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Toiling Without Rights

Ho Women of Singhbhum : Part III

While the role of unequal land rights in determining the status of different caste and class groups in India has been the subject of much debate, their impact on women's status has generally escaped attention. In fact the patriarchal bias of the social and legal system gives rise to the assumption that once the men of the family have land, the women's needs are automatically taken care of. This study attempts to place the issue of the denial of land rights to Ho women in the context of women's daily lives, work, struggle for survival and status in the family and community. 

Power Structures outside the Family

Even though Ho women have far fewer restrictions on their physical mobility than most other women, their access to education is severely restricted. The disadvantageous position of Ho women in matters of education is reflected in my village sample. In the sample, 27 out of 30 women are totally illiterate. In contrast, over one third of the husbands of the 22 married women interviewed were educated up to matriculate level. Only about a quarter of the husbands were without any schooling. Two out of three of the husbands could be assumed to be literate and about half of them had passed middle school. The educational gap between unmarried women interviewed and their brothers was also very wide. Not one of the unmarried women had any schooling while all four of their adult brothers had studied up to class eight or further. The three brothers who were still youngsters were attending school.

The illiteracy rate for Ho men in this sample is much lower than the general rate of illiteracy for Ho men as given in the 1971 census.16 This may in part be due to the presence of good mission schools in a nearby town. However, in my sample, Christian men are not more literate or better educated than non Christian Ho men nor do they have better jobs than the latter. Nevertheless, Ho men in Karonja seem to have obtained a somewhat higher level of education and relatively better employment than Ho men in the rest of Bihar. This factor should be kept in mind while reading these descriptions and analyses of men's education and employment. However, the illiteracy rate of Ho women in my sample is not substantially different from the general illiteracy rate among Ho women in all of Bihar according to the 1971 census. Whatever the factors are that have helped Hos to achieve more education in this village, they seem to have favoured men while not affecting women much.

The gap between male and female literacy levels is likely to grow in the coming decades if the present trend continues. It is similar to the all India pattern which showed that in 1981 approximately two out of three illiterates were women. According to the 1971 census, 94 percent of those Ho tribals who have studied up to matriculate level or above are men and only six percent are women.17 Ho women seem to have somewhat less access to education than women of other tribes in Bihar. Tribal women are recorded as ten percent of all tribal matriculates in Bihar. The 1971 census recorded only five Ho women who were graduates or above in all of Bihar. The total number of Ho-male graduates or above was 184.18

Among most Hindu peasant groups, women's unequal access to education is related to the culture of purdah and imposition of heavy restriction on women's mobility. Amongst Hos, these factors do no exist. Yet, after a certain age there are restraints on male female intermixing. Since most of the village schools are mixed, parents hesitate to send their daughters to school after a certain age.

But there are important economic reasons for not sending girls to school. Since young boys are not expected to contribute to the household labour in any substantial way, their schooling has a better chance of continuing uninterrupted for a relatively longer period. Little girls are expected to begin taking on major household responsibilities from a very early age. Many of them begin doing regular wage labour by the time they are 12 years old. So valuable is their labour for the survival of the family that very few families are able to send daughters to school. Thus, while very few girls manage to study beyond class two or three, boys have a somewhat better chance of continuing their education if they are interested in it.

Among most communities in India where female education has made some progress in the last century, the major incentive for the education of women has been the demand for educated wives by men who have taken to higher education and entered the professions or upper echelons of the business community. While a number of Ho men study up to intermediate level, very few go beyond, even fewer find a place in middle class professions and almost none in business. The number of such men is not substantial enough to create a widespread demand for educated wives. Therefore, among the Hos education for women has not yet become an important qualification in the marriage market.

Another possible reason for such a high level of illiteracy amongst Ho women could be that an urban based middle class population has not yet emerged amongst Hos. It is from this group that women are recruited for white collar jobs which become an incentive for families to educate women. Even when Ho men migrate to towns and get jobs there, they prefer to leave their wives to work the land in the village. There is, therefore, a strong feeling amongst Hos that education will make women unfit for and resistant to the hard work on the land that is expected of them. Unless young girls are trained from an early age to work harder than farm animals, they will not develop the requisite stamina. If they are allowed education, some of them might begin to think of other options and be less inclined to pour all their energy into agricultural work, as they are compelled to do for survival when left uneducated and unequipped for any other job.

