Essay on Loss of Cultural Identity

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Loss of cultural identity of the Adivasis community

Mahasweta Devi's Chotti Munda and His Arrow expose the tribal history of the Munda community and others with colonial and post-colonial history. Devi attempts to highlight tribal history to emphasize their social lifestyle and their struggles for their rights and livelihood. Additionally, she also unfolds how they were treated and taken advantage of by others. Devi says in her interview with Gayatri C Spivak, “I have seen with my eyes what the Emergency meant, what was done. The criminalization of politics, letting the lumpen loose in the lower caste and tribal belts. Inhuman torture and oppression” (p. ix, Translator‟s Foreword). The bonded labor system limits them to practice farming on their own, resulting in the loss of individual‟s rights and displaying their inability to raise their voices against suppressors which depict the voiceless prevalence of Munda society. This is clearly shown as the land they rarely possessed was small and uneconomical. Their crop yielding was very insignificant. The scarcity of banking facilities in the tribal areas forced them to the moneylenders owing to their extreme economic liability. Consequently, they remain regularly indebted. The colonial policies have resulted in the brutal exploitation of the tribal in different ways as the landlords favored, money lenders and the forest contractors. Thus displaying their inability to raise their voices against the suppressor. Devi brilliantly portrays the subjugation of tribal communities not only by the landlords of their community but also by those who work for the government in the interest of their benefit. She shows a huge gap between the rich oppressor and the poor oppressed. Thus, by projecting such a scenario, Devi brings pictures of exploitation, corruption, and hypocritical plans and laws. The novel, Chotti Munda and His Arrow, also presents the religious conversion among this ethnic group besides highlighting political and historical background. While the historical references expose the benefits of the Mission offered to the Mundas community, Chotti’s disapproval registers the threat Christianity poses to adivasis’ cultural identity which is the primordial existence and backbone of their community.

The novel acknowledges the timely help of Mission during the drought in Chotti’s village while still counting the cost of that assistance which focuses on rehabilitating and helping the Mundas community during the critical situation of drought. Chotti village was affected by drought and the people had difficulties in finding food. With the arrival of Missionaries at Chotti village, hungry tribes were fed with “free meals that carried on food distribution for nearly a month” (Devi, 2003, p. 41). The missionaries reached out to the village to rescue the hunger-stricken and desperate mass of tribes. Such an unselfish nature of missionaries assists in converting some tribes‟ religion to Christianity. The lines; “Let‟s survive now. If I go there if I leave my faith, t‟ Mission Gormen will give us land, settle us. Whenever we run, we won't be able to run from t‟king reach…If ye go to t‟ Mission t‟ King loses his rights” (Devi, 2003, p. 68) assert that the missionaries were able to win the trust and faith of these tribal community. They are even ready to sacrifice their age-old religion and find refuge in a new and unknown religion. Firstly, they believe that the Mission provides them with land where they can do farming without being bonded laborers. The other reason was for the mere protection from the King and his people as they firmly believed that Mission Gormen would protect them. The characters such as Sukha Munda and Bikhna Munda later converted and called themselves “Joseph Sukha Munda and David Bikhna Munda” (Devi, 2003, p.78). Kaushik Ghosh (n.d) suggests that the “nature of Adivasi political form and identity—when taken on a pan-Indian basis—have important roots in that complex encounter called colonial Christianity that increasingly marked Adivasi lives after the mid-nineteenth century,” (p. 207). The advent of missionaries in the tribal community functions as an agent of molding Adivasi modernity. The novel exposes the exposure of the tribal community when it states, “The special advantage of the new plan is that, as a result of living close to a Christian Munda village, he too has learned to read and write Hindi” (Devi, 2003, p.96). Mission introduced schools to teach tribal to read and write. Furthermore, in the article Christianity and Tribal Religion in Jharkhand: Proclamation, Self Definition, and Transformation, Ekka discusses that the missionaries came to preach the gospel to the indigenous tribal people not by careful planning but by their encounter with the exploited and run away indigenous tribal laborers (2010, p. 3). Furthermore, in the novel, when Bharat comments, “But he won't this market cut, won't ask for bonded work, won‟t say hard words and beat us up f‟r any and ever‟thin‟ (p.87), it clearly shows Mission‟s intention to spread their religion rather than exploiting the tribal. The historical background of missionaries reveals that their establishment in the tribal community was not a careful planning but an unexpected encounter with exploited tribal became the cause of the missionary existence. Unlike the novel which also talks about forceful conversion into Christianity to some extent; “The Tomaru Mission sahib is buddies with Gormen at Ranchi. They make people Christian by force, and in this case, so many people are begging to become Christian...” (Devi, 2003, p.72), Ekka presents differently:

Some writers have argued that it was primarily their concern to safeguard their land rights that the indigenous tribal people became Christians. The land was a prominent issue for the indigenous tribal community at that time and it did have a lot to do with conversion later on, yet, the first Christians were converted because they were the seekers after the truth (p. 4).

