Our country Bharat is celebrating its 75th year of Independence (Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav). It is a glorious occasion for all of us to celebrate as our forefathers had made a tremendous sacrifice on the altar of Bharat Mata to emancipate her from the shackles of both Mughals as well as Europeans. Many have fought valiantly to achieve this long-cherished goal.
Tribal or Janjati people were the pioneers in the freedom movement. The present Government acknowledged their contribution by declaring November 15th, the birth anniversary of Bhagwan Birsa Munda, as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas and by proposing a tribal woman as the first Person of Bharat. Though it was a belated decision, this is the best way to recognise the role of tribal people in the freedom movement and their role in nation building in the years to come.
Always freedom loving, tribal never accepted colonial hegemony. Whenever imperialistic forces encroached on their areas and rights, the former had to face a tuff resistance and, in many places, they have been forced to retreat. First such resistance was marked when the East India Company directly administered and collected taxes in Bengal & Bihar. The year 1770 is remembered as the year of the great Bengal famine when an estimated 10 million people are believed to have starved to death. Santhal Pargana and Bihar were some of the worst-hit regions. Under these dire circumstances, the people expected humanitarian aid as well as tax exemptions from the company. On the contrary, the Company increased taxes and resorted to collecting them forcefully. While the company filled its coffers, it provided no relief to people and millions perished out of starvation. The Vanvasi became more and more indebted to Mahajan (money lenders) whom the company had connived to wrest the land from the janjatis, in lieu of unpaid loans and the British became landowners in the Santhal pargana region. Thus, in no time the simple Vanvasi were reduced to mere agricultural labourers or tenants of their own land. The British had broken the almost sacred bond that tribal communities had with their land.
Plundering the Company
In his youthful years, Tilka Majhi, known as Jabra Pahadiya, had witnessed the transition in the tribal region. Around 1770, Tilka started addressing and mobilising people in small gatherings around Bhagalpur, urging them to oppose Company rules and rise above the divisions of castes and tribes to reclaim what was theirs. Resentment against the British was building up and Tilka looted the company’s treasury at Bhagalpur and distributed spoils among the peasants and his tribesmen who were reeling under the famine and the forceful collection of taxes by the Company. This probably was the first attack on the British establishment by any Indian in recorded history.
In 1778, tribals under the leadership of Tilka Majhi attacked the Panjab regiment of the company stationed in the Ramgarh cantonment (Jharkhand). The tribal force was so fired up that their traditional weapons outdid the rifles of the Company’s soldiers. As a result, the British fled the cantonment.
Tilka looted the company’s treasury at Bhagalpur and distributed spoils among the peasants and his tribesmen who were reeling under the famine and the forceful collection of taxes by the Company. This probably was the first attack on the British
To check the uprising of the tribal, the British appointed Robert Cleveland, a shrewd British officer, as the collector of revenue of Munger, Bhagalpur and Raajmahal districts. Cleveland realised that the best way to suppress the rebellion was by making a dent in Vanwasi unity. Around 40 tribes in the Santhal Pargana region accepted the authority of the Company due to tax exemptions and employment. Cleveland also raised an Army unit from among the tribes in the hills.
Tilka attacked Bhagalpur in 1784. Heavy fighting ensued between tribals and British. Tilka fired an arrow at Cleveland, who fell from his horse. Due to the injury caused by Tilka, the officer died after a few days. The British then attacked the area where Tilka and his comrades had hidden. Though Tilka escaped from there, many of its soldiers died in the battle. The British blocked the supply line of Tilka Majhi. On January 12, 1785, Tilka and his supporters were hungry and tired. They were quickly overpowered by British police. Tilka was dragged by horses all the way to Bhagalpur. On January 13, he was hanged at the age of 35. Probably he was the first martyr, who valiantly fought against the hegemony of the British East India Company.
Rebellion Down South
Uprisings against British hegemony were seen across the country. In the extreme South, Thalakkal Chandu was a tribal Chief of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja of the Kottayam Royal dynasty. He was the head of the Kurichya army of Wayanad, which fought against the British from 1779 to 1802.