Sometimes, even when a family wants to educate a daughter, the pressure of powerful men in the village acts against it. Maki reported that she was forced to withdraw her only child, a girl, from school because some village men threatened to "spoil" her. Such threats work easily against poorer or vulnerable families, especially those with no adult sons. Currently, three girls from Karonja are studying at the nearest high school and nobody dares threaten their families who are well off and powerful. However, even when such families educate daughters, it is almost never with a view to improving their educational opportunities. A Ho woman is rarely educated beyond intermediate or higher secondary level. Only 157 Ho women were matriculates or above in all of Bihar according to the 1971 census.19 The few better off families who educate their daughters are beginning to impose restrictions on women which are alien to Ho culture. Savita Sinku, one of the very few Ho women to be educated up to BA, is from a relatively well off family. She told me that her family does not allow her to go out of the house alone, even to the market. Her family lives in a small town where her father has a government job. Even when she goes to her village, she is not allowed to go to the forest like other village women or to visit her relatives in Ranchi by herself. The government hostel for tribal girls at Chaibasa where she was living when I met her represents the new restrictive culture that Ho society is being pressured to adopt. Girl students are allowed out of the hostel only twice a month for a couple of hours on alternate Sundays. Even then, they have to go together in groups of five or six. Thus, the process of interaction with the supposedly more advanced outside world with its repressive morality has pushed Ho women backward, and, in many ways, has had the effect of reducing their ability to cope, instead of enchancing it. The labour of Ho women plays a pivotal role in the village economy while men's labour is, by and large, peripheral. But when Ho men and women move to the outside world, the situation is reversed. Women get the lowest paid and the most peripheral kinds of employment, while men, because of their relatively higher literacy and education levels, move into relatively better paying jobs, including a few white collar jobs. When tribals migrate to urban areas, they operate in a situation of general discrimination against them as tribals. Although the government describes industrialisation of Singhbhum as development of a tribal belt for the benefit of tribals, various studies have shown that tribals are, in fact, not the primary beneficiaries of the new employment opportunities created by the industrialisation of the region. They are, by and large, confined to the lower rung, lower paid jobs, most of the better jobs being cornered by north Biharis and non tribal migrants from other parts of north India.

But though Ho men are at a disadvantage compared to men of other more powerful communities, they fare far better than the women of their own community. Since the government's reservation policy for scheduled tribes does not include a sex based reservation component, men corner almost all of the regular and permanent jobs which fall within the quota for scheduled tribes. The gap between male and female employment opportunities is reflected clearly in our sample. Among the husbands of the 22 married women interviewed, half of the total had jobs in the organised sector. The nature of the jobs held by them is also revealing. Three were employed in the army. Later on, one of the three joined the police and another worked as a security guard. The other men have held such jobs as school teachers, worker in the malaria eradication department, worker in a government cooperative, supervisor of contract labour in Tatanagar, permanent worker in the Gua mines, clerk in the forest department. Only two of the men who work in the organised sector have jobs as casual labourers. They work for the forest department. Undoubtedly, all these jobs are considered low level jobs in the hierarchy of the organised sector, yet they are evidence of an element of upward mobility for the men.

Of the men in the unorganised sector, one repaired houses, another ran a ration shop and a third worked as a driver of a lorry in Calcutta. One had migrated to Assam and another to Calcutta for employment. Only six of the men were supposed to be assisting their wives with work on the land. Their attitude ranged from giving seasonal help to total indifference.

On the other hand, not one of the women interviewed had a job in the organised sector. The 1975 figures show that only 9,597 women were employed in the factories of Singhbhum district, meaning that only a pitifully small number of women had jobs with some minimum protection of labour laws. Only 153 claims for maternity benefits are recorded for the entire year 1975 throughout Singhbhum.20 Needless to say, only a tiny fraction of this pitifully inadequate employment would have been available to Ho women.

Women's interests are grievously neglected in the few jobs available, including those created by government. For instance, in 1984 85, 600 jobs were created in an afforestation programme in the Karonja area. The wage was Rs ten a day. Not one woman was employed in the programme. It was not for lack of time or inclination on the women's part that they were excluded. During this same period, I visited Karonja and saw the eagerness with which women flocked to a private worksite near the village where a big well was being dug. The monsoon was round the corner and the well had to be completed fast, otherwise it would cave in. Therefore, work was going on in three shifts. Most of the women were working two shifts at a stretch, that is, 16 hours a day, and seemed cheerful because this wage work was available to them.

