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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2019



Dalit Oppression, Erosion of Dalit Culture, Caste Politics and Dalit Resistance in Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow (1980)

Debabrata Karmakar, Research Scholar, Department of English, Seacom Skills University, Birbhum, West Bengal


The etymological meaning of the word “Dalit” is “broken to pieces’, “trampled down”, “crushed” or “suppressed”. “Dalit means ‘grounded down’, or ‘broken to pieces’ in both Marathi and Hindi.” (Rao 11) “Dalit” refers to the lower caste people who bears the stigma of untouchability imposed upon them by the upper-caste people in order to reproduce the production of labour but that reproduction of labour is not fixed by the minimum wage but by birth or their forefather’s caste.” (Karmakar 69) One pertinent question related to the paper can be asked whether the Adivasis can be called Dalits or not, for the Adivasis are not untouchables and they are excluded or treated as outsiders from the Hindu community. Seeking the answer of the question, an answer given by Sharan Kumar Limbale to a question about the distinction between Dalit Literature and DNT (Denotified Tribes) literature, in an interview conducted by Alok Mukherjee is quoted below:
SL: …whether one is untouchable, DNT or Adivasi, we consider all of them to be Dalit. In Maharashtra, Laxman Gaikwad is recognized as a Dalit writer, and he says, ‘I am a Dalit writer.’ But it is the intellectual class that is making these distinctions for their own analysis and their research purposes. In Maharashtra, the DNT, the SC (Scheduled Castes) and the ST (scheduled Tribes) are small groups. And they have joined together in the struggle. Only when you can see the each group on a nationwide basis, you realize that DNTs form a very large group, and so do the SCs. Distinctions between oppressed groups can be made for the purpose of study only in this wider sense. But their issues, their struggles and their sentiments are alike, and they have worked in concert. I think group identity should be distinguished from political action. (Limbale 137)

This answer clearly indicates Sharan Kumar Limbale’s standpoint that in order to raise a revolt against the upper-caste hegemony, the people who were oppressed economically, socially and culturally on the basis of their caste must get together.

Just as Sharan Kumar Limbale stresses the need for "Dalit solidarity" in an answer to the relevant question, referred in the introduction to the thesis, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak also emphasizes "Dalit solidarity" in the "Translator's Afterword" of her translated work Chotti Munda and His Arrow: "Chotti Munda repeatedly dramatizes subaltern solidarity: Munda, Oraon, and the Hindu outcastes must work together. Today such a solidarity has a name: dalit…" (366). The close affinity of Adivasi culture with the lower-caste Hindus (untouchables) and the degree of socio-economic oppression by the upper-caste Hindus bring them much closer to each other to put up a Dalit resistance against the upper caste hegemony. The close cultural affinity and the similar degree of oppressions are narrated and pointed out by the conscious writer on subalternity in different parts of the novel. Adivasis's pork-eating habit bears resemblance to the untouchables' love for eating pork with rice and drinking liquor:
Yet every year the [Adivasi] contestants [in an archery competition held in Chotti fair] stay up the night eating pork and rice -the meat of this [the prize-winning] pig and a couple more that they slaughter -and drinking liquor … (Chotti… 3)

Mahasweta Devi knows that the cultural affinity between untouchables and Scheduled Tribes, and their oppression by the Dikus because of the system of bonded labour are conducive to constitute "Dalit solidarity". Realizing the importance of "Dalit solidarity", she makes Chotti Munda her mouthpiece in this novel. Chotti Munda addresses the Munda and lower-caste Hindus to become united based on this "Dalit solidarity" in order to resist upper-caste oppression and to wipe out the system of slavery:
…to t' Lala, to t' Brahman, ye're low caste. To ye, Motia is a low caste. We have no caste diff'rence. And I bring it up, cos t' village is now all mixed. Ye and us dies together in famine, drought and bonded work. Lala wants to decide. But if need be ye and us go together, I say. (Chotti …127)

