Shabars Of Purulia

From Hunting to Farming

Sukanta Sarkar

Cars are running from Rajnowagarh to Kuda along the high-low road. A little before entering Kuda village, Bhim Chandra Mahato showed the newly planted tomato saplings on several bighas of land and said, 'Brihaspati earned 75 thousand rupees by cultivating tomatoes on this land last year. That year, during the summer, watermelons were sold for lakhs of rupees. Apart from tomatoes, cabbage and other vegetables were also cultivated on that land.’ Brihaspati means Brihaspati Shabar. Kuda is a hamlet of Shabars. This is also called Shabar Tola. Bhim informed that apart from Brihaspati, Nakul, Lakshman and Vinod Shabar of Boro village of Manbazar-2 block have achieved significant success in small scale farming. They have grown a lot of cucumbers and brinjals. These vegetables are being sold at a good price in local markets.

As Brihaspati has shown speciality in tomato and cabbage cultivation, Ajit Shabar of Makrakkeni in tomato, Gurupad Shabar of Bangathupi in kopi, Anil Shabar of Popo village in Bandwan cabbage, Cauliflower, Chotulal Shabar of Mrigchami in tomato or Mahadev Shabar of Phuljhari eggplant, Satyaban Shabar of Turang in Barbati, Tulu Shabar of Janara in green chilli. The Shabar community has responded positively to the mainstream society.

Although the Shabars are originally forest dwellers and hunters, the forest rights were taken away from them a hundred and fifty years ago. They never did the farming. Even if the rights of the forest were taken away, no one thought how the Shabars would survive! Today, 150 years later, the descendants of those same people are growing crops in the rugged and hard soil of Purulia. No government initiative has been seen or worked to bring the forest-dependent Shabars into cultivation. Yet today they are good cultivators as Brihaspati and others have shown.

164 Shabar Tolas of Purulia are changing the landscape of drought-hit Purulia in a small corner in their own way. Life is changing. The Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti (PKSKS) started this process for the last fifty years. As the day progresses, the speed of conversion is increasing by leaps and bounds. After the 'forest rights' of the once forest-dwelling Shabars were taken away first by the British and then by the native government, this hunter-gatherer tribe otherwise notified as ‘criminal tribe’ by the British, found itself in dire straits. They lived for ages by hunting in the forest and eating fruits. During the British period, the life of the Shabars became endangered due to the ban on entering the forest. Then in 1871 the name of Shabar was included in the list of 'criminal aborigines' published by the British government. In other words they were declared a ‘criminal tribe’. Since then, the oppression of the state and other high caste people on the Shabars began. After independence, in 1952, the name of the Shabars was officially removed from the list, but in practice the local administration and other castes saw the Shabars as 'criminals' and the police used to arbitrarily arrest the Shabars for various crimes in the area and tortured them. It became a normal occurrence to beat the Shabars without evidence when there was a robbery in the area. This custom continued until a few decades ago.

Gopivallabh Singhdeo of Rajnowagarh, 35 km from Purulia town, teacher by profession was the first in the ‘60s to stand by the Shabars of the area. He came forward not only to protest but also to remedy the arbitrarily arresting Shabars and torture. Gradually his work spread to all the Shabar Tolas of the district. In 1968, Gopivallabh formed Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti with Naran Shabar, Chunaram Shabar, Nanda Shabar, Budhan Shabar of Dumurdi, Haradhan Shabar, Shambhu Shabar of Babuizor, Shuku Shabar of Balkadi and Madan Roy of Deorang village. Since the formation of the PKSKS or Association, the life of the Shabars of Purulia started to change little by little.

Gopiballabh became a defender in stopping the police brutality on Shabars. Later, in the early ‘80s, he talked to noted writer and social activist Mahasweta Devi as advised by Subodh Basu Roy, a writer and the then principal of Purulia College. Prashant Rakshit who is now the Director of Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti. Earlier, Mahasweta Devi worked with Lodha Shabars and Badhua Mazdoors in Daltonganj which is under present-day Jharkhand. In 1983, Gopiballabh invited Mahasweta Devi to work among the Shabars in Purulia. He said to Mahasweta Devi, 'I want your pen.' Gopiballabh and Mahasweta Devi organised Shabar Mela in 1983 to unite the tribals to prevent injustice and torture on Shabars. Mahashweta Devi was called the 'mother of Shabars' in that Shabar Mela.

