HUL Cry Rebel
Rs. 395, Pages: 416
Why do tribes prefer to die protecting hillocks that they could trade for a fortune? Why is a billionaire corporate unable to evict a handful of Dongria Kondhs in Niyamgiri? The tribal logic of things has always been uncomplicated: hills, forests and streams belong to all, and not to any landlord, government or company. It is vacuous, in their sensibility, to spar over industry-versus-subsistence because real growth must lead to real happiness.
Sanjay Bahadur’s HUL Cry Rebel may be a fictional account of a tribal uprising but frozen in time it is not, and shows, in an effortless way, the tribes’ detached reverence for Mother Nature and the colonial mindset of all outsiders who hope to seize everything they see.
The book is about the Santhals of Chhotanagpur in what is now Jharkhand. The time is the 1850s when the British are expanding the ‘Jaankampanee’ to the rest of India starting from Calcutta, their capital. The only challenge to the firangis’ guns is the spirit of rebellion of tribals who fight barefoot, and with bows and arrows, but never without conviction.
Bahadur’s use of nineteenth century weaponry, and war games, is captivating and the plot rigorously researched. He takes you to England for an idea of the Empire’s newfound ambition. The narrative is well historicised even though the reader is kept engaged through the story of Shibani, a Bengali child-widow, and the machinations of her wily brother-in-law. The author weaves in a delicate yarn to establish why the British couldn’t have succeeded in capturing India without the landlords, contractors and power brokers.
Shibani’s story runs parallel to that of three generations of Santhals who get sucked into a war that is not theirs. Their simple lives are ruined every time they question the intruders who eye their lands or forests. Sometimes they don’t even know why they are being punished. Bikram’s story is one of valour against the monumental greed of an empire. That greed is familiar today and so are the cruelties which go with tribal policies of successive rulers. The police, the army and the civil administration have their special ways to dispossess tribes of their woods and fields.
Like Shibani, who lives out the contradictions of being an English-educated, piano-playing, pony-riding daughter-in-law of a zamindar family, Lt James Davies is an Englishman whose family connections should be his passport to power. Both Shibani and the young officer develop a bond with the Santhals, and eventually, with one another. The strength of Bahadur’s thriller is his mould which shapes fictional characters against an authentic backdrop. Beneath the signs of zamindari decadence, 19th century Bengal is changing and the words of Raja Ram Mohan Roy are making sense to members of the educated elite like Partho Chandra Sen, Shibani’s father, a Brahmo Samaji in deeply traditional Bengal.
Bahadur’s sketch of tribal life is not hugely different from how it appears today. Their hills and rivers are still revenue streams for global corporates. Everybody’s property is nobody’s property, so therefore, their lands and forests are fair game for the highest bidders. They still have to fear the savage force of ‘civilization’, which is intended to change them, apparently for their own good. The Empire’s mission has been passed down to native rulers.
The author builds a deserving climax for HUL, the rebel cry of an uprising against the Empire in which over 50,000 tribals are said to have perished. Historically, the event inspired more revolts including the one led by Birsa Munda, the tallest freedom fighter in the 19th century. In fact, Bikram, the hero of Bahadur’s novel, has a striking similarity to the tribal legend. Hence, what would have been a mere footnote in history is conjured up as a thriller of love and betrayal and of the mores of the Adivasis, the original inhabitants of India.
Vipul Mudgal heads the Publics and Policies Programme at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi.