From jumia to Jumma
22 July 2014
Shifting cultivation and shifting identities in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The Bangla word ‘jumia’ (often written as ‘jhumia’, particularly in English discourses), refers to cultivators engaged in a special form of hillside agriculture, while in the Chakma language – spoken by the Chakma people of Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and adjacent areas such as India’s Tripura and Mizoram states – the word ‘jumma’ denotes an ethnic category. Both words derive from ‘jum’ (also written as ‘jhum’), which is a vernacular term found in several related languages like Bangla, Assamese and Chakma, that refers to the aforementioned system of hillside agriculture, commonly known as ‘shifting cultivation’, which is practiced widely in the CHT, the Northeast of India and beyond. Historically, jum in the CHT was typically oriented towards subsistence, with some local varieties of dry rice as the main crops, which were invariably grown as part of a poly-cropping system that included other products such as vegetables, spices, flowers, cotton and sesame, with the last two items having been the main cash crops in the past. Jum also involved a rotational cycle of keeping used fields fallow, allowing natural regeneration of the land.
In the CHT, the nature, extent and context of jum underwent significant transformation in recent history, particularly since the 1960s. Over approximately the past fifty years, the feasibility and relative economic importance of jum declined quite sharply. However, despite this material decline, or perhaps because of it, jum and the jumia way of life acquired new symbolic significances among former jumias. Most remarkably, jum served as the linguistic and cultural foundation of a newly constructed identity, named Jumma, which emerged in the 1970s as a collective designation for the indigenous ethnic groups (‘hill people’) of the CHT. The original, literal meaning of the Chakma word ‘jumma’, like that of the related Bangla ‘jumia’, designated a jum cultivator. But in practice, Jumma acquired a whole new meaning, with clear political undertones as well as special cultural connotations, regardless of the current agricultural practices of the people it came to designate. Ethnically, its boundaries remained those of the older category of ‘hill people’, or ‘Pahari’ in Bangla, which had its roots in British colonial discourse.
Against the backdrop outlined above, this article looks at the multiple layers and dimensions of the relations between jum and Jumma identity in the CHT. First, in broad outline, I trace the course of the political economy of jum in the CHT over the last three centuries, particularly since the region was brought under British colonial rule in the latter half of the 18th century. Second, I examine how the emergence of identities like ‘hill people’ and Jumma entailed a shift in ethnic boundaries, and how cultural features associated with jum, including food crops and culinary traditions, became markers of Jumma identity. And third, I explore the extent to which the proponents of Jumma identity represent the interests and aspirations of contemporary jum cultivators. I conclude by arguing that re-examining received notions relating to agricultural systems and communities such as jum and jumias, which are usually marginalised in the history of Southasia, is central to reclaiming their past and present.
From Mughal cotton-country to British rule
The East India Company, which took direct control of many parts of Bengal soon after the Battle of Plassey in 1757, started governing Chittagong in 1761. During the preceding period of Mughal rule (1666-1760), the hills bordering the coastal plains of Chittagong came to be known as Kapas Mahal, or ‘cotton (growing) area’, as noted in various secondary accounts. However, the equation of the present day CHT with the Kapas Mahal, which is now a common tendency, may not be fully accurate: the territory that the British named CHT, with clearly demarcated boundaries as a newly created district, came into existence only in 1860, whereas Kapas Mahal did not necessarily constitute a well-demarcated administrative area and may have included places that are outside the current boundaries of the CHT but within the boundaries of present day Chittagong District. Be that as it may, it is important to note that during or even before the period of Mughal rule in Chittagong, there was no direct rule by any state-level political authority in the adjoining hill tracts, although the kingdoms of Tripura and Arakan, not to mention the Mughals themselves, exerted varying degrees of influence at various times and places of the area that would later become the CHT. During the period of Mughal ascendancy in the region, semi-independent ‘tribal’ chiefs from the hill tracts paid tribute to Mughal authorities in the form of cotton grown in jum fields in exchange for the right to conduct trade and commerce with Mughal subjects living in the coastal plains. Under the East India Company, by 1791 this arrangement would soon take a more monetised form, thus rendering cotton tributes, and with it probably the name ‘Kapas Mahal’ as well, things of the past. In any case, it is possible that cotton’s importance as a cash crop in the CHT decreased significantly as Bengal’s textile industry declined and eventually collapsed under British rule, when newly imposed high tariffs and other barriers made it difficult for Indian textile products to enter the European markets.
