The Santhals were forced to migrate from their original homeland near Murshidabad on account of the excessive demands of zamindars. They cleared the forests skirting the Raj Mahal Hills with great labour and brought the land they thus acquired under cultivation.
But these simple people fell easy prey to the money-lenders and traders from Bengal and North India who charged high interest on money they lent.
Police and revenue officials lent support to zamindars in claiming cultivable lands from the Santhals for non-payment of dues.
In 1855, under the leadership of two brothers, Sidho and Kanu, who claimed divine revelation, the Santhals set up a government of their own.
They cut off postal and railway communications between Bhagalpur and Raj Mahal and went on a rampage. Such was their fury that they attacked English planters, railway staff, native police-officers, tradesmen and peasants and their families. People fled in terror as wave after wave of Santhals surged through the countryside to the beat of drums.
Even when the disturbed area was handed over to the army the Santhals showed no sign of submission and more than 30,000 men marched towards Calcutta. Hunter, in his Annals of Rural Bengal wrote: “What we fought was not war. So long as their drum went on beating, they went on fighting to the last man.” About 20,000 Santhals died and Hunter concludes, “There was not a single sepoy in the British army who did not feel ashamed.
Santhal Hero

BABA TILKA Majhi was a Santhal leader who took up arms against the British in the 1780’s.
The British surrounded the Tilapore forest from which he operated but he and his men held the enemy at bay for several weeks.
When he was finally caught in 1784, he was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged all the way to the collector’s residence at Bhagalpur. There, his lacerated body was hung from a banyan tree.
A statue to the heroic leader was erected at the spot after independence.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Jharkhand Tribal Movement

The tribes of the Chotanagpur region have been subjected repeatedly to outside invasions from the Mughal to the British to the Hindu Zamindars. The tribals were marginalized when the Hindu traders and Muslim farmers had moved in and modern law and administration was established. British authority and its accompanying array of devises facilitated the process of pauperizing the tribals. The administration was manned by outsiders and there was introduction of paper currency which was alien to the tribals. Their villages were in the hands of the landlords who were committed to the expropriation of tribals. All this had one inevitable result: that of armed resistance.

The 19th century rebellions have been attributed to the twin consequences of illegal deprivation of tribal lands and the reduction of the tribals to a state of poverty and indebtedness.

The first ever revolt against the landlords and the British government was led by Tilka Manjhi, a valiant Santhal leader in Santal tribal belt in 1771. He wanted to liberate his people from the clutches of the unscrupulous landlords and restore the lands of their ancestors. The British government sent its troops and crushed the uprisings of Tilka Manjhi.

Soon after in 1779, the Bhumij tribes rose in arms against the British rule in Manbhum, now in West Bengal. The Bhumij were always conspicuous as a turbulent people. Whenever the authorities made any attempt to settle the jungle Mahals, the Bhumij rose in open revolt. This was followed by the Chero tribes unrest in Palamau. They revolted against the British Rule in 1800 AD. Hardly seven years later in 1807, the Oraons in Barway murdered their big landlord of Srinagar west of Gumla. Soon the uprisings spread around Gumla. The tribal uprisings spread eastward to neighbouring Tamar areas of the Munda tribes.

The landlords were given extraordinary powers and the authority to evict the tenants, dispose of and sell their property, and even seize their persons without recourse to the court of law. The tenants had no documentary evidence of their rights.
Signs of tribal unrest became evident. In 1789, there was an insurrection in Tamar, which was put down by the military, but disturbances followed again in 1794 and 95. Police outstations were now introduced who joined hands with the powerful landlords to further worsen the state of the Tribals. Further insurrections followed in 1811, 1817 and 1820. The Hos in Singhbhum were growing restless and came out in open revolt in 1820 and fought against the landlords and the British troops for two years. This is called the Larka Kol Risings 1820-1821.
The Kol Insurrection was the biggest uprising against the British empire (Dec1831 to Jan 1832) which united the Oraons, Hos, and Mundas in a frenzied but short-lived outburst. They had decided that not a single foreigner should be left alive in their land. In every village, the Suds(Hindus) and the dikus were murdered, plundered and their houses were burnt down. By the end of January, the rebels were in control of the Chotanagpur as the British were not expecting such an upheaval. It was not until March that the rebellion could be suppressed.


The Santhals occupy the third place among the major tribes of India. Santhal Paraganas form the largest political unit if this tribe.
The Santhal rebellion was one of the more pronounced instances of tribal resistance to the growing deterioration in their conditions. 4 factors were primarily seen as instrumental in its eruption:

1. Exploitation by moneylenders
2. The misery caused by their wicked and immoral system of allowing personal and hereditary bondage for debt.
3. The corruption of the police in aiding the moneylenders.
4. The impossibility for the Santhals of obtaining redress from the courts.

