CAUSES, CONSEQUENCES OF, AND REMEDIES to POVERTY of the TRIBAL MUNDAS of the SUNDERBAN FOREST by Krisnapada Munda University of Khulna (Department of Economic Studies)
INTRODUCTION My name is Krisnapada Munda! I was born 23 years ago in a small village near the Sunderban Forest and I was lucky enough to be sent to school and to have good teachers who offered me the opportunity to get a good education. Along with being lucky enough to go to school I had the privilege of getting a seat at Khulna University where I spent almost 4 years of my student’s life trying to master a subject through which I could be able to help my people to come out of their poverty and misery. The field into which I ventured has been the field of Economics. Being the most educated member among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest I though that it was my moral duty and responsibility to study such a subject through which my people could be somehow benefited. After completing my University studies I have decided to go back to my people and try my best to free them from social exploitation, illiteracy, superstitions and all the uncountable diseases the tribal Mundas living in the South Western part of Bangladesh are affected by. I have no idea about what I’ll be able to achieve but I am determined not to abandon my people! This study-research has six short chapters: after having said something about the tribal people of Bangladesh I’ll deal with the geographical location and historical background of my people. Then I’ll try to find out the main reasons of their poverty and misery and the consequences of such a poverty. Finally I’ll try to say something about what the remedies to come out of such a poverty could be like. I hope this study-research will be helpful not only to my academic qualification but also to all those persons of good will…whoever they may be…Government officials, NGO workers, members of civil society, foreign friends… who will come along to help the tribal Mundas to have a future a little bit better than their past. Before starting the real work I have just mentioned I would like to express my deep gratefulness to the following people: 1- my parents who sent me to school 2- the teachers of my village who encouraged me not to drop out from school 3- the teachers of Munshiganj college 4- the teachers of Khulna University 5- the Christian missionaries for providing me with financial support during my University studies 2
CHAPTER ONE THE TRIBAL PEOPLE OF BANGLADESH It is estimated that there are more than 370 million indigenous people in 70 countries worldwide. Significant advances have been made in recent years to recognise and value the distinctiveness of indigenous communities in terms of their cultural, political, legal and social institutions. The recognition has been articulated through the sustained work of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the initiatives undertaken in the context of the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and in the landmark adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September 2007. UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon spoke for many when he stated that the Declaration marked a’historic moment when UN Member States and indigenous people have reconciled with their painful histories and are resolved to move forward together on the path of human rights, justice and development for all’. More than 45 Indigenous ethnic groups with a population of nearly three million have been living in Bangladesh for centuries. Indigenous peoples in Bangladesh are the most disadvantaged, neglected and vulnerable in the country. The Bangladesh Government does not have any formal policy for the development of indigenous peoples. Indigenous people have often faced eviction from their homelands in the name of development projects. Their land has been taken without their consent. Their culture is treated as inferior in the country. As far as development activities are concerned the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh have little or no voice in decision making. They do not have control on their own development. They have become only the target groups or so called beneficiaries….! Social discrimination operates at various levels and in various ways…even where measures are undertaken by Government agencies or NGOs for indigenous peoples the proposed beneficiaries are seldom consulted prior to the formulation of development projects or in the process of implementation. The Constitution of Bangladesh does not recognise the presence of indigenous peoples in the country. However the Constitution outlaws discrimination on grounds of race, religion and place of birth and provides scope for affirmative action in favour of the’backward section’of citizens. 3
According to these provisions a small percentage of public sector jobs and seats in Government educational institutions are reserved for indigenous people. As Indigenous people are not mentioned in the Constitution of Bangladesh there is not any specific law that makes reference to them as inhabitants and citizens of this country. Probably the only still existing law is section 97 of the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act ratified in 1950 which forbids the transfer of lands by ’aboriginals ’to non-aboriginal persons without the expressed consent of the Government’s District Officer. Altogether with this law (which is supposed to be still active) there are several laws that refer directly to the indigenous people of Chittagong Hill Tracts and their problems. Bangladesh has ratified most of the international human rights treaties including the ILO Convention, 1957 (No.107) that guarantees certain rights such as right to land, self governance and development to indigenous and tribal peoples. It has also endorsed the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development that recognises the vital role of the indigenous peoples on sustainable development and the Economic and Social Council Resolution 2002/22 that establishes the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Therefore Bangladesh is legally bound to comply with these international human rights treaties… however the situation of implementation of the provisions of the aforesaid treaties is far from good. The overall picture of relationship between the Government of Bangladesh and civil society and the indigenous people is not so bright…the general situation of widespread discrimination and neglect of tribal people keeps going on and on through both the Government and civil society. One of the most neglected tribal groups in Bangladesh is represented by the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. Very few people in Bangladesh are aware of the existence of this group….and only recently Bangladesh Government has officially recognised the cultural identity of this tribe which has been living for more than two centuries near the kingdom of the Royal Bengal Tiger…! These people should deserve attention by both Bangladesh Government and civil society because of the very important role played by them in that part of the country. They were the first ones who started clearing the jungle and getting cultivable land out of it. As a reward for this precious work they have been left out of the main stream of civil society and national development…moreover they have been labelled with despising titles such as’buno’and’jungli’and’upojati’and so on… 4
And to add injury to insult the land which was given to them for their own survival gradually was snatched away from their hands. Exploitation by powerful people, neglect by the Government, illiteracy and every kind of social illnesses have pushed this little known ethnic tribal group to the verge of extinction. This short study on their miserable situation would aim at unveiling the injustice perpetrated against them and at the same time draw the attention of both Government and civil society to the problems of this marginalized group towards whom Bangladeshi people living in the South Western parts of the country are highly indebted. And debts… sooner or later… should be paid! The sooner the better ! CHAPTER TWO THE MAIN GROUP OF INDIGENOUS PEOPLE LIVING IN THE SOUTH–WEST COASTAL REGION OF BANGLADESH The South West coastal region of Bangladesh consists of the Districtics of Khulna, Satkhira and Bagherat, together with the Southern part of Jessore District. The region is influenced by the ocean tides coming up from the Bay of Bengal through the numerous estuaries and creeks which cut across the Sunderban Forest. The region comprises the land which was cleared for human settlements out of the Sunderban mangrove forest. The inhabitants used to cultivate rice on that low lying land during the rainy season by building temporary dykes to prevent tidal incursion and by constructing temporary sluice gates to let out surplus of water. After the harvest the dykes and sluice gates were dismantled and tides were given free play again. Nowadays in many parts of that vast area rice cultivation has been replaced by shrimp cultivation, which has brought a real economic disaster for so many people and great abundance to only a few rich people. Along with this economic disaster an ecological disaster is also happening in those areas. Probably the Bangladesh Government of Bangladesh is still unable to assess how far reaching the consequences of both the economic and ecological disaster will be. Human settlements occurred at various times in history and for different reasons in this area. There were those who had been living here originally from pre-historic times. Later at various times different communities emigrated from their original lands to escape either from conflict or famine or other calamities and sought refuge in the vastness of the Sunderban Forest 5
Then there are those people from over populated regions who were attracted by this region by its high productivity. Lastily, during the nineteenth century, the Zamindars (land lords), who received allotments of forest land from the British East India Company, imported aboriginal tribal people from India to clear the forest. Dr. Nihar Ranjan Sarkar in his book’History of the Bengalees’stated: ‘Among the low caste fishermen communities of the Sunderbans, in some places of lower Bengal, especially among the lower class people of the society, one can occasionally come across short people with very dark complexion, woolly hair, upturned thick lips and flat nose. They appear to be the product of Negroid blood (Dr. Nihar Ranjian Sarkar: History of the Bengalees (1899). These people mentioned in that book written more than one hundred years ago must have been the tribal Mundas and the tribal Bagdis and the tribal Mahatos. These are the three tribal groups living at the edge of the Sunderban Forest. The three groups have different cultures and don’t mix with each other. Mr. Ashek Elahi, Principal of’Antarjan Mohila College’of Shamnagar has gathered plenty of informations about the tribal Bagdis whose numerical consistency is quite small. The Mahatos are only a small group of people and all of them live in Koyra P.S. and are quite well off. As this research is about the tribal Mundas I’ll deal only with them and in this chapter I’ll say something on the existing “literature” about them and I’ll mention their main features and describe their geographical location. As I have already said in the introduction of this study most of the Bangladeshi people know absolutely nothing about this tribal group of people who have been able to preserve their ethnic identity in spite of many obstacles. Not only common Bangladesh people know nothing about this group of tribal people. Government officials are not aware of their existence either. And there is no place for the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest in the official maps showing the location of tribal people in Bangladesh. The few people who have a little bit of knowledge about the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest call them’buno’which means’people of the forest’: that is uncivilised and savage people and therefore considered unfit for human association. In the social ladder of Bangladeshi people the place of the Mundas is below the Untouchables whose general conditions are much better than the Mundas’in every aspect. The famous definition given by Mahatma Gandhi about the Untouchables of India as the people of the 4 Ls can be applied to this group of people as well.
