Did tribes fight for freedom of our nation?

[ MC Behera ]

The government of India has declared Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav from 15 to 22 November, 2021 to commemorate 75 glorious years of India’s progressive history of its people, culture and achievements after independence. It is a series of events and includes Kashi Utsav, Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, National Aadi Mahotsav and several others as its parts. The 15th of November has been declared as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, a part of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, to commemorate the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, a tribal freedom fighter and religious leader from Jharkhand, and to celebrate the glorious history of the tribal people, their cultures and achievements in the making of the Indian nation.

A separate event dedicated to tribal people and to remember tribal freedom fighters, both known and unknown, brings back an old debate to the fore in some quarters. Were the tribal leaders who fought against the British freedom fighters? If they were freedom fighters, then whom did they intend to free – their own tribe or the nation? The separate event for celebrating tribal freedom fighters is argued in some other quarters as a preferential treatment envisioned following constitutional provisions to uplift the tribes and other vulnerable groups at par with other communities of the country. The argument further extends to suggest remembrance of tribal leaders together with other leaders who fought for the freedom of the country for a clear message of one nation with different peoples who are coexisting.

With given familiarity of freedom fighters celebrated so far, would it have been possible to give equal importance to tribal leaders, most of whom are yet to be known practically in the history of the national freedom movement? Thus arises a question. Our knowledge in history does not make us confident to give a reply in the positive. The reason is the mindset of those who, with colonial logic at the backdrop of their outlook, consider tribes as a different category from India’s social fabric. Therefore, tribes’ fights against the British have been designated as rebellion, uprising, movement, protest, etc. Some nationalist scholars, however, have situated such movements within peasant and social movements category, thereby including tribes in a larger sphere of Indian society. Moreover, familiarity has a strong tendency of not giving entry to new ones into a prestigious category. Despite the apparent reasons and the possibility of pushing tribal leaders to a back seat in a general type of celebration, the idea of considering tribes differently stands clear in the event, Janjatiya Gaurav Divas.

History tells that several tribal leaders have been ignored and their contributions remain oblivious at the national level. At best a few are locally acknowledged. What was the guarantee that these tribal leaders would not have been buried under the glamour of non-tribal leaders, many of whom have been glorified to tallest heights, if they were to be remembered and celebrated in the general mahotsav?

A separate event to enlighten the common citizens about the contributions of tribal leaders therefore has its own strength. It is evident from the idea of Jan Utsav as the spirit of celebrating the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and its part Janjatiya Gaurav Divas in the mode of communication through jan bhagidari by covering the length and breadth of the country as announced in the government agenda. Special focus on the event of 15 November, therefore, may be an effective step to include tribal freedom fighters in the national history and to instil the information in people’s memory. The history buried so far is given an outlet to become public. But the question remains. Are tribal leaders freedom fighters?

In this context, a tribal freedom movement in the present Arunachal Pradesh will throw light on two queries: namely, are tribal leaders freedom fighters, and would known and unknown tribal leaders be celebrated the way they deserve in general a mahotsav? The movement and its leaders were not known to the history of freedom movement, though the leaders got recognition by the government of India with the award of Tamrapatra a few decades back. Tribal leaders like Moji Riba, Moje Riba, Ligin Bomjen and several others fought against the British administration in the area headed by the political officer of Pasighat, PLS James, who continued to rule after India achieved freedom. He was also the leader to mobilize implementation of the Reid Plan of Crown Colony that included the hills of the then Assam and Burma. James was removed in April 1948 due to this movement, and the hills of the then Assam became a part of India as Reid’s Plan was foiled. History was silent and the people of India were kept in ignorance till a few months ago, when Dr Tai Nyori’s book titled A Freedom Movement in the Twilight was published. Had there been no movement by the tribal leaders, perhaps the geography of India would have been different. Is it not a freedom movement that was kept silent? Is not it a movement related to the freedom of the country?

Two important issues need to be placed in order to justify whether tribes fought for the nation or not. No doubt, some outstanding leaders like Laxman Naik, who joined in Congress movement, have got a place in history. As the Congress fought for the freedom of the nation, these leaders automatically got a place. But many leaders organized protests at the local level or fought along with local kings. There is a debate about bracketing them as freedom fighters of India; the notion of India as a political connotation emerged after the British took over the entire territory by different pleas and direct conquest of states/communities one after another. This does not mean that the territory of India with its name is a colonial legacy, for had there been no India, what territory interested Vasco da Gama in 1497 and Columbus in 1492 to find a sea route? Vasco da Gama is credited with discovering a sea route to India, though he landed in Calicut. Forget about the accounts of Huensang and Marco Polo about India centuries ago. Forget about Alexander’s conquest of India in 327 BC. The idea and territory of India existed even in the BC era.

