(The writer is a former Speaker of the Assam Legislative Assembly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
June 30. It was a memorable day for the Santhals and the fighting people. With bow and arrow, axe, sword, flute, Madal, and Dhamsa, the simple and peace-loving Santhals stood in unison against the most powerful British, in whose empire the sun never set. The flow of blood made them excited. On Thursday, June 30, 1855 AD, around ten thousand Santhals congregated at Bhaganadihi village in Santhal Pargana. Macfel writes-
“Thousands were rallying around Sido and Kanhu, not only from every part of Daman but from Birbhum, Bhagalpur, Hazaribagh, and Manbhum as well.”
A big public meeting was held on that day at Bhaganadihi. The proceedings of the meeting began. There was silence everywhere. Sidu and Kanu spoke about the glorious history of the Santhals. They reigned over Hihiri Pipiri, Chai Champa, Sat Bhuin, Sikharbhuin, etc. Everywhere, there was peace and happiness. Crossing over Hazaribagh, their forefathers entered Damin-E-Koh and started cultivating the land by clearing the jungles and crushing the stones. They worked hard through the sweat of their brows. But all the lands were usurped by the zaminders and money lenders. Greed for more profit led the Zaminders to inflict inhuman torture on the Santhals. They were turned into slaves. The police officers of the British Government also perpetrated various atrocities against the Santhals. The Majhis (village headmen) were beaten without rhyme or reason. Even the women labourers became victims of the British officers’ lust. The suppressed anger slowly began to burst out.
After that, the masses could not be kept quiet. They began to shout in excitement, and allegation after allegation rolled out as if there was no time for anyone to wait. Everybody was a victim. Then Sidu and Kanu appealed to the people to remain calm and said that God had ordered the Santhals to establish an independent State by evicting all the tyrants. We would destroy them all. The policemen and police stations of the British were bribed by the zaminders, and therefore they became loyal dogs. We would not leave them. We have tolerated for a long time, and now we will not tolerate anymore. Hearing this, thousands of Santhals began to shout, “Dela birit pe, delayatingoon pe.” (Awake, arise; we will establish a Santhal State.)
Hunter says that among the people assembled on June 30, a massive procession was taken out towards Calcutta.
Macfel describes it thus: “ Then the March began. What its definite object in the first place was—if there was any—has always been obscure, but afterwards the leaders declared that their sole purpose was to march in a body to Calcutta in the hope that by a personal interview with the Governor General they would secure the relief they had sought in vain elsewhere. Certain it is that at first they were accompanied by their women and children and that the gathering generally was more of a festive than a warlike character.
In this way, the Santhal revolt started in 1855–56 AD in a vast area. To tell about this revolt, we will have to go down memory lane. With the defeat of Nawab Siraj Ud Doulla in the Battle of Plassey, the black clouds of subjugation engulfed the whole of India. The East India Company captured power in West Bengal and Bihar. The greedy employees of the Company started looting wealth and property on the pretext of collecting revenues: Gradually they captured the forest areas as well. There was a dangerously dense forest that spread from Rajmahal in the west of Bhagirathi to Hazaribagh and the border of Munger. This forest covered the areas from North Bhagalpur to South Birbhunm, Vardhaman, Bankura, West Midnapore, and Mayurbhanj in Orissa. The entire region had small mountains and forests. The Santhals and other hill tribes had been living independently in this region for many decades. They inhabited the region along with wild animals like tigers, lions, bears, elephants, etc. Since time immemorial, these people have been living by hunting and cultivating with primitive methods. Though the Pathan and Mughal armies made repeated assaults on Bengal, these forest areas could not be penetrated. These people were simple but obstinate and skilled fighters. They had never submitted themselves before anybody. These independent people had never allowed anyone to enter the forest areas.
