While the role of unequal land rights in determining the status of different caste and class groups in India has been the subject of much debate, their impact on women's status has generally escaped attention. In fact the patriarchal bias of the social and legal system gives rise to the assumption that once the men of the family have land, the women's needs are automatically taken care of. This study attempts to place the issue of the denial of land rights to Ho women in the context of women's daily lives, work, struggle for survival and status in the family and community.
Women and the Family: A notable feature of marriage in Ho society is that the age at marriage of Ho women is much higher than among Hindu peasant groups. Most of the women interviewed did not know their exact age, and, therefore, could not give accurate information regarding their age at marriage. But, by and large, most of them seem to have married in their twenties. This seems in accord with what is known about the age of marriage among the Hos. Child marriage is unknown and even teenage marriages are rare.
Ho society allows greater freedom of choice to women in marriage compared to Hindu peasant groups. But this freedom is circumscribed by various customs and taboos. Even though there is relatively greater freedom in intermixing between men and women, an unspoken but strict code operates. For instance, if a woman is alone in the house, no man other than a family member will enter the house. In the course of work, men and women observe an unstated kind of segregation. Women usually move around in groups, when going to the forest, fields or market. An unmarried woman will never go with a man to gather fuel, but sometimes, a man may accompany his wife to fetch heavy logs.
There are regular occasions when men and women intermix. The most important are the weekly markets held in each area. Rice beer is sold and consumed, and men and women are expected to court. At festivals such as Maghe Parab which is celebrated soon after the winter harvest, many restraints are dropped. Unmarried women sing, dance and drink with abandon. Men are expected openly to woo women and many marriage alliances are formed at this time. Such a self-arranged marriage is known as Justice. Men and women do not enter into any form of alliance except that of marriage. Ho society has no space for casual or serious friendships between men and women. Long drawn out love affairs or betrothals are also rare. As soon as a man and a woman show interest in one another, they are expected to start living together as man and wife, provided that neither family has strong objections to the match. Sometimes, a man and woman who enter into a Justice marriage have a prior acquaintance by virtue of being from neighbouring villages. But, sometimes, a woman will go with a man she has met for the first time at a market or festival. If she finds, on reaching his house, that he is very poor or already has a wife, she may leave immediately. But even if she leaves a few hours after going to his house at his invitation, she may by considered married, and may lose her usufructuary right in her parental land.
Self-arranged alliances also take place between men and women working at brick kilns or mines, away from their villages. Women enter into these alliances without informing their families. It is significant that though women have the right to accept a proposal without consulting their families, the proposal, in all the forms of marriage, must come from the man or his family. Neither the woman nor her family are expected to make marriage proposals. If one asks an unmarried woman why she has not married, the answer often is: "No one has called me yet."
Marriages arranged by families are known as andi and diku andi. These are held in higher esteem than any other types of marriages. Negotiations over bride price play a large part in them. The headman of the village and killi elders are supposed to be consulted before an andi marriage is finalised. The andi is the traditional form and the diku andi is borrowed from the Hindus. P.C. Ray Chaudhury observed in 1958: "Recently among the manki-munda class a peculiar form has come into vogue known as diku andi. In this form of marriage, in addition to traditional tribal customs, some local Hindu rites have also been added, such as participation of a brahmin priest and the employment of the Hindu barber."8 It is mostly well-to-do families living in close proximity to Hindus who have adopted these rites and ceremonies. But, even in such marriages, traditional observances have not been entirely given up.
Of the 22 married women in our sample, 17 (about two-thirds) had self-arranged marriages. Five reported that their parents or other relatives had arranged the marriage. Of these five, three women considered their marriage good and ascribed this to the fact that it was family-arranged. Of the 17 self-arranged marriages, 12 women seemed to be having a rough time.
Two other types of marriages mentioned by anthropologists are opertipi and anader, but these are not common today. Opertipi is marriage by abduction. Sometimes, the abduction takes place by mutual agreement of the couple. But even when a woman has been abducted against her will, she is often forced to accept the marriage for fear of social ridicule. Anader is when a woman forces herself into her lover's household as his wife, against the wishes of his family.
Hos are usually expected to marry outside the village. This custom is strengthened by the taboo against marrying within the killi or clan. Some villages are dominated by one killi in which case it becomes necessary to marry outside the village. Men and women of the same killi are supposed to be cousins and marriage between them is considered incest. But in villages like Karonja which have a population comprising different killis, marriage within the village is not uncommon.
One cannot help noticing the great contrast between Ho women and women of non-tribal peasant groups in India. Ho women do not have to take their parents' permission or approval in order to accept or reject a marriage proposal. Even when the family arranges a marriage for a daughter, she has a right to refuse and her wish is supposed to be respected. But, if the family is under pressure from more powerful families, they may push her to marry. Frequently, an unmarried woman may be pushed into marriage by her brothers, especially if they have wives to labour in the field and do not need her labour.