However, India was not the political entity we see today. It was a cultural expression of a geographical space, and the political culture was a decentralized manifestation under kings, chiefs and democratic and gerontocratic community organizations.

Given the ideological foundation of the time, India was not an unchangeable geo-political entity; rather it was a geo-cultural expansion divided into flexible political units. The areas of the political territories sometimes expanded, shrunk or were annexed with another political boundary partially or wholly.

Before there was an all-India movement, the British occupied the independent political units one by one. The rulers or the councils of these units fought against the British in order to be free from the invader. All the people, tribal and other communities, fought together. Even history records tribal participation in the battle against invaders; the participation of Bhils in the battle carried out by Rana Pratap against Akbar is a case in point. The Mughals claimed to be the rulers of Hindusthan, ie, India. To fight against them was to fight for India, even though the battle was fought by a single ruler. The political situation was not conducive to fight united as each political unit was independent and sovereign.

A parallel may be drawn. The battle of Khonoma, a village near Kohima, in 1879 with a support of two or three neighbouring villages against the British was designated as Naga Rebellion by colonial writers like Alexander Mackenzie. Similarly, a series of battles, now known as the Anglo-Adi battles, were fought by two or three villages of the Adis against the British. Then why is there a reservation to accept tribal leaders who fought against the British as freedom fighters? The reason is the idea of binarity created by the British between tribes and other Indian categories along the line of Aryan and Dravidian divides, which has captured our mind and imagination even after independence.

Therefore, some leaders have been ignored, some have been eclipsed by the name of the kings for whom they fought, and some have been branded as leaders of local or community uprisings. In the first category, we may cite the example of freedom fighters from Arunachal Pradesh who have not been included in the history of the national freedom movement so far. In the second category we may include Dora Bisoi, Chakara Bisoi and Bhuyian leaders who fought for Ghumsar and Bonai kingdoms. Similarly, the Kurichiya leaders of Wayanad who fought for Pazhassi Raja against the British did not get recognition, but the battle is named after the raja. In the third category, we can place leaders like Birsa Munda, Bhagirath Manjhi, Jatra Oraon, Govind Giri (Guru), Haipou Jadonang, Rani Gaidinliu and the Sido-Kanhu brothers.

The leaders did not fight for the community cause, against exploitation and resource deprivation by colonial agents and rulers, but for its general nature for which they got support from different social groups of the region. It is to be mentioned that all the Santals did not support Sido-Kanhu to fight against the British; on the other hand, the brothers got support from several non-Santal communities. This trend was noticed in fights organized by Govid Guru and Rani Gaidinlu. She led three ethnic groups, namely, Zemei, Liangmei and Rongmei, against the British and for this reason her movement is known as the Zeliangrong movement by combining the first syllable of the names of three tribes: Ze from Zemei, Liang from Liangmei and Rong from Rongmei (Zeliangrong ? Ze+Liang+Rong). Even Maram and Mao ethnic groups joined her later.

The ‘rebels’ of these movements later joined the national freedom movement. The Bhils, Kuruchiyas, Kandhas, etc, who had fought initially also joined national freedom movement when the nation got a political shape and meaning.

Freedom movements in India by tribal leaders against the British began at local levels and turned to be a national movement when the situation became conducive and the concept of a nation emerged. The movements initiated by tribal leaders at local levels corresponding to the then political reality assumed national character. It is to be mentioned that Mangal Pandey did not organize the national freedom movement but triggered it by his individual protest at an army camp. His initiative got wide acceptance, and the movement became the ‘first national movement of India’s freedom’. The same logic applies to movements organized by tribal leaders. The notion of ‘nation’ of a tribe and rulers of small political units as can be seen in history, extended over time. It needs mention that a tribe’s perception of a country or nation during the early colonial rule rightly corresponds to the then existing political situation. It is evident from the book of SC Roy, titled The Mundas and their Country. The notion is similar to the people of a kingdom for whom the kingdom is their country. The Apatanis use the designation Lemba to denote a clan-based settlement or multi-clan settlements and even to India in their traditional sense. As they fought for their ‘country’ at different phases of time corresponding to political India and before, the tribal leaders are certainly freedom fighters of the nation. We have to understand it by understanding the existing political culture of that time. Appreciation of past phenomena with present knowledge is like a square peg in a round hole. (MC Behera is Professor, Tribal Studies, Rajiv Gandhi University.)