Dr. Asoka Sen Interview

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This year on the 159th anniversary of the Santhal Rebellion we have invited scholars/academicians to contribute articles related to Santhal community. We hope through this endeavour we can portray some valuable works done by scholars on the Santhals. Our intention is to make the articles/interviews open source so that anyone can access these useful information easily.

Today we are pleased to have Dr. Asoka Kumar Sen to talk about Santhal Rebellion and the Santhals in general. Dr. Sen is an alumnus of Tata College, Chaibasa, Patna College and Patna University. Dr. Sen taught History at Tata College, Chaibasa, Singhbhum West, Jharkhand and retired from the institution as University Professor in 2002. Presently an Independent Researcher, Dr.Sen is also the Editor of online Journal of Adivasi and Indigenous Studies. He was awarded a fellowship at the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics in 2004. He also worked as a Researcher for Sussex University, UK from 2005-07 on a British Academy Project. Dr. Sen is the author of From Village Elder to British Judge: Custom, Customary Law and Tribal Society (Orient BlackSwan, 2012), Representing Tribe: The Ho of Singhbhum during Colonial Rule (Concept Publishing Company, 2011), Bengali Intelligentsia and Popular Uprisings 1855-73 (Firma KLM Pvt Ltd. Calcutta, 1992) and The Educated Middle Class and Indian Nationalism (Progressive Publishers, Calcutta, 1988). He has contributed research papers to leading Journals and edited volumes including South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Indigenous Affairs. Journal of International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, Copenhagen; D.Kumar, V.Damaodaran and Rohan D’Souza (eds), The British Empire and the Natural World: Environmental Encounters in South Asia, Oxford University Press and D.J.Rycroft and S.Dasgupta(eds.), The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi. Routledge, England.

  1. Sen, thank you for taking the time to speak with us, my first question is what made you interested in tribal research?

Initially, my area of research was the Role of Educated Middle class of Bengal in the growth of Nationalism in Bengal between 1800 and 1885. This earned me the degree of Ph.D. from Patna University under the supervision of Dr. K.K.Datta. Later my interest in tribal research grew. After I published Popular Uprisings and Bengali Intelligentsia 1855-73 in 1994, I fully shifted to adivasi history. This occurred mainly because of the inspiration of my father, Sunil Kumar Sen, who advised me to take up tribal studies. He believed that this way I would be able to pay back the debt to the soil I am born.

  1. I am interested in one of your first papers presented- The Santhal Uprising of 1855-56 and the Contemporary Newspapers, Seminar on Socio-Economic History of the Tribal Region of Eastern India. We would like to know more about its content.

The above paper was subsequently revised as a chapter of my book on Popular Uprisings and Bengali Intelligentsia 1855-73. The essay makes an analysis of how the educated middle class of Bengal represented the memorable event. The newspapers, they edited, were able to give publicity to this event and help it transcend its regional character. They sought to apprehend its cause, character and expanse. They could reason that substantial injuries had forced a ‘peaceable and honest race’ to take up arms. They could underline its basic civil character, strength of organisation and leadership, as also the undaunted bravery and military capabilities of insurgents. They critiqued the brutal acts of anti-insurgency and reprisals perpetrated by the British officials. But this cannot exonerate their failure on different points. Firstly, like colonial officials, they also subscribed to the colonial conspiracy theory that evoked the comment that a simple race had been committed to insurrection ‘by fanaticism infused into them by ambitious leaders.’ Secondly, they glossed over the baneful role of the zamindars and moneylenders. Thirdly, they failed to portray the unholy nexus of sarkar, sahukar and zamindar. Further, they put focus on the barbarities of the insurgents whom they castigated as savage, barbarian, uncivilised and roguish people. On the whole, they failed to show the same amount of sensitivity to Santhal uprising as they had shown to the Indigo Uprising of 1859-60 and Pabna Rent movement of 1872-73.

  1. What is your impression on the various newspaper reports during the time of the Rebellion? Do you find the reports to be biased or the violence was so high that there was little room for sympathetic attitude towards the plight of the Santhals?

