Book Reviewsl97

WALTER HAWSER, ea., Swami Sahajanand and the Peasants of Jharkhand:A View from 1941, Manohar, 1995 pp. xxiii + 369. Map, Rs 450.


Walter Hauser has added one more feather to his cap by so ably translating,annotating and editing, as the meticulously prepared endnotes and glossaryshow, yet another of Swami Sahajanand Saraswati's little-known tracts,written in 1941, which had remained unpublished so far, Jharkhand keKisan. This work once again establishes Hauser's credentials as the foremost authority on the Swami, his many-faceted life and his movement. TheSwami evolved from a narrow social base when he espoused social reformwithin a caste, into the foremost peasant leader of his time, at the nationallevel. He was keen to promote the cause of the peasant everywhere. Littlewonder he discovered peasants everywhere including the Jharkhand regionwith which he was not adequately familiar. His Jharkhand tract belongs tothe last phase of his life. It is not based on any firsthand. intensive study ofthe tribal history of agrarian struggles and the unique tribal agrarian systemor on extensive contact with the tribal people. It is based on his tours,one of which led him to spend a delightful midnight at Mahuadand, wheretribals, 'scantily clothed', sang and danced around a winter bonfire.


The tract is even today a good introduction to Jharkhand, its geography,culture, including noteworthy qualities of life', and language, the modeand manner of exploitation of tribal people and their resources. The bookis rich in insights. It is almost prophetic in the use of the terms likeJharkhand in 1941, long before the emerging tribal middle class, thenengrossed in Adibasi Mahasabha politics, adopted the Jharkhand name fortheir political party in 1950. Swamiji's use of the concept of Jharkhand wasapparently derived from his knowledge of Sanskrit texts. Interestingly, hederives from such texts words like vankhand or vanshand ( p. 12). He doesnot explicitly locate the term Jharkhand in Sanskrit texts like Chaitanyacharitamrit. or in medieval chronicles, or within the folk and tribal usage ofthis term as evident from the current names of villages or tracts.


The Swami further seeks to reconstruct the identity of Jharkhand peasants(kisan) in the image of the pucca kisans of central Bihar whom he knewonly too well in the course of his struggles and encounters. It is not that hedid not know that the 'peasant' of Jharkhand depended on land and forestand that his rights in forest were being eroded. He identified the criticalissues concerning land and forest in Jharkhand. Yet he failed to relatestructurally the issues of land and those of forest and their close relationship. The tribal peasant of Jharkhand is still both part peasant and partnon-peasant; the two dimensions enmesh in the specific situation of Jharkhand.


Similarly, while the Swami recognises the specific needs of Jharkhandpeasants in terms of a series of administrative, political and social measuresthat he recommends, he argues for the enactment of one agrarian law not


only for the whole of Bihar but also for the application of the BiharTenancy Act with some modifications to Jharkhand (p. 200). The Swami isapparently not much aware of the long-drawn agrarian struggles of thetribals of Jharkhand that had led to the enactment of a series of agrarianmeasures long before the Bengal Tenancy Act was enacted. These strugglesled lo special enactments for the Santal Pargana and Chotanagpur. Heignores not only the tradition of tribal activism (except in case of theTanabhagats) but also the contemporary activities of Theble Oraon on theKisan front in Chotanagpur. The Swami discusses the merits of the localActs and their shortcomings. In some aspects, these provisoes were far tooadvanced. They upheld the principle of inalienability of tribal land, or of'restricted' transfer of land, recognised the tribals' right to reclaim land_which was also traditionally accepted by old zamindars of Chotanagpur_and permitted commutation of pracdial conditions. The agrarian conditionsin Bihar were far too disparate to permit of a single, uniform agrarian law.


Yet there are some unique features of this text. It makes a distinctionbetween the core region of Jharkhand and its periphery, and deals withtheir problems separately. For the first time it draws attention to theproblems of bonded labour in Hazaribagh and Palamau and demands itsabolition. It also demands the abolition of the Tatas' zamindari, whichbecame part of the left agenda later.


However, the tract suffers from some factual errors: Lineage-basedownership of land_he calls it village ownership of land_was not confinedonly to the Santal Pargana, but also existed in parts of Ranchi and Singhbhum; cooperative societies became bankrupt elsewhere but the RomanCatholic Co-operative Society among the Munda and others was a roaringsuccess.


It is further interesting that Swamiji wrote about Jharkhand peasantsand agrarian issues at a time when the tribal leaders of political movementswho demanded autonomy had put the land and forest question on theback burner. In fact, as tribal political aspirations were articulated by theAdibasi Mahasabha and later by the Jnarkhand Party, agrarian issuesreceded into the background. The situation is not very different eventoday, in spite of the rapid erosion of tribal rights in land_and its alienationon a large scale_and in forest. Politics is a strange alchemy, blending andbringing tribals and non-tribals together and in the process diluting tribalissues concerning land and forest. Therefore the publication of this tract_soadmirably updated_is a timely reminder that land and forest questionsconcerning tribal people which are now part of an international agenda onenvironment and indigenous people can no longer be ignored.


K.S. Sir