Reinterpreting the Santhal rebellion

Context: Australian historian Peter Stanley, in his book “Hul! Hul! The Suppression of the Santhal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855,” sheds light on Santhal rebellion and provides a comprehensive account that challenges existing narratives.

Reinterpreting the Santhal rebellion
  • Unveils unexplored perspectives: Stanley has examined British military records that have been underutilized in previous historical accounts and highlighted the lack of comprehensive studies on the Santhal rebellions. 
  • Provides a comprehensive exploration: The research has provided a detailed account of the Santhal uprising, surpassing traditional histories that often overlook specific experiences and presents a more holistic view of the rebellion, giving voice to the Santhal people and their struggles against oppression.
  • Origins of Santhals and Motivations: Traces the origin of the Santhal people, migratory history, thus, establishing the context in which the rebellion occurred. The pivotal role of Sidhu and Kanhu has been highlighted, who claimed divine inspiration to fight against the zamindars and seek a resolution to their plight.
  • Oppressive zamindars: The writer has highlighted that the Santhals’ primary adversaries were the oppressive zamindars who held economic control over the land. The rebellion began with the destruction of indigo factories, a powerful symbol of foreign landlords.
  • Visibility of victims: Stanley’s account goes beyond the traditional focus on military engagements to shed light on the often-forgotten victims of the rebellion: Santhal women. By recounting instances of potential sexual harassment and assault by soldiers, the author highlights the vulnerabilities faced by Santhal women and the absence of justice for their suffering.
  • Rediscovering Santhal Poetry: The author has incorporated Santhal poetry throughout the book. These verses capture the essence of the rebellion and the struggles endured by the Santhal communities. They provide a glimpse into the emotional and cultural landscape of the Santhals during and after the ‘Hul’.

Santhal Rebellion (1855-1856)

  • Following the Battles of Plassey (1757) and Buxar (1764), the British East India Company gained control over Indian provinces, including Bengal, Bihar, and Odisha. 
  • In 1793, Governor-General Lord Cornwallis implemented the Permanent Settlement System in Bengal and Bihar. 
  • Permanent Settlement granted hereditary and lifelong rights to zamindars, who paid a fixed amount to the British government annually. 
  • It resulted in widespread dissatisfaction among the local population and the exploitation of peasants. 

Factors responsible

The uprising was fuelled by a multitude of factors that pushed the Santhals to their breaking point. 

  • Forced relocation and exploitation:
    • The Santhals, an agrarian tribal community dependent on forests for their livelihood, were encouraged to settle in the Damin-i-Koh region (now part of Jharkhand) established by the East India Company in 1832.
    • They soon discovered that the area was ruled by zamindars, who were tax-collection agents with significant economic power.
    • The motive behind this relocation was to meet the demand for agricultural labor in areas where the population had significantly declined due to the devastating Bengal Famine of 1770. 
  • Exploitation by merchants and moneylenders:
    • Exploitative practices such as false measurements, usury, and fraudulent lawsuits perpetuated their subjugation and kept them trapped in cycles of debt bondage.
    • The exploitative systems of bonded labor, known as “kamioti” and “harwahi,” made it practically impossible for the Santhals to repay their debts. 
  • Tyranny of zamindars and capitalist agriculture: 
    • Extraction of exorbitant rents from their meagre earnings.
    • Those employed in indigo plantations faced gruelling labour for meagre wages. 
    • The oppressive economic conditions disrupted their traditional way of life and further plunged them into poverty.
  • Ineffectual redress and neglect by British administration: 
    • The Santhals sought redressal through petitions to the British government and recourse to the courts, hoping for relief from their dire circumstances.
  • However, they were met with disappointment and indifference at every turn. 
  • Eruption of Social Banditry and Popular Uprising: 
    • As a result of extreme oppression and neglect, social banditry emerged in 1854.
    • Led by figures such as Bir Singh Manjhi, a group of Santhals targeted moneylenders and zamindars, redistributing their spoils among the impoverished Santhals.

The Santhal Rebellion Unfolds

  • The ‘Hul,’ as this momentous insurrection was known, was led by four brothers from Bhagnadihi village: Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand, and Bhairav Murmu. 
  • Under their leadership, around 60,000 Santhals mobilized with traditional weapons. 
  • Despite the rebellion primarily being associated with opposition against the British, it actually originated as a revolt against the exploitation perpetrated by Indian ‘upper’ caste zamindars, moneylenders, merchants, and darogas (police officials), collectively referred to as ‘diku,’ who had established dominance over the economic aspects of Santhal life.

Impact of the Santhal Rebellion

  • The uprising prompted the British government to pass the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act in 1876, providing some protection to tribal members against exploitation.
  • The region between Bhagalpur and the Rajmahal hills in Singhbhum district was separated and designated as Santhal Pargana which was declared a non-regulation district.
  • The Santhal Rebellion shed light on the harshness of the zamindari system imposed by the British East India Company on the local indigenous populations.
  • It also exposed the exploitative practices of moneylenders, who took advantage of the Santhals’ unfamiliarity with monetary systems and charged exorbitant interest rates on loans.
  • The rebellion had a profound impact on the Santhali identity and resistance against persecution, contributing to the establishment of the state of Jharkhand in 2000.

The Santhal community 

  • Origin and Migration: The Santhals are believed to have originated from the Champa Kingdom in northern Cambodia. They led a nomadic life in the past but eventually settled in the Chhotanagpur Plateau. Towards the late 18th century, they migrated to the Santhal Parganas of Bihar and later expanded into Odisha.
  • The third largest Scheduled Tribe in India after the Gond and Bhil and primarily consists of agricultural people. They are predominantly located in Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, and West Bengal.
  • Compared to other tribal groups in these states, the Santhal population has a relatively high literacy rate. They speak the Santhali language, which has its own script called Ol Chiki, recognized in the Eighth Schedule of the constitution.

Mains Practice Question

Q. “The Santhal Hul began in July in 1855. The core of the movement was economic, the basic cause of the uprising was agrarian discontent.” Elucidate (15 marks; 250 words)

Previous Year Question (2018)

Q. After the Santhal Uprising subsided, what was/were the measure/measures taken by the colonial government?

(1) The territories called `Santhal Parganas’ were created.

(2) It became illegal for a Santhal to transfer land to a non-Santhal.

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

(a) 1 only

(b) 2 only

(c) Both 1 and 2

(d) Neither 1 nor 2

Scroll down for answer










Answer: (c)

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