A new history since migration of a small ethnic tribe, Birjia

Posted by Kaahon Desk On February 22, 2018

The tribal society is not static but changes with time as everything on earth goes through some changes or other. The socio-economic development of any tribal society depends on the rate with which the changes happen. Birjia is one of those tribal communities of Bihar and Jharkhand, which falls under the special scrutiny of Government because of their primitiveness, backwardness and their economic status. According to the data of the Report of the High Level Committee on Socioeconomic, Health and Educational Status of Tribal Communities of India, 2014, Birjia as a tribal group is recorded to be very less in population, which reaches as low of only 17 persons in the state of Bihar. This is also another criterion for their vulnerability. Birjia are grouped under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) by the Government of India.

The tribe Birjia inhabits the jungle and hills of the Chhotanagpur plateau in Bihar. They speak Birjia language which belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family of languages. Theories of anthropology say that the group of people which speaks the Austro-Asiatic languages is the most primitive inhabitants of India. The first branch of the Austrics is believed to have originated in China, then have migrated to India through the North East corridor and then to the islands. This answers the question, that even after having so much cultural similarities with the Kurukh speaking tribes; the Birjias form a distinct tribe with their own ethnic identities.

The pull factor for the migration of the Birjia tribe to the tea estates in West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam areas were mostly economic and social. Frequent draught in the arid lands of the Chhotanagpur plateau and the primitive lifestyles that the tribal communities practiced often pushed them to take financial loans from the oppressive money lenders. The growing feudal system also had taken away their land rights even in forests. The growing tea industry during the colonial rule appeared to them like a fable, where they can earn easily. In order to lower the cost of exporting tea from China, the Britishers started to grow tea and export them from India. Cost reduction, being their primal objective and in order to increase their profits the migrant tea laborers from the Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand who were mostly tribal went through massive economic exploitation. The experience of acute poverty deterred them to go for protests against the tea garden owners.

Generally, the migrant groups form Diasporas in the new land where they migrate. Birjia people could not do so much because firstly they were less in population, secondly to a new regimented culture, where they had to work, took away many of their cultural identities. Birjia people could not fight much either with the mainstream communities or with other strong ethnic tribal communities like the Ho, Munda, Santhals, Oraon people to preserve their own history and culture. It is very difficult to understand from the Birjia people living and working in the West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam areas what their original ethnic cultural distinctions were. They hardly have any communication or interaction with their communities still living in the Jharkhand belt. The present generation of the Birjia population in the tea plantations still though can speak in Sadri but for the next generations to come, Bengali will be their main mother tongue.

Some of the rituals, which they still remember and practice during their marriage ceremonies or during their death rituals, if investigated thoroughly, may bring out some traits of their ethnic past. The cultural practices of the Birjia tribe need special focus and encouragement to save them from being extinct.

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