The Santal are a small minority who settle in different regions of Bangladesh. They are actually forest users, but were hired to clear forest land during the British colonisation of India and later used it as farmland. This is how they came to Bangladesh. We met some communities of them near Saidpur, where they have been living for many generations. The first contact in the Santal community was the mundshi haram, the headman of their community. This office is hereditary and has been held by his family for many generations. In the broadest sense, he is the ritual master at birth, death or marriage and is also asked for permission for the latter by those wishing to marry. His wife holds the office of village chief. Her offices are respected by all Santals of the villages, even if they are hereditary. There are 65 other households living in the village of the Munji haram. They have become more and more in recent times because the mission station of the Catholic Church has also settled here in the village. This has led to a significant increase in the number of households. Since the new priest arrived, a man from the USA, the number has increased from 40 to 65 households, which can be attributed to the influence of the Catholic mission.
Many of the Santals are both Hindus and Christians, and double confession is not considered problematic for them. Of the many households living here, only a few have any land; about 4 households own around 1000 square metres of land here, while the rest of the Santal are employed as day labourers in the village and by neighbouring landowners. The rest of the Santals work as day labourers in the village and for neighbouring landowners, almost all of whom are Bengalis. For them, this means being able to earn a livelihood for themselves twice a year for 20 days, during the harvest in spring and during preparations for a new season in autumn.
Otherwise, half of all families have cows, at least one at most four. They all have hardly any pasture for it, in summer (which is February here) it is so warm that the cows can hardly stand on the pasture, they have to go into the shade into the stable. But there is too little fodder available. On the few arable fields they grow maize, chilli, wet and dry rice. The Santal have felt the pressure of the majority population especially since the 1980s. Before that, there was still enough forest and other alternative land that they could use for fattening pigs and grazing cows. Actually, every family here has pigs, about 1 or 2. Some of them are tethered, others run around freely. Almost everyone in the village marries their daughters off, even to other districts, while the sons stay in the village and share their father’s possessions. In the past, the marriages were arranged, so-called matchmakers were then on the way (matchmakers), today the daughters married to the outside are the main sources of information about the conditions in the other villages. In addition, arranged marriages have declined considerably; so-called romantic love is the much more common basis for marriage. A separation (saka mure) is a simple ritual among the Santal, where the munji haram cuts a string that is supposed to symbolise the covenant of both spouses, then they can live separately.
At the house of Matti Hemrun
Matti Hemrun lives at the church property and looks after this building. That he is experienced in rituals was already evident at the beginning of our conversation. Here he had all the Santal who had joined him introduce themselves personally. There were about 20 people, mostly women. The ritual of greeting and welcome was performed, beginning with the word zohar, a Santali word for welcome. This was the first word we learned in Santali, an ancient Dravidian language. Dravidian language. Then he began to narrate.
They live here between two rivers, the Kunobabha and the Deppa, both rivers are lifelines but also life-threatening. The foundations of the houses here are all built 30 cm above the highest level of the last known floods. In 2017, however, there was such a heavy rainfall that all Santal had to abandon their houses and find temporary shelter on the highest places, mostly the road embankments of the overland roads. All Santal villages were 6m under water at that time. In order to survive the next year, they had to take loans so they could buy new seeds and other essentials of life. With the lenders, the interest rates are around 150 per cent; with the micro-loans, the interest rates are only 8-10 per cent, but you have to pay them back every week. Help among the families is hardly possible in case of such a disaster, as hardly anyone would have anything to give. The Santal are forest users and new farmers, and they were also settled in the region by the British at the turn of the 19th century.
They were always able to get part of their diet from the forest. Here, it was mainly a type of wild potato that was an important source of food and important additives for them. Now all fruits are cultivated fruits and these are treated with poison to make them look nice in the markets — yet they make you sick. The poison ends up in the rivers and these are then without fish, even an important species of snail (kutchiya) is no longer to be found. It was helpful in lowering blood pressure, and various fish also had medicinal effects. The forest also brought rabbits and rodents to eat, now all that is gone.
With the food, the culture has also changed, as they now eat more like Bengalis, their culture has also become more Bengali. The social interaction has changed. The market has invaded everywhere, earlier they were day labourers in agriculture, now the mechanisation of agriculture is about to take away that niche too. Now they have to look for other sources of income, brickworks provide work, but laundry and domestic help are also possible alternatives. This again means greater dependence on the Bengalis. They do not have any handicrafts that they could offer in the market. They do make some things for their own home use, such as palm leaf mattresses, but they have to buy these palm leaves and they are increasingly difficult to get because the palm trees also have to make way for agriculture.
The second phrase we learned in this encounter was the words “Aimar sarhou!” – Thank you!
Djinaipuri, santal village by the river
The village of Djinaipuri was founded about 70 years ago by a family who moved here from India. The place of origin was called Dumka. Like the first settler here. The grandfather of our interlocutor Djitau Mardi with his brother were the first to settle by the river. At that time, this was all forest, and a zamindar gave them the space to use, so that they cleared everything here. The forest was turned into arable land and now it is almost non-existent. Then, with the independence of Bangladesh, the land became state land (kas) and from then on the villagers had to lease it from the state year after year.
