must teach your children that it is sacred and that each ghostly reflection in the clear water of the lake tells of events and memories in the life of my people.
The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father. The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes, and feed our children. If we sell you land, you must remember, and teach your children, that the rivers are our brothers, and yours, and you must henceforth give the rivers the kindness you would give any brother.
The red man has always retreated before the advancing white man, as the mist of the mountain runs before the morning sun. But the ashes of our father are sacred. Their graves are holy ground, and so are these hills, these trees. This portion of the earth is consecrated to us.
We know that the white man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. He kidnaps the earth from his children. He does not care. His fathers' graves and his children's birthright are forgotten.
He treats his mother, the earth, and his brother, the sky, as things to be bought, plundered, sold like sheep or bright beads. His appetite will devour the earth leave behind only a desert.
I do not know, our ways are different from your ways. The sight of your cities pains the eyes of the red man. But perhaps that is because the red man is a savage and does not understand.
There is no quiet place in the white man's cities. No place to hear the unfurling of leaves in spring, or the rustle of insects' wings. But perhaps it is because I am a savage and do not understand. The clatter only seems to insult the ears. And what is there to life if a man cannot hear the lonely cry of the whippoorwill or the arguments of the frogs around a pond at night? I am a red man and do not understand. The Indian prefers the soft sound of the wind darting over the face of a pond, and the smell of the wind itself, cleansed by the midday rain, or scented with the pinion pine.
The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath. The white man does not seem to notice the air he breathes. Like a man dying for many days, he is numb to the stench.
But if we sell you our land, you must remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also receives his last sigh. And the wind must also give our children the spirit of life. And if we sell you our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where even the white man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow's flowers.
So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we decide to accept, I will make one condition. The white man must treat the beasts of this land as his brothers.
I am a savage and I do not understand any other way. I have seen a thousand rotting buffalos on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train. I am a savage and I do not understand how the smoking iron horse can be more important than the buffalo that we kill only to stay alive.
What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected.
You must teach your children that the ground beneath their feet is the ashes of our grandfathers. So that they will respect the land, tell your children that the earth is rich with the lives of our kin. Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves. This we know - the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. This we know, all things are connected like the blood which unites one family. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
But we will consider your offer to go to the reservation you have for my people. We will live apart, and in peace. It matters little where we spend the rest of our days. Our children have seen their fathers humbled in defeat. Our warriors have felt shame. And after defeat they turn their days to idleness and contaminate their bodies with sweet food and strong drink. It matters little where we pass the rest of our days - they are not many. A few more hours, a few more winters and none of the great tribes that once lived on the earth, or that roamed in small bands in the woods will be left to mourn the graves of a people once as powerful and hopeful as yours.
But why should I mourn the passing of my people? Tribes are made of men, nothing more. Men come and go like the waves of the sea. Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all, we shall see.
One thing we know which the white man may one day discover. Our God is the same God. You may think that now that you own Him as you wish to own our land. But you cannot. He is the God of man. And His compassion is equal for the red man and the white. This earth is precious to Him. And to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator. The whites, too, shall pass - perhaps sooner than other tribes. Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in your own waste.
But in your perishing you will shine brightly, fired by the strength of the God who brought you to this land, and for some special purpose gave you dominion over this land and over the red man. That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalos are all slaughtered, the wild horses are tamed, the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is it to say goodbye to the swift pony and hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
We might understand if we knew what it was that the white man dreams, what hopes he describes to his children on long winter nights, what visions he burns into their minds, so that they will wish for tomorrow. But we are savages. The white man's dreams are hidden from us. And because they are hidden, we will go our own way.
So we will consider your offer to buy our land. If we agree, it will be to secure the reservation you have promised. There perhaps we may live our brief days as we wish. When the last red man has vanished from the earth, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, these shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people. For they love this earth as the newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So if we sell our land, love it as we loved it. Care for it as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land, as it was when you take it. And with all your strength, with all your might, and with all your heart, preserve it for your children, and love it as God loves us all.
One thing we know, our God is the same God. This earth is precious to Him. Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels give a kind of inventory of the miraculous achievements of the bourgeoisie and in some passages they grow almost lyrical about their ingenuity and enterprise. In the Manifesto they also give warnings about the numerous dangers, both material and spiritual, inherent in the politico-economic system that was emerging as a result of the teachings of the high priests of laissez faire - Adam Smith et al. The promise of the creed propounded by Marx may not have proved fully effectual as a panacea for the malaise from which the civilization born of the industrial revolution suffers but his diagnosis of the disease has proved correct to the letter. His prognosis could not foresee all the evil symptoms which the disease developed as it progressed and today the industrial civilization has arrived at a crisis which humanity finds it almost impossible to handle. The inventive genius of man gave him unimaginable mastery over nature and in proud overconfidence he tinkered with its mysterious processes. Today his technology has proved to be a monster of unmanageable proportions defying all control. The Renaissance let loose the energies of the European nations and infused them with a new vigor. In their march forward they overcame all racial and cultural obstacles and imposed a cosmopolitan culture of their own over the whole world. In their success they forgot that they were causing miseries to other peoples and destroying their cultures, disturbing the delicate balance existing amongst the various aspects of creation and destroying the very conditions which make survival of life on earth possible. With the passage of each day this civilization endangers the whole world and makes the extinction of life that this world supports inevitable. The population explosion, the greenhouse effect and global warming, the pollution of the atmosphere and holes in the ozone layer, the AIDS, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the widening gap between the rich North and the poor South, the danger of famine, the depletion of the biosphere and the mineral resources of the planet, the expansion of commercial TV culture, the armament race and the growing threat of regional wars - these are only a few - represent a general threat to mankind.