Does this mean that Ho women get a better deal in marriage than do women of non-tribal communities? In some ways, yes. They do not enter into marriage in the same spirit of self-abnegation as women of most other peasant groups in India. They are not brain-washed into expecting a husband to be a protector and provider. They are much less caught up in romantic myths of marriage, and openly talk of it being a bad deal which they are compelled to enter for survival. They are fully conscious that they will have to work like slaves in the husband's home, can expect to be beaten, and cannot expect security as a right. Thus, in many ways, they are mentally prepared to fend for themselves, whether or not the marriage breaks down.
Women neither get nor expect much emotional sustenance from their husbands. If one asks a woman whether her husband "loves" her, she normally understands this to refer to sexual relations. the only word in use for "love" in the Ho language is "dular" which usually refers to affection for children. I was told that even this word is rarely used in everyday conversations.
In general, all a Ho woman asks is that her husband not actively maltreat her and not throw her out of the marital home. Most Ho women cannot get even this minimum consideration because they do not have the power to enforce their customary rights as wives, even though these are upheld in principle by their society.
Distance from Natal Family: The denial of equal land rights to women amongst peasant groups in India, including the Hos, is often justified on the grounds of patrilocal family structure. It is argued that because a woman shifts to her husband's home and village on marriage, she will not be able to cultivate land in her natal village, so there is no use her inheriting parental land. It is also argued that she, as a wife, acquires an unwritten but real right in her husband's family land, from which all her needs are met.
However, my study indicates that while a man in Ho society strengthens his economic position through marriage, acquiring a worker on his land, a woman's position becomes more tenuous. She loses the usufructuary right she had in her parental land, but the process of gaining even minimal rights in her husband's land is an uncertain and hazardous one.
Most marriages amongst the Hos are self-arranged and since these alliances are made at local festivals and weekly markets, people tend to marry either in their own village, or in nearby villages. This is because people normally attend only the markets and festivals at villages within walking distance of their own village, or at most, an hour or so away by bus or train. This clearly emerges from my village sample. Seven of the 22 married women interviewed had married in their own village. The natal villages of six others were less than three hours' walk away. One woman's natal village was one hour's walk away. Eight women were more than three hours' walk away. Of these, the natal village of one was 40 km away and that of another was one and a half hour's walk and half an hour's train journey away.
Thus, most of the women are reasonably close to their natal villages. The distance, in most cases, is much less than the distance they routinely cover to gather firewood or to procure salt and soap from the market. So if a woman had land to cultivate in her natal village, it would be possible for her to manage it. Therefore, there is no justification in denying land rights on the ground of women moving out of the parental home after marriage. In fact, there is good reason to believe that if women had secure land rights they would tend to marry even closer to their parental homes than they do at present.
When parents have no son, they may invite their daughter and son-in-law to live with them and cultivate the land. There is no stigma attached to a son-in-law living in his wife's parents' house comparable to that which prevails amongst Hindu peasant castes. But the woman's father's male agnates will perceive her presence as a threat to their inheritance rights and will exert tremendous pressure to get rid of her and her husband. For instance, Maki Bui, petitioner in the Supreme Court case, was keen that her daughter and son-in-law live with her in her village and cultivate her deceased husband's land over which she had a usufructuary right. But she dared not keep them there for fear that they might be attacked, even murdered.
Marriages Outside the Tribe: Hos are not allowed to marry outside the tribe and intercommunity marriages are supposed to be punished with social ostracism. But, in fact, this code has been relaxed considerably for men. Men who go to work in mines and industries outside their village occasionally contract marriages with women of other tribes. The man is not usually ostracised when he comes back to his village with a woman from another tribe. But she is never allowed to forget that she is not a Ho, and is not allowed to feel an integral part of the village.
Marriages between tribals and non-tribals are very uncommon. When women go to work in mines and kilns, non-tribal men often keep them as mistresses and exploit them sexually in various ways. Ho society has a strict code governing male-female relations but it is strict in different ways from that operating in non-tribal societies. When a Ho woman enters into a regular sexual relationship with a man, they are considered married in Ho society. But by the standards of morality prevailing in Christian and upper caste Hindu culture, such a woman is considered a mistress or a prostitute and is despised, although the man is not similarly treated. This conflict of cultural norms has led to much abuse of Ho women by non-tribal men who see these women as promiscuous and treat them as easy game. Such women are usually ostracised when they return to their village, especially if they have children by the alliance. Those women who are economically vulnerable are usually treated with greater severity than those who are better off. It is extremely rare for a non-tribal man to marry a tribal woman except for fraudulent purposes. There have been several cases of non-tribal men marrying tribal women in order to get tribal land on bandhak.