But very little such wage work is available in the village on any continuing basis. Wage work is available in the villages mainly at sowing and harvesting times. In these seasons, a woman may find work at the rate of Rs three a day in the fields of a family which has a deficit of adult females to manage the work. This wage rate was prevalent in 1982 83. Often, the family which hires the woman is as poor as she is, and therefore,no one can get the government fixed minimum wage.

In the town too, women, unlike men, can never hope to get a job other than one which involves heavy manual work. Very few occupations are open to Ho women in the outside world. They can work as unskilled labourers headloaders or stone breakers on construction sites, at brick kilns, stone quarries, mines, railways or dams. These are casual daily wage jobs and some of them are available only during certain seasons. Women constitute the lowest rung of employment even in these fields. They cannot hope to move into better paid skilled or physically less strenuous jobs. None of the jobs that women get provide them with any modicum of security or with benefits like provident fund, gratuity, pension, medical care or paid leave. Very few families educate their daughters up to the level necessary for getting such jobs, but even if they did the women are likely to be discriminated against by employers.

Patterns of Migration

Broadly, there are two categories of men who migrate in search of employment opportunities:

1. Uneducated men of poor families who migrate, either alone or with their wives, because their land in the village does not yield enough food for year round consumption or because they are victims of land alienation. Such men usually end up in low paid occupations with harsh working conditions. For example, they work as unskilled labourers in mines, quarries, brick kilns or as agricultural labourers in surplus producing regions.
2. Men with some education, who move out of the village to improve their prospects by getting a permanent job in a government or private enterprise which ensures them regular, year round cash income and other benefits. There is great hunger for these jobs. Men of this category are likely to be from somewhat better off families and can afford to wait around in the village until a satisfactory job comes their way. During this period, the labour of their wives or sisters usually provides for their needs.

Since the kind of job one gets in the outside world often depends on one's bargaining position, that is, one's ability to wait for a good offer, men who migrate in distress situations usually fare much worse in the employment market than those who can afford to look around for a suitable job. Jasmani's husband, educated up to class eight, worked for a couple of years as a casual labourer in Rourkela. After he returned to the village, he had done virtually nothing. He said he was waiting for a job. Two of the other women interviewed have sons who are matriculates but do no work. These women continue to do wage work to feed the family. Thus, women's labour enables men to acquire upward mobility which does not necessarily extend to the women concerned.

By and large, women migrate only in distress situations, such as crop failure, of if they are thrown out of the marital home, unlike men who often migrate to better their prospects.In the months after harvest, when very little wage work is available in the villages, a number of women go to nearby towns such as Rourkela, Tatanagar or Calcutta in search of seasonal employment. This option is usually taken only if no other employment is available within walking distance of the village. Women tend to prefer work in and around the village, even at lower wage rates, to the work available in cities.

Despite the great lure of urban employment for men, those men who have substantial amounts of land and some source of cash income in the village prefer not to go and work outside. Ho men are not used to be ordered around or doing hard work on a sustained basis. In the village, they work during certain seasons and the rest of the year only as and when they please. Those who can afford to avoid it would rather not be subjected to the discipline of a regular job.

Suru's husband, who is from one of the most powerful families in the village and has a regular cash income, has never tried to get a job outside the village, even though he is a matriculate. Often, men who migrate for a job come back in a few days, having thrown up the job, because they could not get used to working fixed hours and obeying orders. At least five women reported that their husbands had either left or disrupted a fairly well paid job. Sukmaru's husband had a job in the malaria eradication department. She says he went "mad" and lost the job. He did not like working so he roamed around for about ten years. Now he earns about Rs five a day making bidis.

Women who migrate for work usually end up working under far more exploitative conditions but seldom complain on return. Whenever we asked a woman: "How was paiti desham (land of work)?" she invariably said that she found it very good. This, despite the fact that few of them received the minimum statutory minimum wage. A woman who has been out working for six months may come back with no more than Rs 50 as savings given to her by her employer just before she left the worksite, while she got no more than Rs 20 25 a week for her rations during her stay, in return for about nine to ten hours of work a day.

This marked contrast in male and female reactions to work outside is related to their respective lives and work patterns at home. Women have to work so hard and so constantly at home that working fixed hours at a worksite seems easier in some ways. However bad the working conditions, they do not have to walk long distances to fetch basic necessities such as water and fuel, as they have to in villages. In contrast, men find life at home easier.

