The Santhal rebellion (sometimes referred to as the Sonthal rebellion), commonly known as Santal Hool was a native rebellion in present day Jharkhand, in eastern India against both the British colonial authority and upper caste zamindari system by the Santal people. It started on June 30, 1855 and on November 10, 1855 martial law was proclaimed which lasted until January 3, 1856 when martial law was suspended and the movement was brutally ended by troops loyal to the British Raj. The rebellion was led by the four Murmu Brothers - Seedo, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav.
Background of the rebellion
The uprising of the Santals began as a Tribal reaction to racism and corrupt usury moneylending practices, and the zamindari system and their operatives, in the tribal belt of what was then known as the Bengal Presidency. It was a revolt against the oppressive environment propagated by the colonial rule through a distorted revenue system and kept alive by the local zamindars, the police and the courts of the legal system set up by the British.
Before the advent of the British in India, Santals resided in the hilly districts of Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum. They engaged in their agrarian way of life by clearing the forest and also by hunting for subsistence. But as the agents of the new colonial rule claimed their rights on the lands of the Santals, they retreated to reside in the hills of Rajmahal. After a brief period, the British operatives along with their native counterparts, i.e., the local upper caste landlords and zamindars jointly started claiming their rights in this new land as well. The unsophisticated and unlettered Santals felt cheated and were revealed unintentionally. Many Santal tribes were turned into bonded labourers their wives had been disgraced and used by the zamindars and the money lenders who first appeared to them as businessmen and traders and had allured them first by goods lent to them on loans. However hard a Santal tried to repay these loans, they never ended. In fact through corrupt practices of the money lenders, the compound interest accumulated on the principal amount of the loan multiplied to large sum, an amount (for repaying) which an entire generation of an indigent Santal family had to work as slaves. Furthermore, the Santali women who worked under labour contractors were sexually disgraced and used as concubines and comfort women by the money lenders, zamindars and agents of the Raj. This dispossession turned the Santals into rebels and finally they took oath to launch an attack on the most visible symbol of authority, i.e., the British Raj.
The Santal rebellion
On 30 June 1855, two Santal rebel leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, mobilized ten thousand Santals and declared a rebellion against British colonists. Sidhu Murmu had accumulated about ten thousands Santhal to run parallel government against British rule. The basic purpose was to collect taxes by making his own laws.
Soon after the declaration the Santals took to arms. In many villages the Zamindars, money lenders and their operatives were put to death. The open rebellion caught the British Government in surprise. Initially a small contingent was sent to suppress the rebels but it could not succeed and this further fueled the spirit of the revolt. When the law and order situation was getting out of hand the British Government finally took a major step and sent in large number of troops assisted by the local Zamindars and the Nawab of Murshidabad to quell the Rebellion. British Government had announced an award of Rs. 10,000 to arrest Sidhu and his brother Kanhu Murmu.
A number of skirmishes occurred after this which resulted in large number of casualties for the Santals. The primitive weapons of the Santals, weren't a match against the musket and cannon firepower of the British. Troop detachments from the 7th Native Infantry Regiment, 40th Native Infantry and others were called into action. Major skirmishes occurred from July 1855 to January 1856, in places like Kahalgaon, Suri, Raghunathpur, and Munkatora.
The revolt was brutally crushed, the two celebrated leaders Seedo and Kanhu were killed. Elephants supplied by the Nawab of Murshidabad were used to demolish Santal huts and likewise atrocities were committed by the British army and it allies in suppressing the Rebellion. Of the 60,000-odd tribesmen who had been mobilised in the rebellion, over 15,000 were killed, and tens of villages were destroyed. They did get the support of Gwalas (milkmen) and Lohars (blacksmiths).
Although the Rebellion was crushed with a heavy hand, some British army officers like Major Jervis who observed-
"It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves 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."
Charles Dickens in Household Words wrote-
"There seems also to be a sentiment of honour among them (Santals); for it is said that they use poisoned arrows in hunting, but never against their foes. If this be the case- and we hear nothing of the poisoned arrows in the recent conflicts,-they are infinitely more respectable than our civilised enemy the Russians, who would most likely consider such forbearance as foolish, and declare that is not war."
Although its impact was largely shadowed by that of the other rebellion, the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the legend of the Santal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in Santal pride and identity. This was reaffirmed, over a century and a half later with the creation of the first tribal province in independent India, Jharkhand.
- India's Struggle for Independence - Bipan Chandra, Pg41
- India's Struggle for Independence - Bipan Chandra, Pg42-43
- L.S.S O Malley, Bengal District Gazetteers Santal Parganas.
- Charles Dickens, Household words, Volume 35.
- Gott, Richard (2011). "The Gathering Storm, 1854-58". Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt. Verso Books. pp. 423–469. ISBN 9781844677382.