Generally speaking, incidence of violence so overwhelmed educated Bengalis that they were often myopic in their evaluation of the Santhal Hul as contemporary newspapers edited by them showed. One reason for this was that rebels targeted Bengali landlords, moneylenders, traders and officials. But other factors were firstly, that this section, which abjured violence and toed the path of legalism as a means of agitation, were against the anti-legal and violent Santhal rebellion. Bengali intelligentsia did not support Santhal insurgency as this sought to found the Santhal Raj replacing the colonial rule to which they were loyal. But yet they no doubt evinced some concern for the benighted tribals as narrated above.

  1. What is your assessment on the observations/writings of L.S.S O’Malley and Captain Sherwill on the Santhal Rebellion?

Since the question does not specify particular observations, I shall make a broad historical overview. Sherwill and O’Malley’s writings were temporally distanced, written during and long after the Santhal Rebellion. The former, due to contemporeinity, was more elaborate and empirically very rich. This has therefore been the principal source for D.J.Rycroft’s Representing Rebellion. O’Malley is obviously sketchy, and because of the temporal distance his account drew on other sources. Sherwill makes both visual and literary representations of Santhals before and during the event. O’Malley on the other hand presented merely an ethnographic literary account. Some of the observations of Sherwill made considerable difference from the generally ethno-centric representation of the adivasis by colonial ethnogrphers/ officials. He drew our attention to the fact that before making any attack on the enemies, insurgents warned them in advance. This showed that they gave them opportunity much in advance to make good their escape, an instance that proved that they were not as brutal and blood-thirsty as others wanted us to believe. Secondly, he focussed on their corporate solidarity through equal sharing of the loot and lack of arbitrariness in the distribution of reward. Lastly, he underlined their ecological sensitivity that prompted them to fasten a tuft of straw to a tree as a signal to avoid decimation of trees in a jungle. O. Malley was also somewhat detached and objective in his assessment of the insurgency and insurgents. He drew attention to the fact that Santhal rebellion was the product of grievous wrong that imperialists and their stooges caused on an otherwise simple and inoffensive people. He appreciated their ‘yearning for independence’, chivalry and sense of discrimination. It is true that both of them were critical of the atrocities perpetrated by the Santhals, these otherwise stray but significant information of Santhal character and corporate conduct should inspire a reassessment of adivasi uprisings.

  1. Talking about Santhal uprisings- the Great Uprising in 1855, Bhagirath Manjhi’s movement in 1874, and of course Jitu Santhal’s movement in the period between 1924-32 there is something common as I see it, an explicit thrust to follow a divine order. In fact it played a very significant role in all these movements. How do you see it as a necessary driving force or in any other perspective?

Answer to this should be sought in the entire gamut of mobilising strategy adopted by Santhal insurgents. They took recourse to both secular and religious modes. These included seeking the blessings of local deities, as also bringing out communal fishing and hunt, circulation of battle-arrow, sal and jack branches and oil-vermillion, beating of drums to transmit message and mobilise fellowmen. But in order to strengthen the support base, rebel leaders needed to assure their credulous brethren that this was divinely blessed and so sure to achieve success. This way not only Sidu, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav, but also the like of Poto Sardar and Birsa Munda followed, what you call, divine order, and tried to emerge as the messiah of the oppressed. This messianic element in tribal movements more or less distinguished them from the legal and constitutional course of action, through the press, petition and public association, adopted by the educated section.

  1. The humanist views of Vidyasagar, Vivekananda, and Rabindranath Tagore offered a new identity to the Santhals. In their eyes the Santhals occupied a seat which was never presented, what is your view on this change in perspective.

