Tribal Peasantry, Millenarianism, Anarchism and Nationalism: A Case Study of the Tanabhagats in Chotanagpur, 1914-25
This paper discusses the evolution of a peasant movement in three phases from the millenarian to the agrarian and the political, and the rise of peasant consciousness among a group of tribal people in Chotanagpur. The process of transformation of tribes, i.e., primitive communities, now scheduled as such under the Constitution of India, into a class of peasantry in the colonial period, has been well researched,1 particularly in relation to the Mundas and Santals, two major tribal communities in Chotanagpur. While imbibing the socio-cultural traits of the peasantry, the tribals revolted against colonial modes of exploitation. The Munda leaders called Sardars, for example, led a constitutional agitation (1858-1894) to regain the land they had lost to the aliens brought in by the colonial administration before 1858. This led to an armed insurrection (1894-1901) under Birsa Munda.2
This sequence of developments repeated itself among the Oraons, the most numerous tribal-peasant community in Chotanagpur. Both the Oraons and the Mundas had participated in the mulkui larai, i.e., the struggle for land, but parted company in the 1880s. However, the core of shared agrarian ideas survived among the Oraons, and was developed by the Tanabhagats from 1915 onwards. Having initially launched a reform movement, the Tanabhagats turned violent in 1918 and joined the freedom struggle in 1921. It is strange that the agrarian component of the Tanabhagat movement is relatively little known compared to its socio-religious and political dimensions.^
Like the Mundas, the Oraons were exposed to the medieval bhakti movements. A number of bhakti or bhagat sects came into existence among them. There were Bachchidan bhagats who took their vow by touching a calfs tail or by presenting cows to Brahmins; they also made offerings to the Hindu deities, Devi or Durga, but they were not yet puritanical enough to give up the use of jewellery and bordered clothes.4 Next only to such traditions of Hindu influence, was the immediate impression on the Oraons5 created by Birsa Munda and his movement. Birsa was the 'god* (bhagwan) of Chotanagpur and not only
* Director, Anthropological Survey of India.