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Looking back at an aloof university and its Adivasi neighbours

A former professor of anthropology in Vidyasagar University, West Bengal, recounts how the university gave precious little to the community in whose land it was built while depriving them of their traditional rights

Let me begin with a Munda man, of a village bordering Vidyasagar University campus in Paschim (West) Medinipur district, West Bengal. He was about 60 when I first met him in 1987 – a lean dark-skinned man, strong enough to ferry commuters on a cycle rickshaw in the town. He narrated to me his childhood when the campus of Vidyasagar University was a village common land. Raghunath told me repeatedly, “The land of your university is the grazing ground of our cattle, our women collected fuelwood from your ground and our children played here. We defended our village from the attacks of the robbers unitedly with our bow and arrow, but now your guards are creating problems for us.” 

Our Munda neighbours, one of whom was Raghunath, were poor and illiterate, and alcoholism was rife among the men. The women, particularly the older women, were also found to drink local rice beer. Whenever we went for fieldwork in the village, the villagers would complain about the absence of irrigational facilities and the problems encountered by them in grazing their cattle and collecting fuelwood for their domestic needs.

Outwitted by the Adivasis

Despite their poverty, illiteracy and daily struggles, the Munda villagers were peaceful, good-humoured and sometimes they would outwit me in conversations. On one occasion, when I asked some Munda women and men about the reason behind the occurrence of a solar eclipse, they recounted a myth. According to them, the reason for a solar eclipse was that a Munda man in the remote past could not pay the dues to a traditional midwife belonging to a low Hindu caste. On the day of a rare solar eclipse, on 24 October 1995, I asked an old woman of Muradanga: “Are the dues to the midwife still unpaid?” The Munda woman replied: “Oh! Yes, how can other people pay for him? The eclipse recurs owing to that original sin.” Like an anthropologist is supposed to, I didn’t stop there. “But why then does the eclipse go away and the sun reappear?” After a few moments, came the reply in the form of a question: “How can the eclipses (grahana) recur unless they go away?” I was outwitted by the poor illiterate Munda neighbour.

Vidyasagar University and its dilemma

Vidyasagar University was established by an Act of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly in the year 1981. The University Grants Commission (UGC) recognized the university on the condition that it developed courses that leant towards rural development. Accordingly, courses like “Economics with Rural Development”, “Political Science with Rural Administration”, “Anthropology with Tribal Culture” and “Commerce with Farm Management” were introduced in the 1985-86 academic session. The Vidyasagar University Act 1985, in its clause 4(2) under section entitled “The University and its Officers”, says the institution will have the power to “to organize specialized diploma, degree or postgraduate courses … in such subjects as Tribal languages, habitats and customs, rural administration, forestry … regional resources planning, ecology and environmental studies.” Clause 4(5) of the Act is more remarkable in its emphasis, stating that the University shall have the “power to make such academic studies as may contribute to the improvement of economic conditions and welfare of the people in general and the tribal people in particular.” With this pro-poor and pro-tribal legislation passed in the state assembly of the Left Front Government of West Bengal and taking its name after the famous 19th-century social reformer Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, this non-traditional University started its journey by affiliating 30 undergraduate colleges from Calcutta University that fell within the erstwhile Medinipur district.

The Vidyasagar University administrative building; A couple collects deadwood from the university campus for fuel.

The 150 acres of non-agricultural land on which the Vidyasagar University campus was built is still being perceived by the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages as a common-pool resource on which they have enjoyed customary usufructuary rights for generations. The villages – Muradanga, Tantigeria and Phulpahari – are inhabited by poverty-stricken Munda, Oraon and Scheduled Caste communities. 

On the northeastern side of the campus there is a small settlement of cured leprosy patients belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Castes who live a highly marginalized existence in the town and represent some of the weakest sections there. Closer observation revealed that the people around the campus of Vidyasagar University don’t present a homogeneous entity in terms of economic and sociocultural features but they share at least three interesting characteristics, which are important for the present discourse. These characteristics are enumerated below:

  1. All these groups of people had usufructuary rights of grazing, firewood and other non-timber forest product collection and right of passage through this land without facing any resistance from any quarter before the establishment of Vidyasagar University. 
  2. Since the establishment of the university, this has changed.  All these groups of people have been facing resistance from the university whenever they have tried to exercise their usufructuary rights.
  3. All these groups of people distinguish themselves from the university community, although no specific term has emerged yet in the vocabulary of these people to designate the two opposing sides, “university community” and the “local community”. 

Us and them

Raghunath said the Rajas of Gop gave this land to his community. He frequently lamented the rapid weakening of the collective strength of the inhabitants of his village. I later learnt that Raghunath’s sons did not look after him properly. Four or five years after our conversation, he suddenly looked very old and could not ride the rickshaw anymore. He started to beg on the streets of Medinipur. Every Sunday morning he would limp to the University campus with the help of a stick and collect some coins from the residents of the university quarters and then head to the town. 