Humanistic attitude of Vivekananda, Rabindranath and Vidyasagar was a significant change from the general apathy that the Bengali intelligentsia felt for tribals. Vivekananda’s tour through the country, Rabindranath’s Santiniketan days and Vidyasagar’s living in Karmatanr in Santal Pargana brought them close to the Santhals.  This was reflected in Vivekananda and Rabindranath’s writings that stressed that India did not belong to the high and mighty; marginalised constituted no less important component of nation’s body fabric and their uplift should be the bounden duty of our nation. Rabindranath translated his above ideas through his programmes of rural reform.  This change in their attitude has been impacted by their physical and mental proximity, no less by the breadth of their heart. This significantly set them apart from most of their educated compeers who hardly felt any commonality with the cause represented by the adivasis of Chotanagpur, Santhal Parganas, Bhagalpur and Birbhum. This was why the national movement they started and led more or less advocated their class interests.

  1. A section of anthropologists and sociologists argue that the “conversion” of Adivasis to some other religion change their basic identity, and make them ignore their own culture. On the other side if I take the example of the Bengalis, and the “Language Movement” where Bengalis placed community above religion, which ultimately led to the liberation of Bangladesh; I grow doubtful about the statement mentioned above. What is your view on this? I asked this question to Dr. Rycroft in the interview with him, I would like to have your opinion on this as well.

Conversion to other religion had caused socio-religious cleavage in adivasi societies. This has no doubt dissipated their homogeneity and solidarity. This has also given rise to religious identity assertion in the form of advocacy for Sarna religion to counter the spread of Hinduism and Christianity among adivasis. But this impact seems overblown if we study the nineteenth and twentieth political upsurge, in which Christian adivasis pioneered separate statehood for adivasis and advocated for material and moral advancement of their fellowmen. Moreover, we have the instance of the like of Ruben Kisku Rapaj, Dhirendranath Baskey and Theodore Kisku Rapaj, to name some, who promoted adivasi culture and history through their writings.

  1. During 1855 the Santhal society was more or less a homogenous class, but today the scenario is bit different, now we have upper class, middle class in economic terms. I can be accused of taking a Marxist perspective, but have the evolution of these classes in any way affected the Santhal society?

My study of the history of Ho society reveals that the notion of equality and homogeneity among tribals has been overemphasised. Though adivasi societies, including Santhals, were not as much stratified as the neighbouring non-tribal societies, socio-economic cleavages were there. But the impact of this cleavage causing disunion during several tribal movements in the county has not, to the best of my knowledge, been researched intensively. We cannot perhaps ignore that in post-independence decades this cleavage has widened to create class-type heterogeneity. This no doubt alienates this section from the common mass. This is visible in the modern-type substantial houses they live, their life style and attitude to life in general. This section prefers to locate them in cities and metropolitan centres rather than clinging to their ancestral villages. New generation among them do not even speak their tongue.  But this is a generic phenomenon that affects other societies across countries.

  1. You have studied about the history and culture of the Adivasis for a long time. Have the life, struggle and beliefs of these people anyway affected your own view of life?

I have been in tribal/adivasi studies for more than four decades. This has convinced me that they have not been given the space that they deserve in history. This has motivated me to more intensively research archival and oral sources to reconstruct their role in history. I should admit that studying adivasi history has developed into a fulfilling engagement of my post-retirement life. Moreover, my acquaintance with adivasi culture has informed me that their worldview, particularly their simplicity, lack of acquisitiveness, secularism and carefree mundane existence, from which unfortunately they are fast deviating, can pose an alternative for so called advanced societies dominated  often by insensitivity, avarice and rabid materialism.

            It is an honour and privilege to talk with someone who has spent four decades working with the Adivasis. Dr. Sen’s profound interest on the Adivasis is reflected in the answers to the questions. He agrees that with time Adivasi society has become economically heterogeneous and a section of people have been separated from their roots. Consequently, the simplicity, worldview, secularism, for which an Adivasi society was looked upon with admiration, are indeed fast disappearing, and in most cases replaced by selfishness and materialism of urban life. Coming back to Dr. Sen’s observation on the conversion of Adivasis, he rightly asserts that although conversion to other religion has brought differences among them, yet in a wider arena some pioneering converts have left an indelible mark in promoting Adivasi culture and history. With this, we express thanks to Dr. Sen for taking the time to join us in the conversation, and we wish him all the best in his ongoing and future research works.

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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