600 Santhals attack 50 men of the 40th BNI

Many wars, in the annals of history, are forgotten. Embarrassing conflicts caused by stupidity, greed and ignorance are often brushed away, the victors hoping history will progress so far that no one will remember or indeed bother to remind them of their folly.
One such conflict happened in 1855 – a shameful little war that was, had anyone bothered to listen, avoidable.

The warriors the British were fighting were not trained sepoys; they were not men with military knowledge or for that matter, war in their blood or their hearts. Nor did the revolt happen on some lofty field of battle – it took place in dense jungles of Bengal in a remote district, hardly travelled and today barely remembered. To understand what happened and how the British found themselves facing people armed with bows and arrows in the 19th century we must go back to 1757.

Following the Battle of Plassey, the control of Bengal passed to the East India Company. It did not take long for the British to find that clearing forests to grow cash crops such as poppy, jute and indigo was far more profitable than retaining swathes of jungle, regardless of who lived in them.

Around the 1780s, the Santhals, a previously wandering tribe, who subsisted from agriculture and hunting, started settling in the foothills of Rajmahal. Seeing an opportunity to push the Pahariyas – a local tribal group – out from the lower hills of Rajmahal, the British invited the Santhals in 1832, to occupy the Damin-i-Koh region (in present-day Jharkhand) and with promises of land and economic amenities – large numbers of Santhals chose to settle.

The red area demarks the Santhal Pargana division

The Pahariyas were forced out of their lands -which were now occupied by the Santhals -and made their way deep into the forests of the Rajmahal Hills while the Santhals cleared the forests left to them and made way for agriculture. The Santhal population grew slowly but steadily – by 1851 they number 82000 in 1473 villages. With their industry and creativity, the region flourished – left to their own devices to practice their religion and traditions, the Santhal way of life was peaceful.

Initially, as long as they were left on their own, the Santhals were supportive of the local Zamindars, Mahajans, Sahukars and the British, collectively calling them Dikus or outsiders. Yet this period of peace would soon come to an end. With the onslaught of the Zamindari system, introduced by the British and exploited by the zamindars, the Santhals suddenly found the land they had cleared and had declared as their own, was slipping away. To understand what happened we need to discuss, very briefly, the doctrine of Permanent Settlement.
Permanent Settlement allowed the Santhals to have perpetual and hereditary rights over the lands they had, so long as they continued to pay revenue to a sum fixed by the government. The government, for its part, levied heavy taxes on it, which forced the Santhals to fall into the hands of the moneylenders from whom they had been taking loans for seeds and other necessities. Charging exorbitant interest rates and taking over the land on the failure of repayment, the Santhals found themselves trapped in the multifaceted conspiracy – the British stood aside as the zamindars asserted their control over the Damin-i-Koh area and the Santhals became landless, bonded labourers on what was their land.
To make matters worse, the British declared much of the forest theirs – we have seen this already, with the introduction of the forestry department, thus making it impossible for the Santhals to pursue any other means of supporting themselves. The Charter Act of 1813 allowed Christian missionaries to propagate Christianity openly in India and one of their main targets was tribal peoples: the Santhals found their very way of life under attack by the Dikus. And in their usual heavy-handed approach, the British could not resist tampering with local Santhal politics, meddling openly in the traditional panchayat system. It did not help, when the Santhals looked to the British for regress they invariably found themselves on the short end of the stick, with the courts overwhelmingly in favour of the oppressors, with Zamindars always coming out on top.

By 1855, the Santhals had had enough.

The Santhal Rebellion

This woefully ignored chapter of Indian history was called Hul which in the local language means “a movement for liberation.” It was started by 4 brothers of the Murmu clan, Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav and supported by their sisters, Phulo and Jhano.

A letter was drafted by Sidhu’s order to the Commissioner, Collector & Magistrate of Bhagalpore, the Collector and Magistrate of Birbhum, to several Darogas and Zamindars and a reply was demanded within 15 days. The demands were simple and could have been implimented had anyone bothered to take it seriously.