When the CHT was created as a district under British-administered Bengal in 1860, jum cultivation became a defining feature of the new administrative unit. The district was demarcated as an area where jum would be allowed, whereas the practice was legally banned in the hills that fell within the administrative boundaries of Chittagong District (such as the Sitakunda range), forcing the jumia communities in those places to change their way of life, or move into the CHT.
In this regard, two relevant factors are worth noting. First, the British eliminated the ‘Kuki’ threat, facilitating the movement of non-Kuki jumia communities further eastward into the CHT. According to British records as well as the oral traditions of several ethnic groups, there existed fearsome ‘headhunting’ hill tribes, once collectively known as ‘Kuki’, who lived along the eastern borders of the CHT and raided other communities living in or near the plains. After various encounters over the first century or so of the Company’s rule in Chittagong by 1890, within three decades of the creation of the CHT District, the British had permanently ‘pacified’ the Kukis. Jumia communities formerly prohibited from moving into certain tracts, including those from Chittagong District, could now enter these areas without fear. Second, by the early 1880s the British administration created reserved forests and banned jum in large tracts covering over a quarter of the entire land mass of the CHT. As in the hills administratively under Chittagong District, this limited the amount of land legally accessible for jum cultivation, including for new arrivals in the CHT.
Apart from the reserved forests and areas set aside as markets or administrative headquarters, the Company divided the CHT District into three revenue circles, each headed by a hereditary chief recognised by the British. These circles were subdivided into mauzas, or revenue districts, each headed by a headman – an office that was not legally hereditary, but was largely so in practice – whose appointment had to be confirmed by the Deputy Commissioner, who was the administrative head of the CHT, upon the recommendation of the relevant chief. Apart from functions related to administering land and revenue, the chiefs and headmen also settled civic disputes following the customary practices of local communities. These communities were usually organised on the basis of kinship, and had officially recognised leaders called Karabaris. The details of all such arrangements would be formalised under the CHT Regulation of 1900 – an act of the colonial Bengal government – which continues to be enforced in many ways in the administration of the CHT region today.
At the start of direct British rule, the plough was practically unknown in the entire district. Given this, and since the district was created as one that specifically allowed jum in unclassified forest areas, the entire population of the CHT depended almost exclusively on jum as their principal means of subsistence until the beginning of the 20th century. The British, however, viewed jum as primitive, and tried to induce the jumias to take to the plough by switching to wet rice agriculture in the region’s valleys. Initially, the chiefs even brought in some Bengali peasants to aid with this venture, but the administration prevented large-scale Bengali settlement by classifying the district as an ‘excluded area’ – a status formalised under a 1935 act covering several parts of British India – that allowed ‘keeping the hills for the hill people’.
At the start of direct British rule, the plough was practically unknown in the entire district.
The cultural and political construction of Jumma identity
The label ‘hill people’ (or ‘hillmen’ as originally introduced by the British) and its Bangla equivalent ‘Pahari’ have been widely used for quite some time as collective terms to designate the CHT’s eleven indigenous ethnic groups – or ‘tribes’, as they are officially called. The adjective ‘tribal’, nowadays opposed by many as being pejorative, is also commonly used in the CHT context as an ethnic label rather than a sociological concept. These labels – ‘Pahari’, ‘tribal’ and ‘hillmen’ – emerged out of British colonial discourse as interchangeable ethnic categories defined in opposition to categories of ‘Bengali’, ‘non-tribal’ and ‘plainsmen’. Many researchers, myself included, have discovered that the tribal/non-tribal or Pahari/Bengali dichotomy we take for granted in the CHT today did not exist prior to British rule.
