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The Santal Hul of 1855 is a momentous event in the history of World. Looking back at the events which unfolded 162 years ago through a historical perspective, one can envisage that it was one of the rare occasions in human history where people considered as timid, ignorant, and savage took up arms against the mightiest Empire in history. The British Empire in 1855 was a stunning display of imperialistic ambition, the Empire spread over five continents, with millions of subject under their dominion, was truly an Empire where the Sun never set. Modern evaluation of the British Empire however reveal a different story, a story of slavery, brutal suppression, genocide, extermination, murder and organised loot. A high price of this brutal regime was paid by the indigenous people across the World. Forcefully evicted from the land of their ancestors, they were turned into tenants of their own lands. Santals suffered this injustice since the beginning of time; regular invasion of forces superior in military might turned the Santals into a migrating tribe.
Unable to comprehend the sophisticated extortion policies of the East India Company officials and trapped by the joint nexus of moneylenders, corrupt police and greedy Zamindars the Santals were left at the mercy of their fate. However they did not choose the obvious fate of extinction, they choose to fight their oppressors. It was clear from the very beginning that the fight would be an unequal one, with bows and arrows against guns, battle axes against artillery, and above all good versus evil. Gathered under the call of their legendary leaders Seedo and Kanhu thousands of Santals launched a massive attack against the establishment. Such was the fervour of the rebellion that the Santals, a hitherto unknown tribe of the Rajmahal hills found a place Charles Dicken’s Household Words and in Karl Marx’s notes on History. By the time the rebellion quelled thousands of Santals were killed; their homes felled to the ground by elephants, their celebrated leaders Seedo-Kanhu executed. The Company had power over lives, but not over spirit and so the spirit of the rebellion still lives on, it is a remarkable story, a tale written with blood and sweat of thousands of Santals. To millions of Santals today the Santal Hul is an amazing inspiration, an unending saga of struggle.
The story begins with the decisive British victory against the Nawab of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha in the plains of Plassey. With the miraculous victory in Plassey Lord Clive suddenly found himself in a position of extraordinary authority, so much so that the entire province of Bengal now lay at his mercy. He could amass the immense treasure stocked in the treasury of Murshidabad, he could install a puppet ruler who would dance to his tunes, and he could lay the basic foundation upon which the English supremacy over India would be built. He did all of these, and thus began the new course of East India Company in India. For the first time in World History a company, a capitalist organisation was all set to rule an entire country.
Subsequently the Company persuaded the Mughal Emperor to grant Diwani or the authority to collect taxes from the Bengal Presidency. The Emperor who had lately suffered a humiliating defeat in the Battle of Buxar readily signed the treaty. With the offices of revenue and administration both under control, the Company through their land reforms promoted settled agriculture. Crippled with myriads problems of famine, unregulated tax collection, rebellion, the Company tried to stabilise things by extending agriculture to those parts where it touched never before, i.e to the indigenous people living in hills, or nomadic communities. The idea was simple, settle down, practice agriculture, and pay tax!
As settled agriculture extended to untouched corners and miles after miles of farmlands were created by deforestation, the lives of the indigenous people underwent a sea change. The company called this enterprise as ‘civilising people’, and they took a certain pride in it.
As you see this tombstone of the late collector of Bhagalpur who sort of ‘civilised’ the indigenous people of the Rajmahal hills. With the write-up packed with accomplishments, admirations, adjectives you don’t fail to notice the sense of superiority underneath the line- inspired them with the arts of civilized life, and attached them to the British Government. But there is also a warning if you don’t mould in as we want you will ‘be called savages, if you question our authority you become rebel, if you take arms you will be insurgents and we will kill you at our will. It reminds us of the famous quote by Lakota Chief Standing Bear-“Civilization has been thrust upon me… and it has not added one whit to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity.”
Coming back to the Santals what little we know about their history is that long before the arrival of British in the shore of India they had settled around the Chota Nagpur Plateau. The region is known for its rugged hills, dense vegetation and the Damodar River which holds a very important place in the Santal mythology.
As already said that the Company was promoting settled agriculture, they found the Santals perfectly suitable for the job. During the late 18th century the Santals were unhappy with rising tax demands of the landlords and constantly relocating themselves in search of a settlement of their own. In the same time Company officials were making comprehensive tour of the Bengal Presidency looking for places which could be brought under cultivation. They found the extensive forested area of Rajmahal Hills the place for the new experiment. The project was simple the entire area to be declared Government property, the area comprising the hills and the skirt of the hills to be demarcated, and finally the heavily afforested land surrounding the hills to be cleared and made fit for cultivation. For the third task a revenue officer named Mr. Pontet was appointed with special instructions to encourage the Santals to populate the area and start a settlement of their own.
