SANTHAL REBELLION, PART I: THE BEGINING
Until June 1855, Santhals and the entire region of Damin-i-Koh were unknown to the entire world. But something extraordinary happened this year that gave birth to one of the most memorable struggles for freedom in India- the Santhal Rebellion. And when that occurred, each event were closely followed by Marx, and it found place in the writings of the Britain’s most celebrated writer of that era-Charles Dickens.
It all began with the creation of Damin-i-Koh the area surrounding the Rajmahal Hills. In 1832 an effort was made by the British authorities to separate the territories of the local zamindars and that of the hill men (paharias). Masonary pillars were constructed to mark the areas of these two territories, that of the plain land, which belonged to the zamindars, and the hills which belonged to the hillmen. Sandwiched between these two, basically the skirt of the hills, a huge portion of afforested land lay unoccupied. The East India Company with the intention to earn revenue from this unused, unpopulated land invited the Santhals to occupy it. The Santhals at that time were scattered all-round Cuttack, Singhbhoom, Dhulbhoom, Midnapore, Bankura, Manbhoom, Barabhoom, Panchete, Chota Nagpur, Palamow, Ramgarh, Birbhum, and parts of Bhagalpore. The Santhals in these places were not happy with the new tax laws brought by the local zamindars, the promise of a new land, a new beginning motivated them to make this great exodus.
Although the migration had started from the 1790’s, from 1830’s it gained a new momentum, year on year the Santhal population in Damin-i-Koh multiplied in extraordinary pace. The Damin-i-Koh was a massive extent of land measuring about 1366.01 square miles, of which 500 sq miles were heavily afforested land; of this 254 sq miles were cleared by the Santhals for their own settlement. In 1838 there were 3000 Santhals in Damin-i-Koh, who lived in 40 villages; by 1851 they numbered about 82795 souls living in 1473 villages! The Santhals were allowed a rent free usage for first three years, thereafter an entire village had to pay about 3-10 Rs per year as revenue, and subsequently another five year settlement plan was made, which according to the British records quite nominal. Nominal, yet when we compare the revenue generated from this we see a major profit. In 1837-38 the revenue collected was Rs. 6,682 and rose as high as 58,033 in the years before the rebellion!
|Two Santhal Men from the book Tribes of India|
Their hard labor and toil converted this impregnable forest to a thriving tribal metropolis. “This valley,” wrote Captain Sherwill in 1851,”viewed from any of the surrounding hills affords an admirable example of what can be done with natives, when their natural industry and perseverance are guarded and encouraged by kindness. When Mr. Pontent took charge of the hills in 1835, this valley was a wilderness, inhabited here and there by hill men; the remainder was overrun with heavy forest, in which wild elephants and tigers were numerous, but now in 1851 several hundred substantial Santhal villagers, with an abundance of cattle and surrounded by luxuriant crops, occupy this hitherto neglected spot.”
The revenue collection of this province was placed in the hands of Mr. Pontet. As far as the judicial and the criminal matters were concerned, there was only one resident Magistrate at Deoghor. For addressing the judicial matters one had to go as far as Bhagalpore, Aurangabad or Birbhum to obtain justice. Sometimes though in colder climate, Mr. Pontent took a stroll along these lands reviewing the status of the inhabitants and often addressing their grievances. But he was basically a revenue collector with little power over judicial matters for which one had to travel Bhagalpore. This was a very tedious and no-result process. Firstly the distance was great; secondly was the inaccessibility of a Santhal to the court in case he had to solve any issue. The great Indian judicial machinery restricted his entry in every way possible and extorted heavy tips for the most minor favor. He would be surround by an impregnable barrier of Munshis, Amlas, Mokhtars, Munshis, Chowkidars, Burkandazees, and what not. And there inaccessibility to the court was a major point of advantage for the leeches called moneylenders and extortionists who crawled around for prey in this part of the country.
The coming of the Santhals in Damin-i-Koh proved a blessing in disguise. Considering the worst case scenario they perhaps were much better under the local zamindars with all their new taxes and extortion machinery. But, in Damin-i-Koh there lurked another blood sucking entity called “mahajans” or the moneylenders who enticed the Santhals with credit or loans and subsequently confiscated their lands. They actually allured the Santhals to sell their surplus land, and using short term credits as baits they virtually got hold of their best lands and made the sellers utterly wanting for more and more credits, until they were reduced to landless cultivators. When they were nothing but cultivator and jungle clearers, they were again enticed by credits with assurance of providing some sort of temporary relief, and compelled to sign bonds through which they had to serve the creditor, at any time called upon. The rate of interest was exorbitant, even forty to fifty percent was very normal! This went on in a cyclic order, obviously the burrower would default, since the whole bond was devised for default, subsequently his son would become a bonded laborer who would work tirelessly, without pay, to repay his father’s debt.
