4 Indigenous Indian Freedom Movements Current History Books Won’t Tell You Much About

Adivasis were exploited both by British officials and Indian feudal lords.
Adivasis were exploited both by British officials and Indian feudal lords.L: Old Indian Photos, R: cnn.com

Had it not been for the Hindu nationalist Vinayak Savarkar, the First War of Independence in 1857 would have been relegated to the footnotes of history as a ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. Continuing in the vein of recent political rewriting, the textbooks prescribed for Indian public schools have conveniently overlooked countless tribal and peasant rebellions predating Mangal Pandey’s heroism in Barrackpore by almost half a century.

In a humble attempt to countervail this wave of 'syllabus rationalising' that began in 2020, Homegrown is taking you back to the basics with a list of four such grassroots revolutions, reviving unsung heroes who blazed the trail for the freedom struggle against the British Raj.

In a 2017 cabinet meeting chaired by Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, it was recommended that the state government uphold the Paika Rebellion, a militant uprising that took place over 200 years ago as the original first war of independence against British colonialism.

I. Paika Bidroha (1817)

The crumbling ramparts of the Khurda fort nestling in the verdant foothills of Barunei were once considered as the invincible bulwark of the mediaeval Hindu Bhoi dynasty.

A hotbed for armed resistance throughout the 19th century, first when Jayi Rajaguru organised the paikas against the East India Company in 1804 and then in 1817 under Buxi Jagabandhu, the fort's legacy culminated in becoming the last independent stronghold against colonialism in the country. Leading double lives as farmers during peace and mercenaries for the royalty during unrest, the paikas were composed of diverse martial tribes, the Khond people being prominent among their ranks.

After being dispossessed of his landed estates at the hands of Bengali zamindars (feudal lords) in cahoots with the British tax collectors, Buxi Jagabandhu stirred up 400 Khond tribesmen to crossed the dense jungles of Kandhamal district into Khurda, burning down the police station and government office buildings in Banapur.

The 'Kol community of Jharkhand was comprised of many martial tribes.
The 'Kol community of Jharkhand was comprised of many martial tribes.hindi.scoopwhoop.com

II. Chota Nagpur Uprising (1831-33)

Though the paikas were defeated in Khurda at the hands of the British despatches, many of them went underground and continued some semblance of guerrilla warfare until special forces scoured the jungles around 1826, catching and eviscerating the insurgents in cold blood.

A fog of despair spread its talons across the Chota Nagpur plateau, from Odisha and adjacent principalities all the way to Bihar, and numerous indigenous communities were incensed not only by the unsympathetic British officials but also by outsiders like Hindu priests and moneylenders. The sanskritisation of leading Chota Nagpur tribal chiefs, the confluence of Vedic and British law and the replacement of the barter system by the new cash economy were pushing out landed tribes to the margins. Overwhelmed by arbitrary taxes on salt and other natural resources, the insurrection spread like wildfire — across tribal belts like Oraon, Mundas and Ho — from Singhbhum to the border of Oudh kingdom in North India.

'Disaibon Hul' is an illustrated book for children about the Santal Rebellion.
'Disaibon Hul' is an illustrated book for children about the Santal Rebellion. Ruby Hembrom

III. Santal Hul (1855-56)

The oppression of zamindars drove the slash-and-burn Santal farmers from Birbhum district in West Bengal to the Dumka subdivision in Jharkhand some time in the early 19th century. However far they migrated, famine and feudalism followed close on their heels with the farmers forced to work as day labourers with no legal rights to the plains they settled down in. Under the martyrs, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, almost 60,000 Santals mobilised themselves in 1855. With traditional weapons like arrows and battle axes, the adivasis raged against the upper caste Hindu grain dealers and British darogas (police officers) who had bled them dry until the only heirlooms they could pass down to their children were brass household vessels.

Spurred on by religious myths and social banditry, the rebellion was seen by the tribesmen as bearing God’s seal-of-approval, considering that they had been turned away by the British courts when they tried to petition through official channels. After plundering the property and cattle of the zamindars, looting the government treasury and capturing a large swathe of land from Rajmahal hills (Jharkhand) to Birbhum, the Santhal ‘Hul’ was finally quashed by the East India Company in 1856. 

The Tana Bhagat memorial for the youth rebel Jatra Bhagat.
The Tana Bhagat memorial for the youth rebel Jatra Bhagat.Tejasvi Surya (on X)

IV. Tana Bhagat (1914-20)

The declaration of World War I in 1914 by Britain and Germany had an indelible impact on the Christianisation of the Oraons, Mundas, and Santals in the Chota Nagpur division. The British missionaries and German Lutherans embedded in Jharkhand began fighting it out for the souls of the adivasis. It was Jatra Bhagat, a young man from the village of Chingri (Ranchi) who claimed to have been blessed with a vision from the supreme God Dharmesh to abandon idol worship of lesser gods, exorcism and other archaic rituals in pursuit of a more ascetic way of life. Part of his millenarian prophecy was also to stop ploughing the fields for the greedy landlords and return to shifting cultivation. This reordering of the Oraon community was the baptism of a new Tana sect, rejecting the traditional leadership of the pahan (Oraon priests) in favour of an empowered and self sustaining way of life that would tie in with the Gandhian swadeshi (self rule) movement, that had been gaining momentum for the past decade.

The Mangarh Massacre of 1912 was called the Adivasi Jallianwala Bagh.
The Mangarh Massacre of 1912 was called the Adivasi Jallianwala Bagh.peepultree.world

While the Bhils, Gonds, Mundas and Santals were regarded as more 'inflammable races' by the colonisers, the tribes in north-east India were equally engaged in localised battles. The Nagas, Khasis and Kukis were known for being fiercely zealous about their political and economic sovereignty thus leading coups for long enough to earn the shameful moniker of 'criminal tribes' by the British administration.

In November 2022, the incumbent Prime Minister while inaugurating the Mangarh dam, acknowledged the 1913 massacre of 1200 Bhil tribals as testament to how the history of our freedom struggle has excluded the adivasis. "India’s past, history, present, and future without the tribal community is incomplete," he added. This might go down in history as a course correction for the Indian government in reconciling with indigenous freedom fighters; commemorating their undying spirit and recognizing their struggle to lead our country out of the dark caverns of colonialism.

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