Santals, Religion, Rebellion: Conversation with Dr. P B Andersen.

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Dr. P B Andersen

 I am very pleased to have Dr. Peter Birkelund Andersen, Associate Professor in the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies in the University of Copenhagen. Dr. Andersen’s main research themes are social changes and changes in religion and culture. In his four years research work in India, he spent a year in a Santhal village where he learned the Santhali language. In 2010 he was in the India Office Library in the British Library studying the records of the Santhal Rebellion of 1855. The main theme of his research on the Santhals is conceptualisations of religion, Christian missions, education, modernity and tribe. Dr. Andersen has published a number of articles in journals and he was also involved in preparing a catalogue of Santhali manuscripts in Oslo.

  1. Dr. Andersen thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us; can you tell us more about your first trip to a Santhali village, what made you interested to conduct research among the Santhals?

I had had an interest in the Tribes of India for a long time many years before my first trip to India I had met Professor Asok K. Ghosh from the Department of Anthropology of Calcutta University when he visited my Professor Arild Hvidtfeldt in Copenhagen in order to set up a joint project involving archaeologists and anthropologists.

So when I came to initiate collections for my diploma Prof. Hvidtfeldt arranged that I could go to Calcutta and conduct my first fieldwork under the guidance of Professor A.K. Ghosh.

It was a great experience Professor Ghosh took me to Dr. Phanindranath Handsa who had done his Ph.D. on Santal Culture and Culture Change under him and I stayed with him for some time before I was installed in another village.

  1. Considering the fact that the higher caste Hindus kept the Santhals completely out of their zone, why is it that in spite of these indignations the Santhals still retained/adopted some of the religious customs, traditions of their Hindu neighbours (which have been documented in the book- Tradition and Institutions of the Santhals)?

To my mind it is very important that the Santals do not accept that they are inferior to other peoples in India. One important aspect is seen in the creation story where the Santals are always created as an independent people, not as a low caste, neither do the Santals accept to be a low caste.

  1. The Santhal Hul of 1855 was clearly an uprising against oppression without any religious fervour. However the agenda of the tribal movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century (Kherwal movement especially) were not only to rid the tribal society from the yoke of oppression, but beyond that a need for social and religious transformation. What led to this resurgence of social and religious purification?

There are many possible explanations. I think that the Hul of 1855 was partly religiously inspired. Sido and Kanhu were Subha Thakur, i.e. the Subas of Thakur (God) and acting under his command. But Sidu and Kanhu as well as the later Babajis stressed that they had a religious message and they wanted to Santals to do away with earlier sinful behaviour. In this way the Hul and the Kherwar movements introduced new abstract moral demands which addressed general rules of ethic rather than earlier times more ritualistic approach to morals. – It gave both movements moral legitimacy and allowed them to forward demands on the colonial government – it seems that both the Subh Thakurs and the Babajis demanded Santal Raj in one way or the other.

Rev. L O Skrefsrud
  1. I find this startling statement by Rev. Skrefsrud (who did so much documenting the Santhali traditions and customs, and the man who wrote one of the first Santhali grammar books) on the Kherwal movement, he says-“sound public flogging, the more Santhal spectators the better…and let it be clearly known that the men are flogged for libelling the Government”. The question is what was so much dangerous about Kherwal movement that turned a missionary into a Government secret agent, or if I try to be little harsh- a messenger of British Imperialism?

I do not know this exact quote from Rev. Skrefsrud which you give, but I know that he was strongly against the Kherwar movement. His attack on the Babajis was that they put forward “rapid socialist claims”, which to him was terrible and he denounced the movement. The time was long before the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 (which led to the Soviet government), but Marxist ideology was well known in Europe and it was the Babajis’ demands for a righteous social situation he attacked. This turned him into an agent of British Imperialism as you say, but one must not forget that the Babajis’ had another religious message than the Christian missions and that Skrefsrud as a Christian missionary was against that as well.

  1. Continuing from the previous question we find that there were strange agreements and disagreements on the tribal question between the British Administrators and the Missionaries. The religion of the Santhals as perceived by the Administrators were animistic, however for the Missionaries what mattered most was the concept of Supreme God. In spite of these differences do you think consciously or unconsciously there was some sort of partnership between the Missionaries and the Administrators, if this theory is true please explain us the nature of this partnership.

There has been much discussion in the history of the Christian missions on as far they were part of the imperial project. You may find statements pro et contra, but I am one of those scholars who have argued against the existence of such a partnership. The approach to the Santals and other groups targeted for mission was definitely different from that of the British Imperialism. First of all the missionaries worked for the social uplift of the targeted populations and which the changing colonial governments of India did not – they were much more focussed on raising the income of the E.I.C. or the Crown of Britain. When this is said there has been some missionaries whom you identify blatant imperialist statements from, but there has also been very different approaches to the people of India among missionaries – so the answer is not simple.

  1. I would also like to mention that the concept of Supreme God, Monotheistic God, and the benevolent Creator was something that the Missionaries were looking for and found in the Santhal ‘Thakur’. Do you think this astonishing equation actually helped the cause of the Missionaries?

It is difficult to say. The Missionaries looked for a conceptualisation of their – somewhat Theist – God, and when they had found some God which had some of the elements they tried to persuade the Santals that they were a kind of Chrisitans already. Seen from the figures of conversion one would say that it did not work as far the most of the Santals never became Christian, but I think that one shall look at the missions so-called success or failure in another light. Like the SubThakurs or the Babajis the missionaries tried to introduce another more abstract kind of ethic. I think that one shall look at the ethics and how far it fits or does not fit the social situation of any given time to understand the background of general changes in confession.

