Self governance was the basis of the social union among the Adivasis in Jharkhand. Kingship developed amongst the Adivasis as a result of the necessity to protect their natural and livelihood resources from alien predations and to pay taxes to more powerful emperors. The kings would appoint someone from amongst their kin to be an agent to collect tax. The revenue thus collected was then used for paying the taxes to the emperor. The Nagbashi Rajas, the Jaria garh Raja, the Ratu Raja, etc., were amongst some of these small kings. They would collect malgujari from the people to pay to the Emperors. This system of kings can be seen in the Oraon areas, in the western region of Jharkhand.
This kingship system was resisted by the Adivasis. The Hos resisted the malgujari. and so too did the Santhals and the Mundas. This resistance became more prominent during the British rule in India which resulted in the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, and the Wilkinson Rule. These rules and Acts recognised the distinctiveness of the social-cultural and political institutions of the Adivasi people. They also provided the British government with a better way of collecting tax from a people who refused to part with the lands that had been cleared and cultivated for several generations. It is clear that the customary system of self-governance of the Adivasis has existed and evolved in the course of the history as far back as we can trace it Their customary practices have been one of the main strengths of the Adivasis people. This is how they have been able, in the past, to resist outside forces encroaching into their freedom.
The economic effects of forcible incorporation of Adivasis into a stratified market economy have been well recorded. However, as well as the economic exploitation and land alienation, the incorporation and subordination of the Adivasi society in to the market economy, has led to the destruction of the community as a whole. This disempowerment was done through a very conscious destruction of the Adivasi institutions of governance.
In the case of Jharkhand, with the establishment of British rule we find a conscious effort to destroy the traditional Adivasis institution of self- governance, self-regulation, such as Munda Manki system and the Parha system. These representative institutions were supplanted by a new set of institutions to enable the British not only to appropriate the economic and labour resources of the Adivasis communities in the form of land revenue and indentured labour, but also to make these new institutions independent of the control of the Adivasis community.
It is no accident that unlike the Munda Manki system. which was communitarian and not necessarily hereditary, the new system was always based in an individual authority and in several cases hereditary. These offices of revenue extraction were vested with authorities of a feudatory chief or raja.
A part from the system of revenue and labour extractions a new and bureaucratic civil and criminal administration was also set up.
Bureaucracy, police and courts were encountered by the Adivasi communities for the first time. These institutions not only destroyed the Adivasi communities, since they were completely out of the control of the society, they also eroded the communitarian principles that permeated the self- regulatory mechanism of the Adivasi society. The impact of this ethos was evident in mechanism of dispute settlement in the traditional Adivasi institutions.
In the case of disputes, such as inter-clan clashes, murders or debts.the emphasis of the community panchayat was on justice, ratherer then judgment or punishment. All this changed with the advent of the modern bureaucracy that was based on individualism and impersonality. The Adivasis notion of justice was replaced by the modern binary of crime and punishment. The inability of the Adivasi people to grasp this subtle but deadly shift often led to tragic consequences. In the initial year of the establishment of police stations there are several recorded instances of the Adivasi warrior‘s reporting to the police station with the body of their victims.
What has been patronizingly recorded by the police officials as the “innocence and simplicity of the savage tribal‘s” was in fact the result of the failure of the Adivasi communities to understand the full import of the modem judicial principle crime and punishment. Rather than endeavoring to resolve the cause of acrimony between the Adivasi individuals or groups so that harmony could once again be restored, as was the traditional custom of the Adivasi panchayat the modern institutions resorted to punitive action, since for them an individual was solely responsible for its acts of omission and commission.
The Adivasi mechanism of grievance redress was therefore trespassed and violated. Furthermore, in its dealings with modern bureaucracy, judiciary and police the Adivasi notion of self-respect was violated. The elitist attitude of the colonial and Indian mindset was largely responsible for this. It either treated the Adivasi as a barbarian or as a simple or genial savage who was incapable of taking care of himself.
Apart from the attitude of the officials, the mystifying processes and functions of these new institutions made it impossible for the Adivasis to engage with these institutions on an equal footing. Official work during the colonial period was done entirely in English and in the post independence era in Hindi. Given the preponderance of these non Adivasis languages, the Adivasis were either compelled to learn the language of their conquerors and the attached cultural baggage or depend on the non-Adivasis in their efforts to seek justice from the modern institutions.
Either way, the Adivasis lost their autonomy, self sufficiency and self respect. It is not an accident therefore that in every Adivasi institution; of police, judiciary and bureaucracy were made targets of attack. It is noting here the curious case of the shooting of an arrow by Birsa Munda on a seminary in Sarvada to mark the beginning of his protest. This act has been interpreted by certain communal minded people as an attack on the religious beliefs of the inmates of the seminary however, if the intention of Birsa was to destroy the seminary rather than shooting a single arrow from a great distance he would have organised a full fledged raid on the institution.
However, what a western anglophile failed to recognize is that the problem of Adivasis is not only the inability to successfully represent their case in the modern institutions, but the very act of incorporation of the Adivasi society within the modern institutions. The arrow shot on the pastor by Birsa was not aimed at his religious belief, but was intended to draw a line of demarcation between the Adivasis desire to retain their traditional autonomy and the desire of an anglophile to facilitate an easy and civilized way of coopting the tribal community into the modern system.