On the contrary, the upper-caste politicians, moneylenders, industrialists and even politically supported hooligans perceived the importance of breaking this "Dalit solidarity' in order to reproduce the production of labour at a very lower cost for generations both in agriculture and in industry. Consequently, Romeo suggests to industrialist Harbans in the following words: "…keep the untouchable and the tribal under your shoes. They live all that way. Everyone gets cheap labour…"(Chotti… 262). The industrialists and moneylenders (who were Jotdars) got cheap labourers because they made both untouchables and Adivasis their "bonded labourers" (a typical slavery system in India) by binding the illiterate Dalits into debts for generation by giving them a small amount of corns or money. Mahasweta Devi writes in Chotti Munda and His Arrow: “It's very easy to bind the adivasis in debt. If they once put their thumbprint on paper, they give bonded labour for generations. Of course this is just as applicable to untouchables.” (32)

The plot of the novel, Chotti Munda and His Arrow is based on the life of a great Munda leader Chotti Munda who had become a mythical figure in his Munda village and its surrounding Adivasi villages in Chotonagpur region. Besides the gradual development of Chotti Munda’s life –from his childhood to his old age (1900-78) –the novel also captures the erosion of Adivasi culture under the impact of globalization and industrialization; and the shifting phases of aboriginal oppression and domination of the privileged class/caste from colonial to post-colonial period. The novel is divided into seventeen chapters that mainly deal with the aboriginals' struggle for existence and the resistance of Munda community against the bonded labour under the shrewd leadership of Chotti Munda. The first chapter glimpses Adivasi culture, archery competition of the aboriginals, Chotti Munda's magical skill in archery and endangered socio-economic life of the Munda community under the colonial rule. In chapter two, the novelist foretells the prospect of another Ulgulan by connecting Chotti Munda's birth with Birsa Munda's death in the year 1900 and Chotti Munda's learning the skills of archery from the legendary Munda archer Dhani Munda. The brief episode of Chotti-Dhani relationship ends in the brutal killing of Dhani Munda by Daroga Muneshwar Singh, when Dhani entered his native place Chaibasa by infringing a government order. To Chotti Munda, Dhani Munda was a legendary old man, an idol, a hero of previous uprising and his death undoubtedly gave him agony. This very fact was common in any village of a colonized country all over the world:
… At twelve or thirteen years of age the village children know the names of the old men who were in the last rising, and the dreams they dream in the duars or in    the villages are not those of money or of getting through the exams like the children of the towns, but dreams of identification with some rebel or another, the story of whose heroic death still today moves them to tears. (Fanon 91)

Chapter five centers on one of Chotti Munda's favourite disciples, Dukhia Munda who won an archery competition in a village fair and relished the first taste of victory; but one day, in a fit of anger, Dukhia killed his manager who often abused him in foul language. Why did Dukhia kill the manager? Dukhia killed because he was dehumanized, he was treated like an animal and "his social forms [were] disintegrating before his eyes” (Fanon 111). In chapter eight, Mahasweta Devi highlights acute water crisis in 1950 in Chotonagpur region and also points out that August Revolution in 1942 did not make any impact on the Mundas' life because their greater exploiters were the Dikus (i) rather than colonial government. In fact, the colonial masters created the national bourgeoisie and their specialized elites to exploit the colonized. They took the role of colonizers in post-colonial era. Edward W. Said writes In Culture and Imperialism regarding the matter:
… The national bourgeoisies and their specialized élites, of which Fanon speaks so ominously, in effect tended to replace the colonial force with a new class-based and ultimately exploitative one, which replicated the colonial structures in new terms… (269)

Chapter nine of the novel focuses on the changing working conditions of Munda community under the impact of industrialization and modernization. This chapter also narrates how an enraged Munda named Puran Munda killed Tasildar Singh who was a cruel agent of the new King at Narasingha and a great oppressor of the Mundas, with a venomous arrow.

From chapter ten of the novel, a new dimension of Dalit (Munda) oppression is seen under the impact of caste/class politics in post-independence India. Chapter ten highlights the battle for lands between Munda community and Dikus who captured the fertile lands from the Adivasis when they had transformed barren lands into fertile ones by their hard labour for several years. In a similar vein, when a moneylender, Lala Tirathnath attempted to grab Chotti Munda's fertile land, Chotti informed about the usurper to Daroga and Tribal Welfare Officer, but Chotti Munda's son Harmu was involved in a violent resistance against the Dikus. Consequently, Harmu was arrested and got two years rigorous punishment.

