Around 70 years before Mangal Pandey, Tilka Manjhi was the first Vanvasi leader to take up arms against the British in 1784. He recruited Vanvasis to join an armed force to combat British resource exploitation and resource grabs. Tilka Manjhi, who strove to free India from the oppression of the British almost a century before the 1857 Revolution, was never given his due in history
Tilka Manjhi was born as ‘Jabra Pahadia’ at a village called Tilakpur in Sultangunj, Bihar, on February 11, 1750. His fiery disposition, on the other hand, earned him the moniker ‘Tilka,’ which means ‘one with angry red eyes’ in Pahadia. Jabra rose to become the village’s leader, and it was usual among his tribe to address the village chief as ‘Manjhi.’ It was around this time that the Company began administering and collecting taxes directly in Bengal and Bihar, and the vanvasis grew increasingly reliant on mahajans (money lenders). In exchange for outstanding loans, the Company conspired with the mahajans to steal the property from the tribals, and the British became landowners in the region of Santhal Pargana. As a result, the vanvasis were quickly reduced to farm labourers or tenants on their own farms. The Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed over 30 million people and had a devastating impact on the Santhal Pargana region and parts of Bihar adjacent to present-day Jharkhand, added fuel to the fire. While the vanvasis had hoped for some sort of humanitarian assistance and tax relief, the EIC not only raised taxes, but also began to collect them in more severe ways. Millions died of famine as they filled their coffers while offering no assistance.
Tilka Manjhi had witnessed this transformation when he was young. Tilka was already addressing and mobilising people in small assemblies in Bhagalpur around 1770, asking them to fight Company control and rise above caste and tribe barriers to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. Tilka robbed the Company’s treasury at Bhagalpur, the district capital where the treasury was located, overwhelmed the guards, and distributed the spoils among the peasants and his tribesmen, who were reeling under the double whammy of the hunger and the Company’s forcible collection of taxes. Tilka Manjhi’s attack is the first in documented history.
Tilka earned the respect of his people very immediately. Bengal Governor Warren Hastings dispatched an army of 800 troops led by Captain Brook to take Tilka and crush the seeds of revolt sown in the region in response to this act of rebellion. Tilka and his fellow vanvasis escaped capture despite committing huge atrocities against the vanvasis. In 1778, the vanvasis banded together under the leadership of Tilka Manjhi, a 28-year-old vanvasi, and assaulted the Company’s Regiment stationed in Ramgarh Cantonment. The tribal army was so enraged that its traditional weapons outperformed the soldiers’ guns.
Tilka made the bold decision to attack Bhagalpur and catch the enemy off guard, and the vanvasi charge on Bhagalpur in 1784 fully caught the British off guard. The tribals and the British engaged in fierce combat. Tilka fired a shot from his bow in the midst of the commotion. Cleveland fell from his horse, fatally wounded, after his poison arrow hit its mark. A few days later, he passed away. Tilka Manjhi and his friends retreated to the sanctuary of the bush, mainly unscathed, after dealing a significant blow to British morale
The British, unwilling to accept this humiliation, assigned Augustus Cleveland as Collector for Munger, Bhagalpur, and Rajmahal districts to put down the revolt. August used a more sophisticated approach to dealing with the uprising than his predecessors. To plant the seeds of separation among the various vanvasi communities, his strategy was critical. Many vanvasis were given tax exemptions and job opportunities. Tilka was also offered a place in Cleveland’s hill force, as well as the privileges accorded to chiefs and their tribes. Tilka, on the other hand, was aware of the British’s true objectives and rebuffed these enticements. He had the people’s support and love, and he worked diligently to strengthen vanvasi unity in preparation for the last clash with Cleveland. Tilka conveyed sal leaf messages to tribal communities who had not yet accepted British rule, urging them to band together to safeguard their territories. This had the desired effect, and he was able to rally a large number of people behind him. Tilka made the bold decision to attack Bhagalpur and catch the enemy off guard, and the vanvasi charge on Bhagalpur in 1784 fully caught the British off guard. The tribals and the British engaged in fierce combat. Tilka fired a shot from his bow in the midst of the commotion. Cleveland fell from his horse, fatally wounded, after his poison arrow hit its mark. A few days later, he passed away. Tilka Manjhi and his friends retreated to the sanctuary of the bush, mainly unscathed, after dealing a significant blow to British morale. Tilka retreated to the Sultanganj jungles, where he continued to fight guerilla warfare against the British from the shelter of the forest.
The British, on the other hand, effectively cut off all supply lines to Tilka and his men. Tilka eventually had no choice except to engage the British. Tilka’s men are thought to have clashed with the British for the last time on January 12, 1785. They were quickly overrun, hungry and fatigued, and Tilka was ultimately taken.
What happened next was terrifying. Tilka was pulled for miles by horses all the way to Bhagalpur. He was still alive when he was released from the horses when they arrived in Bhagalpur, according to legend. Jabra Pahadia’s brief but eventful life came to an end on January 13, 1785, when he was hanged in front of a crowd. He died at the age of 35. n