Great Jharkhandi Intellectuals

Recalling Jharkhand Movement

T Vijayendra

This *book (Jharkhand Me Mere Samkaleen by Vir Bharat Talwar, 2019, 2020, Delhi, Anugya Books, pp 213, Rs 250/-) is in the form of a memoir about five persons who played an important role in the cultural, literary and political trends in the Jharkhand movement in the period 1970-2010. But they do not remain mere personal memoirs; rather, they cast light on the Jharkhand movement through a detailed critical assessment of these five activists' works and activities. The volume also includes an account of the author's own involvement in the movement and his critical opinions about the various characteristics of these five personalities and the movement as a whole. The author does not shy away from self-criticism: he often mentions his own shortcomings, how he could have behaved better and his changed opinion on various issues today.

A curious fact about all these intellectuals is that they led fairly secure, middle-class lives with regular jobs, and brought up their families in a normal environment. This is in contrast with the fairly militant nature of the Jharkhand movement and also in contrast with Dalit and Adivasi intellectuals in other parts of India.

The focus of the book is mainly around Ranchi and the Munda community and the Mundari language, though Oraon, Santhal and Nagpuria languages are also covered. It is eminently readable, but is likely to be of interest more to those who are interested and familiar with the movement. People outside Jharkhand have usually not heard the names of these intellectuals except perhaps that of Kumar Suresh Singh. But if persons unfamiliar with the Jharkhand movement do read the book, they will be amazed by how much individuals can and do achieve in an emerging nation. They will also understand the meaning of the word 'organic intellectual'—an intellectual who is organically connected with his people and land. In any case, the book will remain an important historical document covering that important period.

The book has six essays about five great intellectuals of Jharkhand. They are: Dr Nirmal Minz (an Oraon), Dineshwar Prasad and V P Keshari (Sadan/ Nagpurias), Dr Kumar Suresh Singh (Bihari) and, finally, the greatest intellectual of Jharkhand, Dr Ramdayal Munda (a Munda). Understandably, half the book is devoted to Dr Ramdayal Munda.

Dr Nirmal Minz
Dr Nirmal Minz was born in a humble Lutheran Christian Oraon family but rose to become the principal of Gossner College in Ranchi, and later to become the Bishop of Chhota Nagpur North West G E L Church. Although his main area of work was education and religion, he enthusiastically supported and took part in the rejuvenation of Jharkhand culture. He took active part in organising a two-day conference of Jharkhand intellectuals and was elected as the president of the Jharkhand Intellectual Forum.

Dineshwar Prasad
Dineshwar Prasad taught in Ranchi University. He was a Hindi poet and scholar in folk literature. He had a vast knowledge of Mundari folk literature and its poetics. He was a socialist influenced by Lohia, and actively wrote and published progressive poetry. He wrote scholarly books and article in English too and was much respected. He helped Talwar in various ways in terms of contacts and information. He also gave permission for publication of some of his poems in Shalpatra, a cultural magazine in Hindi which Talwar edited and published.

V P Keshari
There are two chapters devoted to V P Keshari. One is an article about him and the other is a lecture that Talwar gave on Keshari's book, 'Nagpuri kavi aur unka kavya'. Keshari was a lecturer of Hindi in a local college in Daltonganj, the district headquarters of Palamu, one of the most 'backward' districts in India rife with high levels of bonded labour. He was a 'political intellectual'--- simultaneously the Vice-President of the Jharkhand Party of N E Horo and the greatest scholar and author of Nagpuria language, the language of the Sadan people of Jharkhand who comprise 55% of Jharkhand population. Nagpuria is also the link language of the entire Jharkhand region.

Keshari did great work for the development of the Nagpuria language. His books include Nagpuri geeton me sringar ras (1970), Nagpuri bhasha aur sahitya (1971), Nagpuri bhasha: udgam aur vikas (2006) and his magnum opus, Nagpuri kavi aur unka kavya (2014).This authoritative work ran to 710 pages and took 61 years to complete! He also established a 'Nagpuri Sansthan' in his own village of Pithoria, for research and training in Nagpuria. The institute has a library of rare manuscripts and journals which he collected himself. He remained very active in the Nagpuria language movement. He was also a historian and he published, Jharkhand ke sadan (1992), Chhota Nagpur ka itihas: Kuchh sandarbh, kuchh sutra (1979), Jharkhand ke itihas ki kuchh jaroori baten (2008). As a politically committed person, he was actively involved not only in the Jharkhand movement but also in various social and political struggles around him.

