Genocide of Santhal tribes of India and the British henchmen - early colonial India

 During the British occupation of India between 1600s to early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of innocent natives across the Indian subcontinent were killed by the colonial rulers in various violent revolts, etc against their misrule. These revolts were overshadowed by the major revolt" Sepoy Revolt" of 1857.
Santhal tribal people at

The Santhal revolt of 1855 was one among them which did not hog the limelight as Sepoy revolt did. People will be surprised to know that 15,000 tribal people lost their lives in the major attacks carried out by the British agents backed by British troops. This unfortunate tragic massacre happened in remote hilly places of Bengal did not get world wide publicity.

Santhal tribal population in India

In the 1800s the British East India company officers were bent on taking over as many lands as they could as part of their expansion 'spree'. After grabbing  lands, instead of  directly controlling the vast areas, they  allotted  them to the  agents - wealthy upper caste landlords and Zamindars in return for an annual rent or fee out of which they could make a small profit and much of the income would go to the British coffers. The British company in India was actually running a proxy government on behalf of the British Crown and crown did not mind it as long as they could get income by hook or crook. 

In order to stay in competition with other European nations, in particular France and Dutch whose domain reached far and wide across the globe, the British  government turned a blind eye to the activities of the East India company as long as they could capture more lands and earn more revenue for the British treasury.

Santhal tribal dance, Jharkand,

The Santhals are tribal people of the present day state of  Jharkhand, part of west Bengal and Bihar and before the arrival of the British they mainly resided in the hill districts of Barabhum,  Chhotanagpur,  Palamau, Midnapur, Bankura and  Birbhum, Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum. Their traditional major occupation was agriculture and they led a simple life for survival by clearing the forest and fields and hunting. Their rebellion took place in 1855-56 against the colonial rulers and their puppets - landlords and Zamindars.


For centuries these rustic and hard working people, who mainly depended on their lands which they made cultivable  had maintained their cultural freedom and the agrarian way of life with out any interference from outsiders. During the British rule  under East India company they, for no reason, faced the worst crisis in their other wise peaceful life. Their lands were forcefully taken over by the agents  of the colonial rulers and ultimately pushed to the marginal places - something reminiscent of the native American Indians Choctaws in Mississippi and Alabama  who were the first to be resettled in 1832, followed by the Creeks (1836) and the Chickasaws (1837), later the resettlement of Cherokees by Jackson's Federal troops in 1838-1839 from Georgia to lands west of the Mississippi that left 5000 Cherokees dead on the Trail of Tears. This way the early American government helped the westward moving early pioneers settle in various Indian lands. 

The British Colonial agents in India were actually landlords or zamindars and they acted in collusion with the British sahibs. Santhals moved out of their traditional land and now settled in the hilly regions of Rajmahal after forceful occupation by the British agents.

Now other upper caste landlords and zamindars wanted to share the pie and  illegally claimed the new lands to which they moved in.

'Wherever some illegal and nefarious activities  were going on and if it was profitable, you would never fail to see the arrival of British Bobs on the scene for further exploitation for their advantage and this way they incurred the odium of the natives across India.'

The British government  was not aware of some of the company's dirty activities in the vast Indian subcontinent. The company officers skillfully played with the 'innocence and ignorance' of these simple, unassuming hilly people because they were unlettered and unsophisticated. It was paradoxical that these tribal people at last ended up working as bonded laborers for pittance on their lands. The  tribes had to pay heavy tax on lands cleared for cultivation.

The landlords and money lenders had their own way; they  enticed the Santhals particularly womenfolk to buy goods on loans with exorbitant compound interest. These people  paid the needed money.  However, many of them became slave to them for the default of loan and the interest that doubled the principal amount. To repay the loan and arrears, an entire generation of an indigent Santhal family had to work as slaves. Loan-sharking began to thrive and affected the tribes. Further, the most disgusting thing was, the Santhali women who  were forced to work  under  merciless labor contractors as bonded laborers, were sexually disgraced and abused. Many women, under duress, became  concubines of  money lenders, zamindars and agents of the Raj. Their spate of atrocities on their community turned the Santhals into rebels and finally they decided  to launch an attack on the agents of the colonial rulers. This sparked the Santal rebellion as the tribes were pushed to their limit of tolerance.

It began on June 30,1855 and on November 10, 1855 martial law was proclaimed which lasted until January 3,1856.  When martial law was withdrawn and the revolt,  led by the four Murmu Brothers -Seedo, Kanhu, Chand and Bhairav, was brutally ended by troops loyal to the British rulers. The revolt occurred in the then Bengal Presidency and it was against racism and corrupt usury money lending practices, and the zamindari system and their operatives in the tribal belt. The Santhals under the leadership of  Sidhu and Kanhu and  Murmu ran a parallel government to establish their legitimate rights. Finally they were forced to take to arms and resort to violence.   In many villages the Zamindars, money lenders and their operatives were put to death. The open rebellion caught the British Government by surprise.

The British Government finally took a major step and sent in large number of troops assisted by the local Zamindars and the Nawab of Murshidabad to quell the rebellion.  Major confrontations occurred from July 1855 to January 1856  in places like Kahalgaon, Suri, Raghunathpur, and Munkatora. The primitive, unsophisticated  weapons of the Santhals, weren't a match against the musket and cannon firepower of the British. The revolt of  60,000-odd tribesmen was brutally crushed, the two celebrated leaders Seedo and Kanhu were killed.

In the aftermath of the revolt over 15,000  people were killed, and tens of villages were destroyed as they did not get support  from Gwalas (milkmen) and Lohars (blacksmiths). 'The pathetic aspect of this revolt was the tribes' arrows did kill the soldiers, but when they retaliated by firing several volleys in to the tribes, they literally stood the ground  unmoved and then fell down like trees. These tribes never used their poison-tipped arrows on their enemies. Thus they knew the discernible difference between animals and humans and hence they never used the poison tipped arrows which were meant for hunting animals and not humans.' 

Whereas the colonial rulers hunted the scrupulous people as if they were wild wolves or dogs. To the Santhals it was not war and it was an honorable protest to get their lands back. That was all to it.

Santhal rebellion 1855-56

Charles Dickens in simple Words wrote -

"There seems also to be a sentiment of honour among them (Santhals); for it is said that they use poisoned arrows in hunting, but never against their foes. If this be the case- and we hear nothing of the poisoned arrows in the recent conflicts,- they are infinitely more respectable than our civilized enemy the Russians, who would most likely consider such forbearance as foolish, and declare that is not war."

This major Indian rebellion went unnoticed because it was overshadowed by other  revolts, besides partial censorship of news by the colonial media. The recent  creation of the tribal state of Jharkand in independent India was not only in recognition of pride and identity of Santhal tribes but also a tribute to their spirit of freedom and untold sufferings they bore stoically to drive the oppressive colonial rulers and their stooges -zamindars from their legitimate lands.