The Santhal Rebellion, also known as Santhal Hool, took place on 30 June 1855 by the Santhal tribal people in Bengal Presidency. The revolt was led by four Murmu Brothers – Sidhu, Kanhu, Chand, and Bhairav, against the oppressive zamindari system set up by the British East India Company.
After the Battle of Plassey (1757) and the Battle of Buxar (1764), the British East India Company took control over the Indian territories of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. In 1793, Governor-General Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement System in the Bengal and Bihar region. Under this system, the zamindars had perpetual and hereditary rights over the land as long as they paid a fixed revenue to the British government. However, this revenue system gave powers to zamindars to exploit the peasants at their will, thereby creating resentment in many parts of this region.
The Santhals were the agricultural tribal people who lived in forests in harmony with nature. They were dependent on forests and practised shifting agriculture and hunting.
In 1832, the East India Company demarcated the Damin-i-Koh region (forested-hilly areas of Rajmahal hills) in present-day Jharkhand and invited Santhals to settle there. Due to promises of land and economic amenities, many Santhals came to settle in this region from Cuttack, Dhalbhum, Manbhum, Hazaribagh, Midnapore, etc.
But soon, the zamindars, who were the tax-collecting intermediaries employed by the East India Company, dominated the economy. The zamindars started exploiting and humiliating the Santhals. The moneylenders who had the support of British police also joined the zamindars to subject the Santhals to oppressive extractions and dispossessions of lands.
Many Santhals became the victim of corrupt money lending practices. The moneylenders lend money to the Santhals at unreasonable rates. When these peasants were not able to repay the loan, their lands were forcibly taken. They were also forced into bonded labour. This oppressive system sparked the Santhal Uprising in 1855.
On 30 June 1855, two Santhal rebel leaders, Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, organised over 10,000 Santhals and declared rebellion against the British East India Company. Under Sidhu and Kanhu, the Santhal proclaimed to end Company rule and drive out the British from their land. They formed their own troops, including the farmers, villagers and women. The sisters of the Murmu brothers, Phulo and Jhano, also took active participation in the rebellion.
Soon after the declaration of rebellion, the Santhal took to guerilla fighting. They executed zamindars, moneylenders and their operatives in many villages. They captured large parts of the land, including the Rajmahal hills, Bhirbhum and Bhagalpur district. When the police came to arrest the Murmu brothers, the villagers killed them. The Santhal army broke down the postal and railway communications.
This open rebellion by Santhals caught the British government by surprise. The British government realised that the Santhal uprising had all characteristics of defying the government. Initially, the British sent a small contingent to suppress the rebels, but they were unsuccessful, which further fueled the spirit of the rebellion.
When the law and order situation was getting out of the hand of the British government, the Company’s administration finally sent a large number of British troops. The British government applied all possible means to suppress the revolt.
The British troops used heavy loaded weapons against the bows and arrows used by the Santhals. The local zamindars and the Nawab of Murshidabad supported the British government to quell the rebellion, whereas local people supported the Santhals. During the uprising, war elephants, supplied by the Nawab of Murshidabad, were used to demolish the Santhal huts.
On 10 November 1855, martial law was declared by the East India Company, which lasted till 3 January 1856. The British eventually suppressed the revolt after the two brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu, were killed in action. The rebellion had a brutal end in which many Santhals were killed, and tens of villages were destroyed.