When a woman is declared kajomesin or ostracised for having a child by a non-tribal, she is not allowed to draw water from the village well or to join in village rituals and festivities. Nor is she allowed access to the portion of the house where ancestral spirits are worshipped. No one will talk to her, accept food or drink from her, or give it to her. Her family too is ostracised in the same way unless they make her leave their house and also ostracise her. When she dies, her dead body cannot be touched by the members of the killi nor put in the sasan.
An ostracised woman is accepted back as a member of the community only if she pays a heavy penalty such as Rs 500 in cash, a goat, a chicken and several pots of rice beer. Often, her brother will pressure her to pay or quit his house. Since very few women have the money to pay such a heavy fine, most have to leave the village and migrate for employment.
While the Hos consider marriage or alliance with a non-tribal illegitimate, it is significant that they have no concept of illegitimacy of a child. Amongst the Hos, as long as the father is a tribal, a woman is not stigmatised for the birth of a child outside marriage, as she is among Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups. Even if a child is born after a brief affair without the parents having lived together, the child is not considered illegitimate. The men of the village hold a meeting and ask the woman to name the father and give some evidence of her relationship with him. She is not cross-examined as in a court of law. Her statement is given due weight. The man is expected to take responsibility. With the gradual breakdown of the internal cohesiveness of the tribe, it often happens that men do not honour their commitment. If this happens, the woman is left to bring up the child on her own, but she is not despised or ostracised, nor is it impossible for her to marry another man, as would be the case amongst other peasant groups. Sometimes, she finds a way to shift the burden of the child on to the father. When the man who had fathered Sona's child publicly denied it, she quietly went away to Calcutta to work at the brick kilns, leaving the child on his doorstep.
The influence of Christian missionaries and of Hindu peasant groups has had a very negative impact on the relatively egalitarian sexual morality among the Hos. Educated tribal men, especially when living in close proximity to Hindus or Christians become somewhat enamoured with modelling their family life on the pattern of landowning Hindu peasant groups as a proof of their upward mobility. Their ideas of legitimacy and illegitimacy of children are catching on. Educated Hos in white collar jobs are beginning to aspire to have housebound wives as a mark of higher status. They are also adopting repressive marriage traditions from Hindus and Christians, even though in many ways, Hos have been able to resist the process of cultural assimilation better than certain other tribes such as Mundas and Oraons.
Bride Price Versus Dowry: Among the Hos, a family has to pay gonong to a woman's natal family represented by her father, brothers or other male agnates as a price for a wife for their son. This usually consists of cattle and some cash. They may also give goats and poultry. The custom is partly an acknowledgement of the value of a woman – both to the household she is joining and to the household she is leaving.
When the marriage is arranged by the families, they usually try to come to an agreement in advance about the amount of gonong. The paying capacity of the groom's family and the social status of the girl's family seem to be the chief determinants of the bride price. But a girl who is healthy and known to be a sturdy worker is likely to fetch a high bride price, while a woman in ill health is not likely to get many marriage offers.
It is not unusual for bride price agreements to be violated. Often, the groom's family promises to pay a certain amount later, but after the bride has gone to their house, they either default altogether or pay less than the amount agreed. In such cases, the girl's family seldom insists beyond a point lest that become an excuse for the man to throw the wife out. The ability to insist and extract more also depends on the social and economic status of the girl's family in comparison to that of the man's.
If a woman wants to leave her husband and remarry before he has remarried, the custom demands that the husband be compensated for the bride price by the man willing to marry her, or that her natal family return the payment made to them. This may be one reason why it is not very common for women to remarry, and even rarer for them to remarry before the husband does so.
Of the 22 married women, 13 of their families had received gonong at the time of their marriage. Nine out of 22, that is about 40 percent, had received no gonong at all. Of the six who were 40 years of age or more, all but one had fetched bride price. Of the nine women under 30 years of age, six had received no gonong whatsoever. In one case, the gonong was much less than the full promised amount. This suggests that bride price has been on the decline in the last few decades. Of the nine families that did not give any gonong, four did not do so because of poverty. Naguri Sur in and Panpati Sundi explained that their husband's family had only one pair of draft animals. If they gave away even one animal, they would not be able to plough their own land. This would further jeopardise their precarious economic situation.
