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 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 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.
  • Santals 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, mobilized ten thousand Santals and declared a rebellion against British colonists. Many moneylenders and native agents of the Company were killed.
  • 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.
  • Thereafter, the revolt was brutally crushed, the two celebrated leaders Sidhu and Kanhu were killed. 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. Of the 60,000-odd tribesmen who had been mobilised in the rebellion, over 20,000 were killed, and tens of villages were destroyed.

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.

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