Only seven of the 22 married women had migrated for seasonal employment. They had gone to the usual places Rourkela, Jamshedpur, Calcutta, Patna. But most of the women interviewed clearly said that they prefer to live in the village and do not like to migrate for work. There are several reasons for this. Some of the women fall sick when they migrate. In comparison to the clean homes and villages of the Hos, living conditions are extremely unhygienic at city worksites. More important is the fact that seasonal migration as daily wage labour cannot provide any security for old age to women, as jobs with pensions and provident funds can for men. Hence, women desperately cling to their usufructuary right in the family, which alone has the potential to provide some measure of security in old age and sickness. Prolonged absence from the village could lead to the loss of women's precarious rights in the land.

Further, at almost all the city worksites where tribal women find seasonal employment, various forms of sexual exploitation are rampant. Many are compelled into sexual relations with contractors and supervisors and are vulnerable to unwelcome advances from fellow workers. It is not uncommon for an unmarried woman to return from a worksite pregnant or with a child. Such a woman is subject to social ostracism in the village and loses her usufructuary right in her father's land. Sometimes, a young woman who gets pregnant in this fashion will stay away for years and return to the village only if the child dies.

Women's migration follows certain routine patterns. While a man may migrate on his own when he gets a government or another comparable job, women who go in search of seasonal employment always migrate in groups to areas where some of them have been before or where they know that some people of their community are already employed. Labour contractors also recruit women through village women who act as sub contractors. Thus, even when women move far away from the village, the watchful eyes of other community members are on them and it is difficult to cover up any indiscretion such as an alliance with a non tribal man, especially if it leads to pregnancy.

Women whose families have enough grain for year round consumption and are considered to have high status in the village are averse to migrating, unless pushed by personal circumstances such as a serious conflict over their usufructuary rights. Of all the women in the sample, Moni expressed the strongest aversion to moving out of the village. At present, her family has both land and status. She is the only able bodied woman worker in the family and is not in danger of being denied her usufructuary right. Her father has a small cash income and her unmarried brother is dependent on her labour. There is thus no incentive for her to leave the village.

Although Ho women would rather stay in the village and work on the land, they are exceptionally independent when they do migrate. Since the family structure is not as rigidly hierarchical as among non tribal peasant groups, women are not dependent on the permission of the male head of the family to move around. Unmarried women are even freer in this regard. When an unmarried woman decides to migrate, she does not necessarily seek the approval or permission of male members of the family. Though the reason for a woman to migrate is usually economic hardship faced by the family as a whole, the decision is often the woman's own. She may suddenly hear of a group of women being recruited at the marketplace and may decide to join there and then. She would just send a message home that she is migrating to a particular place. But it is not uncommon for men to push women of their families to go in for seasonal migration, while they themselves hang around the village.
A young woman may also decide on seasonal migration following a quarrel in the family or, occasionally, even from a desire to see the city and earn some cash. Occasionally, the father or brother of a young woman may go and try to fetch her back if her labour is needed at home or if they fear she may return pregnant. But, by and large, unmarried women take and execute their decisions with a kind of independence that is extremely rare among women in non tribal peasant groups.

A married woman, especially if she has children, cannot migrate as easily. She would need to obtain her husband's consent because if he got angry he could use this as a pretext to get another wife and throw her off the land. A married woman cannot risk migrating after a quarrel unless she is willing to risk a total break with her husband and her right in his land. In my sample, only one woman reported having migrated in search of employment against her husband's wishes. This was Sukmaru who had never migrated before her marriage because there was enough to eat in her parental home. After marriage and the birth of her three children, she went to Assam and Calcutta at different times because there was no money in the house for basic needs. Her husband opposed her going but she went with a group from the village, risking his displeasure.

Considering the relatively greater mobility of Ho women, particularly unmarried women, in conjunction with their relatively greater freedom of choice in marriage, there seems to be reason to believe that if they had more access to educational and employment opportunities, they would be able to take advantage of them with relative ease, since they suffer from fewer familial and cultural restraints than do women of non tribal peasant groups.

Decision Making Patterns

The precariousness of women's rights in land helps make them peripheral to the power structures in the village. Land ownership is the basis of political power in Ho villages as in most peasant societies. The families that have relatively more power and influence in the village are invariably those who have acquired more land than others. Such families usually also dominate the political structures such as panchayats.

It is likely that even before the Hos were peasantised and land ownership became vested in the hands of individual men, women were kept out of the political decision making processes. When Hos practiced shifting cultivation combined with hunting, the clans or killis operated as groups trying to exercise control over particular territories. Since warfare and hunting were mainly male monopolies, clan leaders would have been men and control over territory would have been collectively exercised by men. This would have created the basis for making women peripheral to political decision making. The imposition of patriarchal property customs following the settlement operations carried on by the British after 1837 further consolidated this pattern.

