The Santal way of life is endangered, but the community still perseveres
A young man sits on a fallen tree playing the “tirio,” bamboo flute, in the sunset. The silence of the forest dotted with streams, lakes, and ponds reverberates with the musical notes.
He is a Santal. In the sub-continent, Santals are the third largest tribe, living in West Bengal, Bihar, Odosha, Jharkand, and Assam. Some are also in Bangladesh.
Brave and courageous, they fought a war in 1855 against Lord Cornwallis’ Permanent Settlement. But they are peace-loving people who prefer dancing, music, and creative art. Dance (ene) and traditional music (serang) are an integral part of their lives. Fairs and festivals are embraced with enthusiasm.
After a day of hard work, even the very elderly take part in dancing and music, clad in traditional attire. In the late afternoon, youths gather to make their “madol dhol” and flutes while chattering about their Koram, Aasaria, Maghi, and other festivals.
During Boishakhi Purnima, they become busy hunting animals. Each village has a hereditary headman with a council of elders. Groups of villages form a traditional “pargana” unit. They speak a language called al-chik but can speak Bangla etc with outsiders.
Their houses are decorated with colourful earthen ornaments, copper figures, and wall paintings. They make their own utensils from natural products.
The women love to adorn themselves with coin necklaces, armlets, wristlets, and anklets. Dancing visits are exchanged between villages adding to community harmony.
They are animists and many have named their religion after their villages or “sacred groves.” Marriages are conducted by either negotiation or mutual consent. Divorce is common but not rancorous. Marriage is usually monogamous, and polygamy, though permitted, is rare. Traditionally, members of the same clan do not marry each other.
Their primary occupation is settled agriculture, herding cows, fishing, hunting, and collecting forest produce -- which sustain them for four to five months annually. During lean seasons, many go to work in coal mines or go into carpentry, since most of them are expert carpenters -- this helps them supplement their livelihoods. Unfortunately, locals often exploit the Santals, paying them a pittance, harassing them, or by fostering dissent among them.
In the 1950s, a British anthropologist, and “tribal adviser” to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, stressed that the development of tribals should be gradual and along the lines of their own tradition and culture. This policy was lost in the 1990s, when the relevant segments of the home ministry were replaced by an intelligence bureau stressing on law and order. The winds of change arrived with a sharp edge.
In 2008, exploitation of resources by locals resulted in a violent conflict between the police and Santal youths protesting the government acquiring tribal land for a Kolkata-based company’s power station project. Two Santals were killed and dozens were injured, with no judicial enquiry.
Increasingly, semi-educated young Santals are being lured with money and alcohol by Naxalites and Maoists to be used as human shields in guerrilla warfare against state agencies. Soon, all tribal groups were officially considered ‘‘the biggest internal security threat” in India.
A critical 2006 Planning Commission Report and a Forest Rights Act were both ignored by the government, leaving the Santals, and other tribes, even more vulnerable.
Tribal communities are 8% of India’s population, and 40% are in their 20s or younger. After the 2009 Right to Education Act, enrolment of Santals increased greatly. But the drop-out rate was high. Formal education still has little relevance to their lives.
Population increase has fragmented landholdings, making them too small to sustain a family. Some youths do receive special support and graduate from college, but all too often they move to towns for a middle-class life. Those who are uneducated work in coal mines and quarries before returning homes.
Government agencies, Christian and Hindu organizations, and NGOs implemented various development programs which have made some progress, but efforts for religious conversion create suspicion in the Santal community.
Some Santals have found a personal balance between tradition and modernity. High school teacher Sibu Soren moved from a village in a small town near Santiniketan. But after a few years he missed the cultural ambience of the Santal way of life. So he returned to his village to run a school.
He now publishes a magazine and has formed a Santal drama and music group. The government of West Bengal felicitated him for his contribution to Santal culture. Boro Bokshi is also a teacher and has a PhD in social work. He runs an organisation called “Adivasi Seva” funded by a German NGO. Many more such educated Santal teachers and social workers are needed.
The National Museum of India has promoted Santals and other exquisite tribal craftsmanship using ancient techniques in bronze. I have seen and admired some of their intricate work, which are so much more valuable than the soulless manual labour in coal mines or stone crushing they are subjected to.
Their traditional communal mind-set is innately civilised. The “developed” modern world is drenched in consumerism and social media, which are poor substitutes for the healthy family and community values of the Santals.
The indigenous communities should not only be treated with equal respect as human beings and fellow citizens but be valued as a very useful reminder of the innocent joys of life in simple things.
The bamboo flute played by a Santal youth is now less vibrant and almost faint, but he continues to play for their way of life in the forests and the expanse of the open land.
Selina Mohsin is a former ambassador.