In a self-arranged or runaway marriage, where the woman goes to the man's house without prior negotiations, her family is likely to insist on an appropriate bride price. If the boy's family does not agree, the girl's family may sometimes threaten to take her back, but the threat is rarely executed. Of the 17 self-arranged marriages in our sample, 10 women had fetched no bride price at all. In one case, only a small part of the payment agreed upon was made. In contrast, in all of the five parent-arranged marriages, gonong had been paid and was usually more substantial. Even though it seems that payment of bride price is relatively less likely in self-arranged marriages, our sample shows that in those cases of self-arranged marriages where a bride price was paid, the amount was not very different from that paid in family-arranged marriages. Over the last few decades, there has been a general trend of decline in the practice of bride price. In 1935, D.N. Majumdar did an informal survey of marriages in 11 families of a particular village. He found that in 44 of the 53 villages, bride price had been paid.
The amounts paid were much higher than those in our sample. The five highest price amounts were as follows:
1. 40 cattle and Rs 50
2. 40 cattle and Rs 30
3. 32 cattle and Rs 30
4. 25 cattle and Rs 45 10
In our sample, the women interviewed reported much lower amounts. The five highest were:
1. 10 cattle and Rs 100
2. 5 cattle and Rs 400
3. 5 cattle
4. 5 cattle
5. 4 cattle
The lower number of cattle given could in part be explained in terms of a reduction of the amount of grazing land available because of increasing land scarcity in this area. But it is significant that the decline in the number of cattle given has not been accompanied by an increase in the uninflated value of other forms of payment in cash or kind.
It has often been made out that the custom of bride price, like dowry, has harmful consequences. It is supposed to result in a large number of women remaining unmarried because many families are unable to offer the requisite payment for a bride. It is said that men from poorer families cannot find wives easily and end up remaining unmarried for life. As far as my information goes, this theory is not based on facts. It is much influenced by personal prejudices of the colonial administrators. Christian missionaries and upper caste Hindus have found the practice unacceptable because it openly acknowledges women's economic worth – a notion alien to their own culture. Dalton and Risley observed: "In no other country [part] in India are spinsters found so advanced in years and in many of the best families grey-headed old maids may be seen whose charms were insufficient to warrant the large additions to the usual price called 'Pan' imposed in consideration of the high connection that the union would confer."11 Captain Haughter even proposed the abolition of bride price but it was Hayes who in 1868 initiated some measures to combat it. He convened a meeting of tribal leaders and made them "agree" that at least a reduction should be brought about. It was resolved that in the future bride price was not to exceed 10 head of cattle and that, if one pair of oxen, one cow and seven rupees were given, it should be received as an equivalent of the 10 head. For the poorer classes, it was fixed at seven rupees. Commenting on this, C.P. Singh concluded that these "built-in malpractices could not be swept away by merely passing resolutions. The bride price continued to undermine the social structure of the Hos."12
Majumdar refers to it as a "social inequity." He condemns the practice because it leads to "a general lowering of the standard of morality within the tribe" and to much "premarital licence" and "irregular unions." In his view, this has led to a high number of men and women among the Hos remaining unmarried.13 Tribal practices, such as bride price, even when they are more egalitarian and beneficial for women's lives, are despised by other hegemonic groups simply because they are associated with the culture of a subjugated group.
The spread of education among tribals has further intensified attacks on bride price. As tribal youths begin to move out of their villages into nearby towns for education and employment, they come more easily under the influence of Hindu upper caste norms as well as the ideology of Christian missionaries. It is from among this group of tribal youth that occasional campaigns against this supposed social evil have emanated even though experience shows that when bride price does die out, it begins to be replaced by dowry, which proves far more harmful for women. The few college-going Ho girls I met confirmed that when they marry there is little likelihood of bride price being paid, because they will marry men with white collar jobs in urban areas. They were certain that their parents would give them various household goods as dowry.
Another important reason for the decline in bride price even among village-based Hos is the increasing land hunger among the Hos. This has resulted in increasing devaluation of women's labour. Land is now considered the prime possession. This encourages the feeling that a wife who is brought in to labour on the land can easily be replaced. Since another wife is readily available, there is a tendency to avoid payment to her family.
In recent years, there has been greater stratification within the tribal community. The more powerful families in the village are able to indulge in open land grabbing from poorer and weaker families with the connivance of the government machinery. Thus, Ho society has come a long way from the relatively egalitarian land distribution which characterises tribal society. The better-off families are unwilling to pay bride price, especially when they get daughters-in-law from relatively poorer families. In such a situation, the woman's family may not insist over much on receiving the payment because they feel the alliance with a better-off family will benefit them in other ways. In addition, their daughter is less likely to go hungry and have to search for wage labour.
In my sample, I found that payments do not play as crucial a role as is made out to be the case. There were four marriages where the boy's family expressed inability to pay because they had no extra animals. But no fuss seems to have been made because the bride's parents realised that by taking away the one pair of animals owned by the groom's family, they would jeopardise their daughter's future. Even in cases where families were in a position to pay, I did not come across any case where the parents broke off the alliance due to default in payment.