The Munda of the South West coastal region of Bangladesh are really’the last, the least, the lowest and the last’among the poor people living in this part of the country. Various tribal communities in Bangladesh have been deeply studied by anthropologists and social scientists: no studies and researches have been done so far on this group of people. Only a few articles have appeared now and then on newspapers both in English and in Bengali. One of this article appeared in the Daily Star on January 2000 and was written by an anthropologist who had done an interesting research on the Mundas living in the North of Bangladesh. This is what was written in that article: “A good number of ethnic communities are found in our country. They are usually known as uncivilised and technologically backward sections of our society. Most of our people do not know the uniqueness about their customs and traditions. Often they are neglected and victimised by our countrymen. Many times even the State remains silent about their properties rights and other relevant legal issues. The Mundas are such a community whose history is known to a very few. This community is found mainly in the Southern and Northern part of Bangladesh. People of our country are more or less familiar whith the Munda community of the Northern part. The Southern part is still beyond the notice of the common people. The Mundas living in the Southern part are found especially in Khulna District and the coastal area of the Sunderban Forest. They demand that their original residence was in Ranchi of Bihar in India. About two hundred years ago the Zamindars (land lords) of this region brought them to this part of the country. They are the first people who started cultivating the vast area of South Bangladesh by cutting the jungle. Later one the Bengalis began to establish their residence near the Munda community and gradually they grabbed their properties to such an extent that now the Munda do not even have the land on which to build their shelter. Many of them live near roads and canals and are tortured and exploited by the elites and money lenders in diverse ways. The Mundas are now an almost isolated community and they hardly get any attention from the State. An immeasurable discrimination exists between them and us. Steps should immediately be taken to minimise this prevailing discrimination and to help them improve their living conditions and maintain their traditions, customs and beliefs” (Sk.Mashudur Rahman: Aborigines of the Sunderbans: Daily Star: January 28, 2000). 7
Another excellent article was written by the chairman of Department of Anthropology of Rajshahi University. The article is titled: Mahatos, Mundas of the Sunderbans. The writer’s name is: Dr.A H K Zehadul Karim. The article can be found in the following book: ’Indigenous knowledge and practices in Bangladesh’first published in August 2000 by Sukanta Sen, BARCIK/IARD, 3/7 Block D, Lalmatia, Dhaka 1207,Bangladesh (from page 120 to page 127) Several articles in Bengali have also appeared on various newspapers….for those who are interested in reading them these articles have been fotocopied and attached herewith [in the original only] with this research. A good piece of information on the Mundas of the coastal region of South West Bangladesh has been produced by a Rishi young man named Milon Das who spent a good amount of time among the Mundas of Shamnagar Police Station to study their habits, customs and problems. He recorded his observations (in Bengali) in a short booklet titled’Adibashi Mundader Jibon Boichittro’. This booklet,published in January 2002, has been deemed by the readers a very valuable work because it gives a clear and exhaustive picture of the Mundas of Southern Bangladesh. Now I would like to say a few words on the main features of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. The Government of India has established the following criteria to indicate those communities which are classified as tribal: • • • • • •
geographical isolation distinctive culture primitive traits shyness of contact with community at large economic backwardness love for singing, dancing and drinking
All these features of tribal people living in India can be seen also among the Mundas living in the coastal region of Bangladesh around the Sunderban Forest. The villages of Munda people are very clearly separated from other people’s villages and are located in the most remote, inaccessible and unhealthy places. In order to survive that have to mix somehow with the main stream of Bangladeshi society but they have certain and essential characteristics, which confer upon them the strong convinction of belonging to a people who have a distinctive culture and identity. 8
Their way of life and habitation seem to be extremely primitive and their economy is a from hand to mouth economy. In their relationship with other people it appears very clearly that they are not a dominant group. Singing and dancing are a very important part of their culture. For special celebrations such as religious festivals, marriages and other joyful events, drinking of home made rice beer is a must. To sum up: it is evident that these Munda people living in the coastal region of Bangladesh are an ethnic group completely different from the Bengali race and they are proud to call themselves’Adibashi Munda’. I’ll now say something on the geographical location of the Mundas and their total population living in the coastal area of South West Bangladesh. The Mundas of South West Bangladesh are scattered in around 30 villages situated in three different Police Stations (Thanas) under the Districts of Khulna and Satkhira. (see map No 4) Namely: - Koyra P.S. in Khulna District - Tala P.S. in Satkhira District - Shamnagar P.S. in Satkhira District These are the names of the villages where the Mundas of Koyra P.S. live: - Tepakali - Jorosingh - Nona Dighir Par - Boro Bari - Katkata - Botul Bazar - Antihara - Poshurtola - Majrait - Nolpara - Patakata - Gatir Gher These are the names of the Munda villages in Tala P.S.: - Horinkola - Dudler Char - Bakkali And these are the names of the Munda villages under the P.S of Shamnagar: - Gabura - Parsemari - Dumuria - Sapkhali - Shoilkhali - Kalinchi 9
- Betkhali - Taranipur - Khasipur - Dhumghat - Srepholkati - Munshiganj - Chunu-Burigoalini - Datinakhali Since nobody knew anything about the real figures of the total Munda population living under these three Police Stations a census was made and the results have been as follows: - Koyra P.S.: 240 families - Tala P.S.: 70 families - Shamnagar P.S: 385 families - Total: 695 families The total amount of the Munda population under these three Police Stations is as follows: - Koyra P.S.: 1270 persons - Tala P.S.: 380 persons - Shamnagar P.S.: 2015 persons - Total: 3675 persons The Mundas living in the three villages of Tala P.S. came from both Koyra and Shamnagar P.S. They were brought there by rich businessmen and well off farmers to work in their fields. They were promised to be given at least the ownership of the land on which they built their simple huts. So far that promise has not been kept….and it may never be kept… so far the Mundas of Tala P.S. are owners only of the air they breathe… About ten years ago the Mundas of Dudler Char joined Christianity. Unfortunately that decision proved to be more harmful than helpful to them. By joining Christianity they completely cut off themselves from their original group and were not heartedly welcome into the Church of which they became members. Therefore the marriage arrangement problem arose seriously for them as they were not able to find husbands for their daughters. In order to solve this important problem a couple of years ago they left Christianity and went back to their original group…and that was a very wise decision…!