Chapter eleven of this novel penetrates into the role of caste politics in Dalit oppression. Ananda Mahato, a scheduled caste journalist campaigned for a lower-caste candidate in Munda village and ultimately with the huge support of the untouchables and scheduled tribes (Adivasis), the lower-caste candidate defeated the congress candidate by a big margin. Munda village had been transformed with the touch of globalization and modernization – a well and a health center were built. Munda boys began to get elementary education in a newly-built primary school. Meanwhile, Harmu Munda came back from jail which brought a transitory joy in Chotti Munda's family. Chapter twelve of the novel paints the picture of Naxatile Movement in 1970s in India. Repressive State Apparatus mercilessly killed the young Naxals who claimed for an egalitarian society. This chapter also portrays the agony of Chotti Munda after losing his brother Koyel Munda. How the greedy landlords and moneylenders like Lala Tiraknath and small industrialists like Harbans Singh exploited Dalits with the help of caste politics has been delineated very aptly by the novelist in the chapter fourteen of the novel. In post-independence era, politics had become a profit making business in which both Congress and Arjun Munda's Youth Leagues violently confronted with each other in order to grab political power with the help of anti-socials. Repressive State Apparatus (ii) of independent India exploited Dalits in a new way and killed Naxal youths who raised questions against the existing political, social and economic status-quo set up by the privileged class/caste.

Both chapter fourteen and fifteen deal with merciless exploitation of the Dalits by the outsiders like Romeo, Pehalwan and Dildar who are hooligans backed by the Youth Leagues Party. Their main aim was to make 'cut money' from the Dalit labourers in Lala Tiraknath's agricultural fields and Harbans Singh's brick factory. When Dalit solidarity was constituted, Romeo killed the leader of the untouchables, Pahan, his wife and many other Dalits, and also burnt their houses. A reporter of Adivasi Samachar, Ananda Mahato who circulated the news of merciless massacre of Dalits in Chotti region in national and international level, was smashed by the anti-socials of the Youth Leagues Party between two trucks. Consequently, Dalit resistance flared up under the leadership of Chotti Munda. In a terrible fight, some Mundas were killed and ChottiMunda handicapped Romeo and Pehalwan with his poisoned arrows. Meanwhile, the Naxal leader Swarup along with his team members took refuge in the dense forest of Kurmi hill. They were assisted by the Dalits because they dreamt of an unexploited society. In the chapter fourteen of the novel, the writer also critiques the fruitless research works on the Adivasis or Dalits by the urban intelligentsia like the new economist Amlesh in this novel. The writer implies that the educated people did their researches on Scheduled tribes only to acquire personal reputation without having deep knowledge of the real socio-economic condition of the Adivasis, their culture and language. Often they were misguided or instigated by the higher officials of Indian administration in order to conceal the real socio-economic condition of the Dalits from the mass media and created a kind of "epistemological violence". The novelist also informs that “Abolition of Bonded Labour Ordinance” was passed on 24th October, 1975 but most of the Adivasis were unaware of the ordinance and suspicious about the proper implementation of the ordinance in their socio-economic life.