A large number of Ho women stay unmarried, especially if they feel more secure in their natal family (more of this later). Thus, a certain number of men would have to stay unmarried, especially since a number of men have more than one wife and women do not remarry as often nor do they have more than one husband at a time. Fewer non-tribal women are likely to be available to tribal men for marriage. Thus, bride price is not likely to be the reason for a number of Ho men and women remaining unmarried.
Bride price is not an unmixed blessing for women. As with dowry, women do not get anything for themselves. The payments go to their fathers, brothers or male kin who inherit the family land. Even if a woman is thrown out of her husband's house, she cannot claim the bride price from her father or brother, although she has lost all rights in the natal family land by virtue of her marriage. Dowry has at least the pretension of being part of the streedhan. The practice of bride price does not allow any space for this pretence. Ho women, like caste Hindu women, are used as vehicles for the transfer of wealth from men of one family to those of another rather than becoming owners of income producing assets in their own right.
Yet, bride price ensures that a woman is not seen as a burden on her parents and thus allows women better survival chances. The progressive disappearance of bride price is a sign of the erosion of women's bargaining position. Even though among the Hos this erosion has not given way to the widespread practice of dowry, the dowry system is catching on among some other tribes in the area, especially among the educated and better off families. This is likely to have adverse consequences for women's lives.
Of the 22 married women interviewed, seven had co-wives. Of these, three continued to live with their husbands, while four had separated from or been thrown out by their husbands. One of these men has four wives. Only one of the 22 women had remarried. She had done so only after she was compelled to leave her first husband's house.
Polygamy is permitted among Hos but polyandry is not. Customarily, a man can have more than one wife only if he has some justification for remarrrying, such as infertility of the first wife or her inability to work due to sickness. Another acceptable reason for a man to remarry is if the first wife has not produced a son. It is not unusual for the first wife's family to offer their second daughter without a bride price, as a compensation for the "failure" of her first daughter to provide her husband with an heir. My informant told me that she knew of hardly any case in the village where under "normal" circumstances, a man would get himself a second wife while the first one was around. It is considered "outside" the custom.
However, many of the customary safeguards for women have broken down because of migration. Men feel justified on the grounds that they need one wife to take care of the land in the village and one to minister to their needs at the workplace in town. Often, the two women get to know of each other's existence only when the man returns to the village with the second wife. If the man continues to live outside, and visits the village infrequently, the first marriage usually continues, because the first wife continues using the land for her and her children's subsistence. But, if he chooses to return to the village, a conflict usually results, leading to one of the wives being pushed out. He may build a new house so that the two wives can live separately. He can do this if he has enough land to feed both and their children. Otherwise, the one who has less power, who is older, for instance, or who has no sons, tends to get pushed out.
Outside the village, customary restraints cannot be enforced on men. Even within the village, the traditional arbitration machinery is slowly breaking down and men are able openly to defy the norms. This is more true for men of better-off families.
Sukmaru was "called" by her husband from Maghe Parab. She had no idea that he had another wife in his village. The first wife was a much older woman, therefore the man called Sukmaru and forced the first wife to leave the house. Sukmaru says she would never have gone with him if she had known he had a wife already. Once she had gone with him, it was difficult for her to leave him, because she would have had to face social ridicule and criticism.
Divorce is generally an informal affair. Unlike men, very few women walk out of a marriage for the sake of another relationship. A woman will quit her husband's house only is she is severely maltreated. Since a married woman usually has no other source of economic security, she tries to stay on as long as she can in her husband's house. That is the only way she can fight for her usufructuary right in his land. If he tries to thrown her out, she may bring the matter before a group of arbitrators headed by the mukhia. A few women even end up fighting lengthy court battles when all else fails.
Women with ceremonially arranged marriages are no more secure than those with self-arranged marriages. The only difference is that it is relatively more difficult for a woman to "prove" a self-arranged marriage before a court or panchayat, especially if the marriage took place outside the village. It is difficult for a man to deny a ceremonially arranged marriage. However, that does not at all ensure that he behaves more responsibly towards his wife and children.
While Ho men remarry with relative ease, there is no stigma of the kind that prevails among non-tribal Hindus and Christians attached to women remarrying. After a certain age, it is difficult for a woman to find a second husband, especially if she has children. Yet it is not rare for separated women to remarry. In the last few decades, Christian missionaries have been trying to steer Ho society towards monogamous marriages and have sought to discourage divorce but they have not been able to influence men much in this direction.
