What is “jati”?

Hindus live in a caste system, a hierarchy of group identity that an individual is born into. In Bengal, this hierarchy is known as “jati.” The jati encompasses all aspects of one’s identity, including religion, regional affiliation, and gender. An individual’s loyalty to their jati is second only to their loyalty to their family. The people who inhabit the Sundarbans come from one of four jatis: the Midnapuris, East Bengalis, Muslims, and Adivasis.

Jati hierarchies are locally specific. In the Sundarbans, the Midnapuris are considered to be at the top of this hierarchy because they are the most educated and generally have the least interaction with the forest. East Bengalis and Muslims are on relatively similar plains, below Midnapuris but above Adivasis. The Adivasis are at the bottom of the Sundarbans jati hierarchy because they are most commonly forest workers and are the least educated and poorest villagers. 

Much of the information below comes from Annu Jalais’ Forest of Tigers in her section titled “Multiple Meanings of Jati and Dharmo,” which begins on page 45.

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Midnapuris are at the top of the Sundarbans jati hierarchy. They began to migrate to the Sundarbans in the 1940s, in part because the 1943 Bengal Famine left their region in devastation, settling primarily in the “up” islands such as Gosaba. They are typically the wealthiest and the most educated peoples on the island. As a group, the Midnapuris are the most landed and are often employed as school teachers or government employees in higher level federal jobs, leaving them with most of the area’s political power. They often have the most access to urbanity and are able to leave the Sundarbans to retire in the city of Kolkata. While to the Midnapuris this is seen as upward mobility, the other lower jatis in the Sundarbans see it as a lack of commitment to the betterment of the region, as though the Midnapuris are only in the Sundarbans until they are able to leave. East Bengalis regard the Midnapuris as “aggressive” and “greedy for land,” and all lower jatis share the sentiment that the Midnapuris are arrogant. This, however, does not phase the Midnapuris, who see themselves as “the torch-bearers of civilization in these [islands] of the Sundarbans.” They believe they hold a kind of moral high-ground and that their cultural practices and beliefs are “correct.”

East Bengalis

East Bengalis maintain a kind of socio-economic middle ground in the Sundarbans jati hierarchy. Socially, however, this group faces ridicule from the other jatis. Often referred to by the derogatory name for their jati, “Pod,” they are made fun of for their cultural differences, such as the way that they cook their food. The Midnapuris joke that the East Bengali’s eat their food raw, whereas the East Bengalis say that the Midnapuris char their food. Tensions have historically run high between East Bengalis and Midnapuris, stemming from how Midnapuri men “accept” East Bengali brides but Midnapuri families do not let their daughters marry East Bengali men. Intermarriage between jatis in the Sundarbans is not common and is growing increasingly disapproved of. This forces lovers from different jatis to leave the Sundarbans in order to be socially accepted as a couple. Although looked down upon by Midnapuris and made fun of by the other jatis, East Bengalis take pride in their unique dialect and their generally lighter skin. They believe they are inferior to the Midnapuris only because the Midnapuris are greedier and more “scheming” for land and possession.


While on the same plain as the East Bengalis in the Sundarbans jati hierarchy, the Muslims have faced adversity since arriving in the Sundarbans. In the 1950s and 1960s, thousands of Muslims were forcibly removed from their homes in East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) by displaced Hindu refugees. Other Sundarbans jatis, especially the Midnapuris, regard the Muslims as short-tempered and hostile and point to them as the ones to blame for any violence in the Sundarbans. The Midnapuris feel strongly about this, as the parties see each other as their political and economic rivals and facilitating negative Muslim stereotypes maintains the Midnapuris’ position at the top of the jati hierarchy. What other jatis deem “aggressive” the Muslims feel shows their ambition and courage. The Muslims often hold positions seen as especially risky, such as honey collecting in the forest or trying their hand in the rapidly growing prawn enterprise. While these are lucrative occupations, these workers are put at great risk of death or injury by predators of the forest.


“Adivasi” is a term describing the indigenous peoples of the mainlands of South Asia. According to the 2011 Indian census, Adivasis account for 8.6% of India’s population or 104 million people. They also account for a large percentage of the population of Nepal, and the term is also used to describe ethnic minorities in Bangladesh. Peoples from two scheduled tribes within the Adivasi jati, the Oraon and the Munda, were brought to the Sundarbans in the early 20th century as indentured laborers based on the stereotype that Adivasis are “hard-working tribal” peoples. Their work consisted of clearing forest area, constructing bunds meant to keep the tide from flooding village structures and contributing to the construction of the railways and ports in the “up” islands of Canning and Diamond Harbor. Adivasis are at the bottom of the local jati hierarchy in the Sundarbans, as the other jatis think of Adivasis as primitive peoples. They drink liquor, eat “impure” foods such as pork, and are generally the poorest people in the village. Because of their stereotype as hard-working and their reputation as being primitive and low-level, most Adivasis work in the forest. However, the Indian government also encourages these stereotypes by allocating low-level federal forestry jobs, such as maintaining village bunds, exclusively to Adivasi peoples. The younger generations of Adivasi peoples attempt to break ties with their Adivasi reputation to have a chance at upward mobility in Indian society. Many list themselves simply as “Hindu” on census’. Currently, 8.5% of Sundarbans inhabitants list themselves as Adivasi. There is tension between wanting to remain loyal to the Adivasi jati and show that Adivasis can be successful in areas outside their stereotypical occupations and breaking off with their jati by changing their names and trying to assimilate into other group identities.

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