Who are they?
The Kisan, Hindi for farmer, are farmers. They are distributed in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. Under the provisions of independent India’s 1950 constitution the Kisan are listed as a Scheduled Tribe (ST). This listing benefits them by providing access to fixed quotas in government jobs, reserved placements in tertiary colleges to study medicine or engineering and reserved parliamentary seats.
They are known by various names according to where they live. In Orissa, where they are concentrated in the districts Sundargarh they are also called Kuda, Kor and Mirdha and in the Kuchinda area in Sambalpur district, as Kola, Morva and Birhor and were originally named Kuntam. They are believed to be an offshoot of the Oraon, an aboriginal tribe, and live in separate hamlets. The Kisan from Orissa use Das, Bhoi, Mahapatra as well as Kisan as surnames, while those of Bihar use Dhari, Ram, Das, Singh, Prasad, Nagesia and Kisan..
In Bihar, the Kisan are also known as Nageshwar and Nagesia and are mainly concentrated in the Chhotanagpur region extending to the adjacent state of Madhya Pradesh, while in West Bengal they are prominently distributed in districts of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, especially in the fertile Duar and Terai regions. In Uttar Pradesh they are found in the Rohilkhand region that encompasses Bareilly and its neighbouring districts.
The Kisan speak the languages of the states they reside in. Those living in Orissa speak Kisan, which is considered to be a Dravidian language, but are also conversant with the regional language, Oriya, and use the Oriya script for writing. Some are conversant with Laria as well as Hindi. In Bihar the Kisan speak the Indo-Aryan language, Sadri, at home and use Hindi for inter-group communication and the Devanagari script for writing. In West Bengal Sadri is their mother tongue, but they are bilingual and speak Bengali with its Bengali script.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Most of this community are landowning cultivators and pursue agriculture as their primary occupation. However, there has been a recent increase in the number of landless people among the Kisan especially in Orissa. The landless derive their livelihood mostly as agricultural labourers. In West Bengal, they were brought to work in the tea plantations by the British during colonial times where they continue today.
In addition, many collect and sell forest produce like lac, honey and flowers, and occasionally hunt. A few Kisan are employed in private and government sectors, or own small businesses while many are daily-wage laborers in industry, construction and agricultural sectors.
Their diet includes mutton, poultry, egg and, occasionally fish. Rice is their staple cereal. They also eat lentils, roots, tubers and vegetables that can by found locally and use mustard oil for cooking. Kisan men drink alcohol – mostly home or locally brewed country liquor like rice beer and mahua, a spirit distilled from the flowers of the local mahua (or the bassia latigolia) tree.
The Kisan have a low literacy rate. Although they prefer formal education for their children, it is beyond the financial reach of many parents. However, there are a few fortunate Kisan students who have reached postgraduate level. Both modern and indigenous medicine is used by the community and they are accepting of family planning measures. The Kisan are a tribal peasant community that has retained many aboriginal characteristics of its forest tribe origins – apparent in their social customs and culture.
There are many opportunities provided federally under various rural employment generation schemes and many Kisan have taken advantage of these. This community has also benefited from the government’s child welfare and immunisation schemes, and the Public Distribution System. Though national banking facilities are available in their localities, many of them continue to depend on private moneylenders who charge very high interest rates.
The Kisan are endogamous and are divided into different subgroups in the different states they live in. In Orissa they are divided into two subgroups, namely, Oraon and Kol while in Bihar they have three subgroups, namely, Sinduria, Telia and Dhuria. In West Bengal, apart from the three subgroups found in Bihar, there is also a fourth one known as Agari or Agaria, who are mostly engaged in business. In Orissa there are also a number of exogamous sects or lineages like Majhi, Lakada, Tapo, Eka, Kajur and Minj. Each lineage is again divided into a number of divisions called khudi, which suggest ancestry.
The Kisan prefer adult marriages which are arranged by parents and family. In some cases, marriages by mutual consent, capture, elopement and service are also considered acceptable. Marriage with one’s mother’s brother’s daughter is common, except in Bihar where marriages with cousins are unacceptable. The symbols of matrimony for women include sindur (vermilion in the mid-hair parting), glass or lacquer bangles, earrings and toe rings. The Nagesia Kisan women of Bihar do not wear bangles or earrings, adorning their ears instead with mango or palm leaves. The practice of bride price is prevalent among them. Divorce due to adultery, maladjustment, impotency and cruelty is socially permissible, as is the remarriage of widows, widowers and divorcees. A widow may marry her younger brother-in-law, while a widower is allowed to marry his younger sister-in-law.
Although many live in nuclear families, there are some that live in extended families. Parental property is equally divided among the sons – the daughters being excluded – and the eldest son succeeds to the late father’s authority. The Kisan women, although granted a secondary status to men, have many significant roles to perform in the social, economic and religious spheres. The Kisan have their own oral tradition and both men and women sing marriage songs at weddings.
Those of Orissa have a traditional community council (Jati Samaj) at the village level to solve disputes among members of the community and exercise social control. At the regional level there is a larger body known as Kisan Mahasabha which looks after the welfare and development of the community. The Mukhia and bariha are the heads of the village and regional councils, respectively. In Bihar the traditional council consists of a chief, sardar (functionary) and elderly members of the community, while in West Bengal there is the Kisan Samaj (Assembly) headed by a mukhia (headman).
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Kisan are Hindus and worship all major gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon like Shiva (Destroyer in the Hindu trinity), Vishnu (Preserver in the Hindu trinity), Krishna (eighth and most popular incarnation of Vishnu with pastoral attributes), Kali (savage goddess; wife of Shiva), Durga (ten-armed military goddess), Hanuman (monkey god – protector against danger), Rama (seventh incarnation of Vishnu) and others.
The religion of the Kisan is plainly infused with remnants of their tribal roots. Among the many deities of their ancient religion, Ista Devta (family god) along with Samalai Mahaprova (tribal sun god) are revered as household deities, while Gosain, Phim Devta, Budha Band, Baghia (tiger deity) are worshipped as some of their tutelary village deities.
The Kisan observe all major Hindu festivals like Durga Puja (Durga Worship), Dussehra (festival celebrating Rama’s victory over the demon king Ravan), Janamashtami (Krishna’s birthday), Holi (spring festival of colours) and other regional or tribal celebrations.
The services of Brahmin priests, known as purohit, as well as priests from their own community, called kalo or soin, perform all life-cycle ceremonies and ritual worship of deities. Medicine men called gunia, moti and baidya, from other neighboring communities are consulted to ward off evil spirits and to cure diseases. In Orissa the dead are buried, while in West Bengal cremation is the dominant practice. Both death and birth pollution for specified periods are observed.