Santal Rebellion

Santal Rebellion (1855-56) the armed insurrection of the Santals against zamindars, moneylenders, and the police. Though peace loving and docile like most other ethnic peoples, the Santals had launched a highly organised armed insurrection against their oppressors who went into their realm to make themselves rich at their expence.

The penetration of the colonial state and its consequent imposition of laws and regulations, rent and control, etc had originally led the Santals to leave their habitat in the hilly districts of Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Barabhum, Chhotanagpur, Palamau, Hazaribagh, Midnapur, Bankura and Birbhum; and settled in the plains of the Rajmahal Hills. They cleared large tracts of land, hitherto under forest, for cultivation. The colonial state agents came there again to claim their proprietary dues. The circumstances compelled the Santals to resist the colonial state penetration and uphold their natural rights. They believed that one who cleared the land first was its master. The Mughal government honoured this tradition and thus no problem of the kind arose then. But the colonial state had its own agents in the person of the zamindar to claim the ownership. Against the encroachment of their natural rights, there were uprisings in 1811, 1820 and 1831. But the most serious, the most organized and the most extensive was the great rebellion of 1855-56 to suppress which several rounds of military expeditions had to be sent.

The Santals used to call the Bengalis moiras and dikus whom they considered as their enemies, because it was they who were their overlords as zamindars, moneylenders, shopkeepers and railway labour contractors and were invariably oppressive. To get rid of the moiras and dikus, the Santals got organised in early 1855. The actual rebellion was triggered off when their leader, Bir Singh, was summoned to the kachari of the Pakur Raj and mercilessly beaten and confined in chains in presence of his followers. The Santals took oath touching the xal tree, which they took as the symbol of unity and strength. The insurrection spread rapidly from June 1855. Like most popular insurrections, the Santals took the technique of guerilla fighting. Postal and railway communications were severed, the state agents were driven out of their clearings. Railway labour contractors, who forced Santal women to become labourers, were killed, if caught. Rent payment to zamindars was totally stopped. Pledges to moneylenders were negated by a declaration.

At Pirpali the Santals roundly defeated the military expedition under Major Burroughs which encouraged them to become aggressive. Martial law was declared on 19 July 1855. Three regiments of forces were sent to subdue the Santals. The Rajmahal Hills were drenched with Santal blood. Santal villages were all raged. The captured Santals were made railway construction labour in chains. By the third week of February 1856 most of the leading Santals were captured and executed. The rebellion subsided at last in March 1856. To stop any future uprising on the part of the Santals large number of 'moiras and dikus' were settled in the Rajmahal Hills with proprietary rights. [Sirajul Islam]