February 3, 2005. Have the Birhor Been Roped into Social Changes? [book review]
Sudhir Kumar examines what he calls the “tribal geography” of the Birhor society in a new book issued recently in India.
Two-thirds of The Birhors of Chotanagpur Region (A Study in Tribal Geography) consists of a review of Birhor society based on the rather extensive literature, which the author cites carefully. He provides the geographical background of the people, who live on the Chotanagpur Plateau, a dissected region of Bihar state with forests, cleared agriculture, roads, industries, and settlements of non-Birhor peoples.
After several chapters of general discussion of the Chotanagpur region, Kumar focuses on the Birhor “primitive subsistence economy,” their settlement patterns, demographic features, and their cultural habits. For instance, we learn from his discussion of their economy—food gathering, hunting, trapping, fishing, and agriculture—that some are making a transition to more settled agricultural practices. Kumar confirms that rope-making is still a major source of funds for this society, as earlier writers had indicated. He also indicates that while some of the Birhor have settled into stable agriculture, others continue their nomadic gathering, hunting, and some shifting cultivation.
Unfortunately, on that point and some others the book was not well edited. On page 58 the author tells us that, “What is important about the Birhors is that the tribe has not carved out its habitat. A very few of them may have been settled but the great majority still servives [sic] on hunting and gathering and which involves movement form [sic] one place to another.” Fifteen pages later he tells us that “A section of the Birhor tribe is still roaming and wandering across the forest but a great majority of them have settled down spontaneously.” How many Birhor have abandoned their nomadic lifestyles and settled into permanent locations? It is still not clear from this book.
The author’s own research consisted of visits to seven Birhor villages in the Ranchi, Gumla, and Hazaribagh districts of Bihar state. The maps that he provides of each village, and the occupational information on each one, show that a large number of Birhor in some of the villages are engaged in agriculture and rope making, while others are primarily engaged in forest-based subsistence and rope-making. He doesn’t really reconcile the figures in his chapter 7 with the statement on page 58 cited above—which he told us applied to those same three districts.
In addition to logical lapses such as that, the author frequently uses very awkward written English. He also has a patronizing attitude toward the Birhor. For instance, he writes (p.59) about the fact that the Birhor prefer to continue their nomadic lifestyle rather than taking jobs in the quarries and mines that have been opened in the region. Their preference “may be attributed to the primitive perception of the Birhors and their close link-up with the flora and fauna of the area they roam across.” To the contrary, it could be argued that people who can live by a nomadic, hunting and gathering economy must have very sophisticated perceptions in order to survive in their natural environments.
Despite these criticisms, the book has a lot of useful information about the Birhor, especially in the sections where Kumar summarizes his own research in the seven villages. Construction materials of homes, peoples’ occupations, their religious beliefs—all of this is important for understanding a society. For example, the author describes briefly the Pentecostal Christianity that is making significant inroads into their society.
This book may offer very little about the conditions that foster peacefulness among the Birhor, but it still could be useful for anyone really interested in their society and culture.Kumar, Sudhir. 2004. The Birhors of Chotanagpur Region (A Study in Tribal Geography). New Delhi: Rajesh Publications. Available internationally through various book services listed with Bookfinder.com.