The word Jharkhand , meaning “forest region,” applies to a forested mountainous plateau region in eastern India, south of the Indo-Gangetic Plain and west of the Ganga’s delta in Bangladesh. The term dates at least to the sixteenth century. In the more extensive claims of the movement, Jharkhand comprises seven districts in Bihar, three in West Bengal, four in Orissa, and two in Madhya Pradesh. Ninety percent of the Scheduled Tribes in Jharkhand live in the Bihar districts. The tribal peoples, who are from two groups, the Chotanagpurs and the Santals, have been the main agitators for the movement.
Jharkhand is mountainous and heavily forested and, therefore, easy to defend. As a result, it was traditionally autonomous from the central government until the seventeenth century when its riches attracted the Mughal rulers. Mughal administration eventually led to more outside interference and a change from the traditional collective system of land ownership to one of private landholders.
These trends intensified under British colonial rule, leading to more land being transferred to the local tribes’ creditors and the development of a system of “bonded labor,” which meant permanent and often hereditary debt slavery to one employer. Unable to make effective use of the British court system, tribal peoples resorted to rebellion starting in the late eighteenth century. In response, the British government passed a number of laws in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to restrict alienation of tribal lands and to protect the interests of tribal cultivators.
The advent of Christian missions in the region in 1845 led to major cultural changes, which were later to be important in the Jharkhand movement. A significant proportion of the tribes converted to Christianity, and schools were founded for both sexes, including higher institutions to train tribal people as teachers.
Jharkhand’s mineral wealth also has been a problem for the tribes. The region is India’s primary source of coal and iron. Bauxite, copper, limestone, asbestos, and graphite also are found there. Coal mining began in 1856, and the Tata Iron and Steel Factory was established in Jamshedpur in 1907.
The modern Jharkhand movement dates to the early part of the twentieth century; activity was initially among Christian tribal students but later also among non-Christians and even some nontribals. Rivalries developed among the various Protestant churches and with the Roman Catholic Church, but most of the groups coalesced in the electoral arena and achieved some successes on the local level in the 1930s. The movement at this period was directed more at Indian dikus (outsiders) than at the British. Jharkhand spokesmen made representations to British constitutional commissions requesting a separate state and redress of grievances, but without much success.
Independence in 1947 brought emphasis on planned industrialization centering on heavy industries, including a large expansion of mining. A measure of the economic importance of the Jharkhand mines is that the region produces more than 75 percent of the revenue of Bihar, a large state. The socialist pattern of development pursued by the central government led to forced sales of tribal lands to the government, with the usual problem of perceived inadequate compensation. On the other hand, government authorities felt that because the soils of the region are poor, industrialization was particularly necessary for the local people, not just for the national good. However, industrial development brought about further influx of outsiders, and local people considered that they were not being hired in sufficient numbers. The nationalization of the mines in 1971 allegedly was followed by the firing of almost 50,000 miners from Jharkhand and their replacement by outsiders.
Land was also acquired by the government for building dams and their reservoirs. However, some observers thought that very little of the electricity and water produced by the dams was going to the region. In addition, government forestry favored the replacement of species of trees that had multiple uses to the forest dwellers with others useful only for commercial sales. Traditional shifting cultivation and forest grazing were restricted, and the local people felt that the prices paid by the government for forest products they gathered for sale were too low. In the decades since independence, these problems have persisted and intensified.
On the political front, in 1949 the Jharkhand Party, under the leadership of Jaipal Singh, swept the tribal districts in the first general elections. When the States Reorganisation Commission was formed, a memorandum was submitted to it asking for an extensive region to be established as Jharkhand, which would have exceeded West Bengal in area and Orissa in population. The commission rejected the idea of a Jharkhand state, however, on the grounds that it lacked a common language. In the 1950s, the Jharkhand Party continued as the largest opposition party in the Bihar legislative assembly, but it gradually declined in strength. The worst blow came in 1963 when Jaipal Singh merged the party into the Congress without consulting the membership. In the wake of this move, several splinter Jharkhand parties were formed, with varying degrees of electoral success. These parties were largely divided along tribal lines, which the movement previously had not seen.
There also has been dissention between Christian and non-Christian tribal people because of differences in level of education and economic development. Non-Christian tribals formed separate organizations to promote their interests in the 1940s and again in the 1960s. In 1968 a parliamentary study team visited Ranchi investigating the removal of groups from the official list of Scheduled Tribes (thereby depriving these groups of various compensatory privileges). Mass meetings were held and petitions submitted to the study team maintaining that Christians had ceased to be tribals by conversion from tribal religions, and that they benefitted unfairly both from mission schooling and from government protection as members of Scheduled Tribes. In the following years, there were accusations that the missionaries were foreign outside agitators.
In August 1995, the state government of Bihar established the 180-member Provisional Jharkhand Area Autonomous Council. The council has 162 elected members (two each from eighty-one assembly constituencies in the Jharkhand area) and eighteen appointed members.