Sanyasi revolt, also known as the Fakir Rebellion, took place during the late 18th Century in Bengal (Eastern India) in the Murshidabad and Baikunthpur forests of Jalpaiguri. The revolt took place under the leadership of Pandit Bhabani Charan Pathak and Majnum Shah Fakir against the administration and revenue policy of the British government. The harsh economic order of Britishers and the disastrous famine of 1770 compelled Sanyasis to fight against colonial rule.
Sanyasi revolt, sometimes also referred to as the Fakir Rebellion, because of equal participation of Sanyasis (Hindu) and Fakirs (Muslim).
During the 18th Century, Sanyasis and Fakirs travelled from North India to different parts of Bengal to visit various pilgrim sites and shrines. On their way to the shrines, these ascetics collect a sizeable amount of alms (donation) or religious fees from the local chiefs and regional landlords or zamindars as a tradition. In times of prosperity, the zamindars and headmen were more willing to help the ascetics. Before the Battle of Plassey (1757), zamindars had no problem making the alms to the ascetics.
However, after the Battle of Buxar (1764), the British East India Company received the ‘Diwani‘ (the right to collect tax) of Bengal, Bihar and Odisha. The British control over Bengal led to an increase in land tax and exploitation of peasants. Because of increased tax demands, the local landlords and headmen faced difficulties in making alms to the ascetics.
Further, the Bengal Famine of 1770 led to a drop in production, and many of the zamindars were unable to pay taxes to the British. The British Government imposed several restrictions on the Sanyasis and Fakirs. To the British, these ascetics were looters and must be stopped from collecting money that belonged to the Company.
For hundreds of years, Sanyasi had been visiting pilgrim sites in different parts of Bengal. During their religious travels, these ascetics used to take some alms from zamindars. But after the British imposed taxes on zamindars, it became hard for them to give alms to the ascetics. The British Government imposed restrictions on Sanyasi and Fakirs, as the British thought they were looters and thugs. And thus, the rebellion began between the ascetics and the Company.
In 1771, 150 saints were put to death, apparently for no reason. This triggered rebellion which reached its climax in the late 1770s. The Sanyasi rose out against the British. A large number of small zamindars, rural poor, and disbanded soldiers also joined the rebellion. They raided Company’s factories and government treasuries and fought the Company’s forces. The Murshidabad and Baikunthpur forests in Bengal were the epicentre of the uprising. Governor-General Warren Hasting tried to subdue the Sanyasis, but the uprising continued.
The rebellion continued for half a century and later got weakened. The British were not able to suppress the sporadic clashes with ascetics because the Company’s forces had weak control over local events in the far-removed hill and jungle-covered districts like Birhum and Midnapore. Most of the clashes were recorded in the years following the 1770 famine, but they continued up until 1802.
Groups involved in the Sanyasi revolt
The equal involvement of Hindus and Muslims characterised the uprising, sometimes known as the Fakir rebellion. Apart from Sanyasi and Fakir, the rebellion saw the active participation of displaced zamindars, peasants, artisans, and disbanded armies of Nawabs.
The ex-army people provided leadership, the peasants provided a social base for rebellion, whereas Sanyasi and Fakirs provided a religious fervour to the struggle. They were also able to capture the Company’s Dacca centre and kept it under control for some time. They also launched similar attacks in Hooghly, Patna, Coach Bihar, Saran, etc.
Important leaders of the Sanyasi revolt
The important leaders of the Sanyasi revolt were Majnum Shah, Musa Shah, Chirag Ali, Bhawani Pathak, and Devi Chaudhurani.
Pandit Bhawani Charan Pathak was the main hero of the ‘Sanyasi Rebellion’ against British rule and exploitation in the land of Bengal. Debi Chaudhurani‘s participation recognizes the women’s contribution to early resistance against the British.
For Fakir, Majnum Shah was the main leader, who travelled to various places to inspire to continue the struggle. After the death of Mujnum Shah, his brother ‘Musa Shah‘ took the leadership and continued to rebel for some time. Later, Chirag Shah led the Fakirs to launch attacks on British establishments.
Historical Novel related to Sanyasi revolt
The famous historical novel “Anandamath“, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay (published in 1882), is based on the Sanyasi revolt.
Bankim Chandra Chatterjee also wrote a Bengali novel Devi Chaudhurani (1884), which mentions the importance of women taking part in the struggle against colonial rule.