The disinheritance process of Ho-women was carried out step by step, but not as a conscious conspiracy. It occurred as a result of colonial rulers imposing certain institutional forms and structures resembling those of their own society. It took decades for women's rights to become as marginalised as they finally did. C.H. Bompas, Deputy Commissioner of Singhbhum, observed in 1897: "The rights of the unmarried daughters are also uncertain. If they equal the sons in number, each son may take one to support, but if they all live with one brother, he will get extra land for their support, and then the question arises whether he is entitled to retain this after their death. I hope to find time to draw up a definite set of rules on these and other points and get the mankis to agree to them. At present, the panchayat decides each case on its merits, and when disputes arise the courts often have no fixed rules to guide them." 21 It is clear from this that the courts were directionless because they were setting new precedent on the matter, many of them against the grain of tribal traditions in landholding. The language of the Settlement Report tries to hide the fact that many of the rules were being freshly created by the British, borrowing from their own culture as well as from the practices of certain Hindu communities. The process seems to have been similar to what the British did to the vast variety of practices prevailing among Hindu communities when they selected those in favour of men in the process of codifying the Hindu law.

Not much is known of the political organisation of Ho society before the British came to this area. But from the writings of British administrators it appears that it was not a very stratified society and no definite ruling class emerged. The mankis and mundas were supposed to be the traditional heads of villages but even they did not exactly constitute a ruling elite. Regarding the tribal mankis, the Kolhan Settlement Report of 1919 says: "In the Kolhan it appears that before the British occupation of the country there were headmen only in those parts which were under some control from the neighbouring chiefs and which paid rent or taxes for each village." Lieutenant Tickell, Assistant Political Agent, Singhbhum, in a letter dated February 1, 1842, to the Governor General's agent, on the subject of assessing the Kolhan, writes: "These border tracts had their chiefs or mankis who were elected on paying a salami for the distinction by the zamindars and who used to present the amount of tax required. But in the interior, the Kolhan from the first presented, and indeed does exist in measure still present, the anomaly of a people living together without an acknowledged head or ruler of any kind whatsoever." 23

The British pretended that they would leave intact the internal organisation of the villages even while they superimposed their rule in the area. However, since the traditional structure was expected to become a willing tool in the hands of British administrators, it slowly evolved into a mere arm of the empire at the village level: "[T]he old village system of the Hos was maintained by the recognition of the mundas or the village headmen and of the mankis or the headmen for groups of villages.... The rent was collected by the mundas and paid by them either direct or through the mankis. The mundas and mankis were allowed to keep a commission or 1/6th or 1/8th as their wages."24 The practice of allowing the mundas and mankis a commission led to their developing a vested interest not only in collecting the land revenues as thoroughly as possible but also in enhancing them. A family which defaulted in payment forfeited its land, which then came under the jurisdiction of the munda, who was considered by government the person responsible for the proper conduct of the village. He thus developed an interest in keeping certain families in such a state of poverty and dependence that they would sooner or later be forced to surrender their land. The mankis and mundas were entitled to settle the village wastelands and forests on resident raiyats and fix a rent for them on which they got a commission. These powers could be grossly misused because the mankis and mundas were no longer accountable to the community. The 1898 Settlement Report states: "[T]he mankis and mundas have abused their power in many instances; by appropriating the lands of tenants; by evicting defaulting tenants from their holdings... by settling the holdings of defaulters with foreigners, ignoring the claims of the resident Ho tenants to the vacant jotes."25

The manki was liable to fine and dismissal only by the deputy commissioner and that too for disobedience of his orders or of the breach of the terms of his patta.26 The British said a man chosen for the post of manki was to be one "who exercises greatest degree of local influence."27 But the pattas the mankis were made to sign made them into stooges of the government machinery and destroyed their role as community leaders. Majumdar quotes from one of these pattas signed in 1828: "If the revenue of your Ilaka is not paid in proper time you will be held responsible for it and it will be realised from you. You will work with heart and soul and render help.... You will carry out all orders. You will receive a separate patta that you will get one tenth of the total revenue of your Ilaka. If you show negligence in the discharge of your duties this sanad will be taken away from you and given to another man." Another patta states the further implications of their role: "You are to assist in person and with your followers in apprehending all offenders against the authority of the government...and in the suppression of insurrections in every part of the jurisdiction of the assistant governor general's agent or other authority...in which your services may be called for."29 The mankis and mundas were entrusted with police functions such as reporting crime and getting people arrested. Armed with arbitrary and repressive powers, they emerged as a new rural elite owing allegiance to the oppressive government outside.

