Peasant and Tribal Resistance In British India

Apart from the general adverse impact on the country of British rule like the drain of wealth and the promotion of British manufactures in Indian markets causing the destruction of Indian handloom and handicraft industries, there were a variety of issues specifically affecting tribals and peasants which contributed to unrest among these groups. These included

  • Land revenue settlements causing a heavy burden of new taxes
  • Eviction of peasants from their lands and growing encroachment on tribal lands
  • Increasing exploitation in rural society due to the expanding role of intermediary revenue collectors, tenants and money-lenders
  • Increasing burden of taxes making the peasants heavily dependent on the mercy of the revenue intermediaries and officials, merchants as well as money-lenders
  • Expansion of British revenue administration over tribal areas leading to the loss of tribal people’s traditional rights over agricultural and forest land
  • Destruction of indigenous industry leading to migration of large scale workers from industry to agriculture thus increasing the pressure on land resources even while the land revenue and agricultural policy of the government left little scope for the improvement of agriculture
  • Administrations indifference to the peasants’ grievances; British law and judiciary did not aid the peasantry; it was focused on protecting the interests of the government and its collaborators-the landlords, the merchants and the money-lenders.

Thus the pressure of colonial exploitation and denial of justice from the colonial administration forced the peasants to take up arms to protect themselves. The grievances of the tribal people were similar to those of the peasants. But the encroachment by outsiders into their independent tribal polity made them angrier.

The Sanyasi Rebellion, 1763-1800

The East India Company’s official correspondence in the second half of the eighteenth century referred many times to the incursion of the nomadic sanyasis and fakirs, mainly in northern Bengal. Even before the great famine of Bengal (1770) small groups of Hindu and Muslim holy men travelled from place to place and made sudden attacks on the store-houses of food crops and property of the local rich men and government officers.

The sanyasis and fakirs were religious mendicants. But originally they had been peasants, many of whom had been evicted from their lands. The growing hardship of the peasantry, increasing revenue demand and the Bengal famine of 1770 also brought a large number of dispossessed minor zamindars, demobilised soldiers and the rural poor into the bands of sanyasis and fakirs.

They moved around different parts of Bengal and Bihar in large bands attacking the hoardings of food and property of the landed gentry and government officers. They also looted local government treasuries. Sometimes the wealth looted was distributed among the poor. They even established an independent government in Bogra and Mymensingh.

The Bhil Uprisings

The Bhils were a tribal group mostly concentrated in the hill ranges of Khandesh. The British occupation of Khandesh in 1818 enraged the Bhils because they were suspicious of outsiders’ incursion into their territory. Moreover, it was believed that Trimbakji, rebel minister of Baji Rao, instigated the Bhils against the British occupation of Khandesh. There was a general insurrection in 1819 and the Bhils in small groups ravaged the plains. There were similar types of insurrections quite often by the Bhil chiefs against the British. The British government used military force to suppress the rebels and at the same time tried to win them over through measures to assuage their discontent. But the British measures failed to bring around the Bhils and the uprisings continued for an extended period.

The Kol Insurrection, 1831-1832

The Kols of Singhbhum had for a very long time enjoyed independent power under their chiefs. They successfully resisted all attempts made by the Raja of Chota Nagpur and Mayurbhanj to subdue them. The British penetration into this area and the attempt to establish British law and order over the jurisdiction of the Kol chiefs generated resentment among the tribal people.

As a consequence of British occupation of Singhbhum and the neighbouring territories, many outsiders began to settle in this area which resulted in transfer of tribal lands to the outsiders. This transfer of tribal lands and coming of merchants, money-lenders and the British law in the tribal area posed a great threat to the independent hereditary power of the tribal chiefs. This created great resentment among the tribal people and led to popular uprisings against the outsiders in the tribal area. The rebellion spread over Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Palamau and Manbhum. The target of attack was the settlers from other regions whose houses were burnt, and property looted. The insurrection was ruthlessly suppressed by the British militia.

