Tribal participation


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PEOPLE based governance is aimed at putting people at the centre of decisions in matters of governance. It can be seen both as an idea and a process that needs to be sustained on a continuous basis to become effective. In the context of tribal people, the notion of ‘governance where people matter’ needs to be understood within the framework of tribal culture and their indigenous system of governing their own community to unravel the linkage between effective participation and good governance as it has historically evolved.

This paper discusses tribal participation and governance in the context of the Santal Pargana region of the state of Jharkhand in India. Santal Pargana, the northeastern part of the newly created state of Jharkhand (carved out of the erstwhile state of Bihar) is a tribal dominated region populated mainly by the Santals tribes as also the Pahariyas, primarily the Mal Pahariyas and Savar Pahariyas. Given the region’s rich and long history of social mobilisation for the establishment of tribal ‘self-rule’, it provides an interesting site for discussing the issue of tribal participation and governance.

The historical context for the Jharkhand movement can be traced to the Santal Hul (rebellion) of 1855 led by the Sidho-Kanu brothers, a movement against excessive taxation and oppression by the British colonialists and local landlords. The tribals desire a form of governance that assures their dignity and freedom from exploitation, and tribal struggles (like the Dhankatiya movement in the early 1970s) against an alien form of governance underscore this tendency. The forcible harvesting of paddy on tribal land taken over by the local landlords can itself be regarded as a tribal assertion for reclaiming their land. In fact, such a rebellion was demonstrative of the tribals’ relentless struggle against an alien and debilitating form of governance.

Traditionally the tribals in Santal Pargana region of the state of Jharkhand were governed by a three-tier system. The first was the council of the community or the village level manjhi system. Every village has a manjhi haram, or a village headman. He was assisted by a paranik (deputy headman), nayake (priest), godait (assistant priest, village messenger) and jog manjhi (responsible for youth affairs). Although these functionaries had distinct responsibilities, decisions could be taken only through the collective consensus of the community in a kulhi durup or village meeting in which all adult members of the village participated.

Most decisions on social, cultural and political issues were taken at the village level. All village functionaries laid down their charge annually and there existed a process of collective evaluation, review and re-selection of the functionaries by the villagers during the Magh festival (during the months of January-February). The manjhi system continues to exist in many parts of Santal Pargana even today.



The second tier of governance was the council of the neighbourhood. It was headed by the paraganait or pargana. The appointment and removal of the pargana lay in the hands of the entire manjhi council. Traditionally this council resolved disputes between neighbouring villages and intervened in matters that villagers failed to decide. Manjhi harams, other village functionaries and influential males of the concerned villages attended this assembly.

The highest authority in Santal society was disom hor or an assembly of the people (males) of the region. This assembly met during the annual hunt, the ‘Lo Bir Sindra’ or the dihri shikar in the month of January. Originally the entire tribe had one hunt. Later, every region had its own hunt. This hunt was presided over by the dihri. The dihri was not a permanent appointee and he was regarded as the ruler of the region only for the period of the hunt. He was assisted in decision making by a council known as the desh pargana.



After the hunt a people’s assembly was held at night where all pending issues were discussed and appropriate decisions taken. At this forum everyone could speak and complaints brought forward even by the poorest person against the parganas, deshmanjhis or manjhis. Irrespective of their official position, all members of the hunt had equal status in this court of justice. All matters were decided through a process of debate and discussion. Besides acting as the final court of appeal, the council was also concerned with regional grievances, and reviewing usage and extension of tribal law.

During the British period, one finds certain alterations in this system and an attempt to co-opt the traditional tribal governance system in the interest of the colonialists. Two kinds of tribal organisation were visible. In the Damin-I-Koh1 region, the local unit for Santal law became the bungalow (government rest house) or groups of 10-30 villages. Each bungalow had a council of manjhis, which in turn was assisted by three permanent officials. The council of manjhis was headed by a pargana, who besides being the standing president of the manjhis council also became a government officer with a variety of functions. He was primarily responsible for the efficient collection of land revenue from villages under his jurisdiction via the manjhis of the village. He was also regarded as a sub-inspector of police and had the power to arrest.