In most other areas of India, when the British took over from the existing ruling elite, they also inherited the state machinery. But as this area had no previous history of being firmly under any ruling elite, it had no need for an elaborate state machinery. As we follow step by step the process of the setting up and consolidation of the institutions of the State under the British, it becomes clear that it came into existence not to protect and benefit the people, but to drain wealth from their land and exploit their labour.

The key assumption behind the new state machinery was that the State had ultimate and total sovereignty. The rulers were able to determine according to their own interests what provisional rights people should have. In return, the State could arbitrarily demand whatever it chose from those over whom it ruled. It could arbitrarily impose and enhance land revenue or decide to lease out someone's agricultural land with no concern for the people, who were treated as mere tenants of the State. The revenue imposed was raised every now and then, not just to extract more surplus, but to drive home the point that the State had the ultimate sovereignty. The Governor General's agent justified it thus in 1851: "It is expedient the Coles should continue to feel that the authorities have unrestricted control in such matters."30

Post Independence Developments

The political institutions superimposed upon Ho society have, after national independence, carried even further the process of consolidating male control, encouraging internal stratification and reinforcing arbitrary powers of the State machinery.

The functions of mankis and mundas were traditionally partly hereditary but also involved an element of community consensus. In 1947, government appointed a committee, on the basis of whose recommendations it decreed that "The posts of mankis and mundas should be made elective and that their educational qualifications should be insisted upon as far as possible."31

Today, the traditional panchayat system, much altered and stunted, operates parallel to government sponsored political structures, such as the elected panchayat headed by a sarpanch which also exists in non tribal villages. The traditional mundas and mankis do not have the powers they once enjoyed unless they also latch on to the government sponsored political institutions.

Members of the elected panchayat and the sarpanch (head of this panchayat) and the macho (traditional headman) are all supposed to be elected by the adult villagers. But people in Karonja do not remember elections for members of the panchayat ever having taken place in their village or in nearby villages. The only elections which take place are those for the sarpanch and macho. Once these men are elected, they choose a set of their cronies who function as the panchayat. Although both men and women vote in the election of the sarpanch and the mukhis, no woman has ever stood for either post in Karonja. The situation is not likely to be very different in other villages.

Since these elections are held at the behest of and conducted by the government, the macho and sarpanch hold themselves accountable to government officials above them and owe practically no accountability to their fellow villager. Power is bestowed on them by the government rather than the people, even though it is ostensibly based on elections by the people. The institutions they represent and the functions they perform are not of the people's making.

The macho is supposed to act as an intermediary between the village and the government administration at the block level. He is in charge of getting government programmes implemented at the village level. This involves handling substantial amounts of money. The functions of the sarpanch include keeping in touch with the local police and reporting anything unusual that happens in the village. The household of the macho is usually identifiable by the large number of goats and fowls it possesses. He is supposed to distribute these to poorer families in the village but usually appropriates them for himself.

In Karonja, a meeting of the village panchayat is a meeting of the macho, the sarpanch and a few of their friends and relatives. At these meetings, they work out matters of common concern to villagers, such as getting funds to repair a well or build a road. But it usually ends up as a lobby of powerful men who try to grab whatever resources they can for their own benefit. This pattern extends outside the village. Each cluster of a dozen or so villages is supposed to have a joint panchayat, which in practice consists of the mukhias and their close friends.
The government sponsored panchayats do not arbitrate disputes between families. Such arbitration is handled by the traditional decision making structures, which are, in other respects, nearly extinct today. Whenever two or more individuals or families are involved in a dispute, they first try to resolve it by calling a meeting at which both sides ask people they trust to be present as arbitrators. The macho or sarpanch is usually also present. Both sides present their case and the arbitrators are supposed to work out a mutually acceptable solution. In most cases, the relative power or powerlessness of the parties concerned is likely to decide the outcome of this arbitration process. A powerful family is likely to have the support of other powerful families of their killi and hence tends to bulldoze others into accepting disadvantageous deals. If one party does not feel satisfied, it may resort to court action, provided it has the resources to do so.

