Santhals and their Great Revolt of 1855

A couple of generations ago, in June 1855 to be precise, the ancestors of today’s Santhals — one of the largest and most dispersed tribal communities and one of whose members, Droupadi Murmu, finds herself occupying the highest constitutional office in the country — revolted against an oppressive system forced upon them by the non-tribals, aided by the British colonial administrations and their local agents like the Daroghas and the local Zamindars.

The epicentres of the movement were the three adjoining districts of Birbhum, Murshidabad and Bhagalpur in the then undivided Bengal, where the Santhals lived in, and around the foothills of the Rajmahal hills in what was demarcated as Santhal Parganas.

The area was allocated for their resettlement through the Damin-i-koh regulation of 1832 by the British after they suppressed the local Paharias in the early decade of the 19th Century, a period when the Chuar, Bhumij and Kol tribes of Bengal and Bihar had already revolted and expressed their anger over their exploitation at the hands of outsiders.

Santhlas from many other areas also came and settled in the area. The colonial idea was to use the Santhals as a source of labour for the expansion of agriculture and other works. Over the next century and a half, the Santhals would become the chief and cheap labour force for the British who put them to use in their tea gardens, and for land reclamation and colonisation for agriculture. Santhals were taken everywhere and thus a widely dispersed and disposed community came into being.

On the other hand, in the Damin-i-koh — or the land of the Santhals — the community’s hope for a settled agrarian life was soon to turn into a nightmare, with revenue demands from the colonial administration, and greedy and unscrupulous Zamindars and usurious caste groups. Land grabbing was the regular pattern now and begari, the practice of bonded labour of the kind which can easily be defined as slavery, was to throttle the life of the Santhal men and women.

Newly empowered officials in the colonial administration such as the Daroghas were corrupt and unsympathetic to the simple Santhals. For the Santhals, there might have been some sympathetic ears even among the British, but the intermediaries were too powerful and too many in this piece of land. The British too had an interest in the continued supply of revenue and labour.

No wonder then that when the Santhals rose in rebellion, the Daroghas, seen increasingly as the physical manifestation of an evil power, were their first targets.

The “Hull” or the Great Revolt was preceded by many acts of violence against the Zamindars and moneylenders, but were suppressed too easily. However, it was only on June 30, 1855, when a 10,000-strong Santhal force under the leadership of Sido and Kanhu met at Baghnadihi that the exact nature of resentment and resolve to finish off the exploitative system, became known to all.

Other non-tribal caste groups at the receiving end of the exploitative system too came and joined forces with the Santhals. Siddhu and Kanhu invoked magical powers and the divine instruction of Thakur Bonga, their supreme deity, to eliminate the Zamindars and kick out the dikus (outsiders) from the Damin-i-koh.

The Santhal leaders, men and women, fought heroic battles across Santhal Parganas and neighbouring districts, and it took the collective forces of the British artillery, supported by the elephant forces of the local rajas and the local armies of the Bengali Zamindars, to finally suppress the revolt around January 1856 with unparalleled savagery, killing more than 10-15,000 Santhals and destroying thousands of homes and villages. Sido was caught — and hanged — in August 1855, followed by Kanhu in February 1856.

The memories of the Hull and the fighting spirit of its leaders, Sido and Kanhu, have remained enshrined in the collective world of the Santhals. Different forms of histories have tried to appropriate them for their respective causes but the Indian State, and a substantial part of the non-tribal community, despite proclamations to the contrary, view the Santhals as nothing more than a gigantic reservoir of cheap labour even today.

The places where they were transported by the colonial and post-Independence administration, including to tough terrains to build infrastructure for Indian security needs, speaks volumes of this overarching view of the Santhals. In their core region too, namely in Bihar, and now in Jharkhand, and Bengal, they have constantly been displaced with the opening of coal mines and later with the establishment of steel and other industries.

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The continued land grab by non-tribals has further marginalised the community, even on their own land.

Life of such continued adversity notwithstanding, in the 1970s, when Shibu Soren showed some fighting spirit as he took on moneylenders, and coal and land mafia, he had rekindled in thousands of dimly lit Santhal hamlets across the country the memories of their folk heroes — Sido and Kanhu — and their great Hull.
At a time when the ever lengthening shadow of ruthless nationalist capital threatens to cause a complete historic amnesia, memories of such revolts against injustice help us in not allowing forgetfulness to become our collective destiny.

The writer is a historian and teaches at the Centre for Media Studies at JNU, Delhi

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