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Significance of Santhal Rebellion (1855-56)

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  • Last Updated : 29 Oct, 2021

The 19th century witnessed innumerable movements, but the ones like the Santhal revolt hold a significant role in India’s struggle for freedom.  The Santhal revolt ( also known as the Hul revolt ) started on 30th June 1855, with the help of prominent leaders like Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand, and Bhairav, and also their two sisters Phulo and Jhano, all of them played an important role in the movement.

The Santhals were the tribal people inhabiting the forest of Rajmahal hills. In 1832, East India Company demarcated the Damin-i-Koh from the region of Jharkhand and gave it to Santhals to settle with a promise of non-interference in their land. But with changing times and the rising demand of the Britishers, the rent to the Santhals raised to an exorbitant rate. Ultimately, the Santhals were trapped in a situation where they had the only option to revolt against the Britishers and the Zamindars, leading to Santhal Rebellion.

Background: 

With the victory of the East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the control of the East India Company over Indian territory increased to a manifold level and by the end of the eighteenth century, the British emerged as a superpower in India. In order to control the vast territory of India, East India Company began to implement revenue policies, law and order rules to be followed by the countrymen. 

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement in some parts of the country like Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. This Revenue system gave powers to the zamindar to exploit the peasants at their will, thereby creating resentment in many parts of the country. The policies of the British dislocated the socio-cultural, economic, and political life of the people. 

Under the permanent revenue system,  landlords had perpetual and hereditary rights over the land as long as they paid a fixed revenue to the British government. If the peasants were not able to pay their rent, the British auctioned away large tracts of land belonging to the Santhals to anyone who would pay them fixed revenue and so in this process, several tribal lands were sold. In this process, the Santhal lost control over the land, and their old tribal systems and political structures that had continued for generations came to an end.

Another reason cited for the Santhal rebellion was that the Santhals followed the barter system and they faced trouble paying the zamindars in cash, and as a result, they had to borrow money from the moneylenders at an exorbitant rate, which ultimately trapped them into a vicious cycle. To come out of this cycle and save the identity of the Santhals, the only solution was to revolt against the British policies. In 1855, the leaders like Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand, Bhairav started a revolt against the Britishers and Zamindars.

The Rebellion:

  • The depressed and anguished Santhals engaged in guerilla warfare against the Britishers and formed their own troops which included the farmers, villagers, and the women. The villagers killed the policeman when they came to arrest the duo brothers. They were able to capture large parts of land including Rajmahal Hills, Bhagalpur district, and Birbhum.
  • They militarized over 10000 Santhal people. The villagers put to fire the storehouses and the warehouses and all forms of communication lines were disrupted. The government applied all possible means to suppress the movement. In order to curb the rebellion, Britishers used heavy loaded weapons against bows and arrows used by the Santhals.
  • The landlords were in the support of the government whereas the local people supported the Santhals in full vigor.
  • Unfortunately, the duo brother Sidhu and Kanhu were arrested and the revolt had a brutal end. The Santhals were repressed and the movement came to an end in 1856.
  • The Santhal rebellion is considered to be one of the extraordinary incidents in the history of pre-independence.

How Was It Different From the Other Revolts?

1. Organized movement:

The Santhal uprising was an organized movement with good leadership qualities. In a short period of time, it was successful in uniting about 60,000 people. If we look at the other spontaneous movement of that time, we find that none of the movements was that well arranged as the Santhal revolt. The unity of the Santhals shook the nerve of the Britishers.

2. Use of weapons:

The Santhal used bows and arrows against the weapons and artillery used by the  Britishers. It was seen that Santhal was well prepared to fight against the Britishers, even though it was not sufficient for the Santhals’ victory. They were well prepared for the war in their own way. They used guerilla tactics, which was a new occurrence for Bihar to fight against the Britishers.

3. Trained leadership:

The prominent leaders of the war, Sidhu, and Kanhu in a short span of time was successful in mobilizing a huge number of people to fight against the cause. They fought violently against the British and local British administrators sheltered themselves in the fortification in a town of Santhal Parganas to save their lives.

4. Blow on British powers:

The Santhal rebellion was a blow on the British powers. It was such a fiercest movement that Britishers had to implement martial law to quell the powers of Santhals. It is also said that a sepoy from a company army stated that ..’ there was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself’. Despite being an unequal conflict, Santhals fought bravely at their end.

5. Growth of Revolutionary Nationalism:

The Santhal revolt fostered a sense of unity among the Santhal tribes. It was seen as the beginning of larger wars to free the people from the oppressive British rule. This movement arouse a  feeling of nationalism which helped to mobilize people for further wars like the Revolt of 1857 and others.

6. Growth of Self Respect and self-confidence:

It was seen that with few resources at hand, Santhal was heading to fight a war with the Britishers. They were so fierce that Britishers had to resort to heavier means to crush this movement. It is also said that Britishers were terrified by the spirit of unity portrayed by the tribal people, that it decided to keep them aloof from the public. After the Santhal rebellion, people understood that they can drive out the Britishers even with fewer resources at hand.

7. Identity of the tribal people:

The Santhal rebellion gave birth to the modern Santhal identity. It was responsible for the creation of the present state of Jharkhand. It also promoted the tribal people to protect their culture and tradition from any kind of destruction and interference. The Santhal Rebellion is still a pride for the tribal population of our country. In the present times also, there is a strict norm against the sale of tribal land.

8. Successful movement:

It was seen that the Britishers did acknowledge their follies, despite the Santhals being defeated with the end of the war, the Santhal Paraganas Tenancy Act was enacted which provided the tribes some protection against the oppressive British Rule. It was successful in inculcating nationalist feelings among the people.

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