Figure 3 A view of Rajmahal Hills
Probably some statistics will give an idea of the nature of the Santal immigration. From 1809 they had been moving out from the Bribhum district because of the persecution of the landlords. In 1838 when Mr. Pontet took charge there were about 3000 Santals living in 40 villages. In 1851 the Santal population was 82795 inhabiting 1478 villages. If you consider the rise in revenue during this period it increased from Rs. 6682 to Rs. 58033!It was exactly what the Santals needed and they started pouring into Damin-i-koh from Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum. However settling in the Promised Land wasn’t easy after migrating into the Rajmahal Hills the Santals realised that they weren’t alone. In fact there was already an indigenous community called the Paharias who were settled in the Rajmahal Hills. The Santals meet with fierce opposition from the Paharias who were the original inhabitants of the Rajmahal Hills. The Paharias practiced the shifting cultivation so they never were in one place; they too were constantly migrating inside the heavily afforested area. They would only come out and raid the nearby villagers partly to show their presence and partly fulfil their needs. The Company tried their best to tame the Paharias by money, employment, but couldn’t really win their trust. Now under the new arrangement with the Santals, the Paharias could be checked because a buffer zone was created. The Paharias weren’t a match to the Santals because the latter had a good knowledge of the forest and a yard ahead in terms of technology because of their settled nature of cultivation. Now the competition was between the hoe and plough.
As the number of Santal population increased, big markets were created where regular buying and selling of crops, animals took place. Crops such as mustard produced in the Damin-i-koh were bought by local traders and transported to Calcutta; some records suggest that it went up to England. So we can safely assume that there was a vibrant market but unlike the markets of today the balance of trade was hardly maintained. It is because the traders, moneylenders adopted unscrupulous method to cheat the Santals to enhance their profits.
The Santal book-keeping consisted of knots tied in a string whereas his financers had carefully maintained ledgers, one which could be forged as and when wanted. An important testimony to this atrocities is recorded in the statements of Sir William Le Fleming Robinson (later appointed as a Deputy Commissioner of the Santal Parganas), “…I have had a bond brought to me in which Rs. 25 was originally borrowed 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!” This is just one example of the many atrocities committed by the traders, moneylenders. There was no limit to the oppression; the Santals started losing their livestock, agricultural produce, and their lands to these oppressors. It was the appalling nexus of the traders, police, amlahs, landlords and their operatives who were jointly exploiting the Santals to the best of their abilities.
The courts were far off the only at Bhagalpur and Deoghar. The Superintendent of Damin-i-koh paid an annual visit to collect the revenue so there was a total lack of supervision. Even if a Santal appeared in the court to seek justice, he would be laughed at, humiliated, and cheated by the court officials. The uninformed, timid Santal felt that he have been betrayed, but he knows not the way to get what is his legitimate right. Petty thefts, armed robberies, preceded the rebellion and gradually the stage was reached from where a small fire could engulf a whole forest.
The village of Bhognadih is under Sahibganj district of Jharkhand. It is a quite little village in the backdrop of the impressive Rajmahal hills. It is a part of Damin-i-koh and this is the place where the spark of rebellion first ignited. Here lived four Murmu brothers, Seedo, Kanhu, Chand, and Bhyro. Seedo and Kanhu were ordinary peasants and perhaps they even in their wildest fancy didn’t know what they have in them. One day when they were talking about the wrong things that had been done to them, and a supernatural event occurred. A white man appeared before the brothers and handed over few papers, he vanished and two other men appeared who explained the meaning of the papers. The brothers took the mysterious white messenger as the Thakur. The orders of the Thakur was plain and simple- ‘the reign of truth has begun true justice will be administered. He who does not speak the truth will not be allowed to remain on the Earth’! In short the orders of the Thakur were to fight the oppressors which in other words meant an armed insurrection. Such incidence is hard to believe but the striking thing is that when Seedo and Kanhu were later captured and interrogated about their motive; they quite innocently narrated this extraordinary incidence.
Figure 4 19th century sketch of a Santal village
Following this miracle the brothers became very famous among the Santals and on 30th June 1855 they convened a meeting which was attended by 10000 Santals and it was here the declaration of Thakur was announced. It was a full moon night and letters were drafted to be sent to Government officials in Bhagalpur and Birbhum, to the landlords, and also to police officials. Hearing about the Santal unrest the local landlords, business men bribed the local police officer to arrest the leaders before he could do anything the police officer and his men were cut down by the rebels at Maheshpur. So those who did not speak the truth were executed and this was how the Santal rebellion formally began.
