Tribal Movements in India under British rule were the most frequent, violent, and militant of all the movements. Before the colonial rule in India, tribals had been living peacefully in their regions in harmony with nature. When the British came to India, they introduced many changes in their way of life. Many of the tribal groups revolted against this forceful instruction by the British into their life and region. In the 19th and 20th centuries, India witnessed numerous such rebels and movements.
Causes of Tribal Revolts in India
The tribal rebellions were sparked by several factors, which are as follows:
- The land Settlements by the British affected the joint ownership of land tradition among the tribal societies. Shifting cultivation, hunting, fishing, and use of forest produce were the mainstay of the tribals. The British curbed these mainstays, which added to the tribal’s problems.
- As the Company government extended agriculture in a settled form, the tribals lost their land, which causes the influx of non-tribals into these areas. This also reduced the tribals to being landless agricultural labourers.
- The British government extended its control over the forest land by setting up the reserved forest and putting restrictions on timber use and grazing. Thus, there was the erosion of the traditional land rights of the tribals.
- The British introduced the traders and money-lenders (most of them outsiders) into the tribal areas. This led to severe exploitation of local tribal people.
- With the expansion of colonialism, Christan missionaries came to these tribal regions and interfered with the traditional customs of the tribal people. Tribal resented these missionaries.
In 1864, the Government set up the Forest Department to mainly control the rich resources of the Indian forest. Further, the British government established its monopoly over forest land through the Government Forest Act of 1865 and the Indian Forest Act of 1878.
Tribal Movements in Central, West-Central, and South India
Most of the tribal movements in India during British rule were concentrated in Central India, the West-Central region, and South India. Some important tribal movements are as follows:
Chuar Rebellion (1766-1809)
Chuar uprising took place by the Chuar aboriginal tribesmen of Jungle Mahal of Midnapore district and Bankura district (in West Bengal). Mostly, these tribal peoples were farmers and hunters. They revolted against the rise in land revenue demands and economic privation by the British. The uprising was also known as the Revolt of Jungle Mahal.
The Chaur uprising was a series of revolts that took place between 1771 and 1809. The most significant uprising occurred in 1798, in which Durjan Singh (zamindar of Raipur) led a violent revolt along with his 1500 Chuar followers against the British. However, the British brutally suppressed the revolt.
(In detail: Chuar rebellion (1766-1809))
Pahariya revolt (1778)
Pahariya’s revolt took place in 1778 in Chota Nagpur region. The Pahariya Sardars of Chota Nagpur rebelled against the British expansion over their territory. The prominent leader of this uprising was Raja Jagganath, who led the Pahariyas of Raj Mahal Hills against the British expansion on their land.
Bhil Revolt (1818-31)
The Bhils lived in the Western Ghats, mostly concentrated in hill ranges of Khandesh, and controlled the mountain passes between the North and the Deccan. During the East India Company’s rule from 1817 to 1819, they faced famine, economic distress, and misgovernment.
In 1818, after the British intruded into the Bhil territory in the Khandesh region of Maharashtra, the tribals rebelled fearing exploitation under the new regime. They revolted under the leadership of Sewaram. However, the British forces suppressed the uprising with force.
The Bhil uprising again erupted in 1825 as the Bhils sought to take advantage of reverses being suffered by the British in the First Anglo-Burmese war. They also revolted in 1831 and 1846.
In 1913, the Bhils of south Rajasthan (Banswara, Sunth, and Dungarpur States) organised themselves under reformer Govind Guru to fight for the “Bhil Raj“.
Ho Uprisings (1820-37)
Ho people are an Austroasiatic Munda ethnic group of India. They call themselves Ho, Hodoko, and Horo, which means ‘human‘ in their own language. However, officially, they are mentioned in different subgroups like Kolha, Munda, Mundari, Kol, and Kolah in Odisha.
In 1765, after the Battle of Buxar (1764), Chota Nagpur was ceded to the British East India Company as part of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa Provinces. The Raja of Singhbum requested protection from the British Resident in Midnapore in 1767, but it was not until 1820 that he recognised himself as a feudatory of the British.
In 1820, the Raja of Parahat organised his Ho tribals to rebel against the colonial occupancy of Singhbhum (now in Jharkhand). The rebellion continued until 1827 when the British compelled the Ho tribals to submit.
