Santhal Hul: When the Adivasis’ war cry left the outsiders shaken

Commemorating the Adivasi warriors who had launched a fierce battle against the British, the landlords and the blood-sucking moneylenders, Vishad Kumar argues that the circumstances that led to the battle remain unchanged

The Santhal Hul, which began on 30 June 1855, was a war that cast a long shadow on Indian history. In this war, the landlords, the Shylockian moneylenders and their patrons, the British, were on one side and the Bahujans, led by the Adivasis, on the other.   

Making history 

With the Hul began guerilla warfare against the British. It ended with Sido, the chief architect of Santhal Hul and the ruler of the then Santhal kingdom, and his adviser and brother Kanhu being hanged by the British from trees in public in Bhognadih village in present-day Sahabganj district of Jharkhand. The British thought that the hangings would put an end to the Santhal Hul. But the fact was that the Hul had just begun. The Hul, which was launched by Sido and Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav and Phulo and Jhano to resist the social, cultural, economic and political exploitation of the Adivasis; protect their water, forest and land; and build an egalitarian society, continues to date. In more recent times, it was led by Birsa Munda among others.

Other communities rallied round 

Many non-Santhals living in the region also joined the Hul. They included Mangra Pujhar and Goreya Pujhar (members of a aboriginal hill tribe), Hardas Jamadar (OBC), Thakur Das (Dalit), Bechu Ahir (OBC), Gandu Lohra and Chuku Dom (Dalits), Man Singh (OBC) and Gurucharan Das (Dalit). But they find no mention in the chronicles of history. Among them, Mangra Pujhar and Goreya Pujhar of hill tribes, Hardas Jamadar and Bechu Ahir (both OBCs) and Thakur Das (Dalit) were hanged while Gandu Lohra, Chuku Dom and Gurucharan Das were sentenced to rigorous life imprisonment. Man Singh, an OBC, was banished from the country for life. Barring the Savarnas, almost all communities of the area joined the rebellion. 

Tilka Manjhi, not Mangal Pandey, was the first freedom fighter 

Whenever Santhal Hul is discussed, the Indian Freedom Struggle is an obvious digression leading to a debate on what was the first freedom fighter. Often the name that comes up is Mangal Pandey, but, in fact, it was Tilka Manjhi, who had waged a long and valiant struggle against the British rule from 1771 to 1784. He never surrendered, he never gave up and he was never cowed down. Mangal Pandey was connected with the sepoy revolt of 1857. He had not rebelled against the British because he was being exploited or oppressed. He had turned a rebel when he supposedly came to know that the cartridges he was using for firing upon the Indians were greased with cow fat. 

Who was Tilka Manji?

Tilka Manjhi (11 February 1750 – 13 January 1785)

Tilka Manjhi was born into a Santhal family of Tilakpur village in Sultanganj, in today’s Bihar, on 11 February 1750. His father was Sundar Murmu. His real name was Tilka Murmu. However, he earned the title of “Manjhi” because he was a leader of the Santhal community. In the Santhalese language, leaders are called Manjhi Hadam. Some historians and writers say that Tilka Manjhi’s real name was Jabra Pahadia. However, according to Sangram Besra, a retired administrative officer who is himself a Santhal, Tilka Manjhi and Jabra Pahadia were two different people. He says that Pahadia is the name of a hill tribe and Jabra Pahadia hailed from that tribe. 

British were patronizing landlords

After annexing Bengal for the East India Company, Robert Clive tweaked the Zamindari system for realizing land revenue from the farmers. That led to the emergence of a large band of moneylenders who used to advance money to the farmers on high rates of interest for paying land revenue and would usurp their land and property when the loans remained unpaid. The agents of Zamindars extracted money from the farmers. Those who could not pay were tortured. Tilka was witness to these atrocities since his adolescence and he used to urge the farmers not to pay land revenue. He won the sobriquet of “Manjhi” when he had barely stepped into his youth. He mobilized the local Santhals and launched a battle against the moneylenders, the British and the Zamindars. This battle lasted from 1771 to 1784. In 1784, many of his warriors were killed in a major attack and he was taken captive. It is said that he was tied to four horses and dragged all the way to Bhagalpur. But even after this ordeal he was alive. The British murdered him by hanging him from a Banyan tree at a junction in Bhagalpur on 13 January 1785. 

Sangram Besra says: “At the time, the Santhals ruled the entire stretch from Mokama to Sahibganj in Bihar. The Santhals never paid tributes to the Mughals. When the Zamindars, moneylenders and the agents of the East India Company tried to subjugate them and extort land revenue from them, they hit back with Santhal Hul.”  

Adivasi youth with statues of Sido and Kanu, the progenitors of Santhal Hul

Hul continued even after Tilka’s death

Besra adds: “Tilka Manjhi’s death emboldened the British and their agents, including the Zamindars and the moneylenders, and Santhals began retreating into the forests. But their anger against the British and their henchmen continued to simmer and 71 years later, in 1855, it exploded in the form of Santhal Hul under the leadership of Sido and Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav and Phulo and Jhano. 

Protests against the exploitation, oppression and atrocities at the hands of the British and the moneylender-Zamindar-police nexus continued from 1789 to 1832. The Kol rebellion of 1831-32 was a major manifestation of the people’s anger. Many villages were looted and policemen, soldiers and civilians killed in the Bhumij revolt.

