30 June 1855
The Santhal rebellion, also known as the Santhal Hool in the Santhali language, started on June 30th 1855 in present-day Jharkhand.
- The Santhals are the largest tribal group in India today as per the population figures. They are native to the Indian states of predominantly Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha.
- Until the 19th century, they lived their lives in harmony with nature and practiced shifting agriculture and hunting. They lived in the hilly regions of Birbhum, Barabhum, Manbhum, Palamau and Chhotanagpur.
- These areas came under the Bengal Presidency whose rule passed onto the British after the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The Santhal life was disrupted by the onslaught of the Zamindari system that they introduced. They were rendered landless bonded labourers in their own homes.
- The local landlords occupied the Santhal lands and exploited them.
- The tribals engaged in commercial activity by the barter system. When currency was introduced because of the colonial intervention, they began to rely on the moneylenders. These moneylenders exploited them and reduced them to abject poverty. They were weighed down by heavy debts which kept mounting amidst the poverty and the humiliation of being landless in what was traditionally their turf.
- On 30th June, 1855, two years before the Great Revolt of 1857, two Santhal brothers Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu organised 10,000 Santhals and proclaimed a rebellion against the British. The tribals took an oath to drive away the British from their homeland. The Murmu brothers’ sisters Phulo and Jhano also played an active part in the rebellion.
- When the police came to arrest the brothers, the villagers killed the policemen. They were able to capture large parts of land including the Rajmahal Hills, Bhagalpur district and Birbhum.
- Although the rebellion took the government by surprise, they crushed it with a heavy hand. The British fire power was no match for the tribal methods of warfare composed of spears and arrows. About 15000 Santhal villagers including the Murmu brothers were killed and their villages destroyed.
- The landlords supported the government whereas the local people including the milkmen and the blacksmiths supported the Santhals.
- The Santhals were fierce fighters but they were honourable. According to some British observers of the time, the Santhals used poisoned arrows for hunting but did not use poisoned arrows against their enemies in war. It is ironical that the British came to ‘civilise’ the natives.
- Martial law was declared on 10th November 1855 and it lasted till 3rd January 1856.
- The British passed the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act in 1876 which offered some protection for the tribals against exploitation.
- The Santhal rebellion was overshadowed by the revolt of 1857 but it remains a watershed in the evolution of the modern Santhali identity. It played an important role in the creation of the state of Jharkhand in 2000.
Also on this day
1917: Death of the ‘Grand Old Man of India’, Dadabhai Naoroji.
See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.