Sir William Le Fleming Robinson (later appointed as a Deputy Commissioner of the Santhal Parganas) who actually stamped out the bonded labour system doing a fair bit of justice with the Santhals mentions, “…I have had a bond brought to me in which Rs. 25 was originally burrowed by a man who worked in his lifetime, his son did ditto, and I released his grandson from any further necessity; it had been running on for over thirty years, if I remember rightly!” In this all time of thirty years the burrower had only food from his debtor and in some time, he would be provide with a piece of cloth to cover his shame. Eventually this spread a great discontent among the Santhals, the loss of land, which they had cleared, they had cultivated, by their great toil aggravated the rousing sentiments of general public against the extortionists. The ancient word of advice, “don’t trust the outsiders,” filled their minds with hatred and all the more instigated them for vengeance. It’s a basic tendency for any human being to find a home, to look for a place to settle down. And after all this tiring exodus, clearing massive forest, making cultivable land, when their basic need for life was taken out, they were craving for independence for freedom. They wanted a land of their own, where there would be no influence of the outsiders, there were will be no compulsions, the land will belong to the tillers. This was the singular cause of the rebellion, as the journey to independence kicked off on 30th June 1855.
The capital of the entire Santhal villages was Burhait, and half a mile south west of it is the village of Bhognadih, where the celebrated leaders of the Santhal rebellion Seedo Kanho lived. Seeing the repression of their fellow brothers and of their own, they called a grand gathering at Bhognadih. About ten thousand Santhals from all parts of Damin-i-Koh attended this meeting. I must relate an extraordinary event which preceded this gathering. One night when Seedo and Kanoo were discussing over the grievous state of the Santhals, a bit of paper from above fell on Seedo’s head. What followed next was a remarkable thing, the God (thakur) himself appeared before them, he was of fair complexion but dressed in native fashion. He had ten fingers in each hand, and held a white book in his hand, he then wrote something in it, and presented twenty pages in five batches to the brothers. Following this another set of paper fell on Seedo’s head and again to their amazement two men appeared before them. They explained the Thakur’s order to them and vanished soon after. This was not just once but many revelations by the Thakur continued for many days. The brothers erected a proper figure of the Thakur within the enclosures of the house, and this was revered by all the villagers of this area. They brought milk and other offerings for the Thakur daily, and respected it with the utmost faith.
In the appointed day before ten thousand Santhal men, the order of the Thakur was announced. On the basis of these announcements, letters were drafted by Kirta, Bhadoo and Sunno Manjhee by Seedo’s order to the Commissioner, Collector, and Magistrate of Bhagalpore, The Collector and Magistrate of Birbhum, to several Darogahs and zamindars from whom a reply was called within fifteen days. The Declaration of Independence or the Order of Thakur, no matter what you call it contained the following demands-
1. The Revenue collection would be done exclusively by the Santhals and remitted to the State.
2. The rate of the revenue would be- Rs 2 for every buffalo plough, 1 Anna on each bullock plough, a half Anna for each cow-plough, per annum.
3. The rate of interest upon money loaned will be 1 paise for each Rupee yearly.
4. The immediate banishment of the all the moneylenders and zamindars from Damin-i-koh and severe all connections with them.
With the proclamation of Independence the Santhals now were on the move. Seedo and Kanoo were obviously the commanders of this great uprising. In 7th July a massive body of Santhals appeared at Panchkhetia, a place little north of Burhait. Hearing the news of this assembly the Darogah of Dighi or Buri Bazar set out to meet them along with few armed police men. He may be called upon to do so by the already fearing moneylenders who may have given some bribe to him for the arrest of the Santhals. However this proved to be dangerous expedition, when he met Seedo and his men in Panckehthia, the Santhals informed him that they had come to levy a tax of Rs. 5 from every businessman around the place. After some heated dialogues the Darogah angrily ordered the guards to bind Seedo which was a fatal mistake, this act fueled the anger of the Santals and he was cut down by Seedo himself. About nine men were murdered that day, as the shops and property of the shop keepers and businessmen were torched, any resistance was met with extreme vengeance and this marked the beginning of the Santhal Rebellion.
|The Martello Tower in Pakur|
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