Remembering Santal Hul, a 19th Century Struggle Against Imperialism

It was indeed an unequal conflict, as the Santals unflinchingly fought with bows and arrows against troops armed with artillery – an indicator of how precious self-rule was to them.

The 1857 uprising of Indian sepoys is commonly considered to be the first war of independence in Indian history, even though it was preceded by tribal revolts such as the Halba rebellion of 1774, the Bhil revolt of 1818, and the Kol uprising of 1831.

The Santal Hul (revolution) of 1855-56 was one such landmark revolt fought by the Santal Adivasis and lower caste peasants against the exploitative upper caste zamindars (landlords), mahajans (moneylenders), darogas (police), traders, and imperial forces from the East India Company in the erstwhile Bengal presidency.

The Santals settled into the present-day Santhal Parganas between 1790-1810 after being driven away by zamindars from the neighbouring Birbhum estate. The area was called Damin-i-Koh (skirts of the hills), a khas property of the colonial government created for the Paharias who lived in the hill tracts. The Santals were welcomed to clear the dense jungles for cultivation and given land for settlement in the foothills on rent. They came to assert that since they were the first to clear and inhabit the land, they were its rightful stewards.

But a final, peaceful and sovereign homeland for the tribe was not to be because of the diku – the exploitative outsiders.

When the lands were cleared, the zamindars raised their rent. The mahajans charged unreasonable interest rates, took control of their lands as foreclosure, and forced them into bonded labour. Traders in the markets often swindled the Santals by using heavier weights when buying from them and lighter weights when selling to them. Appeals to the British administration went unheard and seeking recourse from the law was not easy since the courts were in the faraway districts of Deoghar and Bhagalpur.

So rife was the potential for exploits that the colonial administrator, W.W. Hunter, wrote, “The Santal country came to be regarded by the less honourable orders of Hindus as a country where a fortune was to be made, no matter by what means, so that it was made rapidly.”

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Fragmentary records exist of that era, but all confirm that these combined oppressions together incited the revolution. According to lore, the great spirit of the Santals, Thakurjiv, appeared to the brothers Sidho and Kanhu, directing them to revolt. Word was spread using the dharwak, a system of communication using uniquely folded sal leaves. On June 30, 1855, about ten thousand Santals met in the village of Bhognadih. They sent out parwanas (orders) to the colonial authorities and the zamindars, issuing ultimatums and asked them to reply within a fortnight.

Neglected by local authorities, the Santals began marching to Calcutta seeking the governor-general. They were joined by the Bhuiyan and Paharia tribes and lower caste groups such as the Lohars and Kumhars. But they never reached the capital as fighting was precipitated when a Santal head man, Harma Desmanjhi, was arbitrarily arrested at Panchkatia. From there the rebellion spread across the land like wildfire.

Colonial records are unsurprisingly replete with racist depictions of the Santals, but they also concede to their courage and gallantry. When news about the revolt reached Britain, Charles Dickens wrote an entry on the Santals in his weekly magazine Household Words. Dickens noted, “There seems also to be a sentiment of honour among them; for it is said that they use poisoned arrows in hunting, but never against their foes.”

Illustration: Saheb Ram Tudu from Ruby Hembrom’s ‘Disaibon Hul’ (2014).

Similarly, Major Jervis from the company’s army stated, “It was not war; they did not understand yielding. As long as their national drum beat, the whole party would stand, and allow themselves to be shot down…there was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.”

It was indeed an unequal conflict, since the Santals fought with bows and arrows against troops armed with artillery. One record stated that it was not a war but rather an execution. To unflinchingly stand in the face of an enemy more powerful, even if it meant certain death, is an indicator of how precious self-rule was to them.

In November of 1855, martial law was introduced to quell the rebels and the Hul was quashed by early 1856. It led to the formation of the Santhal Parganas and the passing of the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1876, which forbade the transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis.

Along with its legal and political impact, the Hul remains an integral historical event in the cultural memory of the Santals and other Adivasi communities in eastern India. It was not only a struggle for self-rule but also intended to protect Santal culture and lifeways. Ruby Hembrom, director of Adivasi publishing house adivaani, says, “The Hul was a last-ditch effort to safeguard our traditional ways of being that were being undermined by the influx of outsiders.”

