A Santal woman cooks on an earthen stove in the open fuelling the stove with dry leaves near the Rangpur Sugar Mills farmland in Madarpur of Gobindaganj in Gaibandha on Victory Day. Many Santals have been evicted from the land which they claim belong to them. Photo: Anisur Rahman
In 1855, tens of thousands of Santals, one of the oldest communities to make their home in Bengal, rose up in open rebellion. The Santal hool or revolution would mark one of the major milestones in the history of peasant rebellions against the British colonial administration. Choking under the pressure of practical serfdom due to the mahajani system, with no recourse to the law and administration, the Santals demanded autonomy.
But, the Santals have always been a peace-loving agrarian people, who lived in and depended on forests. Historical texts describe them as being honest to the extent of naïveté. That, and their low literacy made them easy victims to corrupt money-lending practices.
Their lands were forcibly taken, they were lent money at exorbitant rates which they could never repay, they were forced into bonded labour, and generation after generation of Santals had to live as serfs, cultivating the zamindar's land for little food and clothes.
Many had no other recourse than to work for Indigo planters or for the frenzy of railway constructions that the British initiated.
With no written documents, the history of the Santals is disputed. Experts differ on when precisely they had come to Bengal, although by many accounts they have been here for thousands of years. Their oral traditions speak of great wanderings until they arrived at this place.
During the Muslim invasions of Bengal in the thirteenth century, they retired to calmer areas, away from conflict.
After the British Raj had taken over the administration of India, taxes were levied on their traditional ways of living. They faced oppression from tax-collecting mahajans and zamindars.
In 1832, the government demarcated the Damin I Koh region in present day Jharkhand in India and invited Santals to settle in the area in order to reclaim the forest. A great exodus of Santals from Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Hazaribagh, Midnapore etc came to settle in the reserve due to promises of land and other economic amenities.
However, these never materialised.
The British government merely wanted “to ascertain what profits are now derived from the land” (Bhagalpur Commissioner Report, 1836), while missionaries sought their beliefs, hoping that “Christianity take firm root . . . in the forest and wilds of Rajmahal hills.” (Letter from the commissioner of Bhagalpur to the secretary of the government of Bengal, 1836)
The Scotish historian W W Hunter had described the Santal colony as one of the safest districts of Bengal. He wrote “Hindu merchants flocked thither every winter after harvest to buy up the crop, and by degree each market-town throughout the settlement had its resident Hindu grain dealer. The Santal was ignorant and honest; the Hindu was keen and unscrupulous.”
In every transaction the Santals were cheated. When they ran out of money, borrowing from the usurer, they and their family became bonded slaves. The administration was not worried about their exploitation, and so in 1855, under the leadership of two brothers, Sidhu and Kanoo, they rose up, only to be crushed by the British.
“It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down. … There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself,” W W Hunter would write later.
It seems little has changed today for these peace-loving people, one of the earliest to settle in Bengal, who cleared the forests and built the railroads. In 1855 their grievances were not given importance as today their rights are ignored. The exploitation that Sidhu and Kanoo fought against is still their lot.
One needs only to see the recent developments in Gaibandha, where their village was razed to the ground, their claims to their land ignored, to wonder: how much longer till they are accorded rights as human beings by those in power?