Chapter Sixteen of the novel portrays the war-like conditions between different groups like the I.A.D. (Immediate Action Directive), the Naxals, Youth Leagues Party, the Adivasis or Dalits in the Chotti region before, during and after the National Emergency of 1977. The I.A.D. officer Shankar killed Naxal leader Swarup but his comrades had changed their ambush. When Romeo and their cohorts attacked the Mundas, the Mundas led by Chotti resisted with poisoned arrows. A hooligan of Youth Leagues party killed Shankar. The I.A.D. department and the local police attacked the anti-socials of Youth Leagues Party and arrested some hooligans including Romeo and Pehalwan. The Congressmen came to Bihar in order to wipe out Youth Leagues Party.  Romeo and Pehalwan came out from jail in 1978 after emergency but the Youth Leagues party lost its hold in Bihar. The last chapter of the novel, chapter seventeen concentrates on the killing of two notorious villains of the novel –Romeo and Pehalwan. In 1978, Janata Party came to power in India and spread the ideals of non-violence, but Chotti Munda's son Somchar along with Chotti's disciples and the Naxals killed Romeo and Pehalwan in deep forest. The police were searching for the murderers and they summoned all Dalits in a big fair on "Bijoya Dashami" (the last day of the worship of goddess Durga) in 1978 in Chotti region. The main aim of the police was to find out the executors of the two hooligans. The S.D.O. threatened the Dalits to reveal the name of the murderers but no one confessed. At last Chotti Munda confessed untruly that he murdered the hooligans in order to save the entire Munda community. To make his words believable, the seventy-eight year old Chotti Munda picked up his bow and hit the target with his arrow for the last time. When S.D.O. advanced to arrest Chotti Munda, a thousand bows upraised in space as Dalit resistance and “a warning [against the exploiters] announced in many upraised hands." (364), and the novel ends with this symbolic image of Dalit resistance.

The novel encompasses the time span of nearly seventy years – from 1910 to 1978. Subodh Debnsen in page 332 of Bangla Uponasye Adivasi Samaj conveys that "Mahasweta wants to show the continuous flow [of Adivasi oppression] between two widely-gaped eras –pre-independence and post-independence period." (My translation) Consequently, they were unmoved by the Indian Freedom Movement which was led and participated by the Dikus. To a Munda's eyes, "Indian Freedom Movement was the Dikus' struggle for liberation" (121). Moreover, the upper-caste Hindus (Dikus) "never thought of the adivasis as Indian. They did not draw them into the liberation struggle." (121) Keeping in Frantz fanon's view about writing a new kind of history from the post-colonial perspective, it can be claimed from Dalit perspective and in an Indian context:
…[ The marginalized people] must strive to liberate all mankind from imperialism [and from caste/class oppression]; we must all write our histories and cultures respectively in a new way; we share the same history, even though for some [or all] of [the marginalized people] that history was enslaved. (Culture and Imperialism 331)

When the Bonded labour Abolition Ordinance was passed on 24th October, 1975, Lala Tiraknath was compelled to pay daily wage to his field labourers under certain circumstances, though he knew that most of the Dalits were unaware of the impact of the ordinance. Moreover, Lala knew that Repressive State Apparatus would exploit them, if they demanded their dues. Chotti Munda and other Adivasis knew that this ordinance was passed by upper-level party members in order to increase their vote bank and would make one of the agendas at the time of campaigning in elections, but the lower-caste oppression is to be continued. In order to make bonded labour system perennial, the upper castes would even kill some Dalits, and the upper-caste lawyers and administrators would save the upper-castes in the name of Law. Chotti Munda said about the superficiality of Indian administrative and judicial system in the following words:
T' law was already there, lord! And yet Motia and Pahan died! Did anyone go to je-hell, was anyone punished? Harmu did nothin' and went to je-hell. No lord! As long as Diku has t' power to make t' law work, so long will Diku watch Diku's rights. (304)

Although both untouchables and Adivasis were oppressed in similar ways, Adivasis bear more self-respect and capability to dismantle upper-caste solidarity by their united resistance. The upper-caste moneylenders, higher officials, both British and Indian government, and industrialists were afraid of united Adivasi resistance. When the governor's secretary was warned by a "certain pre-eminent army doctor" (54) about Adivasi uprising, he laughs dryly "in a controlling voice" (54) and says:
We shouldn't forget that Alluri Raju [the leader of the mountain tribes in the Vishakapattnam agency], the leader of a tribal uprising, was put to death just the other day in South India. If there is any breach of peace in the tribal belt [the Ranchi-Palamu-Chaibasha belt], we should take it very seriously. (55)