However, over time, as the need for specialised training for police work grew the British recruited more non-tribal police officers and this resulted in a weakening of the police powers of the pargana. On behalf of the government the pargana was also responsible for seeing that all forests, schools and government institutions in the area were kept in good order, as was the damin bungalow and grain golas in the region.



He was assisted by a deshmanjhi (deputy pargana) and a chakladar (regional godait). The appointment and dismissal of the deshmanjhi and chakladar was made by the pargana, subject to control by the sub divisional officer. The pargana was himself appointed by the sub divisional officer and the manjhis council lost control over the supervisory authorities. Gradually the pargana stopped being the leader of the tribal council and became more of a government functionary.

Outside the damin, the manhjis councils were associated with parganas in two kinds of forms. In the Pakur subdivision, the pargana headed the manjhis council, assisted by a deshmanjhi and chakladar. However, his sole function was to act as the president of the manjhis council and spokesperson of his area; he did not possess any revenue, executive or police powers.

In the remaining Santal areas (outside the damin) – the Rajmahal, Godda, Dumka and Jamtara subdivisions – the unit of administration became the sardari circle. This brought the tribal system under the control of the government circle officer and further weakened it. Within each circle the pargana was the local Santal leader. The sardar had administrative as well as judicial powers and was elected every five years. The sardar could be a Santal or a diku (non-tribal). If a Santal, the sardar was sometimes also the pargana, though the two offices were quite distinct. The pargana was the permanent president of the manjhis council and appointed for life. Post independence this system further weakened as the official bureaucracy took over the functions performed by the tribal councils.

The system of participation among tribals had several distinctive features. First, it encouraged decision-making through consensus – not a forced majority vote. Second, appointed leaders were held accountable through an annual performance review – not a five-yearly voting system without ‘right to recall’.

However, this traditional system of participation suffered from a major weakness – gender inequality. Most structures of participation and decision-making were male-centric. Women’s participation was restricted, and at times limited to cultural issues only.



An attempt to revive some form of traditional governance can be seen in the creation of baisis2 in the 1950s and 1960s. This was intimately associated with the attempts to revive the Jharkhand movement and its demand for an autonomous state. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (the political party of the tribals, an offshoot of the erstwhile Jharkhand Party) used the revival of the baisis to enlarge its mass base throughout the region. Constituted throughout Deogarh and Giridih (among other areas) in the ’60s and ’70s, these baisis adopted the name Adivasi Samaj Sudhar Baisi and took up a variety of social reform measures within Santal society – education, anti-temperance movements, speedy and inexpensive dispute redressal. Perceived as a symbol of Santal liberation and self-rule, these baisis mobilised the community against the oppression of the mahajans or moneylenders between 1972-74.



The baisi became responsible for community affairs of its constituent villages and for taking administrative, judicial and cultural decisions. Within the community, the baisi was most popularly regarded as a speedy and effective justice dispensing system. At this time the baisi took on a formal structure and record keeping became an essential part of its functioning. Functionaries of the baisi included sabhapati (president), sachiv (secretary), koshadhyaksha (treasurer), patra vahak (letter bearer). The number of villages served by each baisi was decided through mutual discussion between the community leaders and was a matter of convenience in terms of distance and the number of tribal conglomerations in each area. Baisis set up during this period continued to function as a forum for dispute resolution for the next 5-8 years, after which they gradually withered away.

The revival of baisis as a basic unit of association among tribals signifies the role of a strong civil society. As a traditional form of association and participation, the baisi can be a building block for tribal self-governance. Its effectiveness in local conflict-resolution and justice dispensation can be gauged from its prevalence. Its ability to undertake social reform efforts in the tribal society can also be seen as effective civil society engagement in bringing about a desirable society. However, its major weakness as a self-governing institution remains the complete negation and marginalization of women’s participation in tribal governance.