 1) Revenue collection would be done exclusively by Santhals and remitted to the state;
2)  Rate of revenue should be set at for Rs. 2/- for every buffalo plough, 1 Anna on each
bullock plough a half anna for each cow plough, per annum
3)  Rate of interest upon money learned will be 1 paise for each rupee yearly
4)   Banishment of all moneylenders and zamindars from Damin-i-koh

Their demands unmet, Sidhu and Kanhu, mobilised some of 60’000 Santhals. On the 30th of June a large group gathered in Bhaginidih and took up their traditional arms consisting of bows and arrows and swore to fight for their freedom. Sidhu Murmu in his turn had also accumulated about ten thousand Santhals to run a parallel government during the rebellion with the basic idea to collect taxes by making and enforcing their own laws. The British sent a police force to arrest the brothers – the police were summarily beaten and killed. There was nothing for it now but to fight.

Having taken up arms, the Santhals made short work of the Zamindars and moneylenders and their operatives, openly executing numbers of them. The Santhals were able to capture large parts of land including the Rajmahal Hills, Bhagalpur district and Birbhum. The Santhals engaged in guerrilla warfare forming their own armies. They also dismantled the rail­way and postal communications – and all of this caught the British completely by surprise. Initially they sent a small contingent to supress the rebels but quickly found out their traditional methods of fighting were useless against the highly organised Santhals. The rebellion was supported by poor tribals and non-tribal like Gowalas and Lohars (traditionally milkmen and blacksmiths) who provided information and weapons.  Other aboriginal inhabitants of the region like Mahatos, Kamars, Bagdis, Bagals also actively took part – it had turned from a rebellion to an all out uprising.

A number of skirmishes occured which inevitably ended badly for the Santhals. Although successful in guerilla warfare, they were no match for the army of the EICo. Troop detachments from the 7th BNI and the 40th BNI amongst others were quickly mobilised and sent into action, descimating the Santhals who, armed with bows, arrows and spears, could not stand up to the guns. The Nawab of Murshidabad threw in his lot with the EICo and sent war elephants to trample Santhal homes, regardless if anyone was there or not, and scores of farm land and villages were destroyed. It did not however, stop the rebellion.

Marshal Law was declared in November 1855 and lasted until January 1856. In the ensuing time that passed, major skirmishes were fought in Kahalgaon, Suri, Raghunathpur, and Munkatora. Kanhu Murmu was arrested on November 30, 1855 along with others when he tried to flee to Hazaribagh. He was executed by hanging on February 23, 1856 in his own village. Sidhu Murmu was captured by betrayal; his trial was conducted by William Bell, Session Judge of Bhagalpore, case referred to the Nizamat Adalat for final verdict. On December 11, 1855 he & the others accused were presented before the Adalat & Sidhu was sentenced to death.
The revolt was eventually supressed after Sidhu and Kanhu were killed. In all the Santhal Rebellion cost 15000 Santhals their lives. Following the deaths of their leaders, the rebellion dwindled and disappeared.

Commenting on the suppression of the rebellion, Major Jervis commented,

“It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down. Their arrows often killed our men, and so we had to fire on them as long as they stood. When their drum ceased, they would move off a quarter of a mile; then their drums beat again, and they calmly stood till we came up and poured a few volleys into them. There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.”

Outcome of the Rebellion

Following the Santhal rebellion, the EICo hastily formed an enquiry and found, to no great surprise, the grievances of the Santhals were genuine.
An Act, XXXVII of 1855 was passed, a special district, Santhal parganas comprising of Damin-i-koh, Sub districts of Dumka, Deoghar, Godda & Rajmahal (including Pakur) was formed to be collectively inhabited by Santhals. It was declared a non-regulation district.
Tenancy Law was enacted in the Santhal parganas, entrusting village heads and village officers with judicial and policing powers. It remains enforced today however, even in modern India, the oppression of the Santhals is far from over.


A Santhal Village, 1855

The Story of an Indian Upland – F.B. Bradley-Birt, B.A. I.C.S., 1905
Dasgupta, A. (2013). Some Aspects of the Santal Rebellion of 1855—56. Social Scientist, 41(9/10), 69–74. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23611090
Xalxo, A. (2008). THE GREAT SANTAL INSURRECTION (HUL) OF 1855-56. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 69, 732–755. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44147237

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