Republic Day 2022: Looking back at Anglo-tribal encounters in colonial India

As Gujarat features a tableau commemorating a massacre of Bhil tribespeople by colonial troops in 1922, DTE delves into the history of tribal engagement with the British

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 26 January 2022
600 Santhals attack a party of 50 sepoys during the 1855 Santhal Rebellion. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is that time of the year again when tableaux celebrating the great diversity of the Republic of India marches down Rajpath. This year, Gujarat’s tableau will be special as it will commemorate a massacre of Bhil tribespeople in 1922 at the hands of British troops.

The massacre, dubbed ‘Gujarat’s Jallianwalla Bagh’, happened March 7, 1922. Bhil residents of Pal Dadhvaav and Chitariya villages in what is today’s Sabarkantha district, gathered on the banks of the Her, a local river, to protest taxes imposed by the British.

The colonial government sent in the Mewar Bhil Corps. Its soldiers fired indiscriminately on the crowd of Bhil men, women and children. Some 1,200 Bhils perished in the massacre according to the colonial government’s own records.

Tribal communities comprised 8.6 per cent of India’s population according to the 2011 Census. They are among the most marginalised people in the country today.

The entry of the British in the Subcontinent began a new chapter in the story of many tribal peoples. And like the Pal Dadhvaav massacre, encounters between the two sides were mostly hostile and resulted in warfare and bloodshed.

In the end, the British emerged victorious and many tribal communities accepted their suzerainty. The impact of British rule in tribal hinterlands is being felt to this day in India, especially in matters of forest governance and insurgencies in India’s centre and North East.

As India observes another Republic Day and commemorates a tribal massacre, let us examine some important Anglo-tribal encounters in colonial India.

Written in blood

Sailendra Nath Sen notes in his An Advanced History of Modern India (January 2017):

…From about the middle of the 18th century, the movement of the non-tribal regions and the British administration led to the disintegration of the tribal agrarian order. There was large-scale land alienation among the tribal peasants…

He continues:

…The British colonial system ended the isolation of the tribal communities. It recognised the tribal chiefs as zamindars and imposed a new system of taxation where the rent was to be paid in cash. It led to the emergence of a new class of middlemen like moneylenders and farmers (thikadars) who were of a more rapacious kind. The tribes resisted the new system and opposed the new classes of people who were inducted by it. They turned against the new landlords, moneylenders and government officers…

The first tribal revolt against the British was that of the Paharia leader, Tilka Manjhi. For 15 years, between 1770 and 1785, Manjhi organised armed resistance against the British East India Company in what are today’s Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

The region had come under the suzerainty of the Company after 1764, when it won the Battle of Buxar and with it, the Dewani rights or the right to collect revenue for the Mughal subahs of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha.

The Company’s entry made matters worse. In 1768 and 1769, when crops failed, officials increased the tax levy by 10 per cent instead of decreasing it. This triggered the Great Famine of Bengal in 1770, in the backdrop of which, Manjhi emerged.

Ultimately though, Manjhi was captured, tied to horses, dragged and hanged at Bhagalpur. But his revolt was only the beginning.

PC Roy Choudhury notes in his Hazaribagh old records 1761-1878 (1957):

…With foreigners from Bengal and Bihar, unacquainted with the customs, land tenure and the languages or dialects of the people in all the subordinate government posts and with alien landlords almost supreme in the villages, the British rule was made particularly distasteful to the aboriginal races…

That distaste burst forth in a series of revolts the most formidable of which was that of the Kol people. Angered at their exploitation by the Company officials and non-tribal settlers, the Kols rose in revolt in Chota Nagpur in 1831.

Sen notes:

…The Kols of Sonepur, Tamar set the tone of the movement. The uprising spread to Palamau, where it was taken up by the Santals. It developed into an armed struggle against the Thikadars … they drove away the respectable inhabitants from the villages, plundered and burnt their houses…

Like the earlier rebellions, the Kol uprising too was suppressed and was over by 1833.

These revolts were followed by one of the biggest uprisings to hit the Chota Nagpur plateau: The Santhal rebellion in 1855.

Having suffered atrocities at the hands of European officials, local moneylenders and zamindars, thousands of Santhals from the Rajmahal hills rose in revolt on June 30, 1855.

They wrought havoc across Jharkhand, south Bihar and West Bengal before the superior British war machine savagely put down the revolt.

Daniel J Rycroft, in his 2014 paper Looking Beyond the Present: The Historical Dynamics of Adivasi (Indigenous and Tribal) Assertions in India writes on these rebellions:

…Brutally crushed, these anti-imperialist movements continue to inspire Adivasi assertions in contemporary India, suggesting that even with national independence, the aspirations of the rural indigenous communities have remained unfulfilled…

Bhangya Bhukya from the Department of History, School of Social Sciences, University of Hyderabad, agrees that the Adivasi fight against the British was different from the rest of India.

“The British were the main target for Indian nationalists. But Adivasis had encountered a double colonisation: By the colonial state as well as caste Hindu society. Colonial rule itself was a collaboration between white rulers as well as dominant Hindu castes such as Brahmins, Zamindars and sahukars,” he told Down To Earth.

The other ‘tribals’

It is not just groups like the Bhils, Gonds, Mundas and Santhals that fiercely resisted the British. Tribal groups in India’s North East did so too.

Amena N Passah from the Department of History, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong told DTE that “one of the lapses of colonial Indian historiography is the utter neglect of North East India’s rich preserves of valiant women and men who resisted British imperialism in their region and whose names and exploits do not feature in the history books. Long before the onset of the freedom movement, these tribes had resisted colonial rule and broken out into rebellions.”

However, were the groups from the North East ‘tribes’ or ethnicities / nations?

Rycroft remarks on the confusion regarding the word ‘tribal’ in the Indian context in his paper:

…These claims unravel many assumptions that have been written into many ethnographic and administrative texts, such as those describing India’s ‘tribals’, a heterogenous community (in both cultural and political terms) that encompasses mainland Adivasis, Denotified and Nomadic Tribes, ethnic minorities and in-migrating ‘tea tribals’ of Northeast India, and the first inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands…

Arupjyoti Saikia, Guwahati-based historian, said instead of terming the heroic resistance by groups in the North East against British expansionism as ‘tribal’, it would be better to see it in a larger context.

“The hills in India’s North East posed the biggest challenge for the British colonists. Whether it was the Nagas, Kukis, Lushais, Khasis or Garos, to name a few, these hill residents, for decades, bravely challenged the military might of the British colonialists,” he told DTE.

He noted:

The political inspiration to the decades-long Naga resistance to the military might of the British colonists came from the sense of Naga political and economic sovereignty. So was the case of Khasis or Kukis. To assign these heroic challenges to the British empire as only tribal, we will miss the larger political and economic foundations of these struggles.

But the most shameful legacy of the Anglo-tribal encounter in south Asia is the term ‘Criminal Tribes’. The British branded a slew of groups including pastoralists, nomads, hill and forest dwellers and others who did not live a ‘settled life’ with the term in 1871. 

“Yes, the tableau by Gujarat is a great thing. But what about so-called criminal and de-notified tribes? They still live like they did in British India. They are avoided, shunned and the stigma of being branded as ‘criminal’ is still present. When will they get justice?” senior theatre and film director of Budhan theatre, Dakxin Chara asked DTE.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.