It appears that some 30 or 40 years ago the total Munda population living in the South Western part of Bangladesh was not as small as it is now. The Mundas who still live there say that at least half portion of their group had to face such economic and social hardships that they decided to leave Bangladesh and took shelter around Bongaon, a small town on the way to Calcutta in West Bengal. Some kind of relationship is still going on between the Indian group and the Bangladeshi one. It is heard that the Indian Munda group very often invites the Bangladeshi Munda group to leave Bangladesh and settle down in India. Since this has not happened yet, it might mean that the Mundas of West Bengal are not free from oppression and exploitation. Therefore the Mundas of South West Bangladesh prefer to stay where they are! CHAPTER THREE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE MUNDAS OF THE SUNDERBAN FOREST The Mundas of the South West coastal regions of Bangladesh claim to be the descendants of tribal people who came to this part of the country over two centuries ago from Ranchi, the capital of Bihar. The mother land of their ancestors must have been that part of Bihar which is called’Chotanagpur’. Chotanagpur is not precisely defined. It includes part of Bihar and some neighbouring parts of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Ranchi is more or less the epicentre of this area called’Chatanagpur’. To Muslims historians Chotanagpur was known as’Jharkand’or forest country. This name reappeared on the map of India because at midnight of November 14, 2000 that part of India which was called’Chotanagpur’was declared as the 28 th independent state of the Republic of India. The demand for a separate state called’Jharkand’already had been called for as early as 1954. Another memorandum for a Jharkand state was submitted to the then Prime Minister, Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1973. The proposal included 16 disctricts from 4 states: 3 from West Bengal, 7 from Bihar,4 from Orissa and 2 from Madhya Pradesh. Eventually 8 years ago the long cherished dream of nearly 3 crores inhabitants of Jharkand for a separate identity of its own became a reality. A huge number of tribal people (called Adivasi) live in the new state of Jharkand. 11
The Mundas are one of the strongest groups among these tribal people. The Mundas are also called’Sarna’people. ‘Sarna’refers to a grove of’sal’trees where the Munda used to venerate their God and their spirits. The word’Sarna’is used to designate the ancestral religion of the Munds. By extension the term’Sarna tribe’is applied to the Mundas of Chatanagpur as well as in Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Assam, Nepal, Bangladesh and other places to which they have migrated. The history of the Mundas, including their original habitat and migration, are still shrouded in a thick veil of mystery. Various traditions, legends, stories and myths speak of their previous residence in various parts of India. It is claimed that after long wanderings through North and North West of India, they finally settled in the forests of Chatanagpur around the sixth century B.C. The Sarna tribes or Munda tribes are one of the most prominent tribes of India. They hold a unique position in the tribal map of India because of their numerical strength. According to some statistics they number over one million. Their main concentration is in the Chotanagpur plateau of Bihar. However they are also distributed in other areas as we have mentioned before. Since they live in close proximity with other tribal groups of Bihar often their identity is confused with them. Although linguistically they belong to the large Austro-Asiatic family like the Santals and the Oraons, the Mundas have their distinct language, history, social structure and religion. Ethnically they belong to the broad group of Proto-Australoid and speak the Mundari dialect of the Austro-Asiatic family. The Mundas call themselves’Horoko’, which means’men’. But they are also proud to be addressed as Munda as well. Ironically, the word’Munda’means’a man of prestige and wealth’….it is puzzling that their Hindu neighbours gave this name to them. The Mundas are an endogamous tribe. They usually do not marry outside the tribal community because to them the tribe is sacred. Their family system is of nuclear type consisting of father, mother and unmarried children. Usually, after marriage, the couple sets up their independent family. However the family ties are highly valued. The Mundas love community celebrations. They are very community oriented. Their life is punctuated with social, agrarian and religious festivals, which bring them together for communal celebrations where drinking of rice beer and singing and dancing have a very important place. 12
It is said that of the Mundas that a child learns to dance as soon as he can walk and learns to sing as soon as he can talk. The Chotanagpur Mundas are primarily an agricultural people. Agriculture makes the base of their life. Therefore land is their greatest concern. They are a resilient race. They are capable of long hours of manual work. They are also known for endurance, dependability and responsibility. As all the other tribal people of India also the Mundas lived for centuries in villages almost exclusively by themselves. But since about two centuries ago the ownership of their lands and fields started to be contested by invaders of superior culture and power (British and high caste Hindus) and the Mundas kept losing the rights on their ancestral properties. Since India attained political independence this process has been more accelerated because Chotanagpur is rich in valuable minerals. In the name of the so called’national development’a lot of land belonging to tribal people has been confiscated by the Indian Government. For the Mundas this loss of ancestral property meant not only the loss of their livelihood and material welfare but also the disintegration of their social structures and their traditional culture. Several times in their history the Mundas rose against the “dikus” (invading landlords) and fought violently to defend the ownership of their land. In order to save their lands they were ready to change their religion and to accept Christianity if the Christian missionaries were ready to help them. And indeed the Christian missionaries offered them their services for the recovery of unjustly lost land property. The Christian missionary to whom the Mundas (and other tribal people of the area) flocked to as a liberator was a Belgian man whose missionary activity left and indelible mark in the history of the Church in Chotanagpur, in the Church in India and in the history of the Catholic Missions in general: Fr. Constant Lievens. This great man deserves a place with the great missionaries of India and of the whole Catholic Church: Saint Paul, Saint Francis Xavier, Roberto de Nobili. Matteo Ricci etc. Father Lievens was able to free the Mundas from the oppression of their landlords and help them to save the ownership of their ancestral properties. It was a police officer, a friend of Fr. Lievens, who gave him the key to his future success. This gentleman told Fr. Lievens: “If you want to make Christians then take upon yourself the defence of the Mundas, chiefly in questions of ownership of land, land rent and forced labour. If you do this you will have as many Christians and you wish.” 13
Fr. Lievens later said: “I followed his advice and what he had foretold happened”. This great missionary was convinced that mission work is first of all God’s work (Missio Dei) and a work of grace. He was able to bestow the Lord’s grace on the Mundas by helping them with their land and forced labour problem according to the law. He would acknowledge the Government authority and invoke the saving power of its laws. He put all his trust in the law being the true protector of the people and their rights. He would explain the laws to the illiterate Mundas and point out their rights and obligations before the law. During those times people dared not oppose the injustice of the landlords. Fr. Lievens would convince them that the law was a protection for them and a means to remedy injustice. As people were too poor to pay for the court cases Fr. Lievens would sometimes advance money but mainly would direct them to honest lawyers he trusted. Fr. Lievens’s missionary work lasted only 7 years (from 1885 to 1892) but during that short span of time thousands and thousands of Mundas and other tribal people joined Christianity. Fr. Lievens sped like a meteor to stir up an unparalleled movement of conversions and after seven years of heroic zeal died in his country in 1893. Another famous Jesuit missionary priest continued Fr. Lievens’missionary work among the Mundas of Chotanagpur: Fr. John Baptist Hoffmann. He was able to make the British Administration understand that the Mundas and other tribal people of that area had been agitating against the Bristih Raj for nothing more that the recognition of their basic rights of possession of the fields they themselves or their ancestors had made the sweat of their brow, by clearing forest tracts in the midst of prowling tigers and hissing snakes. This explanation brought about the promulgation of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 in whose drafting Fr. Hoffmann gave a much appreciated help. This Act procured the Mundas and tribal people of Chotanagpur official title deeds for their property. For the economic uplift of those tribal people Fr. Hoffmann launched in 1908 the Catholic Co-operative Credit Society that supplied on easy terms its members the cash those poor peasants would otherwise borrow at exorbitant rates of interest from greedy money lenders. Father Hoffmann was able to acquire an unequalled knowledge of the Munda culture, language and tribal mentality and rendered a great service to the tribe, its culture and language by compiling the remarkable’Encyclopedia Mundarica’, a masterpiece of information on the Munda tribe. 14