When the East India Company got the Dewani rights to Rajmahal, they tried to subjugate the Adivashis, particularly the hill tribes. They possessed a wild and ferocious nature and even looted the postal bags of the Company. Just before the winter, they came down to the plains in groups to collect food and went back with looted crops. If they faced any obstruction, they would fall heavily on their enemies to take revenge. In 1772, a British officer named Captain Brooke tried to subjugate these with the help of a few soldiers, but the hill tribes killed most of the soldiers hiding themselves in the forest. Captain Brooke was forced to return without any success. Thereafter, Augustus Cleveland was appointed superintendent of Rajmahal. In 1779, he was made the Collector of Bhagalpur. He was very intelligent and wise. He could realise within a few days that the hilly people could not be dominated by the use of force. They should be conquered by skill. Otherwise, the company’s rule could not be established. He could realise that diplomacy and friendship would be the only weapons to conquer them, and the hilly people were caught in the dragnet skillfully spread by Cleveland. They regarded him as their friend and renamed him Chindimili Sahib. Thus, he had accomplished four impossible tasks. The following words were inscribed in his tomb:
Without bloodshed or terror of authority, employing only the means of conciliation, confidence, and benevolence, he attempted and accomplished the entire subjection of the lawless and savage inhabitants of this jungle territory of Rajmahal, who had long infested the neighbouring lands by their predatory incursions, inspired them with a taste of the arts of civilised life, and attached them to the British Government by a conquest over their minds—the most permanent and the most rational mode of dominion.”
(By order of the Governor General and Council of Bengal in honour of his character and as an example to others, 1784)
It was Cleveland who started the practise of paying Rs. 10 and Rs. 2, respectively, to the Sardar and the Majhi as monthly salaries, besides a red turban and blue clothes, to control the hilly people. Moreover, he appointed them as soldiers. In 1780, four hundred hill people were employed as sepoys. In this way, he used these sepoys to dominate their own people.
Thereafter, he tried to establish a colony to settle the hill people within a boundary so that the company could rule them smoothly, and he named it Damin-E-Koh (skirts of the hills). But the hill did not want to go to that place. Particularly the main obstacle came from the Santhals. They did not want to recognise the rules of the company. They had been living quite independently for so long. Even during the reign of the Mughals, their independence remained intact. They could not tolerate any interference in their independence or exploitation by demanding land revenue. They refused to pay land revenue. For this, they were subjected to various forms of exploitation and torture. The company personnel snatched away their wealth and property and set their houses ablaze. At last, Baba Tilaka Majhi (Tilaka Murmu) formed a liberation force to protest against torture and exploitation. The members of the liberation force were trained to fight, and they engaged in guerilla warfare against the British soldiers with bow and arrow, axe, and catapult. They shattered the British soldiers by showering arrows on them. The guerilla warfare reached such a stage that the British soldiers did not dare to pass by the forest even in day time. Hundreds of Santhals sacrificed their lives at the hands of British soldiers. Similarly, British soldiers and policemen were also killed. On January 13, 1784, Tilaka Majhi attacked Cleveland with a catapult, and he later succumbed to the injury. After his death the torture on the Santhals began to intensify and all-out efforts were made to crush their rebellion. After a yearlong battle, Tilaka Majhi and his followers were arrested. After inhuman torture, Tilaka Majhi was hanged in Bhagalpur, and with his death, the revolt had died down, but the fire of the revolt remained burning for a long period of time.
At last, in the last part of 1790, the fire of revolt was extinguished, and a new rural society was established in Damin-E-Koh. New houses were built in hundreds of square miles of the area. Considering this area as a safe place to pursue the rules and regulations of their forefathers and to observe the rituals, pujas, and other functions, people from Hazaribagh, Manbhum, Midnapore, etc. began to settle in this region and live peacefully. Sweet songs flowed out from Santhali’s voice:
In this forest area, we will build our houses. We will live as kings and queens. We will forget all the sorrows and anxieties of the world. We will enjoy heavenly bliss”.
In this way, years rolled by amidst ceaseless pleasure. But this happiness could not last long. Again, black clouds began to descend on Damin-E-Koh. Profit-seeking merchants and money lenders made their entry into this forest area. A new process of exploitation began. The British rulers assured that no tax would be imposed on farming. But that assurance soon proved to be false. Torture and exploitation by the company began to squeeze the Santhals. Their hopes and aspirations were shattered. Penury and exploitation made the Santhals to groan. As the limit of tolerance had been crossed, they had no other alternative but to choose the path of revolt. The ambition of establishing an independent State by driving away the British rulers began to take shape.