The village lives from the water of the river, it is their livelihood. Every rainy season, the river flooded the area and created a huge riverbank. With the straightening of the river, the state has now created new territory, but the river has become more unpredictable. Since the old river course was destroyed, the floods of the river now happen every year in a completely uncontrolled way, are more aimless and arise abruptly. Instead of the area becoming a floodplain, parts along the river are places of constant flooding disasters.
Since the river has been given a new deep bed, water for rice cultivation is now used all year round. This is done by deep pumping systems, which cause the area to lose its groundwater reserves, its level loses height year after year, and reaching the water table only becomes profitable for large farmers who can afford to drill to such depths. These have to be drilled to 300 feet, or about 100 metres deep. Normal farmers can only afford pumps for depths up to 20 metres. That is why new methods are also being tried out in agriculture. Rivers are dammed in places of intensive agricultural use, much to the disadvantage of the downstream users who are left with only a trickle of water.
Bukuri para, a village on the changed course of a river
Bukuri para is what you could call a remote village. The inhabitants have lived here for about 50 years, and there are now 30 households in the village that can farm from the river and its water. In the last 25 years, the river has moved a few hundred metres away from the village, but this has created new arable land, which they can now rent cheaply from the state as leased land. The arable land is mostly alluvial sand and not very fertile, but a little arable soil building helps them to cultivate their new land. Although the land has to be leased anew from the state every year, they have the first right to use it because of a special community protection.
How did the new river course come about?
25 years ago, the river first formed a sandbank. This then became a dam and allowed the river to find a new riverbed further downstream from the village. Now they feel a little safer in front of the river than they did a few years ago, but the river changes its bed every three years and the situation is uncertain. so the situation here is also uncertain. Sometimes, during the rainy season, the water comes into their village and makes it uninhabitable. Then they move out for 10 to 15 days and come back when the water recedes.
Is it possible for them to buy the land from the state?
Buying land from the state is only possible if you have savings. However, this possibility does not exist in the village because they live from hand to mouth. Sometimes they can sell a little surplus milk to middlemen who come to the village regularly. A litre brings in about 30 cents, but the cows hardly give more than 1-2 litres of milk a day. Therefore, daily wages remain one of the village’s main sources of income. When a rice field of a Bengali farmer yields about 40 kilos of rice, they get 7 or 8 kg of it as wages at harvest time.
The village is about one kilometre from the nearest school, but the daily wage, which involves all family members, often makes it impossible for the children to go to school. They are needed in the fields.
With the loss of forest throughout the area, which has given way to farmland, the Santal are also losing their traditional places of daily life. The forest was their source of income like their medicine cabinet. Now the pharmacies are taking over this task with moderate success. The main diseases are diabetes and heart diseases, hand and foot ailments due to the barefoot work in the humid rice fields. Digestion is also a problem for many, especially stomach acidity.
They see the main causes in the pesticides, but also in the changed climate (abu hawo). Food values are lost with the new food that was previously provided by the forest. Small small infections become incurable open sores. Previously unknown diseases enter the village. When asked about their plans for the future, they only have a shake of the head. There are no expectations for the future. It would be fine if things stayed the way they are. If they were to build something, the flood would come and take everything away. There is little help from the state for flood disasters. If the cold came, blankets would be distributed free of charge. One new development was that electricity had recently come to the village. How this will change life here remains to be seen.
Bashkore, a Santal settlement in the middle of the fields
There are 56 households in Bashkore. They were settled here after the liberation war of 1970/71, before that they lived in Bihulgonj, not far from here. For field work, they are allocated kas land by the state, which is divided into kas 1 and kas 2 catergories. Before the freedom war, the area was mainly covered with forest, but this has now completely given way to fields. What we heard from the villagers here was similar to the stories from the other villages.
When the Santal arrived here, they lived off the forest, the wild potato was found here and was an important source of food. Diseases such as heart rhythm disorders, heart palpitations, stomach acid and rheumatism, did not exist among them in the past. People also used to live longer. The age of death was 80, but now people die at 60 or 70. People no longer get full from today’s food, with the poison in the food. The forest culture of the Santal is gone, and so are their traditions (kište). In the past, the harvest festival zohrai was one of the most important events of the community and lasted for 8 days, but today the zohrai festivals are short. Everyone is busy with themselves and their work in the fields, no one really celebrates the zohrai any more. Asked about their culture, they say that there are now two cultures in their village, the Christian culture and their own Sunaton culture. In their village, the majority are Christians and only two families are Sunaton.
In their village, the majority are Christians and only two families are Sunaton. The Christians have given up a large part of their culture, which tears a cultural hole in the community. When traditions are lost, self-help is hardly possible any more.
When asked about the climate, they remark that the rain and the increased coolness are destroying the mango trees. The trees used to grow taller, there is a lack of oxygen in the air. Temperature extremes are increasing. Today, all fruit trees have to undergo chemical treatment, whereas in the past they did not have to do this in the forest.