Santal - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Although, as noted, there is a traditional hierarchy of clans, the Santals are basically egalitarian, thus contrasting strongly with their Hindu neighbors. Economically, however, there are considerable differences in wealth and status. The clans and subclans, on the one hand, and the villages and regions, on the other, are the most important internal divisions. The senior male member of the local descent group enjoys a certain authority and prestige derived from ritual functions, as do the religious specialists (priests and lojhas ) and the chiefs. Proficient hunters and orators likewise acquire prestige. Political leaders in the modern arena, like the charismatic leaders of the past, become sources of authority. District chiefs ( parganas and désmanjhis ) may enjoy a considerable status when successful in the settlement of disputes. Differences of wealth are expressed in the ability to employ servants. The well-to-do Santal families employ laborers on a contract basis and sometimes grant them land.

Political Organization. In general, authority tends toward a charismatic rather than a traditional pattern. At the village level, the most important political institution is the village assembly, which has no head. This institution directly confronts the "council of the five elders," who represent the "five brothers" of the Santal tradition and are the village chief, the messenger of the village, the one responsible for young people's morals, the village priest, and his assistant.

At the intervillage level, the pargana (chief of twelve villages), who is sometimes enthroned as a petty king, presides over the tribal court. He also leads intervillage ceremonial hunting, with the "hunting priest" at his side. The hunt is the occasion for a court. Likewise, the pargana is assisted by the "country chief and the messenger who both carry out his orders.

For Indian Santals, villages and districts are subjects of panchayati raj (local government), sometimes overlapping and sometimes in competition with the traditional institutions.

Social Control. The sources of conflict among Santals can be summarized as: sexual offenses, land disputes, conflicts over money, cases of evil eye, jealousy, and witchcraft. Many cases are settled by compensation, usually through tribal assemblies, which still function parallel to, and sometimes in competition with, the Indian courts. The most general of these traditional assemblies is the Santal Lo bir Sendera, "the judgment of the burnt forest," which is convened at the time of the traditional intervillage hunts. Village assemblies Likewise play an important role in the settlement of disputes. Witchcraft accusations are common. The witch is identified by ritual specialists, either a janguru or an ojha. Traditionally this naming led to the death of the witch.

While some sexual offenses, including rape, are usually settled by compensation through the mediation of the village assembly, the major offenses of incest and breach of tribal endogamy are primarily the responsibility of the local kin group, which excommunicates and—at least traditionally—kills the offenders. Excommunicates, like witches, are ostracized by their relatives. Land disputes may be cited as the main example of conflicts that are settled by Indian courts.

Conflict. The Santals have a long tradition of suspicion in regard to the diku, "foreigners," above all toward the dominant Hindu population of the area. This is clear not only from history (e.g., the Santal rebellion) but even more from the content of their myths and folklore, where the foreigner is the source of death, sickness, and other calamities. In practice, there has certainly been a history of exploitation by Hindu merchants, moneylenders, and labor brokers. Today this conflict continues mainly within the framework of the Indian political system, where Santals tend to support either the Jharkhand "tribalist" movement, working for a semiindependent state, or the Maoist Communist party, working for land reform and control of the means of producing, especially mines and plantations.


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