It was the province of Lord Dalhousie. The entire territory of India was brought under the British Empire by subjugating the smaller States one after another by hook or by crook. Calcutta was made India’s capital. Dalhousie’s aim was to strengthen the administrative system by bringing the entire country under British domination. With the introduction of the British administrative system, the ancient Indian system of administration and socio-economic and cultural structure began to crumble. Moreover, the arbitrary imposition of land revenue and other legal and illegal taxes made the farmers conditions worse. They were robbed of all their belongings. They were engulfed by poverty. It may be mentioned that Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa were included in the same province at that time, and Frederick Halliday was the Lt. Governor of Bengal province. His aim was to strengthen the British Empire more, and with this aim, he targeted the Santhali land as the centre of exploitation. Added to this were the atrocities and exploitation of the Zaminders and the moneylenders. The administration was apathetic to all this. As a result, discontent was brewing in the land of the Santhals. During Dalhousie’s reign, the fire of revolt started burning in Damin-E-Koh.
John Mersman, in his book ‘History of India, Part I (Pg. 720), writes, “During the last year of Lord Dalhousie’s administration, the peace of Bengal was disturbed by an outbreak of the Santhal, the tribe inhabiting the hill ranges of Rajmahal.”
The Santhals had chosen a bloody battle. During 1855–57, the Santhali revolt was not an accidental explosion of the inherent cruelty of the Santhals. In 1851, Captain Sherwill wrote, “In general, the Santhals are a disciplined race. The rulers have many more things to do except dominate them and collect revenues.”
In the rainy season, the money lenders extended money, rice, etc., as loans to the Santhals, and thus they became their masters. The money lenders were not satisfied even after the Santhals repaid ten times their loan amount. They treated them like slaves for life. Their cattle were taken away in the name of loan recovery. Even the Santhali girls had to suffer at the hands of the money lenders.
Not only the zaminders and money lenders but also the British merchants and police joined in the atrocities and exploitation of the Santhals. As a consequence, about 100 years after the rebellion led by Tilaka Murmu was crushed (1784–85), a new Santhali revolt (1855–56) began to take root.
At first, Birsingh Majhi formed a force in Lakhimpur; Kaole Paranik of Sindhri, Daman Majhi of Hatbanda, and many others joined this force. At that time, dacoities were committed in several houses, including those of Isri Bhakat and Tilak of Litipara. They appealed to Maheshlal Dutta, the Daroga of Dighi Police Station, to take action against the Santhals. The Daroga did not pay attention to their appeal. Then they submitted an application before Kshema Sundari, the Zaminder queen of Dalshi Pakur. At that time, the Dewan of Pakur was Gagabandhu Ray. He called Birsingh Majhi to court and ordered him to pay a substantial amount of money as a fine. When he refused to pay, he was beaten mercilessly in front of his followers. Infuriated, Birsingh started to attack and loot the houses of the moneylenders. The rise of the Santhals had shaken the administration, and Pathan and hilly fighters were employed to protect individual houses and public property. The authorities ordered Mahesh Daroga to crush the Santhali rebellion. The Daroga, along with some policemen, came to arrest the Santhals. There was a rich Santhal named Goso. He was arrested on the false charge of committing dacoity and caned. He shouted, “I want to see how this wicked Daroga manages to get enough ropes to bind the santhals.” At last, he was released due to a lack of evidence, but this incident created strong resentment among the Santhals.
Another incident occurred a few days later. Bijoy Majhi was an honest man from Litipara village. He borrowed some paddy from Kenaram Bhakat. Even after returning ten times the loan, all his crops were forcibly taken from the field. Moreover, his cattle were also taken away. When, one by one, the villagers gathered at the spot, Kenaram left. After a few days, Mahesh Daroga came to the village along with Kenaram Bhakat and some villagers from Chapra. Bijoy Majhi was arrested on charges of obstructing Government action. All the villagers, including his wife and children, entreated the Daroga to release him, but in vain. Bijoy Majhi was sent to Bhagalpur jail, and as a result of barbaric torture, he died without any trial. Gobhu Majhi also could not escape from the torture of Kenaram Bhakat. In this way, the zaminders, moneylenders, police, and officials of the British Government perpetrated inhuman atrocities upon the Santhals.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, the fire of revolt against British rule began to stoke in different parts of India. The Santhals also rose against the limitless atrocities and exploitation of British and Indian zaminders and moneylenders. The long-accumulated anger took the form of a revolt. With the blood of thousands of Santhals, an unforgettable chapter of the struggle for independence was written. The sound of revolt had created fear among the ruling class.
Four brothers- Sidu, Kanu, chand and Bhairab came forward to take the leadership of the Santhal revolt. Their house was located in Bhaganadihi village. Their father, Sunar Murmu, was the headman of the village. Sidu and Kanu realised that the people would have to be inspired by religious slogans in order to develop a united movement. They made the Santhals believe that God had ordered them to establish a peaceful, independent Santhal State to do away with all the sorrows and anxities, atrocities, and injustice meted out to the Santhals. Sidu and Kanu sent the holy branches of the Sal tree as gira (an invitation or appeal). Responding to their appeal, thousands of Santhal gathered together at Bhaganadihi on June 30, 1855 AD. Hot blood flowed through their veins.
The Santhal leaders declared that they would establish their own independent rule in the Santhal-dominated areas by evicting the local and western Zaminders and Mahajans. It was decided not to attack the Kamar (Kumbhakar), Teli Karmakar, Momin (Muslim weaver), Samar, Dom, etc. communities. It was also decided to march towards Calcutta on June 30 itself. It was a massive campaign. Even the number of bodyguards for the leaders alone was about thirty thousand. WW Hunter writes:
“The brothers found that they had raised a storm that they could not control. A general order went through the encampment to move down upon the plains towards Calcutta, and on June 30, 1855, the vast expedition set out. The bodyguards of the leaders alone amounted to 30000 men.”
At first, the revolt was not against the British Government. The revolt was directed against profit-seeking local and foreign moneylenders, businessmen, zaminders, and atrocious officials. But gradually the revolt got extended towards the British rulers, as they were helping the exploiters and torturers by all means. They were involved in a bloody war to drive out the British. CE Buckley, CIE, also writes:
“The intentions of the movement were announced to be against the Mahajans, Zaminders, and all riches, not against the government.” On the 7th of July, the Daroga of Thana Dighi, or Burio Bazar, went out with his escort to inquire about the assemblage; he was promptly dispatched by Seedoo, nine persons were killed by the Santhals, and the police party fled. The rebellion, thus commenced with bloodshed, spread rapidly with many frightful atrocities. The whole country rose. The insurgents were armed with bows and poisoned arrows, axes, swords, and a few guns only.”
The main purpose of the March to Calcutta was to meet the Governor General and lodge complaints about injustice and atrocities. But it was not to be. Of course, it must be admitted that the Santhals started the maiden mass procession.
On their way to Calcutta, the marchers met Kenaram Bhakat of Amrapara. He, along with Mahesh Daroga, conspired to arrest Gorbhu Majhi and Harma Majhi and take them as prisoners. Sidu, Kanu, and thousands of Santhals confronted Kenaram and asked him to release them. Being intoxicated with power, Kenaram and Mahesh Daroga could not realise the danger in front of them. Harma Majhi, Gorbhu Majhi, and Champai were made free as directed by Sidu and Kanu, but till then Mahesh Daroga’s pride and wickedness did not subside. Without considering the consequences, Mahesh Daroga came forward to arrest Sidu and Kanu on the charge of obstructing government duty. It ignited the fire slowly burning in the hearts of the Santhals, and it exploded. All of a sudden, Gorbhu Majhi snatched an axe from someone’s hand and attacked Kenaram Bhakat like a wounded lion. Kenaram was killed. After that, they fell upon Mahesh Daroga, and he was also killed. In this way, they killed 19 people one by one. Thus began a chapter of bloody battles. The commissioner of Bhagalpur described the massacre in this way: “Mahesh Lal Datta, Daroga of Thana Dighee, reached that place on the 7th of July, 1855, with his party. But he was soon killed by Sidhu along with a few others (19 in all).”
With this, Sidu and Kanu declared, ‘Hool has begun. Send Sal branches everywhere. There is no Daroga, no officer, and no government. Now begins the rule of the Santhals.’
After this incident, the warring people killed the Zaminders and Mahajans one by one. They attacked Barhat and set the houses of the Mahajans, Neelkuthi, and Reshamkuthi ablaze. The Santhals working as slaves in the houses of the Mahajans and businessmen were freed. Barhat was occupied by them. Sidu and Kanu were recognised by all as their leaders. After the fall of Barhat, Sidu and Kanu realised that now they would have to fight against the British army and police. At that time, work on constructing rail lines was going on. The Santhal youths engaged in the construction works were also called, and preparations for the armed struggle started in full swing. They used bows and arrows, axes, and swords as weapons. The call for war against Zaminders, Mahajans, and British rulers reverberated throughout all the places from Bengal to Bihar. Thousands of Santhals started attacking these places. It was announced that the company’s rule had come to an end and an independent Santhal State had been established. Fearing for their lives, many Zaminders and Mahajans sought shelter before Sidu and Kanu.
Mr. H. Richardson, Magistrate of Bhagalpur, at first did not believe that such a revolt took place. Nobody could imagine that such a simple and innocent community would resort to armed struggle. Gradually, the rebellion assumed gigantic proportions. In 1856 a British writer wrote in Calcutta Review - “In England, perhaps there was never any movement which in its origin can likened to the Santhal revolt.”
The rebels marched towards Bhagalpur through Rajmahal. Their aim was to release the Santhal prisoners from Bhagalpur jail. Upon hearing this news, the new commissioner of Bhagalpur, C.F. Brown, deployed armed police at each check post and ordered Major F.W. Barrows to protect Bhagalpur and Rajmahal. It was also directed to send soldiers from Danapur, Beerbhum, Bankura, Chotnagpur, Singbhum, Hazaribagh, Munger, and Poornea. Everyday revolt started in a new place. The number of rebels also swelled. In order to quell the rebellion, 500 cavalry soldiers, 40 elephants, and two cannons were dispatched from Murshidabad alone. Not only the Santhals but also the homeless, landless people, labourers, and farmers joined this rebellion in the hope of getting free from the clutches of British rule and exploitation. Bengali sons were composed to unite the working-class people.
The rebellion spread to the borders of Bhagalpur, Murshidabad, and Beerbhum. Divided into several groups, the Santhal rebels attacked different places, and a reign of terror was let loose. The rebels marched towards Pakur, Sangrampur, and Mansingpur.
On July 16, 1855, Major Barrows reached Pialpur with a huge army to teach the Santhals a lesson. There was a mountain pass near Pialpur. At noon, Major Barrows and the army proceeded to attack a Santhal camp across the pass. The Santhal rebels noticed their movement. As they approached, the Santhals attacked them with arrows from behind the bushes. The British soldiers replied with cannons and guns. The British army thought that the guns would scatter them. But instead, the rebels jumped upon the well-trained British soldiers, and the battle continued for more than five hours. Many British soldiers were either killed or wounded. Major Barrows was forced to retreat to Bhagalpur.
After this victory, the Santhal rebels became dauntless. They started killing and looting in various places. At last, in October, the rebels confronted the British army at Sangrampur. Thousands of Santhal rebels were killed in this battle. They could not fight against the sophisticated weapons of the British soldiers. Though they retreated, stray battles continued until February 1856. In the second week of February, 1856, the British army captured Sidu, and he was gunned down. In the third week of the same month, Kanu was arrested in Beerbhum district, and he was hanged later. With their deaths, the Santhal revolt also came to an end. Although the fire of the Santhal revolt was extinguished, its impact continued for a long time. Crores of Indians were inspired by the uncompromising attitude of the Santhals to wage a relentless struggle for independence against the British. Unfortunately, a proper evaluation of the Santhal revolt has yet to be done. If properly evaluated, the Santhal revolt will always remain a perennial source of inspiration for the struggle against all kinds of injustice, atrocities, and exploitation.