The efforts of these two missionary priests, Fr. Lievens and Fr. Hoffmann, will go down in both the history of the Mundas and the Catholic Church in that part of India. Along with the conversion movement towards Christianity brought forward by Christian missionaries an internal’messianic’movement happened among the Mundas of Chotanagpur in 1895. In India such messianic movements started since 150 years ago when outsiders invaded the domain of the aboriginal tribes and kept robbing their land and properties. When the invading outsiders could not be controlled by peaceful means or by armed revolt the tribals had one hope left: the prayers for a divine saviour or a’Messiah’. Indeed such a Messiah appeared and claimed to be sent by God to liberate tribals from their tyrants. The messianic movement of Birsha Bhagawan among the Mundas of Chotanagpur is certainly the best known and the most famous one. About two hundred years ago the Mundas were deprived of their ancient land rights by the Bristish Land Settlement Act which turned them from owners into tenants who could be removed at will by the landlords. Between 1790 and 1832 the Mundas revolted seven times against the landlords but with no success. In their despair they turned to Christian missionaries who did their best to give them back their rights on their land thus becoming the saviours of the Christianised Mundas. The non Christianised Mundas found their saviour in a Munda young man named Birsa Munda (1875-1900) who became an anti missionary, anti diku (outsisder) and anti British Raj freedom fighter. In 1895 Birsa Munda presented himself as the messenger of God to liberate his fellow tribesmen from the foreign domination. Later he made himself God and is therefore known by the name’Birsa Bhagawan’. He claimed to possess miraculous powers such as healing the sick and making his followers invulnerable. He instituted a new Munda liturgy and forbade the veneration of deities and spirits. He prophesied a terrible deluge in which all his opponents would be drowned and only his followers would survive. Birsa Bhagawan has so much success among the Mundas and attracted so many followers because the Mundas identified him with Sing Bonga, their main god. Birsa’s movement turned more and more hostile against all outsiders (diku) who had invaded the land of the Mundas. Several times he planned an armed rising. In 1897 he was arrested on the eve of such a rising. Pardoned on the jubilee of 15
Queen Victoria he planned another rising which took place in 1899 with a bloody defeat of the Munda rebels. Birsa played a rather unheroic role in the encounter and was able to escape. Eventually he was caught and taken to Ranchi where he died of cholera soon after having been jailed. The Mundas still venerate him and his memory is sacred. A small group of his followers still observe the rules of life Birsa had introduced while Indian nationalists hail him as a freedom fighter. They ignore the fact that Birsa wanted to expel them along with British officials and Muslims. There is a novel written in Hindi by Mohasheta Devi on Birsa Munda and his “Ulgulan” (rebellion). The same novel has been translated also in Bengali and its title is “Oronner odhikar” (Right on the jungle). From 1995 to 2000 a poster to celebrate the’Birsa Ulgulan Centenary’was disseminated through the entire Ranchi District by Birsaites (followers of Birsa Munda). This is a sign that the memory of their beloved “Dharti Aba” (Father of the Earth) is still present among the Mundas of Jharkand. I thought this piece of history on what happened among the tribal Mundas of Chotanagpur should be written in this research because the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest know nothing at all about the above mentioned events which occurred among their own people. Which means that this group of Mundas left their ancestral land a long time before those events would happen. When did actually this group of tribal people arrive to Bangladesh and to the area of Sunderban Forest? No historical records about the arrival of these tribal Munda people to South West Bangladesh are available. The only records available are from a few articles which have appeared on newspapers or on reports made by a few NGOs interested on these people. The first NGO which developed a strong interest on the indigenous people of South West Bangladesh is a Khulna based NGO called CDP (Coastal Development Partnership). The formal Director of this NGO, late Mr. Ashraful Alam Tutu, published several interesting articles on these indigenous communities. This is what he wrote in one of those articles: “According to oral tradition the arrival of the Mundas to these South West regions can be devided into three stages: 1- First of all the Raja of Naldanga in Kaliganj of Jenaidah had brought them long before the British period. They were employed as’lathials’or guards in the royal household. 16
2- Secondly when Indigo plantation was started in this part of the country the planters brought them for working in the fields. 3- Thirdly, when at the closing of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century the Jamidari System was introduced and landlords got leases of large plots of land in the Sunderban Forest the tribal Mundas were brought to clear the jungle and establish agriculture in those cleared lands”(Ashraful Alam Tutu: Adibashi Barta-April 2002, page 3three). And in an already mentioned article appeared on the book published by BARCIK and written by Dr. A H M Zehadul Karim we find these statements: “Data on Mundas of the Sunderban indicate that they had arrived here from Ranchi in India 150 years ago. This is evident from the statement of a 70 years Munda called Motilal who provided us with ethno historic evidence on their settlement here in the Sunderbans. He stated that one Debendranath Sarkar from Calcutta had brought them here to clear the jungles of the Sunderban and make them cultivable.” Another document of Koyra Thana indicates that the Mundas were brought to Koyra by a zamindar named Godadhan Mallik from Calcutta’(Dr. A H M Zehadul Karim: Mahatos, Mundas of the Sunderbans). Before finishing this chapter it may be worthwhile quoting what we find in the book “Tala Upojelar Itihas (Dr. A H M Zehadul Karim: Mahatos, Mundas of the Sunderbans - Tala Upojelar Itihas: page 43): “The Mundas live in the coastal area of the Sunderban Forest. They came from Ranchi in India. Two hundred years ago a landlord bought them…they cleared the forest and got cultivale land out of it” (English translation by the writer who did not do a translation mistake: that word is really “bought” and not “brought”.-Tala Upojelar Itihas: page 43) CHAPTER FOUR THE MAIN REASONS OF POVERTY OF THE MUNDAS OF THE SUNDERBAN There is a nice novel written in Bengali by Sree Shamal Gongapadday titled “Alo nei” in which we can find these interesting statements: “I went to visit the Munda village that morning…these’buno’people are part of our society…they came from Chotanagpur nearly two hundred years ago during the period of the East India Company….they cleared the jungle and settled down there…then so much time passed…rail way arrived…colleges were built… electricity appeared….but these ’buno’ people remained as they were when they arrived….no change …no social development for them! 17
When I think about our Indian Subcontinent my head gets confused …so many languages…so many people….and so many sins we have committed against them! No development for the’buno’people…in spite of their hard work to clean the jungle and get cultivable and habitable land for us.” (Sree Shamol Gangapadday: Alo nei). No change…no social and human development…for the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest…these human beings languish in poverty and misery. But one hundred years ago or so they were not in such a miserable situation: they were quite wealthy and healthy because they were owners of nice plots of land which had been given to them by either the Bristish Raj or the Hindu landlords for their livelihood. It has not been possible to find out who actually gave the land to this group of tribal people: whether the Hindu Jamindars or the British Government…but this is not a very important matter. What is very important to understand is why the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest became so poor and miserable and how their land gradually was snatched away from their hands and got into the hands of the Bengali settlers who came to live in that part of the country. The main and first cause of poverty and misery of the tribal Mundas is their landlessness! For people who earn their livelihood from the earth land is life and life is land… this is some kind of a’chironton bani’which is valid for all human beings living on this planet. Everybody knows how much precious is land for farmers in Bangladesh…to tribal people their natural resources are even more precious and stealing their land is equal to condemning them to death. What has happened to most tribal people of the world has happened also to the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest: the land cleared out of the forest by their forefathers, the land on which they had built their simple huts, the land from which they used to earn their livelihood is not in their hands any more….that land has gone into other people’s hands ….so now the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest, like so many other tribal people of this world, are strangers in their own land!
But how did the Mundas’ land slip out of their hands? How was it stolen and robbed by the Bengali settlers, both Hindu and Muslim? Various tricks were used: here they are! 1- The Bristish or the Hindu landlords had given the tribal Mundas “olikito” that is’unwritten’rights on the ownership of that land. Now according to property laws of this country if legal written documents are not produced ownership of land can not be considered legally valid. So it was very easy for the Bengali settlers to produce’jhal dolil’that is’fake documents’and in this way the land of the tribal Mundas easily changed legal ownership. Among all the tribal people of the world the’unwritten right’on the ownership of land is very important because that is the real proof that these tribal people were the first inhabitants of a certain land and therefore they had rights on that land. But this important point is supposed to be first understood and then accepted by both Government and civil society of that certain land…otherwise those poor tribal people will be in troubles….in many countries of the world where tribal people live this important point is taken into consideration neither by the Government nor by the civil society… Bangladesh is one of these countries…! 2- According to the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Act 1950 which forbids the transfer of land owned by aboriginal to non aboriginal people without the expressed consent of the Governments’district officer the land of the Mundas could not be sold to Bengali settlers. So these Bengali “neighbours” gradually convinced the simple minded Mundas to add the title “Sardar” to their names instead of the title “Munda”. By doing that they would acquire prestige and honour as this title is very common among both Hindus and Muslims. The Mundas did not understand the trick behind this suggestion so from 1950 onwards they kept changing their titles from Munda to Sardar: in this way they became somehow Bengalis and their land could be sold to and bought by the “good” Bengali neighbours! 3- The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have their own language and use it always among themselves. Nowadays most of them have learnt Bengali as they must interact with Bangladeshi people for ordinary life transactions: but may years ago most of them could neither understand nor speak the Bengali language clearly and properly, therefore both Hindu and Muslim neighbours could play nice tricks on them.