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Overlooked by the rest of the country, Hul Maha (day) is annually commemorated in Jharkhand, West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, as well as in Bangladesh, through rallies and cultural events.  In the pre-pandemic era, thousands travelled to Bhognadih, Jharkhand, annually for its commemoration. Adivasi leaders like the current chief minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren, and his father Shibu Soren, pay homage to Sidho and Kanhu on the anniversary.

Adivasi activists have pointed to the neglect of Adivasi narratives in national history by highlighting how the Hul occurred two whole years before the 1857 uprising but has not received due attention. Jharkhand’s current governor, Draupadi Murmu, has said that national history ought to be rewritten to incorporate tribal history into it. And some scholars argue that the Hul should rightfully be called the first war of independence.

However, in calling the Hul a national revolt it would become necessary to confront how it wasn’t the British alone who were the targets of the revolting Santals, but also the dikus. Hembrom adds, “We’re told to remember and honour the Hul as a freedom movement from British Supremacy and in that narrative we suppress that this started off as an uprising against the Indian zamindars, traders, moneylenders and police…are we to forget how the non-Adivasi, Indian kings and queens of Murshidabad and other princely regions sent in large elephant cavalries to crush the rebellion?”

Though the British have long quit India, the question of Adivasi sovereignty – even in Jharkhand, a state ostensibly created for them – remains a tenuous one when considering the rampant displacement and dispossession of Adivasis.

Such sentiments are not uncommon. For instance, in January 2021, the finance minister of Jharkhand, Rameshwar Oraon, stated that dikus, particularly Marwaris and Biharis, had outnumbered Adivasis in Ranchi, taken over their land, and exploited them.

The documentary Hul Sengel: The Spirit of the Santal Revolution, marking the 150th anniversary of the Hul, traces the memory of the revolt in present times. In an interview, Rup Chand Murmu, a sixth generation descendant of Sidho and Kanhu, speaks of how the Hul is significant even today. He says, “We want Adivasis to keep ownership of the land in Jharkhand. It should not be available for buying and selling. Let no one torture us, or rule over us.”

The Hul resulted in the death of thousands. Santal villages were burnt down and several were forced to move to Assam and Bangladesh. Narratives of the Hul are embedded in the oral histories of the Santal community and are passed on through generations. The spirit of the Hul lives on through folklore – songs, poems, and dramas. The recurring themes include sovereignty, revolution, community unity, voicing dissent against injustice, and resistance against dispossession and assimilation.

One of the most popular Hul songs is Debon tingun Adivasi bir – Let us stand together, O adivasi forester written by Ramchand Murmu, the song goes thus:

“Revolt, O Santals, Mahlis and Mundas
We are all tigers here
Let’s not abandon our lands
And be forced to enter the forest
Let us stand together, O Adivasi forester

We will not be driven out
We will not be afraid
We will gather courage in our soul
Till blood runs in our veins
Let us stand together, O Adivasi forester”

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Over the years, the Hul has become an emblem of Adivasi sovereignty and self-determination, reverberating in Adivasi political mobilisations such as the 2016 protests against the amendments to the Chotangapur Tenancy Act and the Santal Parganas Tenancy Act, and Patthalgadi.

The commemoration of Hul is a reminder of the long history of Adivasi resistance against internal colonialism that continues even today. As Santal researcher and educator Boro Baski says, “From British Raj to independent India, the Santal Hul drum still echoes.”

There are two ways of spelling the word ‘Santal’. In this article, the authors have chosen ‘Santal’ honouring the traditional pronunciation. Educational institutes with Santali departments in Odisha, West Bengal and Jharkhand predominantly use ‘Santal’, the authors have found. While both are considered official spellings in eastern India, the authors wish to alert readers that the official spelling of the Parganas, however, is ‘Santhal’. 

Nolina S. Minj is a writer and researcher currently doing her MPhil at TISS, Mumbai. Rahi Soren, Ph.D is currently an Assistant Professor at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.