Books | Tuhin Sinha, author of The Great Tribal Warriors of Bharat

I Don’t Think That a Sense of Alienation Which May Have Existed a Decade Ago, Exists Anymore

Since so little material is available on these tribal leaders, what was the most difficult part of writing this anthology?

Writing about subaltern history or recording a part of history that has not been documented with authenticity is always a challenge. Both, my co-author Ambalika and I were aware of it. I am not a professional historian, so I was aware of the limitations of that front also. We have quite essentially referred to the research papers on freedom fighters. There is immense material in public domain on freedom fighters who belonged to the later part of the movement. We have documented stories starting 1784 but as we come to the more recent movement, especially the 20th century for example, Alluri Raju, who led a movement in parts of present state Andhra Pradesh, or of we refer to Komaram Bheem, or Dashriben Chaudhury, who was a Gandhian by nature and who dedicated her life to Gandhian pursuits, or if you refer to Jaipal Munda, a lot of material was available on these freedom fighters who belonged to the later part of the freedom movement. We have done a mix of various resources. Not only have we referred to research papers, where not enough was available in public domain. My co-author was in touch with some of descendants of the more recent freedom fighters. Helen Lepcha was one of the freedom fighters covered in the book. She again was Gandhian, who played a crucial role in shielding Shubhash Chandra Bose when he was in hiding. We followed different modes of digging out information. The stories are short because we were conscious of the fact that it is better to keep a story short than to reveal information which cannot fully be authenticated. The book intends retelling of stories with a ready reckoner of sorts for the present generation who are not aware of a parallel freedom movement which existed but was never brought to the fore.


What was the criteria in selecting these 17 names and no more or no less?

We have tried to be as inclusive as possible. Three of the stories are from the northeast, five are from present Jharkhand and Bihar, one story is from Orissa and there are stories from every part of the country. This has been the first collection of its nature. While experimenting with this new domain, we were conscious that we did not want it to be a very lengthy book and specifically because we wanted to bring it out this year, when India celebrates her 75th Independence Day.


Would it be fair to say that for tribal in India, resistance to outsiders was resistance to outside influences and invasion of their way of life? And in some form this resistance continues till this day?

In fact, the freedom movement in the tribal areas was very layered. Essentially the Britishers would operate from their head offices located in the cities or the main administrative blocks. For example, in the Bengal province, the main administrative centre would be Ranchi. Nearly hundred kilometres away from the city, they would not really be aware of what we had in the interiors because they led a lavish lifestyle in the cities. The atrocities of the administration of the larger plan of keeping the Indian population subjugated in the tribal areas was largely outsourced to different people like the feudal landlords, who would indulge in financial suppression and from the 1850s prominently, it was the missionaries who were brought in with the purpose to inflict cultural subjugation upon the Indian population. The Britishers essentially employed a mix of financial suppression and a cultural subjugation especially in the tribal and subaltern areas.

In terms of whether the resistance continues till date, it’s a complex question because in the last ten years, there has been an enormous attempt to involve the tribal population into the mainstream. Yes, a sense of victimization was there in certain quarters but that has been largely corrected in the last ten years. At the same time the tribal population has been the most vulnerable given the conversion activity. Today, predatory proselytization exists in certain parts of the country. Every now and then it comes to the fore due when you hear of a student committing suicide for being forced and harassed to convert.

At the same time, until a few years ago, they were also being lured by Naxals so when one thinks of that, I think a lot of the government schemes like bringing tap water to every house in the country, or construction of toilets or rural electrification, all of these have eventually given a robust sense belonging to the tribal population. I don’t think that a sense of alienization which may have existed a decade ago, exists anymore. In fact, India having received her first tribal woman as President is going to have a huge impact, which will be witnessed in the decades to come. There could have been a better way to involve the Adivasi population/ Vanvasi population into the mainstream and make them more aspirational about the country.


Jamshedpur is perhaps one of the best examples of implanting urbanity and modernity in the middle of an impoverished tribal region. Growing up in Jamshedpur, were you conscious of being surrounded by the tribal population? What was the social interface between the city-dwellers and the forest dwellers?

Jamshedpur is a good mix of urban and tribal population. The tribal population may have had their origins in forests, but now when they live in the middle of the city, they coexist with the urban population. The fact that there are many places in Jamshedpur which have their names after tribal leaders. There is a locality in Jamshedpur by the name Birsanagar, named after the tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda. Jamshedpur has places in the heart of the town, which have Vanvasi names or the ones that come from the lingo of Adivasis. There is a marketplace by the name Sakchi. These names signify the tribal tryst with the area and the fact that at one point of time, those areas were an epicentre of tribal. Insofar as the interface between city dwellers and forest dwellers is concerned, I wouldn’t call them forest dwellers because they may have had their roots or origins in the forests, and even in the city some disparity may be there in the way, but the interface obviously is inevitable and it’s healthy because everyone works together.


A commemorative book is usually reserved for special occasions and that tends to limit its readership. What needs to be done to ensure that these stories of courage are widely disseminated? Would you consider a mini-series based on your book?

I would like these stories to be converted in a children’s book series, which is something I have been exploring. One of the reasons why these stories were not told frequently was because unfortunately the political leadership of this country was never focussed on this population—the most downtrodden or the nine or 10 per cent of population which needed a fair amount of assessment. While critics may call it symbolism, symbolism tends to be a very important part in viewing or installing a certain confidence and pride, acquainting them about them with their realities. It imbues a sense of pride and dignity in those communities. Unfortunately, many of the present-day descendants of Birsa Munda or other freedom fighters are still living in penury and difficult conditions. Some of them are not even aware of the greatness of their ancestors and that to extent, these stories are important, and they need to be told and if the book can in any way make a positive start towards that direction and encourage more books, I think it would have served its purpose and make me very happy as an author.


Is there a lesson in the life stories of these tribal leaders for our present-day politics and ‘economic invasion’ of tribal land all through central India?

I have a reservation with the use of the word ‘economic invasion’ of tribal land all through central India. With time, a lot of things change, and a good chunk of the tribal population also wants to consciously innovate and adapt themselves into different professions and responsibilities. If digital technology is making them work or helping them improvise upon their work, that should be seen as a positive improvisation rather than an economic invasion. I believe, to attain the net zero carbon emission target in 2070, the espousal of biofuels is going to be one of the pivotal factors in ensuring that. The tribal population living in jungles will play a critical part in India’s production of biofuels. Most of the biofuels are produced by ingredients obtained from plants in the forest. Jatropha plants is an important ingredient of bio-diesel. So increased espousal and production of biofuel must have our tribal population at the core of it. It needs to be institutionalised and instead of it unnecessarily being seen as an economic invasion, it should be seen as an improvisation needed with the times we live in. The tribal population has improvised in the last many years. So why isolate them from using technology and in turn betterment.


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