Santhal RebellionThe Santhal rebellion (sometimes referred to as the Sonthal rebellion) was a native rebellion in what is now Jharkhand, in eastern India against both the British colonial authority and corrupt upper caste zamindari system by the Santal people. It lasted from July 1855 to May 1856 before being crushed by troops loyal to the British Raj.
Background of the rebellion
The insurrection of the Santals was mainly as a Dalit reaction to practices of corrupt usury, moneylending, and the zamindari system and their operatives, the tribal belt of what was then known as the Bengal Presidency. Before the advent of the British in India, Santals resided peacefully in the hilly districts of Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum. They engaged in their agrarian way of life by clearing the forest and also by hunting for subsistence. But as the agents of the new colonial rule claimed their rights on the lands of the Santals, they peacefully retreated to reside in the hills of Rajmahal. After a brief period of peace, the British operatives along with their native counterparts, i.e., the local upper caste landlords and zamindars jointly started claiming their rights in this new land as well. The unsophisticated and unlettered Santals felt cheated and betrayed. The simple and honest Santal tribes were turned into slaves by the zamindars and the money lenders who first appeared to them as businessmen and traders and had allured them first by goods lent to them on loans. These loans however hard a Santal tried to repay, never ended. In fact through corrupt practices of the money lenders, the compound interest accumulated on the principal amount of the loan multiplied to large sum, an amount (for repaying) which an entire generation of an indigent Santal family had to work as slaves. Furthermore, the Santali women who worked under labour contractors were sexually disgraced and used as concubines and comfort women by the money lenders, zamindars and agents of the Raj. This loss of freedom and respect that the Santals enjoyed turned them into rebels and finally they took oath to launch an attack on the most visible symbol of authority, i.e., the British Raj.
The Santal rebellion
On 30 June 1855, two Santal rebel leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, mobilized ten thousand Santals and declared a rebellion against British colonists. The Santals initially gained some success in guerilla war tactics using bows and arrows but soon the British found out a new way to tackle these rebels. As the legend goes, the Santals skilled in archery could throw arrows extremely accurate and with great impact. The British soon understood that there was no point fighting them in the forest but to force them come out of the forest. So in a conclusive battle which followed, the British equipped with modern firearms and war elephants stationed themselves at the foot of the hill on which the Santals were stationed. When the battle began, the British officer ordered fire without bullets. As the Santals could not trace this trap set by the much experienced British war strategists, they charged in full force. This step proved to be disastrous for them for as soon as they neared the foot of the hill, the British army attacked with full power and this time by using real bullets. The hapless Santals were cut to pieces.
Thereafter the British attacked every village of the Santals, plundered them, raped their women and whipped and castrated their teenagers, to make sure that the last drop of revolutionary spirit was annihilated. Although the revolution was brutally suppressed, it marked a great change in the colonial rule and policy. The day of rebellion is still celebrated among the Santal community with great respect and spirit for the thousands of the Santal martyrs who sacrificed their lives along with their two celebrated leaders in their glorious albeit unsuccessful attempt to win freedom from the rule of the zamindars and the British operatives.
Although its impact was largely shadowed by that of the other rebellion, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the legend of the Santal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in Santal pride and identity. This was reaffirmed, over a century and a half later with the creation of the first tribal province in independent India, Jharkhand.
- Biswas, A.K. 1995. Santhal Rebellion: - A study of little known facts of their life and culture. Bulletin of Bihar Tribal Welfare Research Institute, Ranchi. XXXV, December 1995:13-24