The Faraizi Disturbances

The Faraizi sect was founded by Haji Shariatullah of Faridpur. Originally the Faraizi movement was fuelled by the grievances of rack-rented and evicted peasants against landlords and British rulers. The Faraizis under Dudu Miyan, the son of the founder of the sect, became united as a religious sect with an egalitarian ideology. His simple way of teaching and belief, that all men are equal and land belongs to God and no one has right to levy tax on it, appealed to the common peasants. The Faraizis set up parallel administration in some parts of eastern Bengal and established village courts to settle the peasants disputes. They protected cultivators from zamindar’s excesses and asked the peasants not to pay taxes to the zamindars. They raided the zamindars’ houses and cutcheries and burnt the indigo factory at Panchchar. The government forces supported by the zamindars ultimately crushed the movement and captured Dudu Mian.

The Mappila Uprisings

Among the groups whose uprisings posed a grave challenge to colonial rule repeatedly, the Mappila uprisings of Malabar occupy an important place. Mappilas are the descendants of the Arab settlers and converted Hindus. Majority of them were tenants, landless labourers, small traders and fishermen. The British occupied Malabar in the last decade of the eighteenth century and the consequent changes that they introduced in the land revenue administration of the area brought unbearable hardship in the life of the Mappilas. The most important change was the transfer of ‘Janmi’ from that of traditional, partnership with the Mappila to that of an independent owner of land and the right of eviction of Mappila tenants which did not exit earlier. Over-assessment, illegal taxes, eviction from land, hostile attitude of government officials were some of the other factors that made the Mappilas rebel against the British and the landlords.

Religious leaders played an important role in strengthening the solidarity of the Mappilas through socio-religious reforms and also helped in the evolution of anti-British consciousness among the Mappilas. The growing discontent of the Mappilas broke out in open insurrections against the state and landlords. Between 1836 and 1854 there were about twenty-two uprisings in Malabar. In these uprisings the rebels came mostly from the poorer section of the Mappila population. The target of the rebels was generally the British officials, janmis and their dependents. The British armed forces swung into action to suppress the rebels but failed to subdue them for many years.

The Santhal Rebellion, 1855-56

The Santhals were inhabitants of the districts of Birbhum, Bankura, Murshidabad, Pakur, Dumka, Bhagalpur and Purnea. The area of maximum concentration of Santhals was Santhal pargana. When the Santhals cleared the forest and started cultivation in this area, the neighbouring rajas of Maheshpur and Pakur leased out the Santhal villages to zamindars and moneylenders. Gradual penetration by outsiders (called dikus by the Santhals) in their territory of brought misery and oppression for the simple Santhals.

The zamindars, the police, the revenue authorities and courts exercised a combined system of extortions, oppressive exactions, forcible dispossession of property, abuse and violence upon the Santhals. The oppression by money-lenders, merchants, zamindars and government officials forced the Santhals to take up arms in order to protect themselves. Their initial protests were in the form of robbery and looting of zamindars and money-lenders, houses. But violent suppression of these activities and harassment of Santhals at the hands of police and local officials made them more vehement. The rebel Santhals were led by two brothers, Sidhu and Kanu, who were believed to have received blessings from the Gods to bring an end to the continuing oppression of the Santhals.

Several thousand Santhals armed with their traditional weapons of bows, arrows, axes gave an ultimatum to the zamindars and the government officials to stop oppression immediately. They decided to get back control of their lands and to set up their own government. When the authorities paid no attention to this ultimatum, the grievances of the Santhals erupted in armed insurrection against the government officials, zamindars and money-lenders. The insurrection spread rapidly in the whole of Santhal Pargana. Many low caste non-Santhals also came out in support of the Santhals. The government and zamindars launched counter-attacks on the insurgents and the British superiority of arms ultimately suppressed this heroic struggle.

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