In search of an identity

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Jharkhand: Politics of Development and Identity by Amit Prakash; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2001; pages 382, Rs.525.

THE formation of Jharkhand State in November 2000 indeed constituted an important recognition of the aspirations of a people and the pluralities of India. The structure of `internal' exploitation, where Indians also exploited the people of the Jharkhand region in the colonial past, has been brilliantly portrayed in Mrinal Sen's Mrigaya. The sarkar-sahukar-zamindar nexus - with the `brown' sarkar taking over in 1947 - was marked by a degree of continuity, with Jharkhand emerging as a `colony' of Bihar. This factor, among a host of other complexities related to development, formed the basis for an identity and a search for a political space. These are the features that Amit Prakash explores over the 1951-1991 period.

The author begins by outlining the theoretical concerns and premises related to his study. Here he underlines the relevance of being sensitive to the pluralities and specificities while examining features such as ethnic and national identities. Although he uses a host of sources, he emphasises the need to look at them critically and the importance of doing fieldwork in the region. Premised within such a framework, Prakash studies Jharkhand, which has a large Adivasi and unevenly distributed Dalit population and was the resource base and the `internal colony' of pre-2000 Bihar.

The second chapter - Tribal areas of Bihar in independent India: A legacy of colonial discourse - outlines the importance of the tribal tracts of eastern India stemming from their mineral resources. Colonial paternalism negotiated with them by directly managing the mineral resources and simultaneously excluding the tribal elite from playing any significant role. This was the fall-out of the twin policies of protecting and `civilising' the region. Discussing the policy of super-exploitation designed to siphon out resources from the area, Prakash delineates the way the policy of exclusion was formulated. Kept under district officers, these Adivasi tracts saw laws that were different and supposedly aimed at protecting and preserving their ethos; they sought to restrict the entry of non-tribal people and strengthen tribal leadership.

Various revolts and movements, including the rebellion of the Kols, Santhals and Mundas, led to some re-thinking of this policy, but the basic framework of `exclusion' continued by means of the Government of India Act, 1919, and the Simon Commission (1928). After Independence, although the legacy of colonialism survived in the Constituent Assembly, some shifts were noticeable. These included the attempt to claim better treatment for Adivasis and the acceptance of their distinct identity, instead of just pitying them. This strand remained marginalised in the dominant paternalist/`integrationist' nationalist model, which was marked by a reluctance to delegate powers to local bodies.

What is distressing is that there seems to be a continuity in the approach of `civilising' Adivasis, locating `development' (as defined by the mainstream) and `integration' as extremely desirable and believing that the `majority community' needs to protect Adivasi customs. Although this marks the triumph of colonial hegemony in post-colonial India, Prakash is clear in locating the problem also as a part of the nationalist agenda, which accorded a very low priority to the Adivasi question. One can perhaps see in all this a possible meeting point between colonial, nationalist and right-wing fascist positions in contemporary India.

The next chapter profiles the ups and the downs of the Jharkhand movement. The colonisation of the region and the introduction of permanent settlement saw the undermining of the pre-colonial system and the beginning of major shifts and changes. These included the emergence of industrial activity, large-scale mining and conflict points, which were centred on the notion of the `outsiders'. The situation became even more complicated after Independence, given the unresolved nature of the tribal question. When it came to the Jharkhandi identity, the Indian state could neither ignore the Jharkhand movement, which threatened its legitimacy (as it was based on popular support), nor accept the demand for a Jharkhand State. As Prakash puts it, various methods were tried, including attempts to crush the movement, co-opt some leaders and emphasise poverty alleviation and development.

It was against this background that the Jharkhand Party came into existence as a political party in 1950. This marked the culmination of a process through which the Adivasi identity - which drew upon the uniqueness of the region's Adivasi heritage - carved out a regional identity for itself. This process was inclusive when it came to non-Adivasis, which served to expand its social base and geographical scope. As delineated, this was possible since the exploiting classes were offered the possibility of emerging as the political elite of the region.

This was the background to the emergence of the Jharkhand Party as a major political force in the region, which implied an increase in its bargaining power and saw the beginning of its major campaigns for the creation of the Jharkhand province. However, the 1960s saw a decline of the Jharkhand Party, precipitated by its merger with the Congress.

The late 1960s saw the emergence of the working class and Left politics in the region. Efforts to unite the working class with the Adivasi peasants led to the emergence of political alternatives, associated with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as well as with naxalism. This process was to see a greater emphasis on the concept of tribal autonomy, and link the issue to the theme of exploitation of Adivasis. It also paved the way for the formation of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Marxist Coordination Committee (MCC).

Prakash highlights the JMM's efforts to mix radicalism and social reform, for example promoting abstinence from liquor, which had ruined Adivasis financially, fighting for literacy and introducing agrarian reform measures such as collective farming and indigenous credit institutions to help the rural poor. The Emergency (1975-77) of Indira Gandhi's semi-fascist regime undermined the Jharkhand movement by targeting all non-Congress political activity.

From the late 1970s the Jharkhand movement went through advances and retreats. It gained strength with the formation of a united front made up of different Left groups and political bodies of the region. At the same time, ideological conflicts centred around whether the workers or the peasants should lead the movement, not only caused confusion but also led to suspicion among Adivasis and saw a revival of the efforts to drive out all "dikus", including the workers. This perhaps led to a realisation of unity that saw a coming together of 62 cultural and political organisations in 1987. As Prakash observes, the search for a Jharkhand State would have been achieved much earlier if the movement had not been affected by divisiveness, lost opportunities, ideological fluidity and inept leadership.

In two subsequent chapters, Prakash profiles Jharkhand's developmental profile over two phases - 1950 to 1970 and 1970 to 1990 - in great detail. These chapters provide vital clues to grasp the magnitude of the problem since they include a number of tables that sustain what the author seeks to project. Here Prakash delineates graphic details related to land area and population, the Adivasi and Scheduled Caste population, infant mortality, agricultural production, land improvement loans, medical institutions, expenditure on primary education, agricultural income tax, sales tax, occupational patterns and so on. The comparative figures, meticulously provided for both Jharkhand and Bihar, are extremely valuable to construct aspects of development, with an emphasis on the human component. As observed, while many development indicators had deteriorated in the period between 1950 and 1970, the few sectors that did show some development were marked by a much slower rate of growth, compared with Bihar as a whole. The trend continued through the period between 1970 and 1990 and the public policy machinery failed to benefit the masses in the region.

Prakash is critical of the `remarkable insistence' of the policy planners to increase the amount of money invested in the region without evaluating the inefficiency of the delivery system, which sapped the successful implementation of `balanced plans'.

Set against this perspective, chapters six and seven focus on issues of development, autonomy and identity. While conducting his interviews in 1996 the author encountered popular perceptions that articulated desires of both autonomy and development. As he aptly puts it, the failure of the Indian state's delivery system in Jharkhand has contributed significantly to the polarisation of the Jharkhandi identity.

Political sociologists, historians and social scientists in general, as well as policy planners will find this book valuable, especially since it focusses on an ongoing process. While remaining sensitive to a host of human issues, it critiques the way that the post-colonial Indian state has negotiated with unresolved questions related to Adivasis and the process of uneven `development'. After all, the formation of the State of Jharkhand has not resolved many issues in the region or in many other parts of India.

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