The extract clearly reflects colonial rulers “xenophobia” being ignorant of and being inaccessible to Adivasi culture, their independent codes and conduct of behavior. Edward W. Said in his introduction to Culture and Imperialism writes about “xenophobia” of the colonial masters for their ignorance of colonized culture in the following words, "… culture comes to be associated, often aggressively, with the nation or the state; this differentiates 'us' from 'them', almost always with some degree of xenophobia (xiii)". Not only the colonial ruler, but also the upper-caste Hindu moneylenders also shared a kind of “xenophobia” regarding their resistance which was sometimes unexpected and sudden to them. The upper-caste moneylenders sometimes make them violent by hurting their caste pride and community ego unwittingly and ignorantly.  Adivasis worked peacefully, silently as they were “black stones” but when their ego or honour is hurt, they put up a solid resistance. In this novel, this resistance is noticeable first from Chotti Munda's father Birsa Munda and afterwards from the Munda legend, Chotti Munda. Birsa Munda's pride of being a Munda was hurt when Lala Baijnath called him "a moneylender" to his community, because in Munda community lending money is considered as a heinous act – a sin. Birsa Munda did not bear with the insult and retorts: "… Called us moneylender, Lord? Munda borrows but doesn't lend. Doesn't suck his brother's blood by moneylending'. You've abused me." (32) When Birsa Munda returned to his village and informed his community that Lala insulted them calling “moneylender”, all the Munda gradually enraged and protested:  “Moneylender, interest– these words are thoroughly despicable to Mundas. This is most deplorable… (33)". Mundas did not like foul words. They worked hard for several generations silently at a minimum or no wage, but they always expected some respect from their landlords. If the “Dikus” hailed them with the following words, they protested unanimously. It is evident when Chotti Munda and his followers refused to work in Lala Tiraknath's field when Lala abused the Mundas with foul language. Dukhia severed the head of a manager with a machete when the manager abused and humiliated him continuously. The self-respect of the Scheduled Tribes or the aboriginals of India is probably ingrained in their culture and their religious belief in ancient Gods. They are the outsiders of the Hindu religion whereas the lower-caste Hindus or Untouchables are included in Hindu religion, though they live at the margin of Hindu society. Untouchables are demoralized with foul words for several generations but they become accustomed to it, whereas the Adivasis came in contact with the Dikus or higher-caste Hindus only in the middle of nineteenth century. They were not accustomed to bear with any insult on their community by the outsiders – the Dikus.

Like the untouchables, Adivasi children did not have access to primary education. It is regarded as a conspiracy by the upper-caste/class people of India to oppress the lower-castes and Scheduled Tribes for generations – to exploit them mercilessly both by Ideological State Apparatus and Repressive State Apparatus. A Munda boy's inaccessibility to rudimentary education in independent India is portrayed by the novelist minutely:
What school! First we're not school folks, ye've to hit 'em hard to send 'em to school, and then t' schoolmaster says, what'll ye do with school? Go herd ows. If they see such Munda boys, they chase 'em off.

By law it'sf'rever'one, but not in fact. Oh let t' Brahmanas', but not in fact. Oh let t' Brahmans', and t' Lalas', and t' caste-Hindu kids go to school. (150)

The schoolmasters chased the Munda boys off in order to deny them access to primary education, though all children of independent India must get elementary education according to the law. The schoolmasters chased them because they, under the impact of Ideological State Apparatus of Hindu religion, have the impression that the Munda boys were born dull, without having any intelligence to acquire primary education. Moreover, they also evaded the grim social reality in which the Munda boys were brought up – they were the first-generation learners and have to earn their livelihood besides studying in the primary school, whereas the upper-caste children were born and brought up under the loving care of educated parents. The schoolmasters' attitude towards the Munda boys, in fact, corroborates what Ganesh Devi, a social activist, points out in an interview to The Hindu, "India has learnt to think of these people [the tribals] as a liability, as an economic burden and a threat to excellence."

Mahasweta Devi observed the continuous oppression of the Adivasis and untouchables or in a broader sense "Dalitbahujan" for several generations. In "Telling History" section, in an interview between Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Mahasweta Devi, she replies to a question raised by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak regarding Chotti Munda, who is considered as a figure of continuity from “Ulgulan”, to the Emergency and post-Emergency:
When, in the 60s, I would go to Munda villages, their marketplaces or anywhere, they would talk still of Birsa's uprising and of Dhani Munda who was a legendary figure. And you say Emergency and post-Emergency. I used to visit that region from '63 to '75 continuously… The criminalization of politics, letting the lumpen loose in the lower caste and tribal belts. Inhuman torture and oppression. I have also seen the resistance. That is the time when the Naxal boys were harboured there, given shelter, allowed to escape. What Chotti Munda or any other stories and books depict is a continuous struggle… (ix).