Women are completely excluded even from the village level arbitration machinery. They are not supposed to attend such meetings unless a woman is party to a dispute or is required as a witness. If a widow like Maki Bui seeks intervention from this form of arbitration, she will, in all likelihood, be the only woman present among several men, so that an anti women bias is built into the system and women seldom manage to get a fair deal from it. Women headed families are less likely to be powerful because in a Ho village, as in most villages, apart from the amount of land owned, the ability to wreak violence is an important component of the power of a family. This ability is largely determined by the number of able bodied adult males a family has.

Another important factor that determines the amount of political influence exercised by a family is the amount of steady cash income that flows into it. Since the better paying and regular income yielding jobs are only accessible to some men and not at all accessible to women, families with earning male members tend to acquire more influence in village affairs. Their cash income, apart from giving them prestige, enables them to buy the favour of the local police and administration. They are in a better position to extend patronage to other villagers who feel beholden to them and dare not oppose them. Most mankis and mundas belong to such families, which are also the ones involved in landgrabbing, whereas the families from whom land is grabbed are usually those which have only very old men or infant males, or consist of widows or single women.

A poor woman who is in conflict with men of a better off family may try to get her brothers or other male kin to be present at the meeting on her behalf, but in her marital village people are unlikely to support her against her husband or his male agnates. A woman's ability to mobilise support for herself is further hampered by the institution of the patrilocal family. By virtue of having shifted from her own village to that of her husband she is effectively isolated.

In Conclusion

The British gave strong encouragement to the myth that tribals would benefit by being brought into contact with the outside world under the benevolent authority of the Raj. This myth is even more passionately supported by the inheritors of the Raj. The Indian government uses the rhetoric of national development. However, most attempts at tribal development have essentially meant furthering their subjugation and pushing tribal society into a completely male dominated, hierarchical mould. Many of the disabilities from which Ho women suffer are not a consequence of their traditional customs, as is often claimed. On the contrary, their traditional strengths are being eroded but new strengths have not been allowed to emerge.

Ho women's present plight is due to a combination of factors:

  • British land settlement operations created a new system of peasant proprietorship with increasingly patrilineal forms of inheritance that destroyed the tradition of land being held collectively by the clan;
  • Tribal areas were opened to exploitative outsiders such as mining and industrial companies and Hindu peasant groups, with greater resources and know how. This led to increasing land alienation. The resultant scarcity of land changed the power balance between Ho men and women. It allowed the Ho men, who control the land, to subjugate the women, who provide almost all the labour, in ways never before possible;
  • External power structures, owing their allegiance to an exploitative, hierarchical government machinery with a virulent bias against women, fostered a far less egalitarian and far more repressive social structure, with women at the very bottom of the pyramid;
  • The Hos were forced to practice a non viable subsistence agriculture. The destruction of the fertility of the land and the lack of irrigation and other agricultural resources made it impossible for Ho women to feed themselves and their children adequately;
  • Discriminatory marriage customs such as polygamy and easy discarding of wives has led to an acceleration in the pace of the disinheritance of women from rights in the land;
  • Ho men's tightening control over the land and other income generating economic assets permits ever increasing exploitation of Ho women despite women's far greater contribution to the family's livelihood through never ending drudgery;
  • Ho women are denied access to formal education and secure employment in the organised sector the few opportunities that are now available to tribals are a male monopoly;
  • The lack of viable alternatives for women to enable them to earn a living in the outside world makes them very vulnerable to economic and sexual exploitation whenever they are compelled to migrate from their villages in times of scarcity and distress;
  • The government's forest laws make previously available forest produce such as fuel and fodder more and more inaccessible, making women's lives much harder;
  • The exclusion of women from all meaningful decision making, especially within the village or kinship panchayat, as well as at the district and state level bodies, ensures that women are not able to offer organised resistance when they are discriminated against;


The male monopoly over organised violence, due in part to their traditional involvement in hunting and warfare, has been strengthened because the institutions of state violence, such as the police, are in favour of male control in case of any conflict of interests between Ho men and women. Women can hardly ever hope to get support and protection against violence from the police, the courts, or any other part of the government;
The central and state governments' pretensions of fostering tribal welfare and "development" actually helps strengthen the stranglehold that outsiders maintain on most of the wealth of this rich region. From the Tatas to the local policeman, they extract everything possible, but provide little or nothing in return; and
The influence of the anti women, rigidly hierarchical culture of dominant non tribal groups in surrounding areas has encouraged Ho men to reject much of their relatively egalitarian tribal culture.

