Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Santal Hul (1855)

Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Santal Hul (1855)

  • The Santhals lived scattered in various districts of Curtack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, Chota Nagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum in eastern India.
  • The Santal rebellion or Santal Hul was a native rebellion in present day Jharkhand against both the British colonial authority and zamindari system by the Santal people. It was the most effective tribal movement of this period.
  • It started on June 30, 1855 and on November 10, 1855 martial law was proclaimed which lasted until January 3, 1856 when martial law was suspended and the movement was brutally ended by troops loyal to the British Raj.
  • The Santal Hul was master minded by four Murmu brothers Sidhu, Kahnu, Chand and Bhairav; a heroic episode in India’s prolonged struggle for freedom.
  • It was, in all probability, the fiercest liberation movement in India next to Great Sepoy Mutiny in 1857.

Background of the rebellion

  • The insurrection of the Santals began as a Tribal reaction to money lending practices, and the zamindari system, in the tribal belt of what was then known as the Bengal Presidency.
  • The Santals were good cultivators and possesed good piece of agricultural land. They were 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 retreated to reside in the hills of Rajmahal.
    • Driven from their homeland, they cleared the area around the Rajmahal Hills and called it Damin-i-koh.
    • After a brief period, the British operatives along with the local landlords and zamindars [outsiders (Diku)] jointly started claiming their rights in this new land as well. The unsophisticated and unlettered Santals felt cheated and betrayed.
  • They were gradually driven to a desperate situation as
    • Tribal lands were leased out to non-Santhal zamindars and moneylenders.
    • To this was added the oppression of the local police and the European officers engaged in railroad construction.
  • The Santal tribes were turned into bonded labor 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.
    • However hard a Santal tried to repay these loans, they 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 bonded labor.
    • Interest rates ranged from 50 to 500 % and their land was grabbed.
  • This penetration of outsiders called dikus by the Santhals-completely destroyed their familiar world, and the loss of freedom and respect that the Santals enjoyed turned them into rebels and finally they took oath to launch an attack on their oppressors.

The Santal rebellion

  • In July 1855, when their ultimatum to the zamindars and the government went unheeded, several thousand Santhals, armed with bows and arrows under two Santal rebel leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu, started an open insurrection “against the unholy trinity of their oppressors-the zamindars, the mahajans and the government“.
    • They attacked the houses of moneylenders, zamindars, white planters, railway engineers and British officials.
    • Many moneylenders, native agents of the Company etc. were killed.
  • The insurrection spread rapidly and in a wide region between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal the Company’s rule virtually collapsed, spreading panic in government circles.
    • The rebels cut off the postal and railway communications between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal.
    • Rebels proclaimed the end of the Company’s rule and commencement of the Santhal regime.
    • At this stage the Santhal rebels were also being actively helped by the low caste non-tribal peasants.
  • 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.
    • Santals skilled in archery could fire 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 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.
  • Brutal counter-insurgency measures started.
    • The army was mobilised and Santhal villages were burnt one after another with vengeance.
    • According to one calculation, out of thirty to fifty thousand rebels, fifteen to twenty thousand were killed before the insurrection was finally suppressed.
    • Elephants supplied by the Nawab of Murshidabad were used to demolish Santal huts and likewise atrocities were committed by the British army and it allies in suppressing the Rebellion.
    • Thereafter, the revolt was brutally crushed, the two celebrated leaders Sidhu and Kanhu were killed.
  • British passed the Santal Parganas Tenancy Act, 1856 which tired to appease the Santhals by giving some sort of protection to them from the colonial exploitation.
    • Santhal inhabited areas were constituted into a separate administrative unit, called the Santhal Parganas, which recognised the distinctiveness of their tribal culture and identity.
    • Land alienation was checked,
    • regular police was abolished and
    • the local administration was vested in the hands of locals and village headman.
  • Hence the Santhal hool had economic reasons at its core causing the agrarian discontent and it was attempted to be solved by British through an agrarian act i.e. Santal Parganas Tenancy Act.

Significance of Santal Hul

  • 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.
  • Santal Hul was one of the fiercest battles in the history of Indian freedom struggles causing greatest number of loss of lives in any battles during that time. The number of causalities of Santal Hul was 20,000.
  • Other characteristics:
    • These tribal rebellions were political action, different from crime, because they were open and public.
      • The Santhals gave ample warning in advance; the Rangpur leaders imposed a levy for insurrection on the peasantry.
      • There were public conferences, assemblies, and planning which definitely spoke of a programme. There were grand ceremonies of rebel marches.
    • These rebellions also differed from modern nationalism.
      • The spread of the rebellion depended on the rebels’ own perception of space and ethnic boundary; it was most effective within the geographical area within which that community lived and worked.
      • The Santhals’ battle, for example, was for their ‘fatherland‘; but sometimes ethnic ties extended across the territorial boundaries, as in Kol insurrection we find the Kols of different regions rose in revolt simultaneously.
    • The rebels’ own perception of time played a significant role as well.
      • There is often an evocation of history in the conception of a “Golden Age” in a distant past. An urge for the restoration of that imagined golden past provided an ideology for peasant action, the Faraizi and Santhal rebellions being prime examples of that.

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