Rising prices, deteriorating financial conditions, bonded labour all loomed in the background while two brothers Sidhu and Kanhu kindled the revolution with their tale of divine inspiration. In it, they were instructed to kill and end all the diku rule themselves. The beginning of the movement was marked by peaceful submission of petitions and grievances. A few spontaneous murders of moneylenders and traders occurred. Soon, the tribals picked up the only weapon he possessed and knew to operate, the bow and the axe. They soon went on a rampage killing police officers, moneylenders, railway attendants and the Zamindhars. The brothers were in command of the entire operations. In a last desperate measure, the brothers led an army of 30,000 Santhals to Calcutta to petition the Governor-general.

In a fierce engagement between the British and some 4,000 Santhals on 15-7-1855, the latter ultimately lost the battle after their leaders Sidhu and Kanhu were wounded with bullets. Later, 12 Santhal villages were set on fire by Captain Sherwill. And again a cluster of 15 villages were destroyed. There was a year long hard fought battle which witnessed 10,000 – 15,000 deaths, mostly Santhals. The British had crushed them.

Owing to the mutiny of 1857 and the Santhal rebellion itself, a few temporary administrative reforms were introduced. These were quickly nullified and the tribals soon found themselves in the same old boat. Many other fractured and small rebellions took place under various leaders which did not yield any positive result like those under Bhagirat Manjhi, Dubia Gosian and the Kerwar movement and the Sardar Agitation.


This was the last of the heroic tribal movements of the 19th century in the Chotanagpur plateau. The mundas had been living in the Chotanagpur plateau for more than 2000 years and are one of the most ancient settlers in this land.
The revolt essentially started as an economic one like many other tribal revolts but soon turned into a political one. They fought against the British who openly supported the exploiters namely the Zamindhars and money lenders who took advantage of the corrupt British and Indian officials. In 1856, there were in Bihar 600 Zamindhar dikus holding land ranging from a portion of a single village to even 150 villages each.

The introduction of rent for the land, a concept hitherto unknown to the tribals, infuriated them. Then there was collection of taxes for just about any reason. The British courts, unfamiliar with the tribal language had to depend upon the local interpreters to act as middle men. These people were only too pleased to help their powerful landowners. Thus, the tribals could not get justice from any direction and led them to believe that it rest upon themselves to rid the place of dikus.
The dikus, unable to comprehend the social and political organization of the tribals simply dismissed them and replaced with limbs of modern governmental machinery. Worst of all, the tribal customs, practices and superstitions were dismissed lightly. Another important reason for the revolt was of course, the concept of Beth Begari, or what is known today as Bonded labour.
General poverty led many of the Mundas to leave their ancestral homes and shift to work in the Assam tea plantations and their earnings were spent mostly on liquor.

Though at first the struggle commenced by attacking the land-lords, later it was directed against the ruling British authorities and the Christian missionaries, as the Christian missionaries over emphasis on conversion irritated the Mundas. They now helped only the tribals who had converted and oppressed the non-converts and with the aid of the authorities, perpetuated atrocities against them. This resulted first in the Sardari Larai (1890).

The hero of the revolt had been Birsa Munda, who on account of piety, virtuous life and reputation for possessing psychic powers which enabled him to have communion with God, came to be known as Birsa Bhagwan. His followers came to be known as Birsite Bhagats. He believed that the Mundas will be able to regain their lost kingdom with the annihilation of the enemies. He then wanted to establish Birsaite Raj in which he would be the King. He had, by now, a firm belief that he was a divine incarnation fit to lead his people.

The core of Birsa’s message had initially been social and religious. He called upon the Mundas to uproot superstition, abjure animal sacrifise, cease taking intoxicants. Birsa Munda continuously infused the tribals with a sense of their destiny with many of the ancient myths that lay embedded in the popular consciousness.

He advised people to not to obey the police, the magistrates and the landlords and to boycott the ‘beth begari sytem’. He spoke against unlawful land acquisition and tried to unite his people against the diabolic exploitative triad of zamindhar, foreigner and traders.
In 1895, Arson and arrow firing against the Christian missionaries and few police stations started in an epidemic scale under the leadership of the Birsa. There were secret meetings held on the hill tops where they would plan their next attacks which would be carried out sincerely by the Mundas. 3-4 revolts later, the police got a tip off on the next location and surrounded the Dombari hill. The arrows were met with the bullets, yet surprisingly the toll was not alarming. Then, the police systematically arrested the disciples of Birsa, who had by now absconded into the thick of the forests.

