An anthropologist of Calcutta University, Probodh Kumar Bhowmick, studied the condition of the Lodhas and also carried out anthropological research for nearly four decades beginning from the late 1950s. Unlike Kapadia, the anthropological accounts of Bhowmick were influenced by the British perception.
The only difference between the colonial coinage of the term, criminality and the post-colonial anthropological construct was that while the former based its arguments on the instinctive nature of the community, the latter viewed criminality as a result of environmental and/or socio-economic conditions encountered by the Lodhas.
More interestingly, postcolonial anthropological accounts often reflected the colonial mindset. In one of his articles in the newsletter of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Bhowmick wrote: “The chronic poverty and low aspiration level and lack of zeal of these people have created socio-cultural and economic constraints which, in turn, have made them lazy and lethargic. This has also made them unresponsive to any sort of change or innovation introduced for their uplift”.
After Independence, about 153 communities in India who were designated as ‘criminal tribes’ by the British were re-designated as ‘denotified tribes’.
In West Bengal, Lodhas were also denotified and were mainly concentrated in the erstwhile Midnapore district. In the first Census in 1951, the Lodhas were listed as a Scheduled Caste and their total population was recorded as 8,346 in West Bengal. The figure was a little over one lakh, according to the Census estimates of 2011. Most importantly, the denotification process carried the colonial hangover of looking at ‘criminal tribes’ as born criminals. GN Devi, a noted scholar-activist and the editor of Budhan, the newsletter of the Denotified Nomadic Tribes Rights Action Groups (DNT-RAG) narrated the passage from the Criminal Tribes Act of the colonial period to the post-colonial Denotified Tribes Act in a succinct manner: “Soon after Independence, the communities notified as criminal tribals were denotified by the Government.
This notification was followed by substitution of a series of Acts, generally entitled ‘Habitual Offenders Act’. The HOAs preserved most of the provisions of the former CT Acts, except the premise implicit in it that an entire community can be ‘born’ criminal. Apparently, the denotification and the passing of the HOAs should have ended the misery of the communities penalised under the CT Act. But that has not happened.
The police forces as well as the people in general were taught to look upon the ‘Criminal Tribes’ as born criminals during the colonial era. That attitude continues to persist even today”. In his book, Essays in Economic Anthropology, Ranjit Gupta, former Commissioner of Calcutta Police, wrote: “The only major police report relates to a combined mass attack by the Santhals and the Mahatos on the Lodhas of the areas around a village called Mohulboni on 20 March, 1958, in course of which four Lodhas were killed and several Lodha huts were set on fire.
The provocation was an armed robbery in a Santhal hut in Mohulboni by the Lodhas, and alleged rape of a Santhal woman. The major background reason was obviously the tension due to the Lodha depredations against propertied classes. It is to be noted that the Mahatos (the Kurni Kshatriyas) who were not at all an injured party in this case took an active part in the outrage on the Lodhas”. Probodh Bhowmick also narrated how the Lodhas on the bank of Subarnarekha river in Midnapore district were chased and finally 39 of them were brutally beheaded and the rest were captured by the killers in September 1979.
In 1968, the houses of 18 Lodha villages were burned by the Santhals who alleged that the Lodhas were involved in criminal activities. In a reply to my RTI queries on the detention, prosecution and conviction of the Lodhas in West Midnapore district during 2010-14, the Deputy Superintendent of Police informed me of 53 cases in which Lodha men and women were charged with criminal charges and in all the cases the trials were pending. In 43 cases (81 per cent of the total), the allegations against the Lodhas were levelled by members of other castes and communities. In the postindependence period, the major objective of the Government was to remove the stigma of criminal tribe of the Lodhas.
At the same time, the Government also wanted to improve the tribe’s socio-economic condition. Traditionally, they have depended on forest produce and daily labour. The Centre has announced initiatives for improving their living conditions by providing facilities for housing, agriculture, cottage industries and education but the traditional life of the Lodhas has not changed substantially. They are still largely dependent on collecting forest produce and hunting for a livelihood. The District Human Development Report: Paschim Medinipur, published by the Government of West Bengal in 2011, devoted a long section on the Lodhas.
The subject has been viewed from a historical perspective. The report concluded that even after independence the marginalised condition of the Lodhas in West Midnapore and other nearby areas has not improved appreciably. It noted that the government regarded the Lodhas as a kind of primitive and displaced group which needed rehabilitation within the fold of an agricultural economy. In the report it was admitted that the governmental efforts towards the development of the tribe largely failed. The counter-point of the colonial and post-colonial anthropological perception of the Lodhas was made by nonanthropologists, notably Mahasweta Devi and Chandan Sinha (a former District Magistrate of West Midnapore).
Both found the settled Lodhas as hardworking and responsible citizens. In his recent book, Kindling of an Insurrection: Notes from Junglemahal, published by Routledge, Sinha has mentioned several Lodha families of Jhargram who showed remarkable strength and courage at the individual and community levels. They took care of the poultry and livestock given to them under the Rastriya Sam Vikas Yojna. He wrote: “Darkness had fallen but with the help of torchlight we made our way to the house of Hari and Pramila Sabar.
Upon reaching their homestead, I found Hari Sabar digging one side of the foundation all by himself. I asked him why he was working so late. He told me that during the day he had gone to the jungle to collect sal leaves. Upon his return finding some portion of the foundation incomplete he decided to complete digging the length before calling it a day. It was a stirring sight, especially since most people tend to dismiss Lodhas as incapable of hard work and responsibility”.
Our own empirical study of the Lodhas in three administrative blocks of West Midnapore revealed striking differences in terms of the utilisation of various development inputs given to the tribe. We have also found that in at least two blocks, a large number of Lodha families have also been successful as peasants.
The persistent perception of the Lodhas as a ‘criminal’ and ‘lethargic’ community, who were ‘unresponsive’ to change and innovation seemed to be a myth which could not stand empirical scrutiny.
(The writer is a former Professor, Department of Anthropology, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore)