The Santhal Rebellion: 165 years ago, when a war against oppression first began

ST Staff
Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Santhals observe June 30 with great respect and pay homage to iconic leaders

The Santhals take global pride in the Santhal rebellion of 1855 where over 1,000 Santhals and leading of Sidho and Kanho Murmu raised against domination and battled against the vast East India Company. Santhals sacrificed their lives and were evacuated from their houses as the revolt was rutted with inhuman-malice. To this day, Santhals observe June 30 with great respect and pay homage to iconic leaders.

WHO WERE SANTHALS

According to several reports, Santhals are Austro-Asiatic language speakers possibly arrived on the coast of Odisha from Indochina about 3,500-4,000 years ago. These Austro-Asiatic speakers ranged from Southeast Asia and varied widely with local populations of India. Santhals were the ones who practised agriculture on a large scale in Rajmahal Hills of Bihar. Soon, the British went to them in an offer to increase the revenue through agriculture. Santhals agreed to clear forests and hills to practise settled agriculture. A large number of areas were demarcated as Damin-i-Koh (now Jharkhand) or Santal Pargana (now districts in Jharkhand).

TRACING THE ROOTS

After Britishers invited Santhals to settle in the area to reclaim the forest for agriculture and other forms of cultivation, Santhals in huge numbers from Cuttack, Dhalbhum (Bihar), Manbhum (West Bengal), and more came to settle in these promising lands to enjoy a new life. The Santhals are often known as naive and noble savages. The Britishers, though delineated lands for Santhals but their objective was to earn returns by the exploitation of their land and labour. Their low level of literacy got them caught in the chains of the Zamindari system.

Landlords would have lasting and inherited rights over the lands drew under their jurisdiction until and unless they were able to pay the required land revenue, as per the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 by Lord Cornwallis. Thus, to make this new class of zamindars, the British seized lands from the Santhals. The Santhals with no option had to serve these landlords, who would snatch a substantial chunk of their agricultural areas, leaving them with nothing in the hand.

To withstand themselves, the community borrowed from money lenders, who would give at overpriced rates to an already susceptible and needy group. They were forced into labour and for years, cultivated land to meet the demands of the subjugators. Many had to work in railway constructions or indigo plantations that the British started.

THE REBELLION

Depressed and anguished, the Santhals engaged in guerrilla warfare and took the revolt in 1855-56. The Santhals formed their own troops which included farmers and marched against their oppressors. The Santhal army destroyed the postal communications along with the rail line.

Two brothers Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu along with their sisters Phulo and Jhano Murmu, led the rebellion. They militarised over 10,000 people. Storehouses and warehouses were also burgled and were doused in the fire. They headed towards the headquarters in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

However, when the news of their rebellion reached the government, they sent the military to gun down the Santhals. Heavy weapons loaded were used in revenge to bows and arrows. Elephants were used to destroy their houses.

The brother duo Sidhu and Kanhu were arrested and executed. At the same time, Phulo and Jhano Murmu entered the enemy camp undercover and slew 21 soldiers before they died. Unfortunately, the rebellion had a brutal end. The British army set villages ablaze, killed and even raped over 15,000 Santhals to crush their fight.

The Santhals couldn't succeed against the complete power of the government and was repressed.

The Santhal Rebellion had marked a class and caste fight, which set an example for people to revolt to claim their rights. The revolt was also observed as the forerunner of the Naxalite movement in Bengal. The Santhal Rebellion is considered to be one of the most extraordinary incidents in the history of pre-independent Indian Subcontinent.

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