What Needs to be Done

So far, most of the pitifully few efforts to provide help to tribal women have focused on the terrible conditions under which tribal women and men have been exploited as migrant labourers. There have been numerous campaigns for the release of bonded labourers and for improving their working conditions in mines, brick kilns and other worksites. While this is important, the key to improving the situation of tribals is first to stop and then to reverse the alienation of tribal lands. Without this necessary first step, all of the tribal development schemes are meaningless deceptions.

Even if some land were to remain in tribal hands, it would not necessarily benefit women unless they obtained secure and independent rights in the land. Without that as a base, they cannot negotiate a better deal for themselves in the family, the village and the outside world.

In addition to bettering Ho women's lot, measures to secure their rights will also assist in halting the process of alienation of tribal land. Ho women are the primary cultivators of the land. They are less inclined to mortgage or sell the land and move to the cities. The disinheritance of women is politically and culturally determined rather than due to any inability to cultivate the land.

Giving women rights in the land will not undermine tribal cultures, as if often argued. On the contrary, giving women secure and equal rights in land will help halt the ongoing disintegration of tribal culture and society, because they are the ones who have the greatest stake in the survival of their culture and society.

The underlying principle behind much of the land reform legislation in India was that the land should be owned by those who actually cultivate it. Unfortunately, this principle has never been extended to women. If it were, Ho women would have a case for more than equal inheritance rights, since they are the primary cultivators in their society. Even if we do not take the principle of "land to the cultivator" to this logical conclusion, there seems absolutely no justification for denying Ho women equal land rights. To this end, the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act(CNTA) needs to be amended to enable women to become full inheritors. But mere amendment of the Act will not be enough. It is equally important that the state government rapidly move to take the responsibility for entering women's names in the record of land rights, and to give women pattas to confirm their ownership.
In order to ensure that non tribals do not grab tribal lands through fake marriages and other fraudulent deals, we need to ensure that the present provisions incorporated in CNTA to prevent the alienation of tribal lands are further strengthened. When a tribal man or woman marries a non tribal, the latter should not have the right to inherit tribal land after the spouse's death. Nor should a tribal male or female be allowed to sign away their rights in favour of a non tribal. Tribal lands must stay inalienably with the tribe.

Right now, the government has vast arbitrary powers that allow the sale or take over of any amount of tribal land. This power has been grossly misused and needs to be curbed drastically.

With women's land rights as the starting point, certain additional measures are required to strengthen their position. The transition from below subsistence level agriculture to self sustaining agriculture needs to take place speedily. These women require adequate credit to enable them to obtain irrigation facilities, better varieties of seeds, farm animals,and other agricultural inputs.

No less urgently required is the reversal of the tide of decades of cultural imperialism so as to enable Ho society to retain the more egalitarian and humane aspects of its traditional culture. It is unfortunate that Hos are emulating the deadly anti women biases which have devastating effects on the lives of most non tribal women. It is absolutely vital that we do not view tribal society and women's situation in it merely to offer them suggestions for improvement from our supposedly superior vantage point. There are many things we could usefully learn from Ho women, such as their spirit of independence, their ability to get around by themselves, and their refusal to accept the ideology of subservience including the widely prevalent practice of treating men as godlike creatures.


16. Census of India, 1971, Series I, Part V A
(ii) Special Tables for Scheduled Tribes, 1977, p 262.
17. Ibid.
18. Ibid.
19. Ibid.
20. Bihar Statistical Handbook 1978, Directorate of Statistics and Evaluation, Government of Bihar, p 251.
21. Ibid.
22. Majumdar op cit, p 13.
23. Quoted in Majumdar, op cit, p 13.
24. Roy Chaudhury, op cit, pp 356 357.
25. Final Report, op cit Part II.
26. Roy Chaudhury, op cit, pp 363 364.
27. Singhbhum Old Records, Secretariat Press, Bihar, Patna, 1958, p 33.
28. Majumdar, op cit, pp 13 14.
29. Singhbum Old Records, op cit, pp 54 55.
30. H. Ricketts, Report on the District of Singhbhum, Bengal Military Orphan Press, Calcutta, 1853, p 67.
31. Roy Chaudhury, op cit, p 363.


This is the final part of the paper which has been published in three parts


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About Author

Madhu Kishwar

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is an Indian academic and writer. She was a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), based in Delhi, and the Director of the Indic Studies Project based at CSDS which aims to promote the study of "Religions and Cultures in the Indic Civilization".