Then, one day, I realized he had not shown up for weeks. I asked a young man of Muradanga. He told me that Raghunath had died a few days earlier. 

In 1997, some years after the passing of Raghunath, the university hired a Calcutta-based private security agency to guard the campus from the “encroachers”. The university also started planting akashmoni, eucalyptus, sirish and some fruit trees on the western, residential side of the campus. The bill for the security agency came to Rs 4,80,000 a year, which is not a negligible amount for the university today let alone almost three decades ago. The main task of the security guards was to drive away the grazing animals of Muradanga and Saltola, the neighbouring villages. This made the people of these villages adopt interesting strategies to continue grazing their animals on this traditional common-pool resource. One strategy involved a hide-and-seek game with the security guards during the day and the other was to send the animals into the campus at night when it was very difficult for the security men to locate the animals. The saplings that the university had planted did not survive. Some were eaten up by the animals, others were taken away by the villagers, still others died due to lack of proper care and protection. There was no attempt on the part of the university to involve the tribal villagers in the plantation programme and in the protection of the saplings, although a specific proposal was submitted by the university’s Department of Anthropology in this regard. 

The Saltola story

Saltola is the name given to the settlement of leprosy-affected patients that lies alongside the eastern boundary wall of the university. If one takes the Tantigeria road to the university at night, one may not even know the existence of this group of people who have planted a good number of indigenous varieties of trees. They do not have power and water supply from the municipality, and no latrines. They are, of course, voters and their settlement is known to the general public and the district administration as a settlement of lepers or kusthapally. They also graze their cattle and collect fuelwood from the university campus. As I found in my anthropological encounters, the inhabitants of this place call their settlement thutapara, which means “a hamlet of physically handicapped people”. “Thuta” in spoken Bengali means a person whose limbs, particularly the hands, have become non-functional. “Thuta” symbolizes a person affected by leprosy. This has a derogatory connotation and while the inhabitants also use the term in their daily conversations they avoid doing so in conversations with a newcomer. Saltola, on the other hand, means “a hamlet where one can find sal trees [shorea robusta]”. 

One evening, while I was discussing with the residents of the settlement their difficulty of getting a patta (a deed of right over land awarded by the state government to landless and poor families), a very energetic cultivator, Nagen Ari, who belonged to the Sabar tribe narrated an incident: “When I came from Gokulpur to this area there was a very big sal tree here. We used to enjoy its shade and our children played under its huge canopy. That was about 20 years ago. But one day, a few men from the Tantigeria panchayat office showed up and said they would fell the tree because they needed the wood to make furniture for their office. We objected, saying they wouldn’t get much wood, as it had been infested with termites. However, they didn’t listen to us and felled the tree only to find out that we were correct. They didn’t get much wood from the tree.” Then Nagen said with a smile, “You see, although the tree is gone we still call this place ‘Saltola’, which means that this was the abode of the huge Sal.” 

Three years ago, the district administration moved the inhabitants of Saltola to another place in Tantigeria, which is about a kilometre from Saltola. The district administration seemed to be more interested in moving the families away from the university campus than in giving them pattas. The general attitude of the university community was not also favourable to these cured leprosy patients. We had carried out a socio-demographic survey at Saltola and another adjoining colony in 1995 in collaboration with an NGO who ran a hospital for leprosy patients. We found that among the 74 households of the settlement there were 100 deformed persons (47 males and 53 females). No individual below 20 years of age was found to be deformed nor affected by leprosy. The district administration moved 12 families from Saltola to the new colony and all these families now lament the loss of the rural life of Saltola. Moreover, in 2004, the district administration gave patta to the families whom they could not resettle. 

Celebration of the day of Independence

In the year 1997, members of the university community decided to hold a procession on the occasion of the 50th year of India’s independence. They also planned to distribute some fruits and sweets to the poor people of the locality. Interestingly, neither Muradanga nor Saltola was selected for this purpose. Someone suggested Saltola but it was rejected fearing that many members of the university community might not like to visit a “lepers’ colony” on such an occasion. On 15 August 1997, the procession, led by then vice-chancellor Professor Amiya Kumar Deb, passed by the side of Saltola (I also participated in it) and through some important parts of the Medinipur town before arriving at the district hospital where fruits and sweets were handed over for distribution among the patients.


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About The Author

Abhijit Guha

Abhijit Guha is a former professor of anthropology, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal. He has co-authored a book entitled "‘Criminal Tribe’ to ‘Primitive Tribal Group’ and the Role of Welfare State: The Case of Lodhas in West Bengal, India" (2015) with Santanu Panda.

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