The army detachment stationed at Panamaram fort was the first battalion of the 4th Bombay Infantry under Dickenson and Lieutenant Marxwell. People under the leadership of Thalakkal Chandu attacked the Panamaram British camp on October 11th, 1802, with bows and arrows. The Kurichyas killed 70 soldiers including Captain Dickenson and Lieutenant Marxwell. Kurichyas burned down the cantonment at Panamaram after the raid. This attack and defeat created great embarrassment to the British company in South India.
In retaliation, the British army captured the Kurichya leader Thalakkal Chandu after a fierce fight on November 14th 1805. The British had a great wrath towards Chandu as he was the leader of the Panamaram military post attack in 1802. As a sign of retaliation, he was brought to the same Panamaram fort and after an overnight cruel torture, he was publicly executed on November 15th 1805.
In the North East Frontier, too, we have seen glorious examples of rejection of British hegemony by tribal people. Be it in Meghalaya or Manipur or in southern Assam. The British annexed southern and northern Cachar of Assam in 1854. After this annexation, the British unscrupulously annexed the territory to the district of Nowgong.
Seeing the divide and rule policy of the British, Sambodhan Phunglo, a tribal youth of Dimasa community, succeeded in inspiring the villagers to raise their voice against the British. He was able to recruit many youths to form a revolutionary force. The increasing activities of Sambudhan had caused great concern for the British Government. When the matter was reported, the British authorities under Deputy Commissioner Major Boyd, issued an arrest warrant against Shambhudhan Phunglo. The police force, with a small contingent of armed constables, arrived at Maibang to arrest him. But seeing the strength and size of the revolutionaries, they retreated.
When a larger force under the leadership of Deputy Commissioner, Major Boyd came to arrest Sambudhan Phunglo, the DC was surrounded and killed on the spot by Sambhudhan. Following this incident great atrocities were unleashed against the people in the district which forced Shambudhan to shift to Cachar area. It was during this time that the British treacherously hunted and trapped him. He breathed his last on February 12, 1883.
In the southeastern region there was an inspiring hero. Though Alluri Sitaram Raju was not a tribal leader, all his followers were from janjati communities. In 1922, he started the Rampa struggle in which local tribal people and others fought against British rule in the East Godavari and Visakhapatnam regions of Madras Presidency of Andhra Pradesh.
The British introduced Madras Forest Act in 1882 that restricted the tribal people to continue the traditional podu farming. The government abolished it to adopt the coolie system. These local tribes were forced to work in road construction activities. Britishers diluted the powers of hereditary tax collectors and the rulers of the hilly areas. Alluri Sitaram Raju raised his voice in support of the indigenous people and revolted against Britishers. With the support of local tribes, he raided several police stations of the area and stole guns and arms. This action was known as Rampa rebellion of 1922. During this period, Non-Cooperation Movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi was also going on. In 1924, Alluri Sitaram Raju was caught by the British police officials in the forest of Chintappalle. He was tied to a tree and shot dead in Koyyuru village.
Guru’s Support to Bhil’s Struggle
In the late 19th century, there was the Bhagat Movement, initiated by Shri Gobind Guru in the Western part of the country. He was leading this movement with the support of Bhil tribes to make them free from social evils as well as to invoke their soul to revolt against the oppressive policies of the British Government. In 1903, Guru set up his main Dhuni, a place for religious observances in Mangarh Hill. Mobilised by him, the Bhils placed a charter of 33 demands before the British Government in 1910 primarily relating to forced labour, the high tax imposition and harassment.
When the British refused to accept the demands and tried to break the movement, Bhils struggled for justice under Gobind Guru. This movement was spreading to neighbouring princely States of Banswara, Santrampur, Dungarpur and Kushalgarh in the adjacent areas of Rajasthan and Gujarat. An ultimatum was given to struggling Bhils to vacate Mangarh by November 15, 1913, by British administration. Bhils refused it. They turned Mangarh Hill into a fortress. The Combined forces of British surrounded Mangarh and started firing in the air to scare the Bhils away, and finally perpetrated the massacre. around 1500 people were killed brutally. Though the casualties were not less than that of Jallianwala Bagh, the Mangarh massacre caught the attention only when the government of both Gujarat and Rajasthan under the Chief Ministerships of Shri Narendra Modiji and Smt. Vasundhara Raje jointly initiated a memorial at Mangarh.