Keshari achieved all this with his own meagre resources. He was a teacher in a college in a small town. He involved his family fully in his work. Given his small resource base his achievements stand out all the more.

Dr Kumar Suresh Singh
Kumar Suresh Singh was an aristocrat-scholar-bureaucrat. He was born in 1935 in a royal family near Munger, Bihar and was married to a woman from a royal family from Rantu near Ranchi. Other contributing factors towards his extraordinary achievements were his childhood with Santhal neighbours and the influence of the historian D D Kosambi while studying for his MA in history from Patna University in 1955. Singh joined the IAS in 1958 and served in the Jharkhand region for most of the early part of his career. Having an academic bent of mind, his influences included colonial bureaucrats like W G Archer and Christian missionary scholars like Father Hoffman.

As a young bureaucrat his first foray into tribal society and the academic world was fairly romantic. He heard a haunting Munda song in the night and traced it to the followers of Birsa Munda, who were living in hiding. He pursued the matter, learned Mundari, got access to secret documents of the Birsa movement and ended up writing a book, 'The dust storm and the hanging mist'. The well-known Bengali author Mahasveta Devi adapted the book into a Bengali novel which was also translated into Hindi.

Probably because of his aristocratic background, he wielded his authority freely whenever he felt it was justified. Thus he managed to get the Government Press to publish the remaining two volumes of Encyclopaedia Mundarica created by Father Hoffman and edited by Father Ponnet. Similarly he got W. G. Archer's Tribal Law and Justice published in 1984. He himself wrote a detailed scholarly introduction to the book. Some of his own works are: The Indian famine 1967 (1972), Colonial transformation of tribal society in middle India, (1978), Tribal Society in India: An Anhtropo-Historical Perspective (New Delhi 1985).

He also had many notable achievements as an administrator. During the famine in 1967 he did remarkable work in Palamu for which he received a lot of praise. He was Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University for a few weeks. During that period he created the Post-Graduate Department of Tribal Languages in the University and invited Dr. Ramdayal Munda to come down from the US, to head it, which offer was happily accepted.

During the last phase of his career (1984-93) Dr Singh was the Director General of the Anthropological Survey of India. He initiated and completed a massive project called 'People of India'. Published in 43 volumes, it is one of the greatest projects of this kind in the world and it remains the biggest anthropological survey of the Indian people. Dr. Singh himself published a paper in 1998 about it, which concluded, 'We are, therefore, largely a drinking, smoking and meat-eating people'!

Dr Ramdayal Munda
Ramdayal Munda occupies the central position among Jharkhand intellectuals, and the book naturally devotes more than 100 pages to him. He is also in the cover photo and there are photocopies of his letters to the author and the frontispiece of his books in the end.

Ramdayal's main strength was his knowledge of Mundari culture, songs and dance. He was a good poet and a scholar in linguistics. His main shortcoming was that he wanted to do too much and his forays in electoral politics wasted much of his time, particularly when he was with the government.

This book's long section on him is, first of all, a rich personal account, including material about his first wife Hazel, his big motorcycle and how he continued to use it even when he was Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University. It covers Ramdayal's literary achievements, the Jharkhand cultural movement and ends with an account of Talwar's own involvement in the Jharkhand movement and a critical appreciation of Munda's works. A contrast is drawn with the Adivasi literary activist Vaharu Sonwane who was much more radical, and with the Santhali script activist Pandit Raghunath Murmu who was much more focussed in his work.

This long and meandering chapter moves back and forth in time, covering many aspects of Ramdayal's personal and public life. This also means covering a lot of ground regarding the Jharkhand cultural movement. Dr. Munda was primarily a literary and cultural activist. He also worked tirelessly to unite all the Jharkhandi groups but failed. However in the end we get the picture that Ramdayal indeed was a great son of Jharkhand.

