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Santhal Hool Divas: Celebrating Adivasis Who Rebelled Against Exploitation And Oppression

June 30th is celebrated as the Santhal Hool or Hul Divas by the administration and students of Sidho Kanhu Murmu University. The day pays tribute to the powerful legacy of the rebellion organized by the Santhal tribe to fight against the exploitation of Adivasis at the hands of the zamindars and the British forces.

Illustration: Saheb Ram Tudu from Ruby Hembrom's 'Disaibon Hul' (2014). Source: The Wire

The rebellion has its roots in the migration of Santhals to Dumka in the lake 1700s. They displaced the Paharias and established their own community with the help of zamindars who appreciated their expertise in clearing the forests and cultivating the fields.


With enormous support from the British administration, zamindars and mahajans moved the Santhals to Damin-i-Koh. Though Damin was originally occupied by the Paharias (who were the ‘hill people’ while the region literally meant ‘skirts of the hill’), the Santhal and Bhuiyan farmans immigrated to the land by the 1830s. Thus a large number of Santhals migrated from their native countries of Birbhum and Singhbhum whereas many came from Odisha, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh and Midnapur. The local government encouraged them to clear the forests and put the land into cultivation. Hence Damin-i-Koh became a reserved place for aboriginal tribes, Santhals, Paharias and other tribal people. Nonetheless, gradually, the region was flooded with the non-tribal populace, who started exploiting and oppressing the natives of the land.


At the beginning the zamindars were content with the expertise of the Santhals and had them employed to farm on the hills. But the tribes were later exploited by the zamindars, mahajans, and traders. Practices such as exacting unrealistic interests on loans borrowed by the Santhals or the zamindars putting their lands on lease made the lives of the locals miserable. Moreover, the Dikus (non-tribal) also came into Damin and started extracting weeks. The Santhal peasants brought the produce to the Diku traders, who bought them at prices of rice, bara, and mustard. Most of the payment happened in daily commodities such as salt, tobacco, cloth, etc. Meanwhile the traders used two sets to weigh.


The traders used lighter weights while buying the commodities whereas heavier weights were used to pay for the deal. During this time, the impoverished tribal men became dependent on loans from the local moneylenders and when they were unable to repay, they had to sell their lands. But because of the extravagant rates of interest, the Santhals were stuck into this vicious circle of borrowing and paying loans. Also the nefarious land owners executed bonds with the tribal men. They were bound to work on their fields until the borrowed sum of money was repaid. But the rate of interest was so high that the naïve locals never realized that their minimal pay could never be used to repay the sum. Thus, they were bound to work for their owners for life and also the next in line of their generation suffered. Also their love and attachment towards the land was so enormous that it was painful for them to be stripped of all the ownership. All of this culminated in a very strong hatred towards the zamindars, Mahajans, Dikus and the British administration. Their ill treatment in the railway construction work and the corrupt politics of the region added to their resentment.


Several petitions were filed in the court without much satisfaction and justice. While the bitterness towards the administration grew, the Santhals wanted a separate region for themselves, which could be called the first demand for a Swaraj within India. All of this insinuated the agitation and the bloody rebellion of the oppressed Santhals. The rebellion began with the two brothers, Sidho and Kanhu, along with their siblings, Chand and Bhairava, who lived in the village of Bhagadini. There was a rumor spread that the two elder brothers at night were visited by the tribal spirit of Marang Buru, an all-white man dressed in their tribal attire and held a book and 20 pieces of paper in his hands with ten fingers in each. Papers were distributed among the brothers which supposedly were the will of the Lord and they had to act accordingly. Several other appearances were observed: first time he was seen as a cloud descending from the skies; second, a tongue of fire; thirdly, as a hooded figure the face veiled with mist; fourthly, as a figure in full sunlight where no earthly shadow fell; fifth, as a mountain rising suddenly out of earth; sixth, as a sal tree springing up from a place where no tree grew and lastly as a whiteman dressed like a Santhal with a cloth of coins.

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

On 30 June, 1855, around ten thousand Santhals gathered on the night of full moon and declared the rebellion with the cry Hul (Rebel!). Sidho and Kanhu had called out for orders to the authorities of Birbhum and Bhagalpur. They had asked the dikus, Zamindars and the British to leave for the other side of the Ganges. The Government was given an ultimatum of 15 days failing which there would be a straight out war. Leaders called out all men from all the houses in the tribal community. All the men were prepared to fight the Dikus as they accused them of committing sins against their community. It was decided that the Zamindars and Mahajans would be slaughtered if they didn’t comply with their demands. The years of oppression were coming down to this watershed moment when all the members of the community stood together against their oppressors. It was the sentimental attachment towards their men that led them to collectively rebel against the all-powerful and the socially upper class citizens of the times. While several parts of the subcontinent were getting aware of the unfair treatment, these simple cultivators and farmers got together to fight for their rights. It was their longing for freedom and separate sovereign state for themselves.