The writer states that the first indigenous tribal people who converted to Christianity were genuinely interested in what missionaries had to say about Jesus Christ and the one who wanted to safeguard their land. Besides, the novel clearly exposes the intention of the Mission when

Devi writes, “Otherwise the Mission cannot have a settlement of villages as its goal” (Devi, 2003, p.95). Thus, the establishment of missionaries in the adivasis‟ community came as boons as well as a curse for their identities were lost due to the conversion into Christians this clearly depicts that the social status of the Christians as educated and comparatively economically well off people also suggests more of their inner spiritual need as the decisive reason for conversion. However, it also brought many misconceptions, misunderstandings, and even mistakes of the missionaries regarding tribal culture and religion and their negative impact on the unity and integrity of the community.

Mahasweta Devi’s plotline shows that Mundas convert to evade oppression and exploitation from the Dikus to get protection from the missionaries and get out of his dominance. In the novel, Devi points out, “Diku import, Diku brings Gormen supports. We know Diku-Gormen‟s father‟n son. We ne‟ er saw Mundas live in Munda- property…” (Devi, 2003, p. 86), to emphasize that Dikus have a pivotal role in the conversion of the Adivasis‟ religion. The government’s support came as a boon for Dikus to take advantage of the helpless and simple tribal community. Moreover, in the novel, Dikus are portrayed as crooked and worthless when Chotti says, “But t‟ Munda people don‟ know thievery, cheater, don‟ do that stuff…if they cheat now, it‟s learned from t‟ Diku” (Devi, 2003, p. 85). Further, it was noted that Mundas joined Mission due to the oppression of Diku, when Chotti utters, “P‟ haps they‟re thinking‟ ongoing‟ ta Mission…They all go on a Mission with‟ t‟ terror of Diku (Devi, 2003, p. 89). Moreover, Diku always thought of adivasis as non-Indian which led to oppression, “Diku never thought of the adivasis as Indian” (Devi, 2003, p. 96). Even Ahmad Mukhtar Dar (2014), states that the reason Devi raises the questions of religious conversion in the novel is due to the exploitation and oppression by „Dikus‟ and that she blames them for the conversion of lower caste Hindus and tribals into Christianity (p. 5). These oppressions from Dikus and other landlords led Adivasis to ultimately agree to convert their religions as it would at least save them from the unbearable burden of bondage and exploitation, though most of the tribe initially opposed the move on the grounds that it would isolate them from the traditional ways of life. As Sukha, a Munda from the Kurmi village says:

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T‟ new manager has bound ever‟one in bond labor. And then so many demands.

Give‟em stuff right and left. If someone dies in t‟ office or his family then either give labour or pay tax . . . He goes from one court to another. We carry the‟ palanquin, we take a‟ we bring back. He walks and we must run with an umbrella. Life is hell (Devi, 2003, p. 68).

Devi asserts that Mundas were heavily burdened by the manager with tax or labor, even to the extent that if someone in the manager's house died, Mundas were levied either with cash or labor. They had to carry him on a palanquin whenever he moved from one court to another or an umbrella when he walked. So taking refuge in missionaries, these tribal need not have to face further exploitation and bear the burden of bonded labor. Further, she elaborates missionaries‟ role as saviors when she writes, “No zamindar's brother-in-law can chase off a Mission Munda (Devi, 2003, p. 87) and help to provide a secure life from this dominance. She also tries to emphasize that missionaries provide everything that one would require to sustain life when she reflects on the line in the novel, “Chotti smiles bleakly and says, Mission‟s profit comes as soon as ye are Christians” (Devi, 2003, p.87). Similarly, the writer, Ekka writes,

When the oppressor wants a horse, the Kol must pay; when he desires a palki, the Kols have to pay, and afterward hear him therein. They must pay for his musicians…Does someone die in his house? He taxes them; is a child born? Again a tax…And this plundering, punishing, robbing system goes on till the Kols run away.

Ekka believes that adivasis‟ acceptance of new religion safeguards them from their landlords‟ further exploitation and oppression. Thus, Adivasis‟ conversion to Christianity was merely to avoid heavy taxes and bonded labor that was imposed upon them by the landlords and the government. This brings out the fact that even the government is corrupt and always looking forward to exploiting the tribal society and they are with the village exploiters working hand in hand. This strongly brings in the image of bureaucracy in the government.