4- Let’s listen what Probash Chandra Munda who lives at Gabura, a village under Shamnagar Thana, has to say on this matter: “At that time the tribal Munda could not understand Bengali properly…so they used to do whatever the Hindu or Muslim neighbours would suggest….if a Munda gentleman would agree to sell a’biga’ of land the good…Hindu or Muslim neighbours would tell him that the correct Bengali word for a’biga’of land is an ’ekor’…in this way the land of the Mundas easily slipped out of their hands.” 5- During the rainy season or on occasion of natural disasters such as floods or cyclones very often the tribal Mundas had to borrow either money or food from the Hindu or Muslim neighbours in order to survive…in case of failure to repay back what had been borrowed land would be taken from the tribal Mundas…in this way a sack of rice would be repaid back with a biga of land and five hundred taka would be repaid back with an ekor of land…! And if the tribal Mundas would not agree with this kind of’just’…arrangements their land would be taken away forcibly…! 6- The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have never been a dominant group…therefore shyness, submissiveness and lack of courage is one of their main features…which means that very seldom the have tried to save their lands by filing cases against all those ’bhumigrashi’ who like vultures have snatched away their land properties. 7- It appears that the land of the Mundas first went into the hands of Hindu people and then gradually that land went into Muslim hands….and then when either Hindus or Muslims were asked why they snatched away the poor tribal people’s land the Mundas would be blamed: the old trick of blaming the victims! In a country like Bangladesh and especially in a place like the Sunderban area where the only economic strength comes from agriculture the overall situation of landless people will be a situation of abject poverty and misery. And this is the case of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. Landlessness therefore seems to be the main reason of the poverty of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest But there could be other reasons, may be not as serious as the first one, but nevertheless quite important to understand why the life style of the Mundas is in such an abject situation. Who must be accused and blamed for the miseries of this tribal group? 20
First of all I would blame the Bangladesh Government for which the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest, at least until a couple of years ago, would not exist as a distinct ethnic group. A couple of years ago the writer of this thesis went to the TNO office in Shamnagar and introduced himself as a member of the tribal community living in this part of the country. That Government official made fun of me and asked me if I had gone mad….according to him there were no tribal people in South West Bangladesh….and according to him I was supposed to be a member of some out caste or untouchable or low caste Hindu community living in the coastal area of the Sunderban Forest. During the last few years we, the Mundas of South West Bangladesh, have repeatedly asked journalists to write about us and our grievances. Some of them wrote nice articles on us on national papers several times. Copy of two articles written by journalists sympathetic towards us have been enclosed in this research. Probably thanks to these journalists Bangladesh Government recently has started not only to recognise our identity as a distinct ethnic group but has also come forward to give us a little bit of financial help for our social promotion and development. In 2007 we got about one hundred and fifty thousand taka from Bangladesh Government and in 2008 we were granted the amount of nearly three hundred and fifty thousand taka to be used for sanitation, education, income generating activities and religious purposes, such as grave yard maintenance and temples construction ! Unfortunately that money reaches our hands through the local administration… therefore very often a good amount of that financial meant for us gets lost on the way….! We have been told that every year we will receive these grants from the Bangladesh Government…and we express our sincere gratefulness to the Government of Bangladesh for this precious help….for sure all our needs will not be met by Government help but নাই-মামার েচেয়ে য কানা-মামা ভাল। (nei mamar cheye kana mama bhalo, that is: Half a loaf is better than no loaf)! In future we would like these Government grants to come directly into our hands instead of reaching us through the hands of a third party! And we would like our opinion on allocation of those Government grants to be taken into consideration! 21
I cannot end this paragraph on the Government efforts towards our human and social development without mentioning the deep and sincere interest shown towards my people by the present Thana Nirbahi Officer, Mr. Dilip Bonik. As far as I recall he has been the first Government official who has been keeping a sympathetic eye on our old people providing them with blankets in winter and our hostel girls sending them teaching materials and edible items on various occasions. This gentleman has also shown great interest on our cultural heritage and on a special occasion he had his evening meal with us. We will never forget this “mathir manush”! If the tribal Munda are so poor along with Bangladesh Government I would blame also Bangladeshi society which has never come forward to give us a helping hand to come out of our misery and distress. The so called’civil society’has come forward only to use us for its own selfish interests and to despise us….for Bengali people the Mundas as “buno manush”, that is “uncivilised people”. This word “buno” is the most common title given by civil society to my people. This term deserves a little bit of explanation. This word was used by the first time by Sir Herbert Hope Risley in his famous book “The tribes and caste of Bengal” and was applied mainly to those tribes which came from Jharkand to Bengal for various purposes: to work on indigo plantations, clean the jungle and get cultivable land out of it and so on. This is what Risley wrote about this word: “The etymology of the word is obscure but I suspect it to be a corrupted form of’ban’or jungle, having reference either to the fact that the castes and tribes in question hail from the jungles of Western Bengal, or to the aptitude that they show for clearing and bringing under cultivation waste lands covered with jungle. In either case it is closely analogous to the word’Jungly’, which is used by persons concerned with emigration to the tea districts as a general designation for all coolies who come from Chatanagpur”. (Risely: 1891, 164) The following may be the reasons for applying this word to the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest: • they came from the jungles of Jharkand and West Bengal • one of their main work was to clean the forest to get cultivable land out of it • their food habits which were and still are quite different from food habits of Bengali people • their life style which was and still is characterised by primitive traits 22
This word is still the most commonly used word by civil society when it refers to the tribal Munda of the Sunderban, and clearly it does not have a very positive connotation: it is rather a despising and contemptuous word. We have already said something about the tricks used by civil society to steal the land of the Mundas; a few words should now be said about the latest form of oppression imposed by civil society on several Munda villages. For almost two decades in the South Western region of Bangladesh a devastating business has been going on…the business of the so called’white gold’…that is the profitable business of shrimps cultivation…several Munda villages have been so damaged by this business that one wonders how people living in those villages have been able to keep themselves alive… Shrimps cultivation is usually done in salty water…so 12 months a year several Munda villages are surrounded by salty water and wherever there is salty water no agriculture is possible, no domestic animals can be kept….not to say anything about shortage of drinking water all the year round. Moreover thanks to shrimps cultivation the already weak and hand to mouth economy of the Mundas has become even weaker: agricultural work would offer a good number of them the opportunity to get employment for several months a year…shrimps cultivation does not offer this opportunity….shrimps cultivation has been a real curse for the tribal Mundas…they have not got any benefit from the so called’white cold’which has fattened the few investors on this business but has increased the poverty and misery of the tribal Mundas. To see how far oppression of civil society on the poor Munda people can go it is enough to visit the Munda village of Kashipur, two kilometres away from the historical place of Isshoripur under Shamnagar Police Station….! Along with robbing the tribal Mundas of their land and surrounding their villages with salty water civil society exploits Munda people as follows: 1- paying them half of the wages they are supposed to get for selling labour 2- cheating them at the end of their labour Like all landless and poor people of this country also the Mundas are compelled to work as daily labourers with rich and well off people. At the end of their work the Bangladeshi labourers are paid according to the price labour of the place but the Buno Mundas must be happy with what their employer will give them …which sometimes is half the amount of money paid to the Bangladeshi labourers…! Very often the tribal Mundas are compelled to move to other districts in search of labour which can be planting or harvesting rice or hard work in brick factories and so on! 23
As long as labour opportunities are available they stay away from their families weeks after weeks and their employers just give them food and accommodation and promise of a good salary at the end of their work. Very often when the work is over the employer disappears and the poor Mundas have to go back home empty handed…! Poritosh Munda, a young man from Kalinchi under Shamnagar Police Station, three months ago went to Syleth to work as a daily labourer in a brick factory. He was supposed to get food, accommodation and 2500 taka per month. When his work was over he was given a bus ticket to go back home and the promise that his salary would be sent to him through the post office. Several weeks have passed since Poritosh Munda has come back home….but his salary must have got lost on the way…! Of course under these awful circumstances the poverty of the Mundas not only will persist but will increase …! Then I would blame the NGO people who are quite busy in getting cheap money from foreign donors but have completely bypassed the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. There are quite a good number of NGOs working in this part of the country: Caritas Bangladesh, Shetu, Uttaran, Sushilon, Ledars, Barcick and so on. Caritas Bangladesh is the only NGO which has not forgotten the tribal Mundas and has done something for them: there is a school in the Munda para of Khoikali run by Caritas and some Munda families living in the same village and in the villages of Kalinchi and Betkhali have been given solar electricity by the same NGO. These works can be considered’relief’works…and relief work can be done very easily. Development works are not so easy ….in its attempt to offer the Mundas a development opportunity Caritas Bangladesh has not been very successful…. A couple of years ago Caritas excavated two canals just in front of the two Munda villages of Taranipur and Betkhali in order to have water for cultivation during the dry season. According to the original plan the poor Mundas living in those two villages were supposed to get the lion’s share of that water….but as it usually happens in Bangladesh and especially in rural Bangladesh when a canal is excavated crocodiles will come… kal kata kumir ana! The result of those two projects is that the water of those canals irrigates the fields of the rich farmers of those two villages! And Caritas Bangladesh has no objections against this kind of injustice…also Caritas sticks to the famous saying “Shokter bhokto noromer Jom”… in spite of the Christian principles this NGO should be inspired by! 24
Along with having been neglected by Government and civil society and NGOs the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have been unknown to the Christian missionaries for a long time Various groups of Christian missionaries have been busy with out caste people in the South Western part of Bangladesh….the PIME missionaries first and then the Jesuites Missionaries and eventually the Xaverian Missionaries came to this part of the world but only a couple of years ago a little bit of missionary activity was started among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. If Christian missionaries would have discovered this group of people 50 years ago and would been busy with them for sure the situation of the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest would not have been so miserable! All over the Indian Subcontinent (and in Bangladesh as well…!) the Christian Missions were the pioneers in approaching the problems of tribal welfare. Even though very often if not always tinged with the motive of conversion to Christianity the approach of Christian missions to the tribal welfare problems based on principles of humanitarism and service to the downtrodden seems to be the only right approach and more fruitful to tribal people than the approach of the Government and other organizations. Landlessness and negligence from the Government, from civil society, from NGOs and Christian missionaries may be the external causes of such a great poverty of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. But for sure there are also other causes which can be called’internal causes’of poverty and have been more detrimental than the external causes. These causes are briefly listed below: 1. Lack of leadership: the’conditio sine qua non’to improve the overall situation of every social group wherever it may be situated on the face of this earth is an active, energetic, efficient and live leadership…..which unfortunately has been missing and is absolutely absent among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. The so called’leaders’of this tribal people are a few old men, completely illiterate and ignorant, who are able only to fight among themselves, look for their own selfish interests, arrange child marriages and get drunk with their home made rice beer. No wonder that the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest got stuck in poverty and misery with such a poor leadership. And their miserable situation will not change until and unless a new kind of leadership will be born.
