What happened to tribal chiefs? Before the arrival of the British, in many areas, the tribal chiefs were important people. They enjoyed a certain amount of economic power and had the right to administer and control their territories. In some places, they had their own police and decided on the local rules of land and forest management.
Under British rule, the functions and powers of the tribal chiefs changed considerably. They were allowed to keep their land titles over a cluster of villages and rent outlands, but they lost much of their administrative power and were forced to follow laws made by British officials in India.
They also had to pay tribute to the British, and discipline the tribal groups on behalf of the British. They lost the authority they had earlier enjoyed amongst their people and were unable to fulfill their traditional functions.
What happened to the shifting cultivators?
The British were uncomfortable with groups who moved about and did not have a fixed home. They wanted tribal groups to settle down and become peasant cultivators since Settled peasants were easier to control and administer than people who were always on the move.
The British also wanted a regular revenue source for the state. So they introduced land settlements – that is, they measured the land, defined the rights of each individual to that land, and fixed the revenue demand for the state. Some peasants were declared landowners, others tenants. As already studied, the tenants were to pay rent to the landowner who in turn paid revenue to the state.
The British effort to settle jhum cultivators was not very successful. Settled plow cultivation is not easy in areas where water is scarce and the soil is dry. In fact, jhum cultivators who took to plow cultivation often suffered, since their fields did not produce good yields.
So the jhum cultivators in northeast India insisted on continuing with their traditional practice. Facing widespread protests, the British had to ultimately allow them the right to carry on shifting cultivation in some parts of the forest.
Forest laws and their impact
The life of tribal groups, as you have seen, was directly connected to the forest. So changes in forest laws had a considerable effect on tribal lives. The British extended their control over all forests and declared that forests were state property.
Some forests were classified as Reserved Forests for they produced timber which the British wanted. In these forests, people were not allowed to move freely, practice jhum cultivation, collect fruits, or hunt animals. Due to this, many were therefore forced to move to other areas in search of work and livelihood.
The problem with trade
During the nineteenth century, tribal groups found that traders and moneylenders were coming into the forests more often, wanting to buy forest produce, offering cash loans, and asking them to work for wages. It took tribal groups some time to understand the consequences of what was happening.
The search for work
The plight of the tribals who had to go far away from their homes in search of work was even worse. From the late nineteenth century, tea plantations started coming up and mining became an important industry.
Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work the tea plantations of Assam and the coal mines of Jharkhand. They were recruited through contractors who paid them miserably low wages and prevented them from returning home.