The historical novelty of the Pahari/Bengali divide can be shown from various perspectives. For example, to designate ‘other people’, the Tripuras, one of the Pahari ethnic groups of the CHT, still use an expression that literally translates to ‘Bengalis and Kukis’. For the same purpose, the Bawms, another Pahari group that the Tripuras would in the past have categorised as ‘Kuki’, use a term that literally translates to ‘Bengali (women) and Tripura (men)’. The Hill Tracts of Chittagong and the Dwellers Therein, published in Calcutta in 1869 and authored by Captain T H Lewin, one of the first British administrators of the CHT, reports that the Bengalis of Chittagong made a distinction between two classes of ‘hillmen’: the “friendly tribes” living close along the Chittagong District border, whom they called ‘Joomahs’ (also spelled ‘Jumia’ and ‘Jumma’); and “all other hill men, more especially if unable to speak the vernacular of Bengal”, who were distinguished as ‘Kookies’ (or ‘Kukis’). This classification is no longer used by Bengalis today, and while groups such as the Tripuras and Bawms both still maintain an ethnic distance from the Bengalis, they no longer do so with respect to each other, at least not when they speak of ‘We the tribal people’, ‘We the Paharis’, or ‘We the Jummas’. When Lewin presented his ‘hillmen’ as a single category of people, he was well aware that “none of them appear to have any general term for all the hill dwellers”. The British categories ‘hillmen’ or ‘hill people’, as well as ‘tribal’, more than made up for this “inadequacy”.
What is most remarkable about the emergence of the common ‘hill people’ label is that the different ethnic groups that it came to designate were once divided into two categories along yet another line, this one making a distinction between ‘valley dwellers’ and ‘hill dwellers’. As Lewin himself noted, this distinction was expressed by the Marma/Arakanese (a language that once had a dominant status in the CHT) terms Khyoungtha and Toungtha, which meant ‘children of river’ and ‘children of hills’ respectively. Such examples clearly suggest that the people that are known as, and see themselves, as ‘hill people’ included groups that in the past did not bracket themselves in this category. The ‘children of river’ did not necessarily move uphill under British rule. On the contrary, apart from continuing to live near rivers and streams, many of them also started moving their agricultural fields down from the hill slopes to the valleys. However, in the eyes of the British, and eventually in their own minds, the ‘children of river’ merged with the ‘children of hills’ reincarnated as ‘hill people.’
Following the creation of the CHT as a British-administered district in 1860, the political economy of jum changed significantly over the next hundred years. Alongside attempts to introduce the plough in the CHT, other significant developments included the establishment in 1863 of a middle-school in Rangamati – the new headquarters of the CHT after the shift from Chandraghona – and its subsequent upgrade to a high-school by 1890. By the 1960s, this school had helped produce a small class of educated ‘hill people’, descendants of former jumias, who stood up against the looming threats to the lands and livelihoods of the indigenous people. These threats would come in two main forms, both arriving almost simultaneously during the early 1960s. First, the special (‘excluded’) status of the CHT was lifted, paving the way for an influx of Bengali peasants from the plains. Second, the construction of the Kaptai hydroelectric dam submerged large tracts of land, amounting to the loss of 40 percent of the CHT’s prime agricultural land and causing the displacement of some 100,000 mostly ‘tribal’ people, particularly Chakmas, who were the largest indigenous ethnic group in the region.
Many of the people displaced by the Kaptai dam had already switched to wet rice agriculture. Thus the simultaneous submersion of vast areas of valley land and the opening of the CHT for settlement by Bengali peasants meant an inevitable clash of interests over limited arable lands. In this situation, many families who had switched to wet rice agriculture in the valleys had to return to jum cultivation on hill slopes once again. A large number of the displaced, particularly those who did not receive adequate compensation in cash or in kind (i.e. resettlement to suitable places) ended up as refugees in India. Such developments led to a sense of alienation among educated segments of the hill people, who in any case existed on the fringes of the Pakistani state that was meant for Muslims. Then, after the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation-state in 1971, the new state’s failure or refusal to recognise the ethnic distinctiveness of the ‘hill people’ (or, more generally, all non-Bengali indigenous ethnic groups) aggravated their sense of alienation even further. It was in this context that in the early 1970s the Jana Sanghati Samity (JSS), a newly formed local political party, launched a movement for regional autonomy on behalf of the “eleven nationalities, speaking ten different languages, in the CHT”. This became a standard refrain in the political discourse led by the JSS, in which these ‘nationalities’ came to be collectively referred to as Jumma.
The new Bangladeshi state’s failure or refusal to recognise the ethnic distinctiveness of the ‘hill people’ aggravated their sense of alienation even further.
