History records numerous uprisings against colonial repression but while remembering them we often forget the Santal rising where bows and arrows rose defiantly against guns and canons. As Mahfuz Sadique salutes the adivasi revolutionaries, the social minimisation of the Santals stare back us with mute grievance

‘What British Army fought was not a war. So long as Santals’ drum went beating, they went on fighting to the last man. There was not a single sepoy in the British army who did not feel ashamed’
— Hunter, The Annals of Rural Bengal.

Melodies of marooned lives
As the light drizzle of mid-June caresses the thatched hay roofs of the mud-huts, the distinct, soft melody of a bamboo flute coming from a hut floats through the small Santal village. As night falls upon their homes in Godagari thana by the river Padma in Rajshahi district, 222 kilometres north-west of Dhaka, Santal life appears to have changed little since the days of their first migration to the Barind or Bengal region (now Bangladesh) from far flung areas in Central India, Assam and Meghalaya, centuries ago. W.G. Archer the last District Commissioner of the Santal Pargana fondly termed the people ‘The ever-singing Santals’ and gave a passionate description of them in ‘original inhabitants of this land’ in his book ‘Hill of Flutes.’ The detailed account shows that the Santals have defended their cultural and social heritage against all odds. But what lies hidden in the darkness of the night is that this unique way of life is slowly fading away through the most potent of oppressions – economic and financial. As is the case with most of the adivasi (indigenous) communities in Bangladesh, their helplessness in elevating their lives to a better footing and thus prevailing with their own identity, lie in chronic abuse and violation of laws pertaining to land and labour.

Rise, rise in the name of Thakur-jiu!

While the irony of today’s Santal life is the grinding pressure of ‘eventualities’, exactly 150 years ago, a long day of June saw the souls of the soil rise in the name of the Sun Gods. The land they had known to call their own with sprawling fields of ploughed fresh earth sown with seeds of life were being trampled by marauding colonials and insensitive locals. And suddenly, the soft melodies that floated into the evening breeze turned into the roars of thousands of dark-skinned, bare bodied Santal peasants demanding the right to their life and livelihood on ‘their’ land.

While revolutions that had its roots in mass uprising have mostly been related to the common, or rather to bring into context — the marginal, very few have had grounding on the simple premise of rights only. Ideological footing has had a major role to play. The marginal portion of any populace had to be galvanized on the recycled ideas of ideologies in order for them to become proactive and being an area as rich in tradition of revolutions and a nurturing bed of future struggles, the Bengal Delta has always been a point to note in the chequered path of the subcontinent’s history. Yet, one particular uprising is unique than any other. For the very basic nature it had derived its idea from — a right to live the simplest of live. The Hul or Santal Rebellion that razed through this region exactly one-and-a-half century ago is unique; it was a fight to survive on one’s own land.

A classic case of years of oppression fuming through one final outburst of spontaneous dissent, the Hul or Santal Rebellion of 1855-56 started on the June 30, 1855. Jump started by two of the legendary revolutionary brothers, Sido Murmu and Kanhu Murmu, the headmen of Bhognadih Village near Berhait in the Sahebganj district of the Santal Parganas, Jharkhand. As a direct result of decades of economic exploitation and socio-political oppression by the colonial administration and their operatives – notably darogas (policemen), mahajans (moneylenders) and zamindars (landlords) – Sido and Kanhu, along with their two younger brothers Chand and Bhairab, mobilised 10,000 Santals and sympathizing non-Santals to march to Calcutta to demand a respite from this repression.

Having taken an oath from Thakur-jiu (god) to reinstate Santal rule, they were arrested on false pretences at Panchketia on 7th July 1855. Here, the movement became one of direct action as the policemen and their accomplices were murdered. The revolution quickly spread throughout the region as at least 50,000 other people demonstrated their allegiance to Sido and Kanhu by fighting against capitalist planters, railway engineers, regional elites and the Bengal native infantry.

