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Santal Rebellion

British colonial penetration in India resulted in major upheavals among ethnic groups collectively designated “tribals.” Tribals objected to the colonial intrusion of their areas, the imposition of alien norms, alien property laws, the abolition of customary rights (especially through control over forests), and above all the intrusion of moneylenders, traders, and revenue farmers emerging under British rule.

The greatest of tribal revolts was possibly the Santal Hool (rebellion). With the establishment of the Permanent Settlement in 1793, Indian landlords (zamindars) were given ownership over land in perpetuity as long as they paid a stipulated tax to the state annually. Thus Santal lands came under colonial control. The Santals believed that the one who cleared the land first was its master. Repeated encroachments had led Santals to shift from several districts of Orissa, Bihar, and Bengal to a new area, freshly cleared by them, around the Rajmahal Hills, naming it Daman-e–Koh. But the zamindars and the trappings of a colonial-capitalist economy turned up again. The introduction of a money-based economy pushed them into the clutches of rapacious moneylenders and unscrupulous Bengali traders. Extortions, forcible dispossession of property and other natural rights, abuse and personal violence, and a variety of petty tyrannies led to uprisings in 1811, 1820, and 1831.

The hool was preceded by a spate of robberies. Since 1852, gang robberies had been increasing alarmingly in the districts of Birbhum and Bankura. In Bhagalpur, the other district to burn in 1855, there had been 123 arrests and 74 convictions for gang robberies the previous year. The Bhagalpur Police Commissioner's report noted the rise, but failed to discern that in many instances nothing but food was carried off. Some people committed crimes to be arrested and put in jail, where they could eat food. A sample of 42 convicts shows 13 were sentenced to 16 years hard labor in irons and the rest to 10 years hard labor, again in irons. About 85 percent of those convicted were 25 to 40 years of age. Thus adult males were made criminals through colonial exploitation, and then cut off from their families. Among the “robbers” of 1854 were Kewala Pramanik of Sindree and Domon Majhi of Hatbanda, both of whom played major roles in the uprising. The robberies themselves seem to have taken place only after mutual consultation among the leading Santals. When a complaint was lodged against Bir Singh's (of Sasan) secret meetings to the Ambah Pargana zamindar, Rani Kshemasundari, her Diwan, Babu Jagabandhu Roy, summoned him to the kachari (office). Bir Singh was beaten with shoes in front of his followers as well as being fined. The Daroga (police officer) Mahesh Lal Datta unjustly harassed the Santals. Datta's repressive measures seemed to have worked, as calm descended. But early in 1855 nearly 7,000 Santals from Birbhum, Bankura, Chhotanagpur, and Hazaribagh assembled for the purpose of avenging the punishment inflicted on their comrades in the last year. They complained that they were punished while nothing was done to mahajans (moneylenders). The decisions of this meeting were circulated to others by the symbol of a sal tree (abundantly found in the forests of Chhotonagpur). At this juncture, the emergence of Sidhu Murmu and Kanhu Murmu–youthful, dynamic, and charismatic–provided a rallying point for the Santals to revolt against the oppressors. On June 30, 1855 over 10,000 Santals assembled in a field in Bhagnadihi village of Santal Paragana. They declared themselves free and took an oath under the leadership of Sidhu and Kanhu to fight unto the last against the British rulers and their agents. Letters were written to the government, the commissioner, the collector and the magistrate of Birbhum and to several darogas and zamindars. The zamindars were issued an ultimatum calling for replies within 15 days. Subsequent reports made it clear that non-Santal low-caste toiling people also threw in their lot with the rebels.

The immediate target was Mahesh Lal Datta. When he ordered the Santals to disperse, cultivate their fields, and pay rent, they attacked him, defeated him, and chopped off his head. Soon the insurgents controlled the territory between Borio and Colgong. They then started moving towards Bhagalpur and Rajmahal. The British army started moving in, but the Santals were initially a match for them. They moved in small contingents, but when the madol (drum) sounded, up to 10,000 assembled with arms. Postal and railway communications were severed between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal. On July 16, 1855 Major Burroughs was defeated in a big encounter near Pirpainti. In forest areas, Santal archers could stand up to armed troops. On July 19 martial law was declared. Large rewards offered for the apprehension of the principal leaders had no effect other than to increase the importance of those leaders in the eyes of the rebels, who now besieged Pakur. Dindayal Roy, the richest moneylender there, was captured and killed by Jagannath, whom he had held in conditions of semi-slavery.

The British were thoroughly alarmed and sent in more military units. Zamindars gave their elephants to the army free of charge. Their tactic of mass attack led to the destruction of 36 Santal villages as well as the murder of 15–25,000 insurgents. Women were raped, young boys castrated, and some were made bonded railway construction workers before the insurrection could be suppressed in 1856.

SEE ALSO: India, Great Rebellion of 1857 (the Sepoy Revolt); Rampa Rebellions in Andhra Pradesh

It is a part of "

The International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest" Edited by: Immanuel Ness


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