Remembering Santal Hul : A quest for Indigenous sovereignty

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Image: “Attack by 600 Santhals upon a party of 50 sepoys, 40th regiment native infantry,” Illustrated London News, 1856. (Source – Columbia.edu)


30 June, 1855 : the day was marked as a declaration of Hul—literally meaning “revolution”—when about 10,000 Santals gathered at Bhognadih village of Sahibganj under the leadership of two brothers Sido Murmu and Kanhu Murmu. The other four siblings of two prominent leaders named Chand, Bhairo, Phulo, and Jhano also joined the hands for rebellion. Santals unanimously declared their region as a sovereign state and pledged to retaliate against any kind of oppression and injustice.

The Hul formally began with the killings of five Mahajans—(Hindu upper caste) moneylendersin the neighbouring market at Panchkethia on 7 July, 1855. The revolt was termed as “millenary” and found its place in the writings of some notable personalities such as Karl Marx and Charles Dickens. The bloodshed continued for several months and claimed the lives of nearly 15,000 to 25,000 Santals in this unequal war (Datta, 1940). Eventually, the revolt was suppressed brutally by the colonial government but the question “Why this happened” still echoes around Rajmahal hills of Santhal Pargana.

Santal Uprising

The Santals inhabited the region called ‘Damin-i-koh’ during the eighteenth century. A peace-loving Adivasi community cleared the forests for cultivation and settled there. The revolt was not instantaneous but the idea of rebellion slowly developed over time due to changing economic conditions and exploitation by local traders. There was growing unhappiness among Santals as greedy Zamindars and moneylenders were charging high-interest rates and often indulged in frauds.

Immediately after the suppression of the rebellion, a separate district called ‘Santal Parganas’ was formed and some prompt measures were taken for effective administrative control.

The original character of the movement was not against the colonial government but against the upper caste settlers, who were traders and moneylenders. In fact, multiple grievances of the Santals remained unheard and signs of disorder started appearing. There were instances of robberies and burglaries of wealth earned by Mahajans before the start of the rebellion. These Mahjans reported to a police officer, Daroga Mahesh Datta, and the measures adopted by him to suppress the robberies were enough for the explosion of anger (Datta, 1940).

“The Santhal Insurrection — The 49th Regiment, Native Infantry, burning a Santhal village and recovering plunder,” from the Illustrated London News, 1856 (Source: Columbia.edu)

Aftermath of Hul

Immediately after the suppression of the rebellion, a separate district called ‘Santal Parganas’ was formed and some prompt measures were taken for effective administrative control. For instance, the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act of 1876 is considered a result of the resurrection. The measures taken by the colonial government after revolt proved to be meaningless since these actions were inadequate to remove the discontent of Santals. The actions of the colonial government were gradually weakening the institutions—such as Manjhi, village headman System—and failed to regulate the increasing control of moneylenders.

In the land of abundant natural resources, with about 40 percent of India’s natural wealth, Adivasis are still in deprived conditions in Jharkhand.

These actions were prompting resentment among Santals that ultimately resulted in the Kherwar movement spanning from 1871 to 1881 which was a refined form of earlier Hul (Sen, 2006). This movement was assessed as a religious as well as political in nature but there was a larger outbreak of violence. The movement continued even after the death of Bhagirath Manjhi—a notable Santal leader who also participated in Hul—in 1879 and reportedly merged with other freedom movements (Sinha, 1993).

The Hul Continues

The quest for Adivasi identity continued after independence and the voice for a separate Adivasi state was raised immediately. This demand was turned down in front of State Re-organisation Commission, but in reality this was reminiscing the dream of the warriors of Hul. The project of a separate Adivasi state continued and gathered momentum during the 1970s. Finally, a new state, Jharkhand came into existence in 2000 but this no longer corresponded to the aspirations of Adivasis and other marginalised caste groups.

The population share of Adivasis reduced from 60 percent in 1950 to approximately 23 percent today.

The Santals, one of the major Adivasi groups in India along with other Adivasi communities have emerged as a powerful group in the political arena of the Jharkhand region. The current chief minister of the state Hemant Soren belongs to Santal tribal community, at the same time, Adivasi led political parties been historically central in shaping the course of political discourse in the region.

However, the condition of indigenous people in Jharkhand have only become deplorable over time. The population share of Adivasis reduced from 60 percent in 1950 to approximately 23 percent today (Carrin, 2015). According to the 2011 census report, Adivasis have reached the literacy rate close to half of the population. In the land of abundant natural resources, with about 40 percent of India’s mineral wealth, Adivasis are still in deprived conditions in Jharkhand. The displacement and migration continues with time but the memories of the rebellion, remembering the martyrs of Hul, in songs can still be heard around the hills:

“Sido, why are you bathed in blood?

Kanhu, why do you cry Hul Hul?”

– W G Archer (1945)


References:

Carrin, M (2015), Performing Indigeneity and the Politics of Representation: The Santals in Jharkhand, Odisha, Bengal and Assam, Irish Journal of Anthropology. Vol 18(2)

Datta, K (1940), The Santal Insurrection of 1855-57, University of Calcutta

Sen, S N (2006), Aftermath of 1857 in History Modern India. New Age International

Sinha, S P (1993), Kherwar Movement, 1874-1942, in Conflict and Tension in Tribal Society.Concept Publishing Company

 

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Nayan Soren

Nayan Soren belongs to Santal tribal community and is a native to Pakur District, Jharkhand. He has done M Phil (Development Studies) from Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR), Mumbai. Currently, he is pursuing Ph.D. (Economics) from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. He can be reached at: nayansoren@gmail.com

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