It was one of the fiercest battles in the history of the subcontinent’s freedom struggles causing the greatest number of loss of lives in any battle during that time; the number of causalities of Santal Hul was 20,000 according to William Hunter who wrote it in Annals of Rural Bengal.

With the capture of political power of India by the East India Company, the natural habitats of the Adivasi (indigenous) people including the Santals began to crumble by intruders like moneylenders; in addition, traders and revenue farmers descended upon them in large numbers under the patronage of the Company.

Substantiating the harrowing tales of moneylenders, eighteenth century literature informs that the rate of interest on loan to the poor and illiterate Santals varied from 50 per cent to 500 per cent. These intruders were, needless to mention crucial links in the chain of ruthless exploitation under colonial rule and they were the instruments through which indigenous groups and tribes were brought within the influence and control of the colonial economy. Relevant to mention that discontent had been simmering in the Santal Paraganas (presently in Jharkhand) from the early decades of the nineteenth century owing to the most naked exploitation of the indigenous Santals by both the British authorities and their collaborators, the native immigrants.

The courage, chivalry and sacrifice of the Santals in the Hul were countered by the rulers with veritable butchery. Out of 50,000 Santal rebels, 15,000-20,000 were killed by the British Indian Army and the Company was finally able to suppress the rebellion in 1856, though some outbreaks continued till 1857.

The Santals showed great bravery and incredible courage in the struggle against the military and as long as their national drums continued beating, the whole party stood and fell by bullets. However, there was no sign of yielding. Once, forty Santals refused to surrender and took shelter inside a mud house; troops surrounded the mud house and fired at them but the Santals replied with their arrows. Then, the soldiers made a big hole through the muddy wall and the captain ordered them to surrender but they shot a volley of arrows instead. Despite repeated exhortations from the captain they continued shooting arrows and some of the soldiers were wounded. At last, when the discharge of arrows from the door slackened, the captain went inside the room with his soldiers and found only one old man grievously wounded, standing erect among the dead bodies. The soldier asked him to throw away arms, but instead, he rushed on him and killed him with his battle axe.

It is believed that Sido was captured by the British forces through treachery; Kanhu on the other hand was captured through an encounter at Uparbanda and was subsequently killed in captivity. The Santal Hul, however, did not come to an end in vain and had a long-lasting impact. Santal Parganas Tenancy Act was the outcome of this struggle, which dished out some sort of protection to the indigenous people from the ruthless colonial exploitation and finally the Santal territory was born. The regular police was abolished and the duty of keeping peace and order and arresting criminals was vested in the hands of parganait and village headman

The Hul surprised colonialists on account of the perceived loyalty of Santals to their systems of administration during the 1830s and 1840s; by late-1855 the movement had swelled to incorporate neighbouring areas such as Birbhum District, West Bengal and the colonial government resorted to the imposition of Martial Law. During the suppression many Santals were killed, punished by execution, transported or sentenced to hard labour. Belatedly, responding to widespread grievances, the new colonial administration of the Santal Parganas created the Santal Parganas Tenancy Act, whereby adivasi land could not be bought by non-adivasis, and Santal prisoners could be used to reconstruct villages and roads in the region. Since the suppression of the Hul and into the twentieth century, Santals continued to participate actively in anti-colonial freedom movements. In the postcolonial period, Santal politicians and activists have pioneered efforts to claim land rights and some form of national recognition regarding issues surrounding the Santals and their adivasi identity. Since independence, many marginalised Santals in Bangladesh have kept up a losing battle to hold their ground. Meanwhile, the Hul lives on as an inspiration to many Santals and non-Santals engaged in movements for social justice.

One-and-a-half century after the Hul, the lives of Santals are still marginalised. Starting from their land, their simple way of life, has been left decaying under pressure from the forces of non-Santals.

