Santhal Rebellion: The First War Of Independence

Abdul Azim Akhtar

Even before the forefathers of the National Movement sowed the roots of nationalism, the tribals had given a clarion call to end the rule of the East Indian Company. Apart from the Wahabi and Farazi leaders, the tribal leaders were among the first legion of leaders who sacrificed their lives for the cause of the motherland.

The Santhals seem to have settled first, between 1790 and 1810, in the region , which later, by Act 37 of 1855, was given the status of a district and came to be known as the district of Santhal Prgana, . At that time, the area was quite vast, but the boundary line was redrawn in 1857 by Act 10 (Virottam, 2006), due to protests from the Zamindars and the Englishmen engaged in indigo cultivation, Between 1815 and 1830, there appears to have been a further dispersion of the Santhals. They were busy clearing the forests, and by 1836, no less than 427 villages had been established in the ‘Daman-i-Koh’ inhabited by the Santhals and Bhuiyas(O’Malley,1910). The Santhals were originally, according to popular tradition, divided into twelve sects, of which eleven only remained, one disappeared entirely( Bradley-Brit, 1905, p.343). Their myths depict a story of their constant wanderings before they came towards the end of the eighteenth century to their present habitat in the Santhal Parganas The Santhal legend traces their origin to a wild goose, which laid two eggs, out of which sprang Pilchu Haram and Pilchu Burhi, their two ancestors (Singh et.al, 2008).

The influx of Santhals was encouraged for clearing the jungle for the purpose of cultivation. Time and again, according to their recorded legends, this passionate desire to preserve their tribe from contamination had led them to forsake their homes and wander forth in search of new lands rather than admit a stranger within their ranks. It was this national spirit, this clannish sentiment that united the Santhals in one unbroken front against the foreigners, that enabled them to stem the tide of every conquest that engulfed their less united neighbours of the plains, and finally enabled them to wring practically their own terms from the last and greatest conqueror of all(ibid.) There was a very real danger that it might split up into small-scattered communities gradually losing their nationality and becoming absorbed in the lowest classes among the Hindus. Against such a fate that whole Santhal nature rebelled, suspicious of interference and restless of control. The Santhals had always entertained a peculiar aversion to the entire Hindu race. The hatred and contempt on either side had been equal\(ibid.)

When the British first arrived to takeover the administration of Rajmahal district, they found that Paharias and Zamindars had made a temporary compromise (ibid.). This compromise was short-lived, as the Santhals realised a potential danger to their existence, from the rise in prices, encroachment of their land, and new British laws, which were aimed at extracting maximum revenues, and transferring land to the parties who consented to their demands. The Santhals, who were living with independence for ages, found these conditions as infringement upon their freedom and living. Many tribals were also forced to migrate to work in other areas to earn their living. As per one estimation, the number of Santhals in indigo plantation was 58,312(Pal, 2008) The migration of the male members to other areas left their women alone and vulnerable to the dikkus, who were always ready to take advantage of the liberal tribal sexual norms among the Santhals. A love affair between a Santhal girl and a stranger to the tribe might at first sight seem only a form of rural romance yet in the light of Santhal views of tribal population it is one of worst offences a Santhal can commit.(Archer, 1961)

As labour grew dearer and the serf became more valuable the clutch of the Mahajan tightened. Maddened by the sharp contrast between his lot and that of the free man, a wild desire for release from the oppressor's yoke sprang up in the Santhals mind, and grew until it became stronger than his hereditary instinct to suffer in silence, conquering even his habitual apathy and slowness to resolve.( Bradley-Brit, op.cit.,p.183) It was among the Santhal settlers in Daman-i-Koh that the rebellion of 1855, known as hul, had its origin.( O’Malley,op.cit.) The most effective tribal movement of this period was, however, the Santhal hul of 1855-56. The Santhals lived scattered in various districts of Cuttack, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura, and Birbhum in eastern India. Driven from their homeland, they cleared the area around the Rajmahal Hills and called it Daman-i-Koh.( Bandyopadhyay, 2008)

Herbert Risley (1911) gives the account of the grievances: ‘My attention was further drawn to them by the repeated appearance in rent suits and criminal cases relating to land, of a Hindu money lender and land grabber, whose head was swathed in muslin bandages so that that only his eyes and mouth were visible. Some years before, he had harried a Santhal village beyond endurance, and they had cut him up with their little curved axes, and left him for dead. Moneylenders, however, are proverbially tenacious of life, and he made a wonderful recovery; but he was so disfigured that he could never show his face again. The land dispute which had led to this and many other acts of violence, turned out to be one of immemorial antiquity, which Colonel Dalton had tried in vain to settle some twenty years before my time. It affected 52 Santhal villages, and its main difficulty consisted in the fact that there was no unit of superficial measurement. The idea of an acre was unknown, and rent was assessed by the muri, or the amount of land that was supposed to be capable of taking some fifty pounds of seed. This was judged by the eye, when or by whom nobody knew, and each muri consisted of number plots scattered all over the parish, and varying year by year as the occupier took in a fresh piece or allowed a strip to fall out of cultivation. Eventually by cautious diplomacy, I induced the Santhals to let me measure their land, and assess rents by area and quality. The economic chaos and agrarian strife that had prevailed for generations was ended by a formal agreement between them and their landlord, which I believe still holds good.’