It is extremely rare for a woman to have an extra-marital affair with another man while living in her husband's home. My informant told me that throughout her stay in Karonja she had heard of only one such affair. A middle aged woman was found having an affair with a young unmarried man. Her husband, who lived outside the village, already had two other wives. A few village men, who suspected her of having an affair, wrote to her husband about it. One night, they went to her house, forced her to open the door and caught the young man inside. They compelled him to take her to his house as his wife but his family refused to accept her because she was already married and had two children by her husband. She was forced to migrate to Calcutta to seek work, since her husband's family would not allow her to cultivate the family land. Their desire to get her land may have been an important motive behind their conspiracy to expose her.
When I asked Ho women why polyandry was not permitted while polygamy was, the reply often was: "It is convenient for a man to have two wives because he gets two slaves to work for him. But if I have two husbands, I will have to work in two men's houses and fields, when I can barely manage the work of one man's household." When I asked women who had particularly bad marriages why they did not remarry, the answer almost always was; "When this man with whom I have lived for so many years, and have had children by, does not treat me well, how can I expect another man will be better?" Another reason cited was that they had nowhere to go. Ho women continue in bad marriages only as long as they do not have any other option. Those who can find even a precarious foothold elsewhere do not stay to take the beatings. Seldom do they stay on from a sense of wifely duty which is so deeply engrained among Hindu, Muslim and Christian women.
If land was communally utilised by the tribe and if a woman had equal land rights, a woman's life would not be negatively affected by her marriage breaking down, because there is no stigma against divorce and remarriage. But, today, in the context of men having nearly exclusive control over land, a woman is compelled to have a heavy stake in the continuance of her marriage. For men, marriage means getting hold of a bonded labourer. In a situation of land scarcity, men's bargaining power in procuring a woman to drudge for them has been considerably enhanced.
Men as Absentee Landlords: The problem arising from women's precarious rights in land are aggravated by men's increasing tendency to seek jobs outside the village. Often, men end up living much farther away from their village land than women do after marriage. Men leave their wives to work on the land while they migrate to cities. It is usually daughters-in-law, not sons, who cultivate the land.
It is rare for a man to send money home regularly to his wife and children. Usually, a man spends most of his earnings on his personal consumption or on maintaining a second family in town. Of the 22 married women in my sample, eight said that even when their husbands earned, they did not contribute to feeding the family. Almost all of what a woman earns is spent on family subsistence. Apart from soap, oil and an occasional sari or blouse, a woman buys almost nothing for herself. But men spend not only on drink but also aspire to buy a bicycle, a watch, a transistor, things a woman rarely dreams of buying for herself.
Although most men who find jobs outside the village do not contribute to work on the land, they manage to keep control over it by virtue of their near exclusive rights over it. An unmarried sister or wife continues the subsistence agriculture in the village while the brothers or husband function somewhat like absentee landlords. The land is an important source of security for men. They can return to the village during periods of temporary unemployment. Most Ho men prefer to return to the village after retirement. The cash income from their pensions, combined with the produce from the land, makes a relatively comfortable old age possible for them. A woman rarely, if ever, can attain such security on her own.
If men could not leave their land in the charge of wives and sisters, they would find it much harder to retain a firm hold on it while they lived in the city. Loaning or renting the land to a relative, neighbour or even a brother is not as safe because in the present situation of land hunger, anyone who acquires de facto rights over land actively resists parting with it.
However, a woman, even a wife, seldom comes to acquire such rights. Even if she has worked on the land for many years, she cannot resist being thrown out by her husband, let alone claim a share in the land. When a man returns, he can easily take over the land from his wife, sister or daughter, because the village community supports the man's right. The division of labour releases men to explore other possibilities which further consolidate their power over women. A man who has a steady job in town is at a much greater advantage vis-a-vis his wife than one who lives in the village and is dependent on his wife's labour on the land.
Return to the Natal Family
After being pushed out of her husband's house a woman may find a refuge in her parents' house only if the family needs an extra worker. Jasmati Sundi's story is an instance of this. Jasmati's natal family fetched her back to their house although she has by marriage forfeited her usufructuary right in their land. The main reason they fetched her back is that they require her as a worker on the land. She has two married sisters. Her one brother, a failed matriculate, does absolutely no work. He wants a city job but is unable to get one. Twice, he got involved in police cases for attempts to murder someone with whom he got into a fight. He even attacks his parents violently.
They have about 11 bandi land which will be inherited by the son. Jasmati works on the land singlehandedly with the help of hired labour. She fears that when her brother marries and her sister-in-law takes over work on the land, her position will become more insecure. Jasmati cannot remarry until her husband remarries, because if she does, her family will have to return the cows they received as bride price. If a woman's family already has adult women to do the work, she is not likely to be welcome there, especially if her parents are dead. Generally, brothers and their wives do not want an extra person living off their land. Barti at the age of 30 has come to precisely such a dead end. Barti's husband migrated to Assam some years ago. She was neglected and ill-treated because she had little value as a worker and her in-laws saw her as a liability. When she was very sick, her mother took her back for some months, but sent her back to her in-laws. She would prefer to live at her parental home but her brother and his wife do not let her stay there even though they are fairly well off.