Sido-Kanhu’s Santhal Hul in 1855 

To understand the Santhal Hul of 1855, we first need to be introduced to its heroes. Santhal Pargana was called Damin-i-Koh by the British. It wuas demarcated as an administrative unit in 1824. Sido-Kanhu, the heroes of the Santhal Hul, were born into a Santhal family in Santhal Pargana. 

Sido Murmu was born in 1815 and Kanhu Murmu in 1820 into the family of Chunni Manjhi at Bhognadih village, Sahibganj, in Santhal Pargana. Their brothers Chand Murmu and Bhairav Murmu, who also played a key role in the Hul, were born in 1825 and 1835 respectively. Their two sisters Phulo Murmu and Jhano Murmu also participated in the revolt.

Also read: Tilka Manjhi, Sido and Kanhu – and not Mangal Pandey – were the first freedom fighters

After Tilka Manjhi’s death, the British and their agents, including the Zamindars, the moneylenders and the police, began exploiting and oppressing the Santhals even more. They committed all sorts of atrocities, including looting and vandalizing their homes and raping their women. But the Santhals still wouldn’t accept the suzerainty of the British. Sido and Kanhu used drum beaters to invite residents of 400 Santhal villages to their village. On 30 June 1855, around 50,000 Adivasis assembled at Bhognadih, where a huge public meeting was held to announce that the Santhals would no longer pay Malguzari (land revenue). This was a declaration of war against the East India Company and its henchmen. The British managed to arrest Sido, Kanhu, Chand, Bhairav and others with the help of information provided by a mole among their ranks. On 26 July 1855, Sido and Kanhu were hanged from a tree in Bhognadih while Chand and Bhairav were murdered at Bahraich.  

The fire of revolution did not die

The Hul of 1855 was an organized war. It could not have been fought without the active cooperation of the local communities. Artisans and agricultural communities extended their full support to the Santhals. While the war lost its vigour for a couple of months after the murder of Sido and Kanhu, it continued in fits and starts till 1865, that is until ten years after the murder of Sido-Kanhu. Clearly, such a long battle could not have been fought without proper planning and preparations. The Santhals alone could not have mobilized the resources necessary for waging such a long war. The ironsmiths were needed to make traditional weapons like bows and arrows and axes. In any case, like Santhals, other communities, too, were the victims of the high-handedness and atrocities of the feudal lords, traders and moneylenders, who enjoyed the patronage of the Company. When, on 30 June 1855, Sido declared himself “Suba Thakur” (the supreme ruler of the area) and issued an order to the British to leave the area, the non-Adivasi communities rallied round in support.  

Hul needed even now 

Dayamani Barla, writer and leader of the movement of the Adivasis of Jharkhand against displacement, says: “History is testament to the fact that this land was populated by our ancestors, who lived here braving the snakes, bear, tigers and scorpions. Therefore, we have ‘khoontkati’ right to the water, forest and land here. We are the owners of this place. Whenever the outsiders tried to snatch away our land from our ancestors, there was a revolt. Tilka Manjhi, Sido and Kanhu, Phulo and Jhano, Sindray and Bindray, Veer Birsa Munda, Gaya Munda, Maki Munda and many others have laid down their lives for protecting the water, forest and land of this state. Hul will continue to be relevant till such time our water, forest and land remain under threat.”  

Dinesh Dinmani, an author in Khortha language, says: “The circumstances that had led to the Hulgulan in Jharkhand in 1885 continue to persist even today in a changed form. The capitalists are still eying the rich mineral and forest wealth of the state. The decision to hand over coal mines to private companies is a case in point. It is now 20 years since Jharkhand came into being but the state still does not have a rehabilitation/displacement policy. As a result, land is being snatched from the people for a song. In violation of the conditions under which land is acquired, those entrusted with the setting up of industries are acting as if they are the owners of the land and selling it to capitalists.” 

Dinmani adds: “The oustees of mining and dam projects are still awaiting justice. The fact that nine lakh youth of a state that is incredibly rich in natural resources have to migrate to other states to earn their livelihood is a pointer to the state of affairs. The party presently ruling the state had led a long and bitter struggle for the creation of a separate Jharkhand, but its government is yet to take any concrete steps to implement its agenda. It is disappointing that no action has been taken on the complaints of the youth regarding irregularities in the Jharkhand Public Service Commission.” 

Writer, poet and scholar of Adivasi languages, literature and culture Mahadev Toppo says: “Today, socially, economically, politically, culturally, linguistically and spiritually, the Adivasis are worse off than they were in colonial India. No wonder, the need for a bigger and more organized Hul is being acutely felt.”  

According to social worker James Hereng, “Hul was the first rebellion of modern India in which the rebels sought to establish Abua Raj [self-rule], with Sido Murmu announcing that they have full rights over their land.”

It is apparent that the developed countries of the world are drooling over the natural wealth of states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. The corporate czars and capitalists have entered Parliament and other apex Constitutional bodies and are plotting to deprive the Adivasis of their resources. In violation of the Constitutional provisions, central paramilitary forces are being deployed in Fifth Schedule areas. The fact that Adivasis are being forced to part with their communal resources in the name of developmental projects shows that despite getting “Abua Raj” in the shape of Jharkhand, the rulers and the policymakers are bent upon exploiting the Adivasis. Hence, another Hul would be in order. 

 (Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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