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BiharFreedom Movement

Jaipal Singh Munda : Man who organised Adivasis

In this article, I will be trying to explore contests within a nationalist discourse by taking into account a case study of Jaipal Singh Munda, a leader and founder of the Jharkhand party. Being a pioneer in the demand of Jharkhand as a separate province his location within the larger frame of nationalist discourse in colonial as well as post-colonial India will be helpful in throwing some light on the modern tribal leadership and how it legitimised itself within the tribal communities. It is not so that before Jaipal and Adivasi sabha, with which he was affiliated, no other organization was working in Chotanagpur and Santal Parganas.

There had been several movements among the tribals of central India of which the Birsa Rebellion and Tana Bhagat movement can be recalled as the prominent one. All these previous movements had religious undertones that set them apart from the Adivasi Sabha led Jharkhand movement. This paper further will be looking into the role of ideas of democracy that came with the western education. Many authors and observers have claimed that the Jharkhand movement can be looked as an alternative nationality.

In this paper we will see that more than a sub-nationality or alternative nationality or secessionist in nature Jharkhand movement in its core was an articulation of tribal voice against the internal colonisation which was being done, according to them, from the side of Bihar. Western education through western educated leaders provided the much needed ideological framework in which tribal people could demand for the rights and concessions and it was not much different from the means adopted by the nationalist leaders who led Indian National Movement. 

Early life: western ideas and making of a leader

Jaipal Singh Munda was born in 1903 in a tribal family of Bihar. Under the guardianship of Canon Cosgrave, principal St. Paul’s School in Ranchi, he took his initial education and got baptized in 1918. Cosgrave after retirement took him to England where he got admitted to Oxford for further studies. These were the formative years of a tribal leader in him. Here he got to study with the likes of Verrier Elwin, obviously which should have some impact over his later understanding.

He was a natural leader and held the posts of secretary and president of ‘Debating Society’ at St. John’s College.  Also he represented the University football and hockey teams and later organised the first Indian Hockey team to tour Belgium and other countries. During all these years his expenses were being borne by people related to missionary work and he remained attached to their work. He could not complete his ICS training on time because he was captaining the Indian Hockey team at the Amsterdam Olympics 1928, where India also begged its first gold.

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Later he joined Shell Oil Company and later the princely state of Bikaner as revenue minister. In the meanwhile, he married Tara Majumdar, granddaughter of W.C Bonnerjee. He had to leave Bikaner State in 1938 because of his problems with K M Panikkar who later had to head the State Reorganisation Committee (SRC) in 1953 to decide on the demand of Jharkhand forwarded by Jaipal. This introduction of his earlier life is being presented only to show that Jaipal was not a forest dwelling, aloof from the modern world type of tribal man.

He was a Western-educated leader who belonged to the league of Nehru, Ambedkar, etc. Familiar with the politics under the modern political institution he knew the language of the modern state and the methods that are needed to persuade it. He was not a tribal leader in a traditional sense but a leader who got his training under Western institutions. This is from where he drew his legitimacy as a leader, as a man who can speak in the language of Colonial rulers, who walks like them, dresses like them and can talk on equal terms to them.

Indian Hockey team at the Amsterdam Olympics, 1928, led by Jaipal Singh Munda

Jharkhand: Voice against Internal Colonisation

It is often argued that ethnic identities are secessionist in nature. Basu Mullick, Arun Sinha, Amit Prakash and others have argued that the Jharkhand movement represented alternate nationality or a sub-nationality within the larger Indian Nation. Many others have argued that it was not a nationality as it lacked a separate uniform language and many other traits innate to a nation. Voice for a separate province with a name Jharkhand first emerged with Jaipal’s taking over the reins of Adibasi Sabha in 1939.

In his first presidential address, which according to some accounts was attended by not less than 100,000 people, Jaipal Singh Munda termed a separate governor province as the goal of Adibasi Sabha. Adibasis needed a separate province from Bihar just like Bengali speaking and Oriya speaking people had been asking. Jaipal in Behar Herald writes about the electoral success that Sabha achieved in Municipal elections as a shock to Bihari ministry.

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A point that he made again and again, right from his first address to Sabha, was about Bihar Government making a statement, terming Chotanagpur area as deficit area, if it really was so, then why not they just separate it off. This demand of a separate province for tribals did not gather momentum within a day or two. Since the Simon Commission there were voices for a sub-province within Bihar and two petitions were also filed to this effect before the commission.

In 1937 when elections for provincial government were held Ignes Beck and Boniface Lakra, two catholic tribal leaders, contested the elections successfully. Five other tribes also got elected to the Bihar legislative assembly. Need was felt for the better organisation among the tribals if they wanted their due share in the new political arena. Ignes Beck forged an alliance of different tribal groups to form a political outfit in 1938 which was named ‘Chotanagpur Adibasi Sabha’. Jaipal came in 1939 and took over the movement against the exploitation of ‘his people’ by ‘Bihar Ministry’.