2- Child marriages: there is a saying among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest which goes on like this:’prothom shontanke bhute mare’, that is:’the first child is taken away by the ghosts’. Of course ghosts do not take away any children…children die because their mothers are physically immature and unfortunately very often the ghosts take also the mother along with the first child. The awful custom of’child marriage’is the main reason of such premature deaths. It has been estimated that in Bangladesh half of the marriages in whatever communities they may be celebrated must be considered’child marriages’as the girls who are forced to get married by their parents are not ready either psychologically or physically for such an important event for a human being. This awful custom is gradually disappearing among well educated and well off segments of Bangladeshi society but it is still quite strong among the weakest and poorest social groups such as low caste and class people and tribal groups. The Government of Bangladesh has framed special laws to prohibit and prevent such an evil custom but people in Bangladesh do not know anything about this law. Moreover Government authorities who are supposed to enforce this law are completely indifferent about it and won’t be co-operative at all with those who would like to fight against this awful custom. As long as this awful custom will persist neither women’s world will improve neither Bangladeshi society will change and have a better future. What Napoleon used to say (“give me an educated mother and I’ll give give you a prosperous nation”) will just remain an empty sentence. An empty sentence for the Bangladeshi society and especially for the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest. 3-Addiction to drinking: one of the main features of tribal people scattered all over in the vast Indian Subcontinent is their love for singing, dancing and drinking.The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest cannot hold an important meeting or a marriage ceremony or a religious festival without the presence of the “boro bhai” (elder brother) which is their beer made out of rice and special herbal ingredients. Most of them are so addicted to drinking’Haria’or’Shita mod’(these are the most common names for this home-made beer) that they get drunk very easily and everybody knows that the effects of drunkenness are quite deleterious for human health. This alcoholic beverage causes serious problems to both mental and physical health of the tribal people of the Sunderban Forest and when health is damaged the already precarious economic situation of these people keeps getting worse and worse. 26
CHAPTER FIVE CONSEQUENCES OF POVERTY OF THE MUNDAS OF THE SUNDERBAN FOREST We all know that in order to live e decent human life every person should be able to satisfy his/her basic needs which are the needs of: • food • cloth • shelter • education • treatment If we would declare and announce that the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have so far been unable to satisfy these 5 basic needs nobody could accuse us of telling lies. Let’s see what the situation of the Mundas is like as for these 5 basic needs are concerned. 1. Food: Usually the economic situation of extremely poor people is called’from hand to mouth’economy….which means that poor people’s food is available only if work is available. As the majority of Munda people are landless and can’t produce their own food they have to depend on other people for any kind of employment in order to earn that little amount of money which enables them to buy sufficient food for their families. But employment is never available 12 months a year so the poor Mundas have a very weak food purchasing capacity. The normal diet of the Mundas does not differ very much from the diet of Bangladeshi people: they also live on rice and vegetables and fish. That famous saying’bhate mache Bangali’(that is: Bengali people live on rice and fish) can be applied also to the Mundas. But when work is not available rice and fish are not available either! Usually any kind of employment is very scarce at the end of the rainy season. For almost three months (September-October-November) the Mundas have to spend the days in their villages doing nothing at all. Then if they do not want to starve they are compelled to approach the money lenders who are usually very eager to give them either money or rice which must be repaid back later at a very high interest rate. During famine times the money lenders themselves go and visit the poor Mundas as they know that they will be able to do good business with them! 27
During periods of extreme famine’shapla and shaluk’(water hyacinth) and snails are very good substitutes for rice and vegetables and fish. As meat is out of their reach almost all the year round still nowadays many Mundas hunt rats…not the domestic ones which would not have too much meat on them but the rats which can be found in paddy fields and are quite fat… A special oil is also extract from the fatty parts of these rats and it is used for cooking and eating. Because of these particular food habits the poor Mundas are despised by Bengali people who consider them wild and uncivilized and therefore unfit for human association. Somehow their position in the hierarchical ladder of Bangladeshi society is even lower than the position of the out caste and untouchable groups. The Untouchables are only marked with the stigma of impurity… the tribal Munds are marked also with the stigma of wildness and uncivilization! As the diet of these people is so poor the signs of malnutrition can be seen both in children and adult people. Two white spots at both sides of the mouth are the signs of want of vitamin, a disease which could be easily cured just by eating plenty of vegetables and fruits… a kind of food which would not be so much costly but it is not affordable for the poor tribal Munds. In order to be eaten food must be cooked….and you need fuel for cooking! When there is want for everything there is want also for such a stuff which is not a problem only for those Mundas who live near the forest. But for people who may have to live in places surrounded by salty water 12 months a year also fuel for cooking is a problem. So when rice in nearby paddy fields is harvested Munda women collect the rice straw which remains in the earth and bring it home to be used as fuel for cooking! Not to say anything about drinking water ….as many Munda villages are surrounded by salty water all the year round in order to get sweet water Munda women are obliged to walk three kilometres every day and look for it in nearby villages. Early in the morning they set out for the places where drinking water is available…then they will have to stand on a queue and wait for their turn to fill up their containers and then eventually they can go home…..most of the morning will be spent just to collect drinking water! And once a month they have also to pay a fee which entitles them to get access to this precious natural element! One wonders how the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have been able to survive in such miserable conditions ! 28
2. Clothing: We have no ideas about which kind of clothes the tribal Mundas used to wear in their ancestral land before coming to the Sunderban Forest. For sure their clothes were different from the clothes worn by Bengali people. As the Hindu landlords who brought them from Bihar imposed everything on them for sure after coming to this part of the world they must have changed their dressing stiles so now there is no difference between tribal Mundas and Bangladeshi people as far as clothing is concerned. Munda men wear the same clothes worn by Bangladeshi gentlemen and Munda womenâ€˜s dresses are the same dresses worn by Bangladesh ladies and young ladies. The only difference between the two groups is the quality of these garments worn by them. Tribal Mundas usually wear very cheap clothes while the tendency of Bangladeshi people is to wear beautiful and costly clothes. 3. Shelter: As most of the Mundas do not have any land on their own they are obliged to set up their shelters wherever they can find place: either on Government land or on land belonging to rich people who will never give them the right of becoming owners of that small piece of land. In several Munda villages there still are a few old people who can say very interesting stories on how rich people brought Munda families here or there to work on their fields with the solemn promise of granting them the ownership of a piece of land on which to built their huts and to cultivate it for their own livelihood. As far as we know nowhere have those promises ever been kept! And this has happened in all the places the tribal Mundas have been living: in Tala, Shamnagar and Koyra! There is no need to describe the huts of the Mundas as they are more or less like all the miserable huts where poor village people can get some kind of a shelter from heavy rain and scorching sun. 4. Education: According to the census made among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest a couple of years ago it has been found that most of then are illiterate. Among more or less 3500 Mundas those who have been able to acquire some literacy skills must be not more than two hundred people. And the level these few literate people have been able to reach is very low: some how they have finished the primary school but the results of five years at school are very far from being satisfactory. A Munda boy or a girl who attend regularly the village primary schools may be enrolled in class three or even class four without having any knowledge of the Bengali alphabetâ€Śnot to say anything of the English alphabet! 29
