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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Oraon Plantation Labour Agitation in the Duars: Remembrance of a centenary

Monday 26 December 2016

by Tapan Bandyopadhyay

“Gajio Me Boo Rahegi Jab Tak Iman Ki/Tab To London Tak Chalegi Teg Hindustan Ki.” — Bahadur Shah Jafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, refusing to ask for clemency and mercy

Historians and chroniclers of all hues have written, analysed and formed their own pet theories about various peasant revolts in the Indian subcontinent beginning 1760 (after the Plassey defeat of Siraj-ud-daulah at the hands of the East India Company in 1757) extending upto the post-independence days (1949-52). Even small skirmishes in the 1960s and 1970s of the last century did not go unnoticed. But strangely enough the Oraon labour agitation of 1915-16, though celebrating its centenary this year, has been forgotten almost totally, barring a few commentaries here and there.

Ranajit Das Gupta, Professor and a historian of renown, soft-spoken mild-mannered gentle-man and Communist of the old school and our elderly comrade, took-up the issue and presented a well-documented and researched article in the Economic And Political Weekly. We will be hereinafter profusely quoting from that article.

I

It all started with the Tana Bhagat movement which originated among the Oraon peasants, in settled agriculture in the Ranchi district (then in Bihar, now in Jharkhand) in April 1914. The leader of the movement was one Jatra Oraon who dreamt mysterious dreams. The Oraons were called upon to ‘pull out’ (tana) the ghosts and evil spirits who were the cause of their misery. They were asked to abstain from meat, hedia (local distillation from rice or mahua/jata), community dances and festivals. The Oraons were also told to give up ploughing their fields as a protest of some sort against the exploiting landlords and as a demand for resoration of their age-old system of pre-settled form of agriculture. Some of the tana bhagats even stopped paying rents to their landlords. It was, in essence, a ‘Messianic’ movement which, the Oraons believed, the God (in their language- Dharmesh, the Just) in his bounty would send a messiah to redeem the Oraons from their miserable plight caused by the Zamindars, the Mahajans, and the Sarkar (the government).

II

It was the advent of World War I and the Messiah, according to the Oraons, was none other than the German Emperor. Their hatred for the British occupiers was so strong that they dreamt, thought and worked upon a single thesis of “German Baba”, who would come and destroy the Britishers and redeem the Oraons, once for all, from all shackles.

But the Colonial Government was not a silent spectator. They tried to read the mind of the Oraon peasant community and apprehended that the movement was for acquiring a “Golden Age’, that is, bringing back the Oraons’ past before the dikus (outsiders and gentlemen) came into their lives and confiscated their land. The manifestations of the revolt were manifold but directed towards a single goal: annihilation or uprooting symbols of ‘Modern civilisation’, such as railways, steamboats and bicycles which had to be pulled out (tana) or expelled, as the sufferings of Oraons came in the wake of the introduction of those symbols of modernity. What the Oraons did in Ranchi was total rejection of colonial capital and associate contrivances.

The reverberations of the movement in Chhotanagpur (Ranchi was a small capital town of the district in the then Bihar, now it is the capital city of the Jharkhand State in the Indian Union) ‘soon came to be heard in the distant Duars’ (foothills of the Eastern Himalayas in Bengal, renamed after partition as West Bengal).

And there lies another peculiarity of the movement which differed from other tribal agitations or peasant revolts. Among the tribal people working as wage-labourers, the Oraons in particular had a tendency to go to their homeland more often than not. The Oraon migrants, devoid of their own land, were double the number of Munda and the Santhal migrants taken together. In a Report on Survey and Settlement in the Ranchi district for a time period encompassing 1902-10, Reid, the Settlement Officer, had to say: “A Large number of those who migrate to Assam and Duars return, if they are able to save a little money, and buy back the farm they have lost, or some land in the vicinity.” He continued his report thus: “A considerable percentage of the emigration is periodic and non-permanent. (emphasis added) The Oraons especially emigrate in large numbers—during the cold weather, when there is little or no work to do in their fields and return home before the monsoon breaks, to begin cultivation on their fields.”

All said and done, the movement of the Oraon labourers’ agitation in the Duars had not been a mere replication of the Tana Bhagat movement of the Ranchi area. The Duars Oraon Plantation Workers’ movement had a distinctive character and imprint of its own.

1916 being the virulent year of World War I, the colonialists were suffering from the fear of a juju (spectre) that if supplies from the colonies, especially India, were depleted (as it did) they would suffer enormously. The Duars Planters Association’s (DPA) Chairman, in his address at the Annual General Meeting held in January 1917, spoke of the “Great Anxiety” caused to the European Planters by the outbreak of the revolt of ‘a new and dangerous movement amongst the Oraons’ in the early months of 1916. The anxiety and fear spreaded and penetrated so far and so deep that the Bengal Government’s Report on the Administration for 1916-17 had perforce to say that the labourers of several gardens were ‘said to be eschewing meat and strong drink (Heria or Chullu — added) and singing songs containing references to a German Victory’. (Ranajit Dasgupta’s article, Economic and Political Weekly, September 30, 1989)

III

There were two phases of the agitation, though these were not compartmentalised and hence overlapped. In the first phase, it was primarily a socio-religious reform movement. The persons who passed through an initiation (almost like upanayan or thread wearing ceremony of the Brahmin boys) ceremony were called Bhagats or devouts. “Their utensils were destroyed, and drinking of Hari (rice beer the drinking of which was an important part of tribal social life) and Daru (country liquor) were prohibited. All meat, except white goat and white fowl, became taboo. Those Oraons who did not go through the ceremony were excommunicated and the fear of social boycott perhaps persuaded many Oraons to join the movement.”