Marang Buru, the Great Spirit had appeared and spoken. A thrill of awe passed through the race as rumour spread with unquestioning faith and the Santhals accepted it. None would dare to take in vain the name of Marang Buru, the Great Spirit. To four brothers Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand and Bairat, sons of one Chunar of Bagnadih, Marang Buru had appeared not once but seven times, and each time in a different guise( Bradley-Brit, op.cit.,p.185) The Sal branch, the Santhal national emblem of war, was sent like the fiery cross through every village in the land, speaking its eloquent message of revolt, and from every hill and valley...it was a vast assembly that collected near Barhait--the only place of any size in the Daman-i-Koh. Practically, the whole fighting population within the pillars answered the summons of the Sal branch, Sidhu and Kanhu, two of the four brothers, to whom Marang Baru had appeared, were the recognised leaders. They sat and talked for day and night, as the Santhals love to do, discussing their grievances and fixing their determination, now that they had come together,to be content with no half measures for the hatred of the usurer and all his satellites from the land.(ibid., pp187-88)

It was not long before that one unanimous deep-voiced cry rose from the entire vast-assembly, which was asking for death to the Zamindars, the police and all those who had taken part or had share in their oppression for long years Against the British Raj and its representatives there was no thought of animosity (ibid., pp188-89) Indian Historians have dismissed this contention of Bradley-Brit, who was a civil servant posted in the Jharkhand region, that the rebellion was not directed against the British. According to Bandyopadhyay (op.cit., p.165), ‘They were gradually driven to a desperate situation as tribal lands were leased out to non-Santhal Zamindars and moneylenders. To this was added the oppression of the local police and the European officers engaged in railroad construction. This penetration of dikkus completely destroyed their familiar world, and forced them into action to take possession of their lost territory’. All these rebellions were not only against local jagirdar-Zamindar-contractor-Money lender-Mahajan-and trader but also against the British Government( Pal, op.cit.,p.179) The object of the Santhal uprising was the economic emancipation of the Santhals. The Santhals’ sentiment against the foreign rule is described in this poem (Raha,2012)

Saheb Rule is Trouble Full
Shall we go or Shall we Stay
Eating, Drinking, Clothing
For Everything we face trouble
Shall we go, or shall we stay
Sido, why are you bathed in blood?
Kandhu, why do you cry, ‘Hul’, ‘Hul’?
For our people we have bathed in blood
For the trader thieves

Have robbed us our land

On the 30th June 1855, 10,000 Santhals met at Bhagnadihi. Sidhu and Kanhu proclaimed themselves lords of the country under the title of Subahs and appointed naibs, darogas and other subordinate officers. The first spark of the revolt was ignited at Littipara. Kena Ram Bhagat was a leading merchant and moneylender of Amrapara. The altercation, which took place, led to the arrest of Baijai Manjhi, who was sent to Bhagalpur jail where he died shortly after without any trial. His son Singrai also raised the banner of revolt who was also hanged in Barhait bazaar after summary trial. The hul started with the killing of Mohesh Daroga who, on 7th July, had arrived at Panchkhetia Bazar, along with some chowkidars and constables to arrest the rebel leaders. He accused the Santhals of theft and asked his men to tie up Sidhu and Kanhu( Ghosh, 1998)

In the early part of November, after the revolt had been dragging out for nearly five months, martial law was proclaimed. As many as fourteen thousand troops were now employed under General Lloyd and Brigadier General Birdand the Santhal rebellion was systematically crushed. Sidhu, the eldest of the four brothers, who was the original ringleader, was captured and after a summary trial, was hanged at Barahait by Mr. Pontet. Not less than ten thousand Santhals are said to have perished in the struggle( Bradley-Brit,op.cit.,p.206). Kanhu in deposition before Ashley Eden (Assistant Special Commissioner, Santhal Pargana) said on December 20, 1855: ‘The Mahajans complained to Buroo Darogah that Sidhu & Kanhu were collecting men to commit a dacoitee, the Mahajans gave him 100 rupees. to come and catch us. The Darogah was sitting at Baboopara he sent a burkundauge to me before. He counted the men. I then gave a perwanah to the burkundauge saying the Thakoor has descended and we are assembled for the purpose of making a complaint why do you interfere, the darogah remained 2 days and then went….he came with Mahajans into a maidan…I said why have you come?...He said, I have come to investigate a snake bite death.’…then he said why are you collecting men for dacoitee. I said prove it, if I have committed a theft or dacoitee. If you prove anything put me in jail. The mahajans said if it costs us 1000 rupees we will do that to get you imprisoned. The mahajans and the Darogah got very angry and ordered them to tie me up. The Mahajans began to tie Seedoo my brother, then I drew my sword they left off tying my brother & I cut Manick Mudie’s head off & Seedoo killed the Darogah and my army killed 5 men whose names I do not know, then we all returned to Bhaguadee. ’1

The rebellion invited brutal counter-insurgency measures; the army was mobilised and Santhal villages were burnt one after another with vengeance. According to one calculation, out of thirty to fifty thousand rebels, fifteen to twenty thousand were killed before the insurrection was finally suppressed.( Bandyopadhyay, op.cit., p.165) The terror and violence unleashed on the tribes made them scared of even the neighbours, and the sentiment is expressed in the poem (Raha, op.cit.)

Sleep my little, sleep my dear
Sleep silently, nobody will touch you
Our enemies, Tibet and Bhutan have attacked
When you will grow older

You have to remain awake
And overcome the enemy
So my dear one, sleep silently…

The Santhal Hul of 1855, is now elevated to the status of India’s first war of Independence.(Ghosh, op.cit., p.20) This was the first rebellion, which broke out after the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1845. The feeling of Santhal towards Motherland is expressed in the following (Raha, op.cit.)

O Motherland, O Motherland!
Inspite of poverty there is peace
Although my motherland is poverty stricken,
Still it is better than all,
If one leaves one’s motherland
And makes for a foreign land
He won’t get affection as in his motherland
He will not get-it, he will not get it!

Notes:

1. Extracts from statement of Kanhu, Examined by Ashley Eden (Assistant Special Commissioner, Santhal Pargana), 20 Dec. 1855

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