A bit more needs to be said about Pandit Raghunath Murmu, a Santhal school teacher. He invented Ol Chiki, a script for the Santhali language. He resigned his job and worked full time to propagate it. He cut the letters in wood himself and printed them in his own press at Rairangpur. Talwar is full of praise for him and his focus and devotion for the work he undertook and how it is still followed. He compares him favourably to Ramdayal Munda. While the latter contributed to the Jharkhand movement in a big way, he could have achieved much more had he been focused and did not to fritter away his energies in pursuing government posts, elections and honours. Ramdayal dreamed of evolving a common language for Mundari, Ho and Santhali since they belong to the same group. It would have been more practical to dream of a common script and reap the benefit of Murmu's work. However life is more complex. Even among the Santhalis, many don't use Ol Chiki but use the Roman script.

* * * * *
The book is dedicated to the memory of Sitaram Shastry. There are glowing mentions of Sitaram's contribution to the Jharkhand movement. Like Talwar himself, Shastry too is from Jamshedpur. Sitaram, Talwar and this writer were political activists together, with a background in the naxalites movement, in Bihar/Jharkhand during the 1970s. Sitaram was a very good journalist and he wrote the best simple Hindi, ideal for working-class readers. He edited Hirawal for A. K. Roy in Dhanbad and Mitan for Shankar Guha Niyogi in Chhattisgarh. Sitaram never wrote about himself. All that is written about him is this author's little obituary. He deserves better attention and who would be better qualified to write about him than Talwar himself?

What is specially highlighted in this book is a chronicle by an eyewitness of a 'nation' being born. The Jharkhandi nation (in the sense that Bengal or Maharashtra can be described as a nation) is a complex entity. It has four linguistic layers: an Adivasi substratum; a local Sadan/Nagpuria people and their language which serves as the link language of the region; Hindi, used by Biharis and other Indians who have come to live in Jharkhand and which links the region with rest of India; and, finally, English, which was first used by missionary scholars and British bureaucrats and effectively deployed in later times by scholars like Kumar Suresh Singh. Ramdayal Munda wrote in Mundari, Hindi and in English. V. P. Keshari was a Nagpuria author and scholar and also wrote in Hindi. Dineshwar Prasad wrote in Hindi and English. Kumar Suresh Singh wrote primarily in English. Through the accounts of these intellectual/political activists Talwar paints a lively picture of the rejuvenation of the cultural aspects of Jharkhandi nation.

Even in its cultural aspects, the Jharkhand movement received support and contributions from people of different backgrounds, regions and religions. Talwar himself is of ethnic Punjabi origin but is also a second-generation Jharkhandi. Sitaram Shastry, a Telegu, is also a second-generation Jharkhandi. A. K. Roy was a Bengali who came to Sindri for a job. Kumar Suresh Singh was an IAS officer who served many years in Jharkhand. Of course the majority of the stalwarts of the movement came from the original Adivasi and Sadan inhabitants of Jharkhand.

Finally, it is region that is the primary identity, not ethnic background or caste or religion. The regional identity is a product of geography and ecology. After all geography—forests, hills, grass lands, rivers, natural lakes etc.—existed before man evolved and they created natural boundaries between regions in which later human civilisations flourished. The cultural differences in human society are mainly due to ecology and geography, although in the last 300 years of colonialism and capitalism a lot of changes have come due to travel and forced and voluntary migrations.

Towards the end of the book, Talwar wonders whether all these cultural movements for identity have any lasting value. Today the Jharkhandis are facing displacement. They see the destruction of their rivers, forests and land by the industrial and mining mafia in collusion with the government. The struggle for Jal, Jungle aur Zameen is becoming a common struggle for a large number of Adivasi communities in India. Interestingly, Anand Teltumble, the Dalit intellectual, writes that the identity politics of caste struggle should be replaced by class struggle because most of the Dalits today are landless labourers. In reality today equality and restoring the environment/ecology are the primary agenda. The slogan today probably should be equality and sustainability.

What will be the tribal social formation of the future? As Talwar notes, the Adivasi social formation has been disintegrating since the 19th century and it cannot be revived. The present capitalist development model and agenda, with its dependence on fossil fuels, is also coming to an end. People are talking of de-growth, steady state economy, post-carbon (fossil fuel-free) society, restoration of ecology and eco-socialism. Human society is at a turning point and the current pandemic has greatly accelerated the pace of change. It will be exciting to watch how different parts of the world respond to this challenge. The book provides a baseline from which to observe the coming changes in Jharkhand.     

January 10, 2021


Vol. 53, No. 32, Feb 7 - 13, 2021