Oraon Tana Vagat Movement

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Oraon Tana Vagat Movement (1914-1919) a tribal uprising of a section of the Oraons under the leadership of Jatra Oraon, a twenty-five year old youth of Gumla, Ranchi, occurring during the late colonial period in the Chhotanagpur region. In April 1914 Jatra proclaimed that he had received a message from Dharmesh, the supreme god of the Oraons to revive the Oraon Raj. He advocated that Oraon religion should be freed of evils like ghost hunts and exorcism, belief in bhuts or evil spirits, animal sacrifice and liquor drinking and advocated vegetarianism, austerity and restraint. As the movement progressed, agrarian issues came to the fore.

The tribal religious movement gave way to a 'no-rent payment' campaign as Jatra questioned the ritual subordination of the Oraons to the zamindars and illaqadars (those who had been granted land by the Maharaja of Chhotanagpur in exchange of the services they rendered) and Hindu banians, as also to Muslims, Christians and the British state. Jatra decreed that his followers were to stop ploughing the fields of landlords and were not to work any more as coolies or labourers for non-Oraons or for the government. Gradually political elements crept in as well and the movement developed an anti-British and anti-missionary character. The Oraons also questioned the traditional leadership of the pahans or priests and mahtos or the village headmen. Believers were ordered to avoid articles that were red in colour, including chillies and red paddy, for red represented the British whom the Oraons were to hate. They believed that true education was to come from Heaven and so the children were prevented from going to school and missionary schools were forcibly closed down.

Like other tribal of Chhotanagpur, the Oraon communal organisation had been disrupted under colonial rule and there was much agrarian discontent arising from land alienation. This provided the background to the Oraon movement. The official reports of the survey and settlement operations in the Chhotanagpur region during the years show that the Oraons who lived in Western Chhotanagpur had to pay rent at a much higher rate than their Munda counterparts in the east. They also had to meet the excessive demands for unpaid labour from their diku (exploitative non-tribal) landlords. They were further forced to act as forest beaters during hunting and had to carry the baggage of the local police for a mere pittance. All these had given rise to widespread discontent among the Oraons.

The basic rationale behind the movement was that land was a gift of God and that no one had the right to interfere with the tribals' right over land. A 'no-rent campaign' was therefore launched against the diku landowners, as the tribals were unable to redress their grievances through legal procedures. Thus Jatra advocated that his followers stop the payment of rents to landlords. With the increasing domination of dikus over the Oraons a perception developed that the colonial state had failed to protect them against their adversaries. Hence the Oraons came to search for an alternative political authority of their own. So, economic grievances gave way to the dream of an independent tribal polity.

Some 26,000 Oraon followers were mobilised around Jatra during the movement. It spread like wildfire among the Oraon population of Ranchi, Palamau and Hazaribagh. Some people of the Munda and Kharia tribes also joined the movement. The method of communication of the new faith was to teach the Tana mantras or divine words to certain youths, who in turn, returned to their respective villages to set up similar chains of communication. The Oraons extended their list of enemies to include Babhans (a high caste group in Bihar), Muslims and the English and they believed that in November 1914 after the new moon they would be delivered from all 'hateful' elements-Hindus, Muslims, missionaries, the police and officials. At the same time, rumours spread of the imminent coming of a saviour variously identified as the German Baba or the Kaiser, who would attack non-believers of the faith with bombs from the sky. The cry, Angrez ki ksai, German ki jai (Down with the English, Victory to the Germans) almost became a password. A battle between the Germans and the English was predicted in which the Germans would win and they would then march to India. The germans would help establish the Oraon Raj and end the hated rule of the British.

Due to intermittent acts of violence, panic was created among local zamindars and non-tribals, particularly the zamindars and their servants who were beaten and turned out of the jungles when they attempted to collect wood. Meetings were organised among jatra's followers at night, where songs were sung and mantras recited. People were urged to become bhagats or devotees. From the beginning, the Oraon movement was a collective enterprise, its ideals learnt and propagated orally. Teachings were imparted by an 'enlightened man' or guru who taught the doctrines of the new faith to the followers and showed them the way to the 'True Religion'. The principal god to whom the Oraons offered their prayer was Dharmesh Baba or Bhagwan Baba. In addition, a number of other deities from the Hindu pantheon were also invoked in prayer: Suraj Baba, Indra Baba, Brahma Baba, Hindu Baba, Jagannath Baba, Bharat Baba among others. The German Baba was also invoked in Tana hymns.

Jatra, along with his leading disciples was arrested on 23 April 1914 for instigating the tribals to refuse to work for the zamindars and the government and endangering the peace. They were tried in the sub divisional court and were imprisoned. On his release from prison on 2 June 1915 Jatra abandoned the leadership of the movement. Later he came in contact with Gandhi and joined the non-cooperation movement against the British. A succession of gurus followed Jatra. Next in line was Litho Oraon who declared herself a goddess and preached on the same lines as Jatra did. She was also imprisoned and faded out after her release. In November 1915 Mangor Oraon took up the leadership of the Oraon movement and eventually suffered the same fate.

By 1916 the movement had spread among the migrant Oraon coolies employed in the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. The Tana Bhagat movement (in this name the Oraon Movement was popularly called) continued to spread throughout 1918. In 1919 Tana activity acquired a new momentum under the leadership of Sibu Oraon and Maya Oraon. Sibu withdrew the restrictions on food, drink and conduct earlier imposed by Jatra and declared that Tanas were equal to the Hindus and Muslims. From 1921 the Tana Bhagat movement entered a new phase as fresh injunctions were added to the Tana tenets. Followers were required to carry the Congress flag, wear khaddar (home-spun cloth) and take vows in Gandhi Maharaj's name. Myths grew around Gandhi, his charka (spinning wheel) and swaraj (self-rule). From the 1920s the Tana Bhagat movement developed links with Gandhian nationalism and lost much of its earlier radical colour. The Congress propagated that Gandhi Raj would usher in the tribal millennium. Gandhi was perceived as a god who was going to drive out the English without the help of guns and soldiers and establish a dharma raj or the kingdom of righteousness. The Tana movement thus became integrated into the political mainstream and the Congress ideology. [Sanjukta Das Gupta]

Bibliography SC Roy, 'The Oraons of Chota Nagpur: Their History, Economic Life and Social Organisation', Ranchi, 1915, (reprint), Calcutta, 1972; KS Singh, 'Tribal Peasantry, Millenarianism, Anarchism and Nationalism: A Case Study of the Tana Bhagats in Chotanagpur, 1914-1925', Social Scientist, 16, 1988; BB Chaudhuri, 'The Story of a Tribal Revolt in the Bengal Presidency: the Religion and Politics of the Oraons, 1900-1926', in Adhir Chakrabarti (ed) Aspects of socio-economic Changes and Political Awakening in Bengal, Calcutta, 1989.