The land of forefathers

Raghunath Sardar, 53, a Santal of the village Kirli in Parsha thana of Naogaon district was a solvent and respected person. Sardar, who owned 45 bighas of land, a house with a good harvest saw his life as perfect. That is until he lost everything to village touts who grabbed his lands by forging deeds and legal documents. Now, he is too poor to fight in the court; though he has asked for financial help from non-governmental organisations (NGO), his status as an ethnic has hampered his attempts to get assistance.

Raghunath’s predicament is that of the majority of Santals. They are aliens in a land that is their own and both land-grabbing and manipulative laws are to blame for this situation. A draconian law that has been used and abused for the past four decades to grab traditional Santal land is the Vested Property, which was originally formulated in 1965 by the then Pakistan Government as the Enemy Property Custody and Registration Order.

In a report prepared for the Minority Rights Group, in conjunction with the Coordination Council for Human Rights in Bangladesh, Father R. W. Timm points out that 85 per cent of the adivasis of the north-west are landless.

Durbin Kisku and Martin Hazda, two Shantal leaders, said, ‘Three hundred acres of land of Panchandar, Badhar and Kalma unions of Tanor thana in Rajshahi have been recorded under the Vested Property Act. Half of this land belonged to the Santals and the rest to the Bangalee Hindus but just one or two local influential persons have grabbed this land and we held a procession recently against this move and had a gherao (laying siege) of the TNO office.’ Since filing cases to free these lands will cost a lot of money nobody went to court; such incidents are numerous all across the Santal locales.

So what about us?

This brings the bigger question of recognition; constitutional recognition as to their status as ethnic communities is a long standing demand of the Santals and the rest of the indigenous population of Bangladesh. Priscilla Raj in her article ‘Demand for Fundamental Rights Reinstated’ reports of a gathering of north Bengal adivasi activists in Dhaka during 1999, where they raised their demands again. Late Manobendra Narayan Larma, a prominent leader of the adivasis of Bangladesh raised this demand first in 1972 when the Bangladesh Constitution hailing Bangalee nationalism declared all citizens of the country as Bangalee. This squashed any hope of state recognition of the indigenous people of territorial Bangladesh.

To work, to live

Ninety-five percent of the ethnic people of north Bengal, mainly Santals, are related to agriculture and an NGO report shows that working members of 85 per cent families are day labourers. A weeklong survey on economy, social organisation and manners of the people of Dewrapara village, 12 kilometres from the divisional headquarters Rajshahi, conducted by sociologists Kazi Tobarek Hossain and Syed Zahir Sadek found that 93 per cent of the thirty-two Santal families were share-croppers or landless day labourers. The share-croppers cultivate land of others and for bearing all costs of cultivation they get just 50 per cent of the crops.

The scarcity of day labour work also pushes the Santals to the fringes of poverty. A day labourer having a family of six members might earn a maximum of Taka 30 a day and their plight is compounded by the lack of work during the seasonal lapses in the agricultural cycle; then there is the threat of flood and other natural calamities. In the April 1999 issue of the magazine Earth Touch, Khoka Pahan, 43, an adivasi day labourer of Manda thana in Naogaon district is quoted saying: ‘When we do not have work, we have to borrow from the money lenders to buy rice and often sell our labour in advance at cheap rates.’ And when there is no work? Pahan simply answers: ‘We starve.’

Requiem of a race

If a race, a nation or a community is to survive from one generation to the next, its culture, its lifestyle and its unique nuances need to be preserved. Understandably, without a viable livelihood they are marginalised and the result is their fading effect into the mainstream. Living in a country that territorially encompasses the same land that they have known as their own for centuries, the Santals of Bangladesh have been pushed further and further to the fringes.

At this juncture, education, reforms of land laws, constitutional recognition and a general compassion within the majority towards the melodious Santal men, women and children is essential.

And after all it is their Bangladesh too. Viswanath Singh, a Santal leader puts it right: ‘We have fought for this land in 1971 and we have our rights on this land; we want to live in this country.’

Background information: We Santals; The Annals of Bengal; Banglapedia

Published: The New Age/ July
, 2005


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