In this interview Mahasweta Devi also claims that "Chotti here [in this novel] is a symbol or representation of tribal aspiration for Mundas' redemption from bonded labour and restoring their ancient village system – "Mundari Khuntkatti” (xii). Nandini Sen in the introduction to her edited book Mahasweta Devi: Critical Perspective writes:
Mahasweta Devi does not romanticize the tribals. They are not dancing and singing tribals in her stories. Instead what she depicts is the stark poverty and the subhuman conditions the adivasis are forced to live in. Forgotten and forsaken by the uncaring Indian government, these people find themselves in debt traps where their lives are governed by the Malik Mahajans… (19)

Mahasweta Devi has represented in the scope of fiction a historical view of a typical Adivasi community. This is a sort of an archetype of the tribal culture and pride from its heydays to its erosion at the onslaught of so-called civilization. This is a specific exploration of the Munda community but in its understanding it is universal. In the absence of any definite epistemological archive it is this recording of their passing that becomes immensely important. Moreover, by using the mode of fiction Mahasweta Devi comes closest to being empathetic to the cause of the tribals. Chotti Munda and His Arrow represents a narrative of symbolic resistance both as re-presenting (presenting again) a hidden history of resistance as well as representing (as a representative) of that resistance. The protagonist Chotti Munda comes out of the novel not only as a hero but also as a symbol of the quintessential human resistance against dehumanizing forces of civilization.



Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Appartuses”. Lenin And Philosophy And Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971.127-186. Print.

Debsen, Subodh. Bangla Uponayesa Adivasi Samaj. Kolkata: Pustak Biponi, 2010. Print.

Devi, Mahasweta. Aranayer Adhikar. Kolkata: KarunaPrakashani, 2005. Print.

…. Chotti Munda and His Arrow. Trans. and  introd. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2002. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. London: Penguin Books, 1990. Print.

Limbale, Sharankumar. Towards an Aesthetic of Dalit Literature.Trans.Alok Mukherjee. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2004. Print.

Rao, Anupama. “Who is the Dalit? The Emergence of a New Political Subject”. Claiming Power from Below: Dalits and Subaltern Question in India. Eds. Manu Bhagavan and Anne Feldhaus. London: OUP, 2008. 11-27. Print.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Sen, Nandini, ed. Mahasweta Devi: Critical Perspectives. New Delhi: Pencraft International, 2011.Print.

Shrivastava, M. K. Abstract of “Mundari Khuntkatti: An Institution of Customary Right over Land”. Oriental Anthoplogists.13.2. Jul-Dec 2013.> login. 8 Oct. 2018. Web.



i. Adivasi called all the outsiders like colonial masters, Bengali and Bihari moneylenders, officers, businessmen as Dikus.

ii. According to a famous French Marxist Louis Althusser , the state has no meaning except as a function of State Power (Repressive State Apparatus or RSA)  but a state functions both by its Repressive State Apparatus such as the government, the police, the Army, the Courts, the Prisons etc.  and by its Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) such as the Religious ISA, the Educational ISA, the Family ISA, the Legal ISA, the Cultural ISA, the Communications
ISA and so on.
Three main differences between RSA and ISAs are:
There is one RSA but there is a plurality in ISAs; RSA belongs to public domain while ISAs belong to private domain and RSA functions primarily by violence and secondarily by ideology while ISAs function mainly by ideology and occasionally by Violence.

iii. Ganesh Devy. “A Gentle Crusader” in The Hindu. Metro Plus. Thursday, August 22, 2002.

iv. “Mundari Khuntkatti is a customary institution found among Mundas of Chotanagpur which provides ownership of land among all the families of the same killi (clan), who created the forest and made the land cultivable. The old age institution also provides an identity of being a Munda and their country. It is true that Chotanagpur Tenancy Act,1908 has been safeguarding this system but the act reduced the Mundari Khuntkattidars as a tenant and not the owner of the land and village…” (Shrivastava Abstract)