People based governance is more than an idea; it is also a concept that needs to be practised at different levels. Towards this end, there is a lot to learn from the tribal way of life, from their traditions and festivals. The tribal worldview of democracy is a broad concept that includes the symbolic triad of human beings, animals and forest. The functioning of a vibrant democracy demands not only a proper ecological balance but due respect to each and every constituent of the surrounding ecological system. A holistic view of the tribal lifestyle, customs and culture underscores the critical role played by natural resources in establishing a thriving democracy.

For example, bandhna, an important tribal festival, is celebrated after the harvesting of crops. Tribals recognise that apart from their own labour, animals (like bullock) too have contributed towards a successful harvest. Thus, if a bullock falls sick during the festival, they do not celebrate the festival. This also leads to the cancellation of an important tribal custom called varad khunta. The varad khunta involves cutting down of branches from some specific trees and chaining the animal to that tree. In short, this emphasises a sharing of joys and sorrows of man, animals and forests.

It is important to note that the concept of family in the tribal community goes beyond the circle of one’s own household and encompasses the entire village. Further, the surrounding forest, water, land, animals, birds, river and so on constitute an inseparable part of the village community. Although the term ‘democracy’ is not part of tribal vocabulary, they very much practice the spirit of democracy. Unfortunately over the years, this relationship has considerably weakened due to external influences. As a result the roots of democracy have also frayed.

There are various manifestations of participation in the tribal way of living. For example, whenever there is a festival, marriage or some other celebration, all men and women of the village dance together and play folk music. Unlike in a feudal set-up wherein a single female dancer ‘entertains’ while the rest are mere spectators, there is no mute spectator here. Everybody actively participates in the celebrations. Similarly, marriage as a social institution involves participation of all without any discrimination based on gender, age or class.



In tribal society, women play an important role and take part in all activities right from collecting fodder and fuel from the forest to marketing the produce in the local hats. Unlike in other communities, there is no restriction on their movement. Contrary to the common practice in Indian society, the marriage proposal is brought by the groom’s side to the bride’s house. Women also have the right to divorce and to demand a one-time maintenance. However, there are other areas where women’s participation is restricted or absent, for example, in the entire traditional system of governance. They can bring disputes to the various forums for redressal, but have no role in decisions taken.

Another related illustration of participation is the annual hunt or dehri shikar. Dehri shikar is celebrated in the middle of January every year. As discussed earlier, this is also an occasion for settling pending disputes in the region. Herein, the guilty person/party pays a fine in the form of pig or some other animal, which is sacrificed and collectively shared by all those who have gathered to celebrate the occasion. It may be noted that even the guilty person/party has an equal right over the food and whatever is hunted is shared equally among all. Even the dogs that accompany the villagers to the hunt get their share.



Land, water and forest constitute the cornerstones of tribal culture. It is unfortunate that even after the creation of Jharkhand, there is no clear-cut government policy related to these vital components of tribal culture. It is distressing to learn that government has already prepared an industrial policy for the state. It is clear that rich industrialists and corporates will control industry. The government has demarcated a huge area to be developed as an industrial zone that will once again lead to deforestation and displacement on a massive scale. This overt attack on the lifestyle of the tribal people of the region clearly indicates whose side the government is on.

Overall, the tribal system of participation and self-governance is under severe threat today because of the denial of access to and control over jal, jangal and jamin. The historical evolution of this elaborate system of governance was built on the cultural and livelihood connections to natural resources. As the state tightened its control over natural resources, the very foundation of the tribal system of governance was weakened.

Today, this spirit of collective participation faces a serious challenge from the forest policy of the government. Not only does it alienate the tribals from their forest but is also responsible for large-scale, illegal destruction of forests by external elements. This has raised a serious threat to the tribal way of life and their right to livelihood.

The existing system of governance has inculcated a sense of helpless dependency towards the state among the tribal people. The fact that people refer to the government as ‘mai-baap’ (ultimate saviour) is in itself ample proof. The approach of the government further testifies its intention to project itself as the ultimate saviour. Everyday, announces a new scheme for the benefit of the tribals and the poor. This has led to a feeling among the tribals that since the government is doing everything, there is no need for any effort towards the development of their society on their part. Gradually the efforts at self-help and local governance start to decline and a culture of alienation and demotivation creeps in. The contemporary state of affairs not only systematically alienates common tribals, but also adversely affects their self-respect. Demotivated and demoralised tribals can hardly play an effective role in the development of society.