The following weeks saw a brutal revolt by the tribal people in and around the region. They began with the slaughter of the local daroga, who tried to pacify the uprising and arrest Sidho and Kanhu. Then the rebellion shifted to plundering and looting the village bazaars. It was the years of injustice that led to the looting of the traders’ houses and shops. Ravaging all that they saw, the Santhals declared it the end of the unjust regime. They proceeded to kill and loot all the men who had tyrannised them-mahajans, Dikus, Zamindars and the British Government. All of this continued till July 1855. By then, the railway quarters and bungalows of railway officials were burnt. Englishmen and their families were slaughtered without mercy. The richest moneylenders, who were the worst offenders, were hunted down. All the indigo factories had been destroyed. And with thousands of their men marching across the land of present Jharkhand, Odisha and Bengal, the Santhals had managed to wipe out most of the symbols of British rule. Their resentment caused them to tear down everything that reminded them of the worst times and their oppressions. It was a wave of rebellion that blew during that time, killing all that came on their path. The uprising had everything that was needed. Two charismatic leaders, a powerfully strong support from their community and intense animosity towards the moneyed- all of this totaled into the first peasant movement against the British regime. We cannot call it an only-Santhal movement or an only-tribal revolt. The rebellion was joined by several sister-tribes and people from the lower class of the society. In this brotherhood, the only thing that connected them was their social status and the common oppressor. Peasants, small traders, craftsmen and many others came out of their houses to bring down the government which they found to be a tyrannous regime. However, the whole rebellion was brought to a close by the British military and police action. Their archaic weapons of bows and arrows could not stand against the modern mechanised guns of the British. Thousands of peasants died in this military confrontation. Not only was this a display of a collective effort for a common cause, it was also a proof for the rest of the subcontinent that white power isn’t invincible. Other regions took notice of this as a sign of revolt against the British and their oppressive regime. Interestingly, this uprising was inclusive of everyone from the repressed community who came to support the cause. It was seen that even the women took active part in driving this revolt. They would come in following the destruction of Zamindar houses and bungalows, to loot whatever they could find. Their aid to the men helped uplift their social status. While they were seen as household bearers for decades, the perspective had changed after this rebellion. Their upheaval from the roles of petty household workers to smart and cunning looters marked the stimulation of female movement within the tribal body. It was even observed that they helped in spreading the messages of the leaders to various villages using their common women groups. It made them spies and messengers for the movement which couldn’t have happened without their support. Meanwhile in today’s world, we remember the peasant rebellion through the rich legacy of the Santhals.


The movement inspired Mrinal Sen to make the 1976 Bollywood movie Mrigayaa. The movie was also an adaptation of the short story by Bhagbati Charan Panigrahi, called Shikaara. It depicts the relationship between the British and the natives, the exploitation by the Zamindars, the simple life led by the tribal men, and the innocence and ignorance of the common people of the complicated functioning of capitalism.


The rebellion today has taken shape as a common folklore in the Santhal oral tradition and their many fantastical stories associated with the leaders of the movement- Sidho and Kanhu. Some stories depict them as prophets while others call them angels of holy Thakur. Their legacy is kept alive by the inauguration of the Sidho-Kanhu-Birsa University in Jharkhand while the Hool festival marks the day of the movement. Songs of the praise of heroes of the uprising have become a part of the people’s lives. The stories of valor of their ancestors are commonly told in the families. Although the revolt was struck down by the British prowess and betrayal from within the revolutionaries, it was a historical event that blemished the all-powerful white men image and gave hopes to several oppressed communities across the land. We can say that the event has turned into a legend which highlights the Santhal pride and identity. The movement continues even today with the creation of the first tribal province in independent India, Jharkhand. It can be said that the movement had changed the tribal narrative of the Santhals and encouraged a large part of the country to stand up for their rights and justice.


About the Author: Abhay Majhi is an undergraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, India. He loves having discussions on social issues, international politics, history, mythology, science fiction, and fantasy literature. He is also into creative writing and political writing.

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