The Munda boys and girls attend school quite regularly because at the end of the month they get a few kilos of rice or wheat so we can say that they just go to school in order to get these facilities from the Government. And the teachers of those schools keep them enlisted in those schools and every year they promote them to higher classes so that they can show the Government authorities that students’attendance in very high in their schools and a good number of promotions are good signs of an efficient education…in this way their job as teachers is ensured! And the salary of the end of the month is ensured, too ! But the Munda (and very often, not only Munda!) pupils remain practically illiterate although they have completed 5 years of attendance at the primary school! Just a handful among the Munda students attend high school but everybody knows that in Bangladesh without private tuitions students can’t learn anything. And the economic situation of the Mundas is so bad that they can not afford to pay a teacher for private tuitions….therefore after attending high school for five years they may be able to enter for the matric examination but chances to be successful in this important examination are very few! And if by chance some Munda student can pass this examination the amount of knowledge on the various subjects that that student has acquired is so little that one wonders if it was worthwhile spending so much time to learn so little! The number of Munda boys and girls attending school is very low: for sure poverty is one of the main reasons for such a disinterest in education. But there is another reason for such a high degree of illiteracy among the Mundas: this reason is that the Munds have their own language and parents talk to their children through that language. Therefore Munda children are unable either to speak or understand Bengali which is the national language used in Government schools all over Bangladesh. So a lot of courage is needed for Munda children to attend the Government school as they would be unable to understand their teachers and classmates and their teachers and classmates would be unable to understand them. So Munda children just forget about school and remain illiterate! 5. Health: There is a famous saying in English which goes like this: “Health is wealth!”. The other way round could somehow be true as usually wealthy people have easily access to health facilities while poor people have to face premature death as they cannot afford medical treatment. The overall health situation of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest is not satisfactory at all. We have already said the signs of malnutrition are visible among Munda children and adult people as well. 30
Practically nowhere sanitary latrines have been installed and Munda people have no idea about them. And as there is so much scarcity of bushes in their villages answering the calls of nature is a real problem, especially for women. Something about sweet water also has already been said: when this basic natural resource is not available and when a village is surrounded by salty water twelve months a year some kind of a healthy environment for that village is out of question. And as the majority of Munda people are illiterate they can not be aware of the basic rules about good health. Almost everywhere now in Bangladesh there are Government medical treatment facilities to which everybody can have access and very often services provided by Government hospital or health complexes are free of cost. Also the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest could have access to these medical facilities when they get sick but what prevents them from taking advantage of these facilities is lack of courage more than lack of money. So sick Munda people just keep following their traditional ways of medical treatment usually based on herbs and very often superstitious practices quite harmful to human health. Once again those who suffer most from lack of modern medical assistance are tribal Munda women and among them young girls at their first pregnancy and delivery time. We have already quoted that saying which goes like this: “prothom shontanke bhute mare” (that is: the first child is taken away by the ghosts). Very often the first baby delivered by a young Munda girl can not survive and the main reason of the child’s death is the physical condition of his/her mother who was married before she could be able to reach physical maturity. And very often along with the baby also the poor Munda girl has to face a premature death. Death rate during delivery is very high among the tribal Munda women of the Sunderban Forest and it is not likely to decrease until the Mundas won’t put an end to this awful custom of early marriages. 6. Self image and self esteem: When the overall situation of a certain social group is so bad in every aspect and when that group far from being taken into consideration by the main stream of society is rather despised and looked down the self image of that group for sure cannot be very high. Like the Untouchables of the Indian Subcontinent also tribal people have a very low self image of themselves.
The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest are no exception: a community which has been suppressed and repressed for such a long time can not boast a high self esteem. A low self image and lack of self esteem go along with very dangerous psychological problems such as fear, inferiority complex, shyness, lack of courage and so on! A low self image can play dangerous tricks to the entire community: when greater society rejects and despises a certain group the members of that group will develop a self despising and rejecting mentality and a self despising attitude will hamper any kind of human and social development. Lack of self esteem can be even more dangerous as all the good things, customs, institutions, traditions and so on of a particular group will be considered bad and meaningless. And at a long range because of this mental attitude that particular group will lose its distinct identity and cultural heritage. Luckily it appears that adult people among tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest still keep a little bit of self esteem but young people are losing it. This is evident from their lack of will to practise tribal singing and dancing or feeling ashamed of the good things of their own culture. The new leadership growing up among the tribal Munds of the Sunderban Forest should not forget this important point if distinct identity of this group has to be saved! CHAPTER SIX REMEDIES TO POVERTY OF THE TRIBAL MUNDAS OF THE SUNDERBAN FOREST Almost all the 45 groups of tribal people living in this country happen to be located in the boarder belts between India and Bangladesh. We can say that geographically the majority of these groups lives in the periphery of the country. Such locations have many disadvantages for social and human development. First of all Bangladesh Government does not carry out many development activities in border areas. Then the communication network in these localities is not good at all. Moreover Bengali people consider tribal people as wild and uncivilised and therefore unfit for human relationshipsâ€Ś! Therefore it is no wonder that tribal people living in these places have been left out of the national development stream. 32
The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest not only have been left out of the national development process: they have been left out of the Government census as well! The term â€œdevelopmentâ€? is a debatable issue. Development experts summarise the whole process of development under three categories: 1. welfare model 2. reformation model 3. transformation model Welfare model is a charity model which just leaves things as they are and were. Reformation model would like to bring changes into a specific social group but in a very superficial way without questioning the root causes of problems. Transformation model is an integral approach aiming at a total change in a specific human group: material (logistic), economic, social, cultural, political and very often religious as well! This third model of development should be the most suitable model for the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest as well as for the other tribal groups scattered all over Bangladesh! But who will have enough courage and strength to try to implement this third model of development which is the only one that can change things for the better in any underdeveloped and backward social group? If we look at the development process in Bangladesh we can notice that development experiences among tribal people are carried out at four different levels: 1. Government level 2. NGO level 3. Inter ethnic level 4. Individual ethnic level Letâ€™s examine and evaluate these four levels.
