THE RESOLUTE JUNGLI - Jaipal Singh's work in bringing tribals centre stage is now forgotten

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By RamaChandra Guha
  • Published 28.10.03

Biography is a genre poorly developed in India, but there do exist serviceable lives of our major nationalist leaders. Those interested in Gandhi and Gokhale can read works on them by B.R. Nanda. Admirers of Patel can turn to the life of the Sardar by Rajmohan Gandhi. And both admirers and detractors of Jawaharlal Nehru can turn, for ammunition, to the three-volume biography by Sarvepalli Gopal.

These works have their limitations. For one thing, they all focus on the politics, leaving out the personality. Still, these books are solidly researched and reliable, and provide a decent enough account of their subjects’ political careers. Less fortunate have been Indian politicians who worked outside the realm of the Congress. There are no lives, good or bad, of such figures as the Kashmiri nationalist, Sheikh Abdullah, the Sikh leader, Master Tara Singh, the communist thinker and administrator, E.M.S. Namboodiripad, and the Naga freedom-fighter, Angami Zapu Phizo. Yet these are all figures of extraordinary interests, whose life and work illuminate many aspects of our modern history.

Among this list of unusual, but poorly remembered, characters is Jaipal Singh of Jharkhand. Jaipal was a Munda from Chotanagpur, the forested plateau peopled by numerous tribes all more-or-less distinct from caste Hindu society. Sent by missionaries to study in Oxford, on his return he did not, as his sponsors no doubt hoped, preach the Gospel, but came to invent a kind of gospel of his own. This held that the tribals were the “original inhabitants” of India — hence the term adibasi or adivasi, which means precisely that. Jaipal formed an Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938 which asked for a separate state of “Jharkhand”, to be carved out of Bihar. To the tribals of Chotanagpur, he was Marang Gomke or “Great Leader”.

Jaipal has been in my mind recently, for two reasons. One is that I have been reading the debates of the constituent assembly of India. The other reason I shall come to presently.

In the constituent assembly, Jaipal Singh came to represent the tribals not just of his native plateau, but also of all of India. He was a gifted speaker, whose interventions both enlivened and entertained the House. (In this respect, the Church’s loss was unquestionably politics’ gain.) His first speech was made on December 19, 1946, when, in welcoming the Objectives Resolution, he provided a masterly summation of the adivasi case.

“As a jungli, as an Adibasi,” said Jaipal, “I am not expected to understand the legal intricacies of the Resolution. But my common sense tells me that every one of us should march in that road to freedom and fight together. Sir, if there is any group of Indian people that has been shabbily treated it is my people. They have been disgracefully treated, neglected for the last 6,000 years. The history of the Indus Valley civilization, a child of which I am, shows quite clearly that it is the new comers — most of you here are intruders as far as I am concerned — it is the new comers who have driven away my people from the Indus Valley to the jungle fastness...The whole history of my people is one of continuous exploitation and dispossession by the non-aboriginals of India punctuated by rebellions and disorder, and yet I take Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru at his word. I take you all at your word that now we are going to start a new chapter, a new chapter of independent India where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.” The Resolution, to Jaipal, was simply a modern restatement of his own people’s point of view. In adivasi society, there was no discrimination by caste and gender. Thus “you cannot teach democracy to the tribal people; you have to learn democratic ways from them.”

Eight months later, Jaipal was asked to speak in the debate on the national flag. Jawaharlal Nehru had moved a resolution proposing that the flag be a “horizontal tricolour of saffron, white and dark green in equal proportions”, with a wheel in navy blue in the centre. On behalf of his people, Jaipal said he had “great pleasure in acknowledging this Flag as the Flag of our country in future”.

But then he continued, “Sir, most of the members of this House are inclined to think that the flag hoisting is the privilege of the Aryan civilized. Sir, the Adibasis had been the first to hoist flags and fight for their flags. …Each village has its own flag and that flag cannot be copied by any other tribe. If any one dared challenge that flag, Sir, I can assure you that that particular tribe would shed its last drop of blood in defending the honour of that flag. Hereafter, there will be two Flags, one Flag which has been here for the past six thousand years, and the other will be this National Flag…This National Flag will give a new message to the Adibasis of India that their struggle for freedom for the last six thousand years is at last over, that they will now be as free as any other in this country.”

Two years later, in the discussion on the draft Constitution, Jaipal made a speech that was spirited in all senses of the word. Bowing to pressure by Gandhians, the prohibition of alcohol had been made a Directive Principle. This, said the adivasi leader, was an interference “with the religious rights of the most ancient people in the country”. For drink was part of their festivals, their rituals, indeed their daily life itself. Thus in West Bengal “it would be impossible for paddy to be transplanted if the Santhal does not get his rice beer. These ill-clad men …have to work knee-deep in water throughout the day, in drenching rain and in mud. What is it in the rice beer that keeps them alive? I wish the medical authorities in this country would carry out research in their laboratories to find out what it is that the rice beer contains, of which the Adibasis need so much and which keeps them against all manner of diseases.”

The constituent assembly had convened a sub-committee on tribal rights headed by the veteran social worker, A.V. Thakkar. Its findings, and the words of Jaipal and company, sensitized the House to the tribal predicament. As a member from Bihar observed, “the tribal people have been made a pawn on the chess-board of provincial politics”. There had been “exploitation on a mass scale; we must hang down our heads in shame”. The “we” referred to Hindu society as a whole. It had sinned against adivasis by either ignoring them or exploiting them. It had done little to bring them modern facilities of education and health; it had colonized their land and forests; and it had brought them under a regime of usury and debt.

In acknowledgement of this, the Constitution mandated that a portion of government jobs and seats in legislatures be reserved for adivasis. As with the untouchables, this was a matter of compensatory justice: a case of Hindus making up in the present for the crimes they had committed in the past.

Jaipal Singh’s work in bringing the tribal question to centre stage is now largely forgotten. Reading the constituent assembly debates forcibly brought him back to my attention. But there was, as I said, also a second reason. It is this: that the Indian victory in the recent Asia Cup hockey tournament made one recall Jaipal’s other side. For before he became a politician he was a brilliant hockey-player, an Oxford Blue and the captain of the first Indian side to win an Olympic gold medal, in Amsterdam in 1928. The Marang Gomke was not just a great leader, but also the precursor to such outstanding adivasi hockey players as Michael Kindo, Dung Dung, and Ignace and Dilip Tirkey.