However, later in 1831, Ho tribals again organised a rebellion, joined by the Mundas of Chotanagpur, to protest against the newly introduced Farming revenue policy and the entry of Bengalis into their region. Though the British suppressed the rebellion in 1832, the Ho operations continued till 1837.
Ramosi Uprisings (1822-29)
In 1818, after the British annexed the Maratha territories, the Ramosis (who had been employed by the Maratha administration) lost their means of livelihood. Under the Peshwa, they served in inferior ranks of police. However, the British annexation of Peshwa territory resulted in large-scale unemployment among Ramosis.
The Ramosis, the hill tribes of Western Ghats, had not reconciled to the British rule and the British Pattern of administration. They resented the policy of annexation. In 1822, Ramosis rose against the British under the leadership of Chittur Singh and plundered the country around Satara. In 1825, there were again eruptions under Umaji Naik of Poona and his supporter Bapu Trimbakji Sawant. The rebellion continued till 1829.
The disturbances occurred again in this area in 1839 over the disposition and banishment of Raja Pratap of Satara. Eventually, a superior British force restored order in this region. Generally, the British followed a pacifist policy towards the Ramosis and even recruited some of them into the hill police.
(In detail: Ramosi Uprising)
Koli Uprisings (1829-1848)
After the revolt of the Ramoshis, the Kolis in the northwestern part of Poona broke into revolt. The Kolis, mostly found in Gujarat and Maharashtra, were scattered over the whole area from the border of Kutch to the Western Ghats. They lived in the neighbourhood of the Bhils. The imposition of British rule, dismantlement of their forests, and a new order of administration in 1829 set up by the Company caused widespread unemployment.
The Kolis rose in rebellion against the Company’s rule in 1829, and 1839, and again in 1844-48. They resented the imposition of colonial rule, which caused large-scale unemployment for them and the dismantling of their forests.
Kol Rebellion (1832)
The Kols, along with other tribes, were the inhabitants of the Chota Nagpur area, which covers Ranchi, Singhbhum, Palamau, Hazaribagh, and the western parts of Manbhum. Before the advent of the British, they lived in complete autonomy and enjoyed their sovereignty under their traditional chiefs.
The trouble started in 1831 when the British transferred the land from the Kol chiefs to the outsiders on a large scale. The money lenders were oppressive and demanded heavy taxes. Further, British judicial and revenue policies caused resentment among Kols. The Kols organised themselves under the leadership of Buddho Bhagat and revolted against the British and moneylenders. They killed many outsiders and burnt their houses. This rebellion went on for two years, after which the British brutally suppressed them with their superior weaponry.
Khond Uprisings (1837-56)
The Khonds of the hilly region extending from Odisha to the Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh revolted against the company rule from 1837 to 1856. The uprising was led by the Chakra Bisoi against the interference in tribal custom, imposition of new taxes, and the entry of zamindars into their areas. The Khonds were joined by the Ghumsar, Kalahandi and other tribals. However, with the disappearance of Chakra Bisoi, the uprising came to end.
The Santhal Rebellion (1855-1856)
The Santhal Rebellion occurred in the Santhal region of Jharkhand, Odisha, and West Bengal. When the British government introduced the Zamindari system in the Bengal Presidency, the zamindars claimed the traditional land of Santhal as their own. The Santhals lost their land and turned into bonded labourers. The money-lenders joined the Zamindars to exploit them.
In June 1855, the Santhal revolt took place under the leadership of two brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu, in the plains of Rajmahal Hills (Bihar). They rebel against the practices of zamindars and killed many money-lenders. The revolt was intense and massive, which turned into an anti-British movement. The British suppressed the revolt violently in 1856, in which many Santhals, including the two leaders, were killed.
(In detail: Santhal Rebellion)
Bhuyan and Juang Rebellion (1867)
The Bhuyan and Juang Rebellion took place in Keonjhar (Orissa) in 1867 and 1891. Keonjhar was one of the Indian princely states, inhabited mostly by tribal people. The main tribes were Kols, Bhuyan, and the Juangs.