  1. I am quite excited to know about the curious case of Sagram Murmu, who perhaps documented the, “story of the Babajis” and although he had Christian inclination he believed in the powerful Baba’s. Can we say with these evidences that the Santhal society then was by and large syncretic, with time the Santhal society however became conscious about their ‘own religion’ which was distinct from Hinduism, also different from the colonial interpretation of ‘animistic’, but having characteristics of its own as per later census records reveal.

This is a large and difficult question and I am inclined to answer it by a simple, yes, but then I do not offer it the consideration which is needed. I see Sagram Murmu as a man who saw the changes in the surrounding society and that he worked consciously to give the Santals an historical identity as being Santals. In his historical work he states that he wants to establish a printed history which will be more official than the oral history which the Santals have had hitherto. In this way the religion was part of the history as history to Sagram Murmu began with the creation, and even if he may have been a Christian, he led the history of the Santals back to how Thakur had the soil was brought up from the bottom of the Ocean to the back of the Tortoise for the Santals to multiply. He did only mention Hindu castes én passant, and in ways which indicate that they are only present coincidently.

  1. In a letter which I quote from The Colonial Church Chronicle and Missionary Journal July 1847-December 1874, the Lieutenant Governor of Bengal writes to the Bishop of Calcutta, the former mentions of his visit to Santhal country in 1872, and says “I have always been of the opinion that while the Government is pledged to be entirely neutral, and to exert no influences as respect her Majesty’s civilized Indian subjects who have religions of their own, we may exercise a wider discretion in dealing with the simple and primitive aboriginal tribes of the Hills and jungles who have no such religion…and among whom it is a question whether as by roads and clearings and Government establishments we bring them into the World…and also give them a simple and pure religion, through which the destruction wrought by the vices of the people whom we call civilized may be averted. In their case we need not be so much hampered as elsewhere by the necessity of maintaining very rigid neutrality, finding as we do that Christian missionaries are the only people prepared to give education and useful knowledge to the people.” In your observation how far do you think that this arrangement has succeeded?

In general I will say that the Government of India upheld a neutral schooling for the Tribes in Government funded schools. Then the Government also supported other schools, among them some of the schools run by the missions. Here there are many instances of critique of the schools if the missionaries did not keep the focus on teaching but were eager to make conversions. So I have to say that I do not recognise the picture of the quote.

  1. We would like to know about the book which you co-authored with Marine Carrin and Sagram Santosh Kumar Soren-‘From fire rain to Rebellion’, please tell us more about it.

Much can be known from the Introduction, but I may say that it was coincidentally supported by a former Head of Department, Jørgen Skafte Jensen at the Department where I worked as he allowed for the purchase of a microfilm of the fine copy of Rev. Bodding’s collections of manuscripts for his seminal folkloristic work. This copy allowed the three of us to work with the manuscripts in Copenhagen in Denmark and Amiens and Toulouse in France. After our decision on the aim to publish a new selection of the manuscripts it was though extremely important that Santosh K. Soren and Marine Carrin had already carried out lots of work with the manuscripts before we started as it is evident from their publications.

  1. Tell us more about the Santhali manuscripts in Oslo library, the contents, and the significance of these documents, and how as Sagram Santosh Kumar Soren puts it, “restored order out of the chaos”? Is there any possibility that we might see it digitised, in the form of an online library to get wider audience?

As Santosh K. Soren have said the manuscripts are difficult to access as they consists of a collectors copy and a fine copy in a very large collection with over 1.500 different titles. His large work in creating the catalogue of the manuscripts, Santalia, which has registered all the manuscripts in Oslo will enable later scholars a much easier access than before. Some years all of us were part of a petition to the Oslo University that the university would proceed in digitalising all the manuscripts as soon as possible in order to make them accessible for the Santals in South Asia over the WWW (World Wide Web). We can only hope of progress in this regard.

  1. In the final question I would like to ask you, given the Government arrangement to bring the Santhals ‘into the World’, and the Missionaries’ effort for their spiritual and religious development, in the backdrop of frequent rebellions and recurring call for social and religious transformations, in what line do you think the Santhals have developed? Can you please share your observation on this from your personal interactions with the Santhals?

To my mind the Missionaries are important agents of binging the Santals ‘into the World’ in the understanding of bringing education to the Santals. Here there were also a number of neutral Government agents as well as modernisers from other religious persuasions, and in this regard the main result of the Missionaries effort is the education of the Santals. When I look at the large and vibrant literature written in Santali today, this is only one of the results. What I will hope for is that the Santal writers will utilise in the WWW (World Wide Web) and allow for easy transcriptions of their publications in order that anyone can read them in the most easy script in a near future.

Without a doubt the missionaries were the first to bring a massive change in Indian social system. It was for the first time in Indian history that the deprived, ostracized indigenous population such as the Santhals were first introduced to education by the missionaries in an organized and methodical manner. The gift of education had far reaching and immediate consequences, for instance a new generation of Santhals appeared who could read and write. This generation acquainted with reading and writing could produce the literature in written form, an enormous shift from the old practices of passing community tradition through oral means. More than hundred years later as Professor Andersen says, there is a large and vibrant literature written in Santhali in recent time already visible in different media both print and electronic. Professor Andersen also mentions that the objectives of the British Raj and the Missionaries were not the same, and therefore it is not reasonable to place the two institutions on the same line; the key difference was that the British Raj was mainly interested in political domination, income generation, whereas the Missionaries wanted to win the hearts of the colonized by working on social and economic upliftment.

 We thank Professor Andersen for joining us in this engaging conversation and sharing his views with us. We also hope that the priceless manuscripts of Olso Library be digitized in near future so that interested researchers or readers get access to this precious collection.

Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.

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