Government schemes promote individualism, while the tribal way of life is centred on collectivism. Also they do not take into account the feelings, ethos and aspirations of tribal people. In the context of Jharkhand there are many instances of social movements against government policies. For example, the Chenchali forest movement, Koyalkaro movement, Suvarnrekha movement and struggles against the firing range at Taperadam were expressions of people’s anger against oppressive government policies and their expectations of the developmental direction that the government should pursue.

For a people-centred governance, it is essential that government acknowledge the knowledge and experience of the tribals. All planning must promote the spirit of collective participation, which is the essence of the tribal way of life. This requires a long-term perspective building on ongoing efforts as also new experimentation. Although there is a growing recognition of the importance of a people-centred governance system, there is still a long way to go for its recognition by society.



Notably, the new system of panchayati raj institutions as institutions of self-governance has introduced new tensions and opportunities. On the one hand, the gram sabha has enormous responsibilities and authority in Schedule V areas under the 73rd Amendment to the Constitution. In most areas of Santal Pargana covered under this provision, the gram sabha is empowered to take all decisions related to use of natural resources within its jurisdiction. It can also take decisions to restore land alienated from tribals. Thus, the empowered gram sabha under PR provides fresh constitutional support to the traditional system of tribal governance.

The elected three tiers of PRIs – the gram panchayat (GP), panchayat samiti (PS) and zilla parishad (ZP) – look similar in structure to the traditional system of tribal governance in Santhal areas. However, the jurisdiction of GP is a revenue village, not a tribal hamlet. Likewise, the jurisdiction of PS is an administrative block and that of ZP a district. The territorial domain of the new three-tier PRI structure is significantly different from the traditional structure of governance.

Under the new structure the administrative territory, as opposed to tribal lineage, is the basis of structuring. As a result, many non-tribal hamlets, villages and towns are included in the new three-tier structure of PRIs. Communities and families living in these non-tribal habitats, covered under the constitutionally mandated three-tier PRI system, do not share the same ethos and cultural practices relevant to Santal governance. This opens up possibilities of conflict and tension between the traditional and modern systems of governance.

Another arena of contestation is the political space for women’s participation in decision-making. In all the three tiers of PRIs there is a one-third reservation for women. Thus, tribal women have a constitutional role as elected representatives in the governance structure. The traditional system of tribal governance did not have any decision-making role for tribal women, though they could participate in gram sabha. Therefore, how will women’s participation in the new system of local self-governance mesh with the older practice? How will the Santal society accept and promote women’s role in decision-making in the new system of governance of PRIs?



Finally, how can a traditional system of local association like baisis, be mobilised to enhance tribal participation in governance? As a traditional civil society association, baisis have the potential to be reoriented to perform their contemporary roles in governance. Baisis can support the new leadership of PRIs in performing their functions effectively; the new elected leadership of PRIs can also be held accountable to baisis. However, the challenge is to ensure synergy between baisis and gram sabha, not a sense of competition. Will it be possible for tribal leadership to make the interface between baisis and PRIs more inclusive and less conflict prone?

The manner in which traditional structures and processes interact with the modern structures of participation remains the great challenge.



1. In the wake of the Pahariya rebellion of 1838, the British demarcated 1338 square miles in the then Dumka, Godda, Pakur and Rajmahal sub-divisions for the Pahariyas as the Damin-I-Koh. While 11,788 hectares were declared as reserve forest, the rest was given to the Santals for agriculture. The rebellion took place because the Pahariyas were the original settlers of this Damin-I-Koh but were forced to move to less fertile upper slopes when the Santals settlers were brought in by the British.

2. Although one finds references to the majhi and the paragana system in anthropological literature on the Santals, there appears to be no mention of the word ‘baisi’ before the 1970s. However, the collective memory of the people corroborates the traditional existence of this assembly throughout Santal Pargana.