But the movement suddenly took a sharp turn towards the next phase, the basic feature of which, very interestingly, had an anti-plantation, anti-British content though infused with elements of Oraon-religiosity. This latter aspect was the main factor that gave the agitation a wide appeal amongst the Oraon Plantation wage-labourers. According to the official version, the Duars movement of the Oraons had a definite political orientation from the very beginning.

There was a secondary aspect too of the movement which could evoke further and newer analysis and interpretation from future and competent historians. Though, by and large, the agitation remained peaceful in its journey, it was in this phase that it exhibited a relatively sharp militant stance. Moreover, being a predominantly Oraon workers’ movement it differed from the Tana Bhagat agitation in that the former did not let other tribals stand aloof. Several non-Oraon tribal and semi-tribal groups joined the battle of regaining their independence from the foreign-hold on their land, livelihood and lives.

The plantation-owners were so perturbed about the puja and ‘mysterious chant’ that they rushed to the authorities (here the police) for redressal as, according to the planters, the chant was seditious and brought severe turmoil amongst the Oraon labourers. During January and March 1916, the police arrested a few Oraons, Bania Oraon, Laudha Oraon and Mangra Oraon, the leading lights of the movement, and prosecuted them for “holding secret meetings at nights and singing hymns to one ‘German Father’ (emphasis added) whom they invoked as if he was a God, calling on him to come and drive out the English, whom they compared to Devils, and give an independent Raj to the Oraons’. The members of the DPA were so much agitated and frightened that one member of the Committee told: “... there was a secret movement with a vow to exterminate the Sahibs. The vow was sworn by God, Germany and Blood.” (DPA report for 1915-16, pp. 285-86.)

IV

That no stir was visible and no ripples were there amongst the middle class Bengali intelligentsia who were vociferous against the zamindars and the violent and vicious treatment meted out to the agitating tribals elsewhere is not totally untrue but not the “whole truth”. The nationalist English daily from Calcutta, Amrita Bazar Patrika, in its editorial dated May 10, 1916, observed that “... among such a large a population not a single act of violence or rowdyism ...was reported.” emphasis added) But that was all. The nationalist revolutionary streams from ‘the bhadralok’ section of the Bengalis, though believing that Germany would help them eradicate the British colonialiast rule, took no count of the Oraon Plantation Workers’ movement and lost track of it altogether.

‘The collective mobilisation of the agitated tribal labourers’ by the Oraons.... ‘led to a frontal confrontation with the authority’, meaning the DPA and the police. Many arrests were made and a Special Tribunal was formed under the Defence Of India Act to try the ‘ring leaders’. More than the authority, the British planters were shaken to their bones by the anti-British call of the Oraons and invoking of the “German Baba” so much so that at the request of the DPA Chairman and law (British) having been found not responsive to their demand for eviction of the Oraons by the Tribunal, the police wrote back that ‘such Oraons who have been given land or jotes, or whose relations settled in the Jalpaiguri District should not be allowed to call themselves Permanent Settlers of this district and to this end it is most desirable that grants of land to them, or to their near relations should be withdrawn.’ (Ranajit Dasgupta, op.cit.)

There was no further agitation in the Jalpaiguri district tea garden Oroan wage-labourers.

There are a few versions about the character of the Oraon tea-labourers’ agitation in the Duars (1915-16). But our story, in the final analysis, bespeaks of three main features of the struggle which showed a distinct liberatarian approach of the tribal Oraon community a hundred years ago.

It was, fundamentally, an indigenous and self-determined agitation, that is, no outside or non-tribal leadership was there at all. “It was an instance of self-mobilisation based on tribal solidarity.” There was a call to drive away the Malandalan, the evil spirit or the British Raj and in the same way the Germans were thought of, as being the enemy’s enemy, the Liberator (the Dharmesh). It is interesting to that during the same time-frame in history, the nationalist revolutionaries in Bengal and some other parts of India thought in the same way.

Another feature which attracts attention was the agitation’s anti-planter raj direction, where their fight, though not fully developed, against Capital, remained in the main the last fight towards man’s (and woman’s) emancipation from all sorts of exploitation for all time to come.

V

Though a continuation of the Messianic movement of the Chhotanagpur Tana Bhagat, the Oraon Tea-Plantation Workers’ agitation was a much more radical struggle as it moved against the capitalist class and British imperialism at the same moment of time and space. It was a more radical movement than any other tribal agitation insofar as it took in its fold non-Oraon tribals like the Mundas, Mahalis, Golas and Telis as well. Hence, this was short-lived but totally new type of tribal agitation which saw not only vertically but also horizontally linked mobilisation of the working class forces.

The author is a well-known Left intellectual associated with the Kolkata Marx Circle.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62