That day of reckoning in Santal land in 1855!

Is a second ‘Hul’ in the offing in the growing scenario of neo-colonization of tribal lands?

Sahibganj: June 30 brings to the Jharkhandi tribals the memories of the day of reckoning when their great-great forefathers cried ‘Hul!’ (victory to revolution!) under a banyan tree.

This day, Bhognadih village in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand reverberates with the same ‘Hul’ cries from a large number of mostly tribals gathered there.

Bhognadih is the birthplace of four Santal brothers Sido, Kanhu, Chand, Bhairav and their two sisters Phulo and Jhano of the Murmu clan. On a dark cloudy day in 1855 the eldest Sido Murmu shared with his family members that he had a vision from the Supreme Spirit, Singh Bonga, that all was not well and he wanted Sido family to take the lead in freeing their tribal brethren from all sorts of exploitative situations prevalent then under the British Raj.

The British Empire building spree had spread its tentacles in the tribal belt of Chotanagpur in central-eastern India since 1765.

The Malto tribals of the Rajmahal region of eastern Chotanagpur put up a guerrilla resistance against the white man’s foray. Thereafter, the British encouraged a migratory tribal group called the Santals to enter the area as a wall against the Maltos. However, this act of scheming by the British proved to be their own Achilles heel as the 1855 revolt by the Santals proved.

From 1780 onwards the Santals trickled in and soon their population increased by leaps and bounds. The jungle green slashed and ravaged soon got converted into pasture and farm lands. The Santals thought that that was their paradise, the second ‘Hihiri’-pipri’ or dream land.

But the British had other plans. They introduced land taxation system after a land survey. To facilitate tax remittances moneylenders were introduced from neighbouring Bengal. Soon the territory became a free grazing ground for exploiting moneylenders, zamindars, petty businessmen and land grabbers.

Famine and poverty threw the tribals into the waiting laps of the horde of exploiters. A policing system was introduced with police joints at strategic places. The court system with its corrupt lower officials at distant Bhagalpur was a heavy blow.

The tribals usually look for a messiah to deliver them. That is when Sido publicized his vision and declared his mission of deliverance. Emissaries carried Sal tree branches (Shorea robusta) to all public places, markets and villages to announce the day of reckoning.

A mammoth crowd with traditional weapons gathered at Panchkatia near Bhognadih on June 30, 1855. Sido and his family presided over the function. It was decided that the crowd en masse would walk down to Calcutta 300 kilometers away to present their grievances to the British. The perturbed police officer of Dighi police chowki appeared to disperse the crowd. He was paid for it with his head chopped off.

The streaming blood from his severed head was enough to excite the crowd. With shouts ‘hul, hul’ boiling their blood, there was no turning back. They ran amok in all directions. As it was a long trek to Calcutta, they helped themselves with grains from mahajans’ godowns. Anyone who resisted was sent to oblivion. Arson, looting and murders were reported by the police. The whole exercise turned into a sporadic revolt of half a year.

According to legends, Phulo and Jhano Murmu sisters jumped into the battle fray with their brothers. With axe in hand they were reported to have done to death 21 sepoys in a British military camp.

The revolting group never succeeded in going beyond Maheshpur, border of Bengal. Martial law was declared on Nov. 10, 1855. Through reported betrayal of some British lackeys Sido and other leaders were identified. Some were hanged while others were done away with in cold blood. With the loyal British troops brutally quelling the movement after having felled over 25,000 tribals, the martial law was suspended on January 3, 1856.

The retreat of the Santals did not settle there. The British, feeling itself wounded well knowing that their Achilles heel was exposed, did not want to take a second chance. To prevaricate any future untoward incidents they declared a new district called Santal Parganas and brought it under special rules and regulations to mollycoddle the tribals.

Local camp courts were set up and rules on land transactions and money lending were introduced. The Santal Parganas Tenancy Act, giving a veneer of protective cover over land possessions, was enacted.

Today, after 161 years, have matters improved?

The white men returned homeward with his booty. The brown men took over. The tenancy laws are being flouted. The tribal population has decimated. Big industrial houses have captured large portions of land and forest with official blessings and cooperation of willing politicians. The earliest indigenous settler population, the Malto Dravidian tribe (called Paharias today) is on the verge of extinction as their present abode, the Rajmahal hill range, is ravaged by quarrying and mining companies.

Moreover, the most recent local residential policy of the present Raghubir Das BJP government is turning Sido-Kanhu martyrs in their graves planning for a second revolution, as it were.

According to the new policy, all those who are in Jharkhand for the last 30 years will be qualified to be Jharkhandi. That again raises doubts and anger in many quarters, keeping in mind that the tribals are becoming a minority population in the newly formed Jharkhand state.

The June 30 ‘Hul Day’ celebration is a politically manoeuvred event every year as the ruling party takes the credit for organizing it and for announcing populist measures. Many of them remain a non-starter.

The teachers’ training college at Bhognadih is functioning with its staff for last two years without any students. So is the Rajakiya Uch Vidyalaya with its cowdung plastered windowless classrooms is a slap on the political fraternity of all hues who strut around and garland Sido Kanhu martyrs under camera glaze and public gaze.

Is a second ‘Hul’ in the offing in the growing scenario of neo-colonization of tribal lands? The ruling dispensation should seriously take note of the simmering discontent of the tribal population against all sorts of non-development and non-starter programs which the politicians are feeding upon. The lessons of the spontaneous revolt, claiming thousands of tribal martyrs, should not go wasted in the din and dust of political gimmicks!

‘That tumultuous uprising, claiming over 25000 martyrs of Santal warriors needs to be told! I realised that, over the past 200 years, similar “uprisings” have been taking place after every 30-40 years in the same geographic belt, for almost the same reasons: displacement, urbanization, industrialisation, commercialisation etc.

‘All I can say is we are condemned to repeat the mistakes if we don’t learn from history. We have to look back and learn. I see no reason why an evolved specie as humankind cannot learn from their past.’( Sanjay Bahadur , voice interaction with IBN Live, on his book ‘Hul, Cry Rebel.’)

(The writer is a socio-legal activist, based at Sahibganj, Jharkhand)

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