1. Government level: tribal people have never been given and will never have first preference for any development programme. Moreover since tribal people live in the periphery of the total system they are always at the end of development priority. Then as Governments change so changes occur also in the development policies: development efforts proposed by one Government are discontinued by the other. Any development efforts for tribal people are considered by the beneficiaries as due to kindness from the Government and not as part of their rights or responsibilities of Government towards them. Then the method of Government development efforts is the top down methodâ€Ś and this method excludes any kind of decision making and participation from the beneficiaries. Therefore development programmes initiated by the Government for the welfare of tribal people do not penetrate their hearts and minds and very often these programmes do not respond to their root problems. Psychologically tribal people take for granted that Government efforts are not going to continue for longer periods and the Government wonâ€™t be able to change their lot. 2. NGO level: quite a good number of NGOs have initiated development efforts among tribal groups several times. But being NGOs foreign funded their development efforts will last as long as foreign money is availableâ€Ś.not to say anything about how much self dedication and motivation NGO workers may have; the general impression is that the only thing many NGO people are interested about is their monthly salary! Moreover location of tribal people in the border belts also causes restrictions and limits to the NGOs development endeavours among tribal groups. And the method of development carried out by NGOs is not different from the Government method, that is the top down approach 3. Inter ethnic level: quite a number of times inter ethnic efforts were made to bring about development among tribal people with the hope that such development efforts would lead to regional and national organization. But they lost continuity ! Both at regional and national levels such endeavours died out. Reasons for death of such efforts were mainly leadership conflict, lack of vision and personal interest of the leaders. 4. Individual ethnic level: such development effort is localised and confined among particular ethnic groups. Its initiative is usually taken by good willed young men who dream of changing the lot of their own people. 34
Very often these young people have no clear ideas about development, no clear cut vision, no strategy, no organization skills. As a result such development efforts meet natural death in their infant stages. But development efforts carried out at this individual ethnic level could also be successful provided that the following important conditions are met: • The young men who starts development efforts to bring about transformation among their own people should be strongly convinced that the future can be better than the past. • They must have dreams and they must believe that dreams can be turned into realities. • A new kind of leadership is a MUST: the young men who take initiative of carrying out development efforts for the welfare of their own people must learn about new models of leadership which in order to be effective and get people’s recognition must be completely different from the old models of leadership: the new leadership should be some kind of a servant leadership; • The new leaders should be able to set up a strong organization which aims at transforming the general conditions of their own people in the various fields such as education, health and sanitation, economic development, human rights and so on; • Finally, help from outside will be very much needed: help from the Government, from local and international NGOs, from both local and foreign friends. Every kind of help in cash or kind help in advocacy, lobbing, publishing and so on. The new servant leadership should stick to the following principles: • human resources are more important than material resources….people are more important than money or other material things….as people should be the main agents and subjects of development. • without strong motivations and commitment no continuity is possible in the development process….and without continuity no success can be achieved ….the new leaders should have what is usually called ’missionary zeal’… • the new leaders should have very clear ideas about human and social development and should be interested in learning about development matters as much as possible. • the weakest and neediest persons of the social group for which development activities are carried out should be given priority and special care. 35
The model of development followed by this new leadership will be of course the model of transformation. This model is not a top down model but a bottom up model as the new leaders will be able to convince the entire community that a better life can be possible and the future of the group can be better than their past. Which kind of steps should the new leadership take in order to bring transformation among the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest and take them out of the miserable condition they have been stuck in for almost two centuries? Here are 10 practical steps: 1- Tribal people are supposed to still keep and possess beautiful human values which have almost disappeared among other societies, such as high degree of honesty, truthfulness, sincerity and transparency. These beautiful human values are gradually disappearing among the tribal Munda of the Sunderban Fores: they have also learnt do tell lies, to steal and to cheat. They should be told again and again that no human development is possible without social morality! No society will ever be able to prosper and live peacefully without practising the basic social values of honesty and truthfulness. 2- Every human being living on this earth has the right to be the legal owner of at least the small piece of land on which his house is located. Most of the tribal people of the Sunderban Forest are landless. The new leadership should try its best to provide as many Munda families as possible with legal ownership of a small piece of land on which a small house can be built and some trees can be planted and a small vegetable garden can be made. This kind of work should be given top priority and in a span of 10 yearsâ€™time all the Munda families of the Sunderban Forest should be able to live on their own land. 3- No human development is possible without literacy. Most of the tribal Mundas are illiterate and I have tried to show the reasons of so much illiteracy among them. Also the programme of bringing the light of literacy to all the Munda villages should be given top priority by the new leadership. All the Munda children should be sent either to the local Government schools or special arrangements should be made so that not a single Munda boy or girl may be deprived by basic education A human being who has not been able to learn how to read and write is like a bird without wings! 36
4- Special attention and care should be given to female education….still nowadays all over the vast Indian Subcontinent a huge number of women are deprived of this extremely important component of human development which is education. No wonder that women of the Indian Subcontinent are called “the missing half” and “the hidden half”. No society can be either changed or transformed without female education. Napoleon’s famous phrase should be kept in mind by development workers: “give me an educated mother and I’ll give you an educated nation!” Munda girls should be helped not only to get both basic and high education but should also be given every kind of opportunities to develop themselves. The benefits of Munda women’s development will be enjoyed by the entire Munda group. 5- If the tribal Mundas want to come out of poverty and misery a little bit of economic development will not only be necessary but will be absolutely essential as well. In order to improve their economic situation, the Mundas will have to learn alternative ways of earning their livelihood: their sons and daughters should get vocational trainings in order to become mechanics, drivers, carpenters, electricians, tailors and so on. Boys and girls who have got high school certificates should try to get employments with local NGOs or with the Government. Boys and girls who have got vocational training should be able to find jobs in towns and cities. Like poor village people, Mundas will need loans which are now taken from local NGOs at a very high interest rate. Their economic development effort could be more successful if they could set up credit unions among themselves and get rid of exploiting money lenders. Of course honesty and truthfulness and moral integrity are the main rules to stick to in order to run a credit union successfully. 6- The transformation model of development cannot ignore another important aspect of tribal Munda people’s life which is housing. A decent house is very important to improve the general condition of a human being. If the Mundas want to bring some kind of transformation into their life style they should try their best to set up a decent house where a family can live comfortably. Among the “comforts” of a decent life a sanitary latrine cannot be missing. Moreover, as normal electricity will probably never reach Munda villages, a 37
“comfortable” house should be provided also with solar electricity. Most of the tribal Mundas won’t be able to buy such a “luxury” for their house but through foreign friends’help arrangements could be made so that in 10 years’time all the Munda families can install this important and very useful facility in their houses. 7- I have already said that for a real transformation of the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban who will keep their distinct cultural identity a new kind of active and effective leadership will be needed. That new leadership will have to try its best to boast among the Mundas their distinct identity and in order to keep their human and social development alive and active the new leadership should strive also for some kind of a political power. Sooner or later the Mundas living in villages under the same ward on the occasion of Union Council election should start thinking of voting their own candidates as members of the local administration. In that way they will have somebody in the Union Council who will promote and defend the interests of this marginalized group. 8- As it has already been said the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest, even though they are a very small ethnic group completely surrounded by Bengali people, have been able to save their own culture. Among themselves they talk in their own language (which is called Sadri: that is the language spoken also by other tribal groups living in the Northern regions of Bangladesh…for example the Oraons) and on special occasions and for special celebrations their songs are sung and their dances are performed. Adult and grown up Munda people are quite proud of their cultural heritage but young generations show some kind of uneasiness about it: they seem to prefer Bengali songs and dances or what they watch on Indian dish television channels rather than their songs and dances. We believe that also the culture of this small ethnic group is not valueless and if it can be saved the whole tribal world of Bangladesh will be enriched. 9- It has been estimated that there are around 45 tribal groups all over Bangladesh. The total population of these groups must be around three million people. Until a few years ago the other tribal groups did not know about the existence of the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest and the Mundas of the Sunderban Forest did not know anything about the other tribal groups scattered all over Bangladesh. Recently a little bit of communication with other tribal groups has started 38
and we hope that this relationship can continue and grow. We are confident that sooner or later some good results will come out from this relationship. 10- It has already been said that the development model proposed by the Government wonâ€™t be very much effective for the transformation of the Mundas but a link with Bangladesh Government is very much advisable as it can bear good fruits. Government machinery has a lot of potentialities in every field and the Government various departments can offer very good opportunities also to the tribal Mundas for their development and transformation. The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest should remind Bangladesh Government that their ancestor played a very important role in cleaning the jungle and getting cultivable land out of it. But as a reward for such a hard workâ€ŚBangladesh society has robbed and stolen their land and looks down on them with contempt and Bangladesh Government has neglectedâ€Ś if not forgotten them. Time should have come if not for Bangladeshi society at least for the Government to redress this injustice done to the poor tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest!
CONCLUSION I have proposed several remedies to free the tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest from their misery and poverty. For sure implementing all those remedies at a time will not be possible. Therefore I think the tribal Mundas should aim at short term goals and try their best to succeed in achieving those goals in order to boost their morale and improve their self image. To this end I would like to propose a five years period and plan through which a single most important need of the community will be identified and efforts will be made to answer that need in a given period involving every possible agency and investing every possible resource until measurable success in that field is achieved. Success in such an undertaking will boost the self confidence of the community to such an extent that they will be able to proceed to the next phase with greater courage and determination. Of all the problems identified and solutions proposed literacy and education are the basic tools to achieve other objectives such as consciousness about distinct cultural identity, economic development, new kind of leadership, political power, better ways of living and so on. Therefore for five years the new leadership would try its best so that all the Munda children can get knowledge of literacy and numeracy. Then a second step could be solar electrification of the various Munda villages. A third step could aim at providing all the Munda families with ownership of the small piece of land on which their houses are located. A further step could be a brick built house! And so on! The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest have a long way to go! But we are confident that with the Lordâ€™s and well wishersâ€™and friendsâ€™(both deshi and bideshi) help we will be able to achieve something!
BIBLIOGRAPHY 1- Ashraful A.T.: Adibashi Barta of South West Region of Bangladesh: 2002 2- Das Milon: Adibashi Mundader Jibon Boichittro: 2002 3- Elahi Ashek: History of Shamnagar Upazilla: 2002 4- Drong Sonjeet: Report of conference: towards a better understanding of the rights of indigenous people: 2008 5- Karotemprel, SDB: Evangelization in Chotangpur: Indian Missiological Review:1985 6- Sen Sukanto: Indigenous Knowledge and practices in Bangladesh: 2000 7- Luigi Paggi: The tribal Mundas of the Sunderban Forest: 2003 8- Silvano Garello: Adibashider khotha: 1994