As I noted earlier, the word ‘jumma’ is of Chakma origin, which is hardly a coincidence. Up until the 1960s, the Chakmas were the single largest ethnic group in the CHT (they are now far outnumbered by Bengalis, who today constitute around 50 percent of the CHT population), and also composed the majority of the emergent class of educated hill people. They were also among the most heavily affected by the Kaptai dam. Given all this, it was natural that that a new form of ‘pan-tribal’ political consciousness would find strong and wide expression among the Chakmas first. It is not clear whether the word ‘jumma’ had already been in wide use in the Chakma language, or whether it became a household word among Chakmas following its adoption by the JSS. Be that as it may, the word as it is used in the Chakma language refers to the same category of people as ‘hill people’ in English or ‘Pahari’ in Bangla, as can be seen from the way several political and cultural organisations of the CHT are named. For example, the Pahari/Hill Students Council, Hill Women’s Federation, and Jumma Social-Cultural Council are all meant to be common platforms for all indigenous ethnic groups of the CHT.
It may be that the choice of Jumma as a common name by the JSS, a party that in its formative stage was inspired by Marxism, may partly have been influenced by a materialist interpretation of this term, given the history of jum as the agricultural basis of a ‘mode of production’ that brought all the hill people together within a common administrative framework formalised by the British. Be that as it may, the political propagation of Jumma identity took place at a time when an increasing number of the hill people had given up, or were in the process of giving up, jum. In its stead, the newly emergent class of educated, urban Jummas tried to culturally re-invent their jumia past through dances, songs, poetry, paintings and so on. In this process, food crops and culinary traditions associated with the vanishing Jumia way of life also emerged as important markers of ethnic specialty. Thus, a tourist seeking to experience ‘ethnic cuisine’ in the CHT can now go to restaurants named ‘Sabarang’ after a jum spice, or ‘Mejang’ after a raised platform that is part of a traditional jumia house, where the dishes served may include kebang (steamed foodstuff wrapped inside special leaves), gudak (battered vegetables), or items cooked in bamboo tubes. Food and drinks associated with the jumia way of life also have also become important offerings to visitors on important social and ritual occasions.
Jumias on the margins of the state and Jumma society
Because of the etymological links between the terms ‘Jumma’ and ‘jumia’, outsiders not too familiar with the ground realities in the CHT sometimes assume, mistakenly, that the political proponents of Jumma identity, in particular the JSS, sought to promote and protect the rights of contemporary jumias. In reality, however, instead of looking after the interests of the jum cultivators, the party embodied the views and aspirations of a new class of people that emerged during the post-colonial period. The JSS is known to have discouraged, and on some occasions even banned, jum. While in the past the bans might have been prompted by tactical considerations such as the need to maintain jungle cover in some places, during the period of armed militancy from the second half of the 1970s until the signing of the CHT Accord in 1997. The party’s official ideology viewed jum as a remnant of feudalism and hence something to be given up in the march towards “socialism through capitalism”, as once explained to me by a senior JSS leader. Thus the party, or some of its leaders, tried to encourage jumias to take to the plough or pursue other livelihoods. Although there is inadequate information about the nature and extent of such efforts, it is possible that the ideological preconception behind them prevented the JSS from understanding and articulating the needs and aspirations of contemporary jum cultivators from the latter’s points of view, and was one reason why the JSS struggled to win over some communities that were still highly dependent on jum. Bangladeshi state agencies’ ‘divide and rule’ strategies may also have been partly responsible for this schism. One indication of the considerable gaps between proponents of Jumma identity and contemporary Jumias was the fact that the Mrus, an ethnic group still predominantly dependent on jum, were mobilised relatively easily against the Shanti Bahini, the armed wing of the JSS, in the period before the CHT Peace Accord of 1997 recognised the CHT as a special “tribal inhabited” region and ended two decades of fighting between the JSS and the Bangladesh government.
Jum, jhum, joom, huk, ikpra, lo, ya
While jum and jumias were defining features of the CHT in its past, and have been very symbolically important in the recent construction of Jumma identity, their importance in economic and political terms is rather marginal today. However, the actual political and economic standing of jum and the jumias in the CHT at present are difficult to state in concrete terms. There is no up-to-date and detailed quantitative data available on these subjects. During the colonial period, the amounts of jum tax – a form of capitation tax payable by each jumia household collected by headmen and chiefs – provided a measure of the number of households and acreage involved in jum cultivation. Traditionally, the chiefs held festive annual tax collection ceremonies. However, in recent decades, collection of jum tax has become very irregular, and has been practically discontinued except for largely ceremonial purposes in only one of the CHT’s three administrative circles.
Culinary traditions associated with the vanishing Jumia way of life also emerged as important markers of ethnic specialty.