Man's moral degeneration has also been almost complete. In his material opulence he has become spiritually bankrupt. He discounts the values which his fathers held most dear. The institutions which his predecessors built and which stood them in good stead for generations are disintegrating. He has become more intelligent and cunning but not wise, more intolerant, more violent and not catholic and kind. Not less barbarous than his primitive forefathers he is the more dangerous because of the enormous destructive powers he has acquired. His vices are many but the greatest of them all is his governing instinct of greed that knows no contentment. He has thoroughly dehumanized himself and become a mere consuming organism. In the words of Rabidranath in the poem Borobudur --
In a paroxysm of perverted greed
Now we know no peace of mind
And our selfish hearts are hard.
Driven by onrushing appetites
Insatiably we run without rest
And our world is ever in a turmoil.
For fresh conquests
Breathlessly we race in an accelerating pace
And aimlessly roam in myriad ways
Failing to reach any destination at last.
Seeking satisfaction for an endless acquisitive urge
We have lighted a flame of omnivorous lust.
Another of his great vices is his arrogance about the infallibility of his own civilization. He has forgotten that compared to the past ages his achievements are not much but meager. In the words of Sir James Fraser, "We stand upon the foundation reared by the generations that have gone before, ... our gratitude is due to the nameless and forgotten toilers, whose patient thought and active exertions have largely made us what we are" and "it argues stupidity or dishonesty, besides ingratitude, to ignore the heap while vaunting the few grains which it may have been our privilege to add to it. There is indeed little danger at present of undervaluing the contributions which modern times and even classical antiquity have made to the general advancement of our race. But when we pass these limits, the case is different. Contempt and ridicule or abhorrence and denunciation are too often the recognition vouchsafed to the savage and his ways. Yet of the benefactors whom we are bound thankfully to commemorate, many, perhaps most, were savages. For when all is said and done our resemblances to the savage are still far more numerous than our differences from him; and what we have in common with him, and deliberately retain as true and useful, we owe to our savage forefathers who slowly acquired by experience and transmitted to us by inheritance those seemingly fundamental ideas which we are apt to regard as original and intuitive. We are like heirs to a fortune which has been handed down for so many ages that the memory of those who built it up is lost, and its possessors for the time being regard it as having been an original and unalterable possession of their race since the beginning of the world. But reflection and enquiry should satisfy us that to our predecessors we are indebted for much of what we thought most our own, and that their errors were not willful extravagances or the ravings of insanity, but simply hypotheses, justifiable as such at the time when they were propounded, but which a fuller experience has proved to be inadequate. It is only by successive testing of hypotheses and rejection of the false that truth is at last elicited. After all, what we call truth is only the hypothesis which is found to work best. Therefore in reviewing the opinions and practices of ruder ages and races we shall do well to look with leniency upon their errors as inevitable slips made in the search for truth, and to give them the benefit of that indulgence which we may one day stand in need of". Modern man is intoxicated by his marvellous scientific and technological achievements. This has made him blind to the danger that he may have committed mistakes and his thoughts and actions may flow into channels which ultimately lead to disaster and barbarism.
A lack of such humility led the European races to look down upon the other races as inferior and sub-human with nothing in their cultures considered as worth preserving and they went out to suppress them ruthlessly. This attitude found its worst expression in their colonization and exploitation of the world and in the Nazi theory of 'master race' and the racial holocaust perpetrated by them during the Second World War. The treatment of the colonial population by other European colonial powers was not much different. Their insatiable hunger for material wealth and power over others caused two great wars in quick succession and the threat of yet another war more barbarous hangs over the human race like the sword of Damocles. The greatest paradox is that modern man knows all these and is well aware of the Nemesis that awaits him, yet he is utterly incapable of doing anything to forestall it. It is not a purgatory which he finds himself in, but a hell of his own making out of which he finds no way of escape.
At this moment of his greatest crisis where will the modern man turn to find the means of his redemption and salvation? Anthropologists justify the study of savage societies on the ground that they give us an idea about our own past. Can these societies help us to save and secure our future too? Modern civilization in its arrogance treats their cultures as bundles of superstitions. Many of them however teach us, for example, that man does not live by bread alone; that greed is a vice which if indulged goes on growing and ultimately devours the consumer also; that one should not covet what belongs to others and that the best way to satisfy one's desires is not by acquisition but through renunciation. Moral values are real and not the figments of our imagination. The nexus of relationship between man and man is not narrow self-interest and a clash of those interests but a community of interests, not competition but co-operation, not hatred and enmity but love and fellow feeling. Reason may not be the only gateway to knowledge and knowledge is not always equivalent to wisdom. Finally, there is a higher principle which is the foundation of all creation and a complete harmony with that principle is the highest state of existence. When any portion of that harmonious whole is lost it affects us all, for, in the words of John Donne, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
So, when the bell tolls for the kingdom of Dobru Panna, it tolls also for us.
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