The novel emphasizes Chotti’s disapproval of the loss of cultural identity as a result of conversion to Christianity and the conversion was intended with profitable business to the missionaries. Devi stresses the Mission will get its profit, and that cost of safeguarding was the loss of cultural identity, in the novel, she mentions; “T‟ Mission sahib will also raise profit in some way or other…A lot of Mundas and Oraons went on missions after all…They praise t‟ Gormen‟s god? so that brings worry…P‟raps our Haramdeo‟s also old, seein‟ all this railway, motor-car, and pitchers we hear of in town- that move, that talk- all this” (Devi, 2003, p.87). Devi elaborates on the profit motive of Mission by exhibiting their success in converting adivasis into Christians showing the gradual decline of their own religion, which centers around the worship of Haramdeo. Chotti's sentimental remarks on his religion highlight the adverse effect of the incursion of new religion on their cultural identity. In the novel, Chotti expresses his concern over the deteriorating culture and their indigenous way of living when he says, “T‟ Mundas‟ mood is changing. ‟ When our kids grow up, who knows what words they'll say, what deeds they do” (Devi, 2003, p.88). In this way, Devi attempts to depict that though the Mission helped Adivasis to overcome their problems by providing shelter and food at the time of needy hours and freeing them from the bonded labours, the Mission also brought an immense negative impact on their culture. Moreover, the writer portrays the changing cultural identity of the Adivasis community when she writes, “The story of Joseph Sukha Munda and David Bikhna Munda of Tomaru Mission is different” (Devi, 2003, p. 76). She emphasizes the addition of Western names such as Joseph and David in front of aboriginal names underscores the decadence of cultural identity and their failure to preserve their age-old culture and customs. According to Firoz, “The text, among other things, shows how the missionary activities led to the cultural uprooting of the tribal communities in India…Having left no option, the tribal were forced to seek shelter in the Missions, despite their deep fears of acculturation” (2006, p. 144). In the novel, Chotti feels dejected to see Mundas joining Mission as he utters to Bharat Munda, “It hurts in my chest, Bharat. T‟ More Mundas go, an error goes through my heart” (Devi, 2003, p.88). Although Mission has brought some changes in the tribal community, Chotti still feels that it is responsible for alienating tribal from their culture. Furthermore, people evacuating Kurmi Village to join Mission expand the notion of fast-diminishing identities among the Adivasis. The „burning of the village‟ itself depicts the end of Adivisas culture in Kumri Village. Therefore, the writer asserts that changing names, leaving one's own dwellings, and praising a new religion show the loss of one's faith. She further adds that taking refuge in another's faith highlights a steady loss of cultural identity. This brings forth the negative effect of the conversion which is both dangerous to the people of the community as well as to the country as a whole.


While Christian Missions helped Adivasis to survive and build solidarity, Devi's novel insists on the cost of conversion that the Missions demanded. Through this novel, one comes to know that missionaries have created greater impacts in the life of Adivasis; culturally, politically as well as spiritually. The Adivasis community gained independence where they no longer had to work under landlords and moneylenders as bonded labor, and Missions helped to build solidarity. On the other hand, the conversion of their religion from Haramdeo to Christianity led to the decline of their cultural identity which ultimately altered their mindsets. In addition, the old traditions and customs also became distant ideas and people adopted new names to create new identities. Hence, the novel depicts both the positive and negative impacts of missionaries on the life of the Adivasis community.


    1. Dar, M. A. (2014). Representing the Postcolonial Subaltern: A Study of Mahasweta Devi's Chotti Munda and His Arrow. An International Refereed e-Journal of Literary Explorations, Vol 2(1), 5.
    2. Devi, M. (2003). Chotti Munda and His Arrow (Spivak, G.C. Trans.). The USA. Blackwell Publishing Limited. (Original work published in 1980).
    3. Ekka, J.N.(2010). Christianity and Tribal Religion in Jharkhand: Proclamation, Self-Definition and Transformation. Retrieved from
    4. Firoz, N. (2006). The Pedagogy of the Marginalized: A Study of Chotti Munda and His Arrow. In Writing for or with Subaltern a study of contemporary Indian fiction with a focus on Mahasweta Devi's works. (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Calicut). Retrieved from
    5. Ghosh, K. (n.d). Cross-Currents: Travelling Shadows of a Conversion in the Naguri Munda Region of Jharkhand. Retrieved from                     
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