Women who are able to earn a substantial amount of money by their labour are likely to be allowed to stay in their parental home. A woman whose parents are landless is also likely to be accepted back because she can contribute financially by her wage labour. Gurbari is one of the few who had no problem returning to her natal family when she was thrown out by her husband. An important reason seems to be that her family is landless, having lost their land when her father died 17 years ago and his brother grabbed the land that should have ben inherited by Gurbari's brothers who were then small children. Gurbari's sister, Hire Kui, is also staying in their mother's house with her two daughters. Hire Kui and Gurbari now run their mother's household economy so their brothers exert no pressure on them to leave.
Although many widows do not get their usufructuary right on their deceased husband's land, and are thus in an insecure position, a woman's situation may improve after her husband's death if she manages to hold on to her usufructuary right. This happened in the case of Panderi Devi who was widowed about a year ago. Her husband, a school teacher, had studied up to intermediate. He had nherited some land from his father, half of which he gave away on bandhak. Now they only have a small piece of land which produces two to three bandis of rice. Panderi has a son aged about four, one daughter aged 11, and another who is one year old. She continues to cultivate the land by herself, as she did in her husband's lifetime. She is under pressure from some of her husband's male agnates to surrender her usufructuary right in the land, but is determined to hold on to it. Thus, in many ways, a widow with sons is better off than a woman whose husband is alive and maltreats her. As a widow, a woman has a usufructuary right in the land and can demand that a portion of land be allocated to her for separate cultivation, in case she does not always get along with her sons. She may not always get this in practice, but in theory the customary law does protect her right. However, as a wife, she does not have such an independent usufructuary right. If her husband throws her out, she cannot demand that she be given a portion of land to cultivate separately.
Sons and daughters-in-law may neglect a widowed mother but she is seldom beaten, as wives routinely are, with no intervention from the community. As a widow, a woman faces the possibility of violence outside the house, in the form of attacks by her husband's male agnates. But, as a wife, a woman has to face everyday violence and may be rendered destitute if the husband does not need her to labour on his land.
Among non-tribal peasant groups, women are seldom allowed to decide whether or not they want to marry. Consequently, almost no women are left unmarried at 30. Even among other tribal groups in Bihar, none show such a high proportion of unmarried women as do the Hos. According to the 1971 Census,approximately 11 percent of all Ho women 45 years of age or above had never married.14 A similar figure has been reported ever since the census operations in India began. This is an incredibly high percentage for any community in India. In contrast, the all-India percentage of tribal women above 45 years of age who had never married is less than one percent, approximately the same as the all-India figure for all communities.
So far, there has been no large-scale systematic study of the reasons for this unusual phenomenon. The data gathered from my study of Karonja village suggests that the causes are likely to be far more complex than the prevalence of bride price, which is often cited as the cause.
Now that Mukta has to live in another village, she cannot cultivate her natal family's land. The family has no other grown-up child to do this work so they will be forced to mortgage the land and take loans from their better-off relatives – those who arranged Mukta's marriage. Mukta's marriage may well have been arranged by her male relatives as a way of grabbing her family's share of the land.
Often, such pressure comes from a woman's own brothers, and if she refuses to marry, she may be forced to migrate. This is what happened to Kuni Sundi, aged about 30, who had chosen not to marry. Kuni did not want to live with any of her three brothers who live in the village. Kuni's parents are dead. Her mother had allocated two fields to Kuni which yield about two bandi rice. Her brothers insisted that she live with one of them. She appealed to the panchayat which decreed that she stay with her oldest brother. Kuni did not find this arrangement satisfactory so she seldom stayed in the village. In her absence, her oldest brother ploughed her land and kept the crop. For all practical purposes, he had taken over her land. When she stayed in the village, she was allowed to live off the rice from her fields but was not allowed to sell any portion of that rice. So, when in the village, she had to work as a labourer in other people's fields to earn some cash to buy soap and oil. She once tried living with her younger brother but left his house after a quarrel, because he refused to give her any of the rice from her fields.
It seems that when parents clearly leave a particular piece of land for an unmarried daughter's use, she has a relatively stronger position in the family and the village than when she has to depend on her brothers' goodwill. Many women say that when an unmarried woman grows old or falls sick and is unable to work she becomes particularly vulnerable. This means that she may be pushed off her land by her male agnates.
Generally, male agnates make sure that the old woman is not allowed to live on her own. It becomes particularly difficult for her to resist this pressure is she has no brothers living in the village and willing to take her side.