In few days the Santals became the masters of the country, for few days they looted, plundered the big houses of the landlords, the operatives of the zamindars were mercilessly killed. The rebellion was like a thunder-clap for those who heard it; it was hard to believe that in the centre of Bengal a section of people, almost unheard were in arms, murdering, looting and plundering at will. Few days after the bloodbath at Maheshpur the Berhampore cantonment was informed for help. Troops were quickly despatched from Berhampore to quell the rebellion. In just few days the rebellion spread in extraordinary pace, it appears that the rebels had divided themselves in two groups and were fighting in the Western and the Eastern theatre. The rainy season, the sudden uprising of the Santals had baffled the Company officials in general, but quickly a central command was formed under Major General Llyod.
The idea was to crush the Santals from the both directions; the Hill Rangers from Bhagalpur were to move in from the North West, the Berhampore troops were already making inroads from the North East to the Santal headquarters-Bhognadih. A long cordon of troops 12000-14000 strong in some places guarded the Murshidabad-Birbhum boundaries to barricade the Santal advance. In a month the Berhampore troops were successful in defeating the Santals in sucessive skirmishes and were able to capture Seedo-Kanhu’s village Bhognadih. On entering Bhognadih Mr. Toogood the Magistrate of Murshidabad peevishly commented about his unnatural accomplishment- ‘“I have burnt the village of Bhognadih ….” A whole village was razed to the ground; elephants supplied by the Nawab of Murshidabad were used as bulldozers to demolish the Santal huts. By November 1856 both the brothers Seedo-Kanhu had been captured they were put to trial with hundreds of other Santal prisoners.
In short time we quickly learnt that an indigenous community named Santals were subjected to exploitation beyond belief, subsequently they rose up in arms and killed their exploiters, the rebels were in turn crushed with inhuman vengeance by the Government, rebellion brutally suppressed end of the story. However this is not that simple for if we zoom in, we will find that this rebellion is not just a Santal story. It is the story of the all those who had joined the Santals, the blacksmiths, the milkmen, the labourers, the shared croppers, the untouchables, the outcaste, people without voice all joined hands to fight their oppressors. They did not worry about the power of the enemy, if the enemy is the mightiest force on Earth, so be it, and this was their attitude. While attacking Pakur the Santals had murdered Dindayal the richest moneylender of the place, they sliced him bit by bit, saying, ‘with those fingers you counted interest, and with this hand you snatched food from the mouths of the hungry poor’. You may understand the amount of anger, hatred the rebels had in their hearts against these people. Seedo and Kanhu almost all the Santal leaders displayed an amazing sense of fortitude on trial. ‘You forced us to fight against you,’ said one of their leaders in the Birbhum jail. ‘We asked only what was fair, and you gave us no answer. When we tried to redress by arms you shot us like leopards in the jungle.
In spite of their defeat the Santals were successful in making a lasting impression in the minds of the victors. Major Jervis one of the officer who fought in the Santal rebellion shared his experience, ‘It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow them 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’.
Figure 6 A map of the Santal Pargana published by Edinburg Geographical Institute
Following the rebellion an enquiry was made and it was recognized that Santals indeed had genuine grievances. A special system of administration was introduced through the passing of XXVII act of 1855. According to the new regulation a new region was carved out from the districts of Bhagalpur and Birbhum for the Santals, it included four sub-districts basically Godda, Dumka, Rajmahal and Deoghar which was officially named as Santal Pargana! The word Pargana literally translates as district so Santal Pargana is Santal District. The Santal Pargana was placed under a Deputy Commissioner assisted by four commissioners, having jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases. A kind of non-regulation system was proposed the salient features of which were-
- To have no intermediary between the Santal and the Assistant Commissioner.
- To register complains verbally without the need of any amlah.
- To solve the criminal issue by the Santals themselves, it would be the duty of village headman and his associates to capture the perpetrator and bring him to the court of law.
So this is how ordinary peasants who had no voice, no status, armed with only bows and arrows, fought the forces of the East India Company and got their name imprinted on that map published by the Edinburgh Geographical Institute. Santal Pargana was much more than a district for the Santals, it was like the Promised Land for the Israelites, and it was the Home for the Santals. Before the rebellion there was literally no record of the Santals, following the rebellion in few years time, the Santali English dictionary was published, a book named Traditions and Institutions of the Santals was published. So you can see the change that took place.
However the story does not end here, it is not a happy ending, for the story is about their struggle, and to struggle has become their habit. Kanhu the celebrated leader was hanged on 23rd February 1856, and the reports say he was not bit afraid of his execution, his final words were-I will come back again and the whole country will rise up. For Kanhu it was just the beginning, probably a chapter of a long episode. Time has proved Kanhu to be right, even one and hundred and sixty two years after the rebellion Santals rose up multiple times, the unparallel bravery of the Santals had paved the way for many more struggles to come!
Sumit Soren is the founder of Livelystories. Basically an Agricultural Engineer, Sumit has interest in varied topics. He regularly writes on tribal history, internet and science related topics.