We all are aware about the great Munda revolt, led by Birsa against the unfair land-grabbing activities performed by the British government, which aimed to destroy tribal land, livelihoods and cultural roots. To establish surplus farming, Britishers introduced a new agricultural system that grabbed tribal lands and allowed others to cultivate on it. The alienation of tribals from their land and livelihood enraged Birsa Munda.
The British colonial system intensified the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into a feudal state. As the tribals with their primitive technology could not generate surplus production, the non-tribal peasantry was invited to cultivate their land. This led to the alienation of land held by tribals. The authority of the Munda and Uraon chiefs had almost entirely been annulled by that of the farmers introduced by landlords under the instruction of British administration. In some villages they had completely lost their proprietary rights and had been reduced to the position of farm labourers. To the twin challenges of agrarian breakdown and deculturation of Munda tribe, Mundas under the leadership of Birsa responded through a series of revolts. He said that the reign of Queen Victoria is over and the Munda Raj had begun. He gave orders to the tenant farmers to pay no tax. Mundas called him Dharti Aaba, the saviour of earth. Birsa was arrested on August 24, 1895, and sentenced for 2 years on charges of conspiring against the
On January 28, 1898, after being released from jail he went with his followers to re-establish the link. Birsa went underground for 2 years attending a series of meetings with his people. The revolution that he declared soon spread to Khunti and some parts of Ranchi. The Anglican Mission at Murhu and Roman Catholic mission at Sarwada were the main targets. The Birsaits openly declared that the real enemies were the British missionaries and not the Christian Mundas. For two years, they attacked places loyal to the British. On January 5, 1900, Birsa’s followers killed two police constables and on January 7 they attacked Khunti Police Station killing a constable and razing nearby houses. The local Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, rushed to Khunti with a force of 150 men to suppress the growing rebellion. The colonial administration set a reward of Rs. 500 on Birsa. The troops under the command of Streatfield attacked and defeated the Munda guerillas at Dumbari hills. Though Birsa could escape from Dumabari, he was arrested at Jamkopai forest in Chakradharpur.
According to Deputy commissioner Ranchi, 460 tribals were accused in 15 different criminal cases, of which 63 were convicted. One was sentenced to death, 39 to transportation for life and 23 to imprisonment for terms up to fourteen years. There were 6 deaths, including that of Birsa Munda in the prison. In 1857, British East India company appointed Commander Clarke, a cruel British officer, who showed extreme barbarism towards the general public of Gondvana, present day Jabalpur. This led to a lot of discontentment among the public. King Shankar Shah being one of the most heroic rulers of the empire decided to react against atrocities unleashed by the British administration.
Both the father and son, Shankar Shah and Ragunnath Shah were excellent poets and with their revolutionary poems they instilled among the masses patriotism and a thirst for freedom from the occupational forces. Commander Clarke changed his tactics and set up a network of spies who tracked every movement of Shankar Shah and Raghunath Shah. On September 14th, the duo were ambushed and captured. After a sham trial, two were sentenced to death.
Let us remember at least one heroine on this occasion, though there are a lot. It is none other than Padmabhushan Ranima Gaidinliu of Manipur. Following the footprints of his cousin Jadonang, she led the struggle when her mentor was arrested and hanged in the Imphal jail by framing a false case against him on August 29, 1931. Though Rani Gaidinliu was also one of the accused in a fake case of killing three Manipuris, she bravely visited the jail, met Jadonang and took blessings from him to carry on the movement. The movement was primarily religious in nature. Later it turned into a political movement seeking to drive out the British from Manipur and the surrounding Naga areas. Gaidinliu openly fought against British Rule by exhorting the Zeliangrong people not to pay taxes. The British authorities launched a manhunt for her. She evaded arrest by the police moving across villages which are now in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. She was sentenced to life imprisonment by the court for abetment of murder. From 1933 to 1947 she served time at the Guwahati, Shillong, Aizawl, and Tura jails.
She was released only when India got freedom, with the restriction of keeping her in Tuensang under house arrest. She took up arms but this time not against the British but against their offshoot, the volunteers of Naga National Council (NNC) who had engaged in converting people at gunpoint to create a Christian State in the North East. She fought against the NNC for almost 6 years starting from 1959. Later, she was brought overground and was awarded with Tamra Patra and Padmabhushan.