A widow may also face the problem of unavailability of helping hands in the fields. The popular notion is that in most villages, especially tribal villages, there is a good deal of reciprocity, with families helping each other out gratis in times of difficulty. The Singhbum District Gazetteer, 1958, comments: "[T]here is a good deal of cooperation in economic matters. Exchange of agricultural labour is very common and communal hunting and fishing with equitable distribution of the spoils indicate their collective spirit." 15 But this seems, by and large, to be a romantic myth. Most families are so close to the brink they have very little to give others by way of labour or food. Childless old women are often left to their own efforts, eventually to starve and die. This happens also to younger women who live alone when they fall sick. Even close relatives seldom help out, except for a consideration. If a widow wants her brother to plough her land, she has to pay him at the prevailing wage rate, either in cash or kind. At times, labour may be bartered for labour.
There are also cases when families pressure a woman not to marry for a while, and her marriage may even be delayed indefinitely until she grows so old that she is not considered marriageable. Jabani, aged about 18, is unmarried and is being made to act as caretaker of the family land until her little brother is old enough to inherit it. Jabani's father died about seven years ago. His widow, who was much younger than he was, then married a man from another community. She was ostracised by her family and lost her usufructuary right. Jabani has four married sisters and her brother, aged 10, lives with one of them in Rourkela. Jabani, as an unmarried daughter, is the only one with a right to cultivate the land. So she is made to live alone in the village and take care of the land so that male relatives do not grab it before her brother can take over. She hires help to plough the land, and her sister pays for this.
Thus, women in Ho society suffer from different levels of economic insecurity. The most enviable state is that of a married woman whose husband does not maltreat her and allows her some control over the family income. This kind of security cannot be acquired through a woman's own efforts but is dependent on chance. Hence, there is a certain scepticism among Ho women about seeking security through marriage.
The second best alternative for a woman is to live as an unmarried daughter. She has a right to subsist on her parents' land and will not be beaten. But once her parents die, her brothers or male cousins may want to push her off the land. She cannot hope to strengthen her position by having sons, as a married woman can. It is this hope which pushes many women into marriage. It is thus very likely that the higher proportion of unmarried women in Ho society is due to the definite advantages detailed above, as well as the important fact that there is no social stigma attached to being unmarried.
Given the remarkably clear-headed rationality that Ho women display in making decisions such as the decision to marry or not to marry, or to migrate and take a job for wages, it is likely that if the options available to them expanded, for instance, if they acquired equal rights in land, they would know how to make the best of these options. They do not seem to be prey to the self delusory humbug regarding marriage, dependence on men, or their own disabilities, that is characteristic of most non-tribal women's perception of their situation, including that of most urban educated women.
Ho women attempt to arrive at the best possible deal under adverse circumstances. This is not at all to suggest that they are crafty and calculating. In fact, their clearheadedness about marriage and relationships with men is often accompanied by a surprising degree of naivete in dealing with the outside world, especially when cash transactions are involved.
Panpati's life is a good example of the extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness of Ho women. Panpati is about 50 years old. She was married about 25 years ago to Sado and had three children of whom one died. She now has one unmarried son and one married daughter. She left her husband's house after he brought a second wife. Panpati returned to her natal village. Her brother had inherited about 20 bandi land. For a couple of years she lived in his house, worked on his fields as a wage labourer and did most of the housework. But her brother would keep getting angry with her children and say: "How long can I go on feeding them?" Her children felt very upset and could not study. So she moved out and made a separate home. Slowly, she saved some money from selling rice beer and doing wage work. With this, she got two small fields on bandhak from one of the families in the village. This produced about two bandis of rice. She kept one bandi for consumption and gave the other on loan. Her son has studied up to matriculation. He failed about three times before passing, and is now looking for a job. He is of no help to her. Aged about 20, if he occasionally gets some wage work, he spends most of the money on himself. He is now demanding his share of land from his father and is involved in a dispute.
8. Ibid. p 248.
9. Majumdar, op cit, p 229.
10. Ibid., pp 147-152.
11. E.T. Dalton, An Introduction to a Descriptive Ethnology of Bengal, 1878, p 192, and H.H. Risley, The Tribes and Castes of Bengal, vol I, 1891, p 323, quoted in C.P. Singh, The Ho Tribe of Singhbhum, Classical Publications, New Delhi, 1978, p 147.
12. C.P.Singh, op cit, p 148.
13. Majumdar, op cit, pp 142-143.
14. Census of India, Series I, part V A, (ii) Special Tables for Scheduled Tribes, 1977.
15. Ray Chaudhury, op cit, p 243.
This is the second part of the paper which was published in three parts in the EPW 1987.