Where in the past jum taxes brought in significant monetary revenue, today they are financially quite meaningless since the tax rates have not been raised for many decades. The Circle chiefshave stopped maintaining updated registers on jum and jumias, and regular government offices have no system of collecting and maintaining data on the people and acreage engaged in jum. In fact, jum is not even recognised as a form of agriculture, as indicated by the fact that the Department of Agriculture does not include the practice in its agricultural census. Absence of concrete data, however, does not prevent people of different classes and categories from having strong opinions – mostly negative – about this form of cultivation. The denigration of jum as ‘primitive’ and ‘destructive’ – a view traceable to British colonial rulers – exists among government officials, academics, journalists and politicians, including both Bengalis and Jummas. Jum and jumias are widely blamed for deforestation and environmental degradation, without any concrete analysis or evidence to support this accusation, and such views seem to have intensified considerably in recent times. The most plausible explanation for this trend is that jum cultivators constitute the most marginalised segments of CHT society, and blaming them serves the needs of powerful individuals and companies that have their eyes on lands still occupied by jumias, or, as in the case of the Forest Department, are accused of being largely responsible for deforestation and need easy scapegoats. In fact, in various parts of the CHT, thousands of acres of traditional jum land have been leased out, or simply occupied illegally or by force, by various groups, ranging from government-sponsored settlers to powerful individuals, companies and state agencies.
Despite pressures from all sides on contemporary jumias, a small proportion of the hill people still continue to practice jum in some form. In the absence of any census data in this regard, based on an aggregation of information and estimates provided by others, including chiefs and other local officials, I estimated this to be, at best, one-third of the total indigenous population of the CHT as of 2000. Given the overall trend it is likely that this proportion has now grown even smaller. However, more than the numbers of jumias involved, what is important to note is that contemporary forms of jum are actually quite different from traditional forms, and often involve the use of pesticides, fertilisers and new cash crops. Apart from some dry rice still grown using traditional jum methods, it is difficult to say where jum ends and other forms of cultivation begin. In some cases, even Bengali ‘settlers’ are known to have grown rice following jum techniques, although no one would classify them as jumia or Jumma.
The history of shifting cultivation and changing identities in the CHT reveals that far from being static and timeless concepts or categories, terms like ‘jum’ and ‘jumia’ need to be used and understood in light of their changing meanings and contexts in all dimensions – social, cultural, political, economic, ecological and so on. Even matters such as dominant spellings of the words involved merit re-examination. In this regard, unlike the spellings used in this paper, ‘jhum’ and ‘jhumia’ are actually the more common spellings, particularly in India and in the English-language literature on shifting cultivation (which, incidentally, is often known by the somewhat pejorative term ‘slash and burn’, or the more academic and less emotive ‘swidden’ agriculture). These spellings are actually based on a misperceived transliteration of the terms involved; standard Bangla dictionaries use spellings that are transliterated as ‘jum’ and ‘jumia’, which would also be more accurate phonetic transcriptions of these words as they are pronounced in local languages like Chakma and Tanchangya, as evident in spellings such as ‘joom’, ‘jum’, ‘joomeeah’ and ‘joomea’ in official documents from the early days of British rule. Nonetheless, educated Bangla speakers often mispronounce or misspell these words as ‘jhum’ or ‘jhumia’ in Bangla, a practice that has somehow carried over to the English literature on the subject. The spellings adopted in this article – ‘jum’ and ‘jumia’ – may be seen as part of a process of linguistic reclamation, and are more reflective of the true diversity of Southasia. Several ethnic groups in the CHT have their own distinct words for jum – ‘huk’ in Tripura, ‘ikpra’ in Chak, ‘lo’ in Bawm, ‘ya’ in Marma, and many more – but these words are little known outside of these languages. Perhaps it is also time for such words to find their place in the literature on swidden agriculture in Southasia.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Farms, Feasts, Famines (Vol 26 Number 2).
~This article draws upon previous research and publications by Prahsanta Tripura, including Jum Culitvation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (published in Bangla, co-authored with Abantee Harun. Dhaka: SEHD, 2000); ‘The Colonial Foundation of Pahari Ethnicity’ (Journal of Social Studies, No. 58, 1992), and ‘Culture, Identity and Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts’ (Discourse: A Journal of Policy Studies, Vol 2, No 2, 1998).
~Prashanta Tripura is an independent development professional and a former associate professor of Anthropology at Jahangirnagar University. He writes regularly in English, Bangla and Kokborok, his first language.