Santhal Rebellion: A Historic Revolt Against British and Upper Caste Zamindars

The revolt was fought by Santal Adivasis among other tribal and lower caste groups, against the zamindars, moneylenders, colonial authorities, and the police.

santhal
Source: Wikipedia

Today marks Hul Diwas which commemorates The Santhal Hul (revolution), also known as Hul Kranti of 1855-56. The revolt was fought by Santhal Adivasis among other tribal and lower caste groups, against the zamindars, moneylenders, colonial authorities, and the police. On 30 June 1855, two Santhal leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, mobilised roughly 60,000 Santhals and declared a rebellion against their oppressors. Sidhu Murmu mobilised about ten thousand Santhals to run a self-government during the rebellion. The basic purpose was to collect taxes by making and enforcing laws among the people.

Background

Prior to the rebellion, the Santhals were settled in today’s Santhal Parganas between 1790-1810. They had previously been driven out of the Bhirbum estate by Zamindars. The Santhals were encouraged to clear the dense jungles for cultivation by colonial authorities. They were given land for settlement in the foothills on rent.  However, once the lands were cleared, zamindars raised the rent to exorbitant amounts. Moneylenders, worked in tandem with them, and loaned money at high interest rates. Santhals were forced into bonded labour to make up for such high costs. Santhals were also cheated by traders in market places, where heavier weights were used to buy items from them. This sparked the Santhal rebellion led by two brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu. Santhals soon started to assert their rights to the land, on the grounds that they were the first to clear the forests and inhabit the land.

Initially, they appealed to the British administration, however their concerns ignored. With no help from legal and administrative authorities, the Santhals began marching to Calcutta to take their concerns to the governor general. Bhuiyan and Paharia tribes also joined the movement, along with and lower caste groups such as the Lohars and Kumhars. On the way, a Santhal headman, Harma Desmanjhi was arrested at Panchkatia, this lead to the march being cut short. However, this event marked the spread of the rebellion across the land.

Legacy of Hul Kranti                                                                                                       

The open rebellion caught the East India Company administration by surprise. While initially, a small contingent was sent to suppress the movement, this only fueled the spirit of the revolt.  Martial law was introduced in November of 1855 to quell the revolt.

The movement for self rule and Santhal independence, led to the formation of the Santhal Parganas and the passing of the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1876. This forbade the transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis. Hul Maha (day) is annually is celebrated in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, and Bangladesh. Rallies and a number of cultural events are held to honour the historic revolution.  Many even travel to Jharkand to commemorate the event.

In the present day, with Adivasis and forest dwelling communities often facing the threat of evictions sanctioned by the government, revisiting the context of the Santhal Revolution, shows how colonial authorities have been replaced by the Indian Govt and Corporates. Mineral-rich states, such as Odisha, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand have been accruing forest land for use by corporates for years, often without the knowledge of any of the local communities.

Read: Remembering Birsa Munda on his 121st Death Anniversary

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