Bhil - Sociopolitical Organization

The Bhils' history of interaction with the British imperial government is characterized by alternating periods of submission and of sporadic, isolated rebellion. The overall objectives of their uprisings were to protest the erosion of agrarian and forest rights as well as to demand the attainment of higher Social status and political self-determination. Tribal peoples were among the last to become politicized and thus their participation in national politics was much delayed. Until the early 1940s, awareness of tribal concerns among Indian Leaders, with the exception of Mahatma Gandhi and Rajendra Prasad, was rare, and tribal issues were never addressed in resolutions passed in Congress.

Social Organization. Among the Bhils, a social distinction is conceptualized by the different subtribes, including a division between Ujwala (or pure) Bhils in Kotra Bhomat and Kalia (impure) Bhils. A cleavage is also evident between the plains and hill Bhils, with the former considering themselves superior. Bhil villages consist of two or more extended Families ( tad in Ratanmal), each with a depth of six to seven Generations and inclusive of cognates such as sisters' children, a pattern that tends to promote cooperation and unity among the extended family. In Ratanmal, a village's population may be made up entirely of members of one lineage, but in many villages several lineages may be represented and one lineage, claiming descent from the village founder and thus ownership of the village, becomes the dominant lineage. The members of the subordinate lineages in this case enjoy restricted privileges, and their rights to the lands they till, in theory at least, are subject to revocation by the dominant lineage. Dominant ( bhaibeta ) lineages reserve for their use the most fertile lands, the choicest pastures, most fruit trees, and other valuable trees even when they stand on the subordinate ( karhan ) lineage's plots of land. In general, the karhan are considered as mere tenants and are excluded from participation in the management of the affairs of the village. Bhils recognize the Concept of caste purity and impurity in transactions with artisan castes; and among Hinduized Bhils, their dependence on Ritual specialists such as sweepers and handlers of cattle carcasses has increased. Among the Bhils of Khandesh and Rajpipla, care of their cattle is entrusted to the Gori, members of an Untouchable caste.

Political Organization. Each village is under the Leadership of a headman ( vasawo in Gujarat; gammaiti among the Palia Bhils; gaddo among the Kalia Bhils; tadavi in Ratanmal; mukhi in Kotra Bhomat), a hereditary position whose functions include being the head both of the dominant lineage and of the local pancha or village assembly. The headman represents not only the lineage but also the village in functions beyond the community, and he is also the local conduit for transactions between the villagers and the government. He is assisted by one or two functionaries whom he generally appoints from among his kin. In some large Bhil villages in Gujarat, the pardhan (another hereditary office, but confirmed by the government) is subordinate only to the vasawo. During a headman's absence, he assumes many of the functions of the vasawo's office relating to government. The amount of power vested in the office of the headman varies greatly on a regional basis, but his dependence on the village panchayat (council) is constant in Bhil society.

Social Control. The village council is composed of all the senior men of the village, and when they meet on important matters that concern the village, its members are of equal Status, be they members of the dominant lineage or of the subordinate lineages. Indeed, since almost all important matters are discussed within the council before a decision is reached regarding their resolution, the subordinate lineages, which often are numerically and economically stronger, are able to assert themselves politically as equals of the dominant lineage. The headman settles disputes, imposes sanctions on dissidents, gives advice, arranges the settlement of debts, and mediates conflicts within the family. The presence of the headman is essential in validating any transaction, with negotiations being sealed and held binding by the eating of opium. Where serious punishment such as ostracism, banishment, or trials by ordeal are indicated, council acquiescence and support is essential before the headman delivers the verdict. Serious crimes that would have merited these punishments in the past, however, are at present brought before a local magistrate.

Conflict . Apart from their history of resistance to successive waves of invasion and domination by Rajputs, Muslims, Hindus, and the British, the Bhils had a brief period of brigandage and a series of rebellions during which their martial skills were put to the test. Their most efficient weapons of war were those that they employed for exploiting the forest environment—their bows and arrows. They sometimes also carried muskets, swords, and daggers.

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