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by FR. FELIX RAJ, SJ, DIRECTOR |  « back

150 years after Santal struggle for freedom
Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.

Hundred and fifty years ago, a group of Santals led the first armed struggle on 7th July 1855 against the exploitation and oppression perpetuated by the British rulers and their local agents like money lenders (mahajons), landlords (jamindars) and policemen (darogas). The movement was masterminded by the visionary Santal leader, Sido Murmu and his three brothers, Kanhu Murmu, Chand Murmu and Bhairo Murmu of Bhognadih village in Santal Parganas, Jharkhand.

This struggle which took place just before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 was one of the fiercest battles and is acknowledged by many historians and scholars as the first Freedom Movement and struggle of India, known popularly as the Santal Hul 1855. Hul is a Santali term, meaning a movement for liberation. The Hul conflagrated with the killing of cruel darogas and mahajons, who shattered the indigenous people under the patronage of the East India Company.

The Santal leaders, after having exhausted all the democratic means, organized over 50,000 people in Bhognadih and declared, "Henceforth, we are independent, we have no Masters or Rulers, we will govern ourselves on our own". The famous Santal struggle led to the formation of Santal Parganas. Earlier in 1780s, Baba Tilak Majhi took up arms against the British. He was caught by the British army in 1784, tied to the tail of a horse and dragged and his lacerated body was mercilessly hung from a banyan tree.

According to Hunter, around 20,000 Santals along with people from other Adivasi communities had shed their blood in this movement. Hunter wrote it in the Annals of Rural Bengal, "What we (British Army) fought was not a war. So long as their (Santal) 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".

The movement, however, did not come to an end in vain. It 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 some self governance with regard to maintaining peace and order within Santal territory.

The present day realities have forced the Santal and other Adivasi communities to migrate in search of livelihood where they inevitably perish. Land alienation, and socio-economic and political domination are leading them towards total annihilation as a community. Undoubtedly therefore, even after hundred and fifty years since the struggle, the vision of their leaders remains unfulfilled.

A national coordination committee, based in New Delhi, has been recently formed to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Santal Hul 1855. Santal Hul 150 is visualized to be an international network. An international forum has been formed to mark the celebration worldwide. The Santal community is waking up to identify strategic issues to fulfill their dreams.

The first main focal area is to standardize and disseminate the real names of the leaders of Santal Movement and their portraits and statues. There is a strong feeling among Santal people that the names of the leaders of Santal Movement have been distorted and that the Movement has not been given its due recognition till now. It is a fact that the brave freedom struggles by Adivasi people against the British tyranny and the cruelty of their ‘desi’ agents have gone unnoticed and sometimes, by nefarious design, excluded from history text books.

Secondly, there is the demand to make Santali as the official State language, ‘Raj Bhasa’ of Jharkhand. A community without a language is destined to be extinct one day. Decades of struggle by Santals have brought Santali within the 8th Schedule of the Constitution on 22nd December 2003. However, till today Santali language has not received its due respect as given to other languages in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution.

The Coordination Committee is proposing to the Government to make Santali as the medium of instruction in all Santal dominated areas of Jharkhand, West Bengal, Orissa and Assam; and to be taught as a language subject in schools and colleges. And thirdly, the Santal leaders are building a solidarity network to socio-politically and economically empower the Manjhi Pargana System, the traditional institutions of self-governance. Santal leaders should get their traditional rights so that they are able to effectively govern themselves.




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