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Even when Jaipal Singh Munda was fighting for a separate province he never hesitated in taking help from other groups and forging alliances with them to stop the ‘Biharisation’ of Chotanagpur Plateau and Santal Parganas. On 13 August, 1939, addressing workers at Jamshedpur, where Jaipal and Subhash’s Forward Block were defying Abdul Bari led Congress Trade Union strike, he said that adibasis take ‘peculiar pride’ in the mineral exploitation and industrial development of the region but Bihar Congress are misleading adibasis from honest and hard work. Some authors might have pointed out his relations with Industrialists claiming him to be an opportunistic politician but his boycott of strike was a bargain tool for him. As he said,

Since we will not be helping the strike, employers should stop the inflow of labourers from the outside. Biharisation of Tata Nagar should be stopped”

His anti-Bihar sentiments were not a secret; he even accused the Bihar Ministry of using all those violent methods that British used over them during the Civil Disobedience against the Adibasi Sabha members. In a letter to S.P Mukherjee he fears that Bihar Ministry wanted to destroy anything or everything that belonged to the aboriginal culture. It is interesting to note that he did not consider Bihar Congress as a part of Indian National Congress but just as an affiliated group. He claimed at Ranchi, in 1948, addressing Adibasi Sabha gathering he always believed in the movement led by Indian National Congress but Bihar Congress never let Sabha get accommodated in the INC. In contrast to Bihari officials and leaders he used to call Bengali and British officials sympathetic towards the problems faced by the aboriginals or adibasis.

Opportunistic Politician

Victor Das, Ignace Kujur, who also happens to be a two times MLA from Jharkhand Party, and many others have accused Jaipal of betraying the adibasis trust and being opportunist on the account of his decision of merging the Jharkhand Party in the Congress. Often political discourse is seen in the terms of the ruling class or the mainstream society. When it comes to the marginalised and excluded sections this politics needs different modes of articulation. That is why most of the leaders who led marginalised were termed as opportunistic or at times electoral failure as for example Ambedkar, Periyar or Kanshiram. Jaipal right from the outset of his political career as an adibasis leader mastered this art of forging alliances with different groups to benefit the interests of Adibasi Sabha which in turn can be seen as benefiting tribals of Chotanagpur and Santal.

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In 1939, same year when Jaipal Singh Munda took up the leadership of the Adibasi Sabha, he fostered an alliance with Subhash Chandra Bose opposing Congress led workers’ strike at Jamshedpur Steel Plant. Out of 1400 workers 900 joined the strike and remaining was provided security by Sabha so that they could work. Jaipal also in those times was considered close to Nagendranath Rakshit, director Tata Plant, whom he even invited at Adibasi Sabha meetings. At that time looking at the political and economic scenario it was more important for him to stop the influx of labourers and other work force from outside the Chotanagpur, North Bihar mostly.

It was a perfect statement that adibasis were on the side of the employer and would not join strike so adibasis should be preferred over the Biharis.  Later during the Second World War he clearly sided with the British to bargain some concessions for his community. During mid 1940s he even tried to forge an alliance with Muslim League but that failed. He himself in 1948 admitted that right from the beginning he wanted Adibasi Sabha to be a part of a major party like Congress and always had nationalistic objectives that was why he tried different alliances but which did not work for him. For him Adibasi’s question was foremost and every bargaining had to be done around that only.

Senior Advocate Syed Anwar Hussain Khan of Ranchi (1907-82)

Allegations often levelled against him are related to giving a party ticket to Meenu Masani, a Zoroastrian businessman from Bombay, and Raja of Darbhanga and later merger of Jharkhand Party with Congress in 1963. It is often alleged that he traded Jharkhand issue for his own ministerial berth in Bihar government. But what were the options available to him at that time. Since after independence there was this contestation from within over the integration with the state. Experience of adjacent Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal tribal areas was also affecting the public opinion in this region.

Also there was growing impact of the development programmes undertaken by the government and many groups of tribals were benefitting out of it and it further resulted in clash of interests between more educated and socially upward mobile Christian tribals and the less educated non-Christian tribes, which was being exploited by different political groups and even Jana Sangh was getting hold in the region. Apart from this the losses that the party had faced since after 1957 made it impossible to be a force that it once used to be. In such circumstances the best bet, at least which may seem to him, was to merge with the Congress. And, this is the same thing that he desired many times before also at public gatherings. 

Adibasiyat: Claiming aboriginality

Whole Jharkhand politics premised itself upon the claim that tribal people living there are from the aboriginal stock and these aboriginals are in the majority within this geographical region. During the earlier phase of the movement much thrust was put upon proving this claim and on the other hand Bihar Congress and other parties to the problem tried to disprove the claim. A much-heated debate surrounded the religion of the adibasis, Congress claimed that the people who had been converted into Hinduism should be considered Harijan while Jaipal-led Adibasi Sabha wanted them to be counted as backward tribes.

Jaipal Singh Munda during Adibasi Sabha deputation to the premier of Bihar attacks the claim made by the premier in the assembly that of the region only 25% of the population is Adibasi. This whole debate gave direction to the way constituent assembly looked at the aboriginal and later category of scheduled tribes. In the constituent assembly Jaipal claims that only adibasis are the inhabitants of this country and all others are outsiders and just like British Hindus also would have to leave the country soon. Jaipal Singh Munda vociferously argued against the use of the term ‘Scheduled Tribes’ as it was going to include only the backward tribes and not all the tribes. Also, this category was not going to be based upon the claim of the people as sons of the soil. 


(Author is a well known historian and editor of www.heritagetimes.in)

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Saquib Salim

Saquib Salim is a well known historian under whose supervision various museums (Red Fort, National Library, IFFI, Jallianwala Bagh etc.) were researched. To his credit Mr. Salim has more than 400 published articles on history, politics, culture and literature in English and Hindi. Before pursuing his research and masters in modern Indian History from JNU, he was an electrical engineering student at AMU. Presently, he works as a freelance/ independent history researcher, writer and works at www.awazthevoice.in