The Mundas were galvanized into martial fury and carried out their revolts with great courage and determination. The results were, however, the same whenever the tribals fought the mighty British: they were crushed. Birsa was captured, released and finally recaptured after his forces suffered a terrible crushing by the British army in 1900. With his death, the Birsa movement slipped into oblivion but he had succeeded in giving them a solidarity which was missing before. Again, some temporary measures were taken.


The next major tribal movement was the Tana Bhagat Movement organized by the Oraons from 1915 – 1920. The movement took its origins at the hands of Jatra Bhagat and Hanuman Oraon. Like all else, it was anti-Zamindhari, anti-missionary, anti-British. The main features of the movement were:
1) Self government
2) Abolition of Rajship
3) Perfect equality between man and man
4) No rent payment.

It then merged with the mainstream national movement, firmly Gandhian by then. The enemies and reasons were retained from the previous rebellions. They refused to pay rent to the non-tribal Landlords as land was a gift from God to the tribals. They then, went on to participate in the civil disobedience movement of 1930 by refusing to pay rent. This did not quite provide fruitful results, largely due to the peculiarities of their situation.


From the 1920s, the focuses shifted from small, sporadic tribal uprisings to party politics led by an urbanized intelligentsia.
The foremost objective was to expel the ‘dikus’ from the Chotanagpur and Santhal Paraganas, to recover ancestral tribal lands that had been forcibly alienated. Allied to this primary imperatives was the demand for a larger share in the revenue generated from this territory. Finally, the tribals wanted recognition of their special historical status recognized within the Indian union by the reservation of jobs and places in the administrative structure.

In 1915 the Chotanagpur Unnati Samaj was started for the socio-economic development of the tribals. This organisation had also political objectives in mind. When the Simon Commission in 1928 came to Patna the Chotanagpur Unnati Samaj sent its delegation and placed its demand for a separate Jharkhand State for self-rule by the tribals. The Simon Commission however did not accede to the demand for a separate Jharkhand State.

The demand for Jharkhand had its genesis in the Adivasi Mahasabha. In 1939 Jaipal Singh was invited to come to Ranchi from Darjeeling to join Adivasi Mahasabha. He came and joined the Adivasee Mahasabha and was elected its President. After the independence of the country, the Adivasee Mahasabha was given the name of Jharkhand Party. Jaipal Singh remained the President of the Jharkhand Party from 1939 to 1960.

The new phase of the movement beginning with independence saw the pinnacle of the movement being reached. The Jharkhand party was born under the leadership of Jaipal singh. The tribals had been awarded the minority status in the constitution. The geographical entity of Jharkhand was sought to be broadened with the inclusion of 16 districts in Bihar, Orissa, and M.P. The Jharkhand Party grew stronger politically gradually but various Commissions examining the demands for a separate Jharkhand State rejected its demand one after another. In August 1947 the Thakkar Commission rejected it saying that it would not be to the advantage of the adivasees. In 1948 Dar Commission also examined the demand for a separate Jharkhand state but rejected it on linguistic grounds. Despite these reports of these Commissions going negative in nature, Jharkhand Party never lost sight of its ultimate target – a separate state of Jharkhand. It fought first General Election in 1952 and won 32 seats in the Bihar Assembly. In the second General Election in 1957 too Jharkhand Party won 32 seats and for two terms the party remained the leading opposition party.
Tribal politics in the 60s were molded by 2 factors: the fission of the party with congress and the introduction of agrarian issues. The conditions of the tribals did not see any marked improvement.
The party was soon split into several splinter groups each claiming to be the genuine Jharkhand party. Finally in 1973 Jharkhand Mukti Morcha was formed under the leadership of Sibu Soren. In 1986 All political parties carrying with themselves the name of Jharkhand gradually dwindled except the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha led by Sibu Soren, which was an alliance between the Mahtos and the Santhals. The demand for a separate state and repossession of alienated tribal lands were on top of its agenda apart from cultural revivalism.


In a historic move both the houses of Parliament passed the Bihar Reorganisation Bill – 2000 during the first week of August and the President gave his assent to it a few days later. With this the stage was all set for the formal beginning of the governance of the new Jharkhand state from the 15th of November 2000. This witnessed the fulfillment of the long cherished dream of the people of Chhotanagpur and Santhalparganas for a separate state of Jharkhand. The new state comprised of 18 districts in Santalparganas and Chotanagpur.

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