Not only to stop the injustice and torture of the Shabars, the Samiti began to pay more attention to teaching the Shabars farming and training them in manual work. Besides, to provide education for Shabar children, Mahasweta Devi's writings and initiatives made the entire state aware of the plight of the Shabars. Many famous and anonymous individuals and organisations came forward to the side of Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti. ‘Shabars should not only be given legal assistance, their dignified living is possible only when they become self-reliant in their own labour and intelligence. Therefore, the Samiti insisted on making the Shabars interested in agriculture,’ continued Prashanta, ‘it was not a very easy task’.

Traditionally, the Shabar people have no connection with agriculture. The biggest problem for them was the question of land. Where to farm? Shabars do not have their own land. Cultivation was started in the fallow land left by the forest department. For that, basic training in farming has also been given to several families. In addition, the fight for agricultural land started by the PKSKS. And it is going on still.

Judging by the success of the Brihaspati Shabar in farming, there is no reason to think that all the Shabars of Purulia are prosperous agriculturists! The truth is not promising at all. Most of the people tried to resort to farming but could not really grasp the traditional agrarian practice. In Purulia's 164 Shabar Tolas, 3,176 Shabar families have a little more than 12,000 population strength. According to Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti, 1,286 Shabar families are engaged in farming. Not even for the whole year. In this context, Prashanta said, 'there is a lack of water here. Rainwater is the only source for farming. And rainwater harvesting is not possible more than once a year. No family survives the whole year after farming once. And besides, no one cultivates much land. Because most of them do not have their own land. They cultivate in the land of the the forest department. During the Left Front period, due to Operation Barga, 826 acres of Khas land or vested land was given to some Shabars, but most of it is not cultivable.

Farming is the way of liberation of today's Shabars. Keeping this fact in mind, Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti encourages the Shabars in agriculture by providing indigenously prepared fertilisers from grain seeds, neem, tobacco leaves etc. The Samiti is giving a 'calendar' of vegetable cultivation by verifying the market price of any vegetable at any time so that the farmers can get better prices for the vegetables they produce. The success of Brihaspati, Ajit,Satyaban in farming has encouraged most of the Shabar society, but not all are getting the opportunity to farm. Most do not even dare to cultivate the land left by the forest department because of police reprisal. There is no initiative at the government level to solve the problem faced by Shabars in cultivating forest land. However, after taking away the forests from the forest dwellers, it is the responsibility of the state to provide them with alternative livelihood. The state cannot avoid that responsibility. It is the duty of the State to give land in lieu of forests to the Shabars or other forest dwellers whose forests have been taken away.

In the 'Forest Rights Act 2006', the rights of the forest-dwelling tribals have been recognised, but till date the Shabars or any other tribal people have received nothing. Rather, the central government took the initiative to take away the rights granted to forest dwellers by the Forest Conservation Rules in June last year. Anyway, let's get back to the Shabars of Purulia. Even though the forest hunters bring the Shabars to the farming yard, they do not allow the Shabars to be kept in agriculture due to lack of land. As a result, many of the Shabars are migrating to other states in search of work. There they are forced to work as day labourers. Due to lack of land, lack of work, Shabars are also migrant workers today. Gopivallabh, Maheshweta Devi, Prashanta or Jaldhar Shabar, the secretary of the Samiti, thought of emphasising the education of Shabar children to combat poverty. But, if forced to live like a nomad instead of settling down with a family based on guaranteed income, how can parents teach their children education! No nation can stand up if it is deprived of food insecurity, lack of nutrition and lack of education. Keeping this reality in mind, the Pashcimbanga Kheria Shabar Kalyan Samiti is giving the highest priority to the land ownership demands of the Shabars. This demand of the Shabars is not only theirs, but the right of all the forest dwellers.


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Vol 55, No. 42, April 16 - 22, 2023