The first Bhuyan rebellion of 1867 was an outcome of strong resentment of the Bhuyans against the British policy of interference in their age-long practice of crowning or rejecting the king of their choice. In 1867, after the death of king Gadadhar Bhanja, the British government chose to crown Dhanurjay Narayan Bhanja (the son of his concubine) by refusing the claim of Brundaban Bhanja (the adopted son of his first wife or the first lady of the state).
The Bhuyans, however, resented this decision of the government and refused to recognise the son of a concubine as their king. They revolted under the leadership of Ratna Nayak against this government’s decision, which very soon took a violent turn, resulting in a terrible fight with the government police. The insurgency soon spread to other tribal belts of the State. They plundered the villages which did not join them. However, by August 1869, the British forces captured most of the rebellion leaders and suppressed the rebellion.
The second Bhuyan uprising was led by Dharanidhar Naik in 1891 against the oppressive policies of the king of the Keonjhar Dhanurjay Bhanja. The policies such as forced labour (Bethi) and pushing the framers to sell grains at low rates to the State were particularly oppressive. This led to an uprising in 1891, in which Kol, Bhuyan, and Juang actively participated. This uprising continued for about three years from 1891 to 1893. The British sent forces and ultimately crushed the revolt in 1893.
Naikdas Movement (1868)
In 1868, the Naikda forest tribe of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh rebelled against the British colonial police and caste Hindus. They revolted to end the oppressive British rule and establish the “Dharma Raj” in India.
Kharwar Movement (1868-1874)
Kharwar Movement, also known as the Sapha Har movement, began in 1868 by the Kharwar of Bihar. The Movement initially advocated for monotheism and social reforms. The uprising was led by Bhagirath Manjhi against the revenue settlement activities. The Kherwar (or Kharwar) Movement continued till 1874.
(In detail: Kherwar Movement)
Rampa Rebellion (1879)
Rampa rebellion of 1879 was an insurrection by the hill tribes in the Rampa region of the Vizagapatnam (Visakhapatnam) district against the British government of Madras Presidency.
The hill tracts of Visakhapatnam were inhabited by the hill tribes, who led more or less independent life for centuries. They paid a regular tribute to a zamindar or mansabdar, who was a subject of British India. But, the then zamindar of the region was an oppressive tyrant. There had been smaller riots against the zamindar before. To make the matter worse, the Madras government introduced a law that made toddy tapping illegal. However, toddy tapping was part of the culture of these hill tribes, which led to a full-scale rebellion in early 1879.
The rebellion began in March 1879, when the hill tribes of Rampa made attacks on police stations in Chodavaram taluk. Soon, the revolt spread to the Golconda hills of Vishagapatm and Bhadrachalam taluk. Within a short time, rebellion engulfed the whole district. The Madras government responded by dispatching several companies of policemen. The revolt was eventually suppressed by the British, and a large number of revolutionaries were sent to the Andaman Jail.
The Rampa rebellion of 1879 was also known as the First Rampa rebellion to distinguish it from the Rampa revolt of 1922-24.
Koya Revolts (1879-80)
The Koya revolt of 1879-80 took place under the leadership of Tomma Sora in the eastern Godavari track (modern Andra Pradesh). They rebelled against the oppressions of police and money lenders, new regulations and denial of their customary rights over the forest areas. After the death of Tomma Sora, another uprising was organised by Raja Anantayyar in 1886.
Munda Uprising (1899-1900)
Munda Rebellion, also known as the “Ulgulan Movement“, took place under the leadership of Birsa Munda in the Chotanagpur region (near Ranchi, Jharkhand). They revolted against the introduction of zamindari, tenures, and exploitation by moneylenders and forest contractors.
In December 1899, Birsa Munda launched an armed struggle against the zamindars and the British government. The rebels attacked police stations and churches and raided the property of moneylenders and zamindars. They wanted to establish the ‘Munda Raj’. On 9 January 1900, the British forces suppressed the rebellion. Birsa was captured and imprisoned.
(In detail: Munda Rebellion)
Bastar Revolt (1910)
The Baster Rebellion, also known as the ‘Bhumkal, was a tribal uprising in 1910 against the British Raj in Jagdalpur in the princely state of Bastar, Central India. The revolt took place against the British colonial policies regarding the usage of forests. The tribals also resented the new feudal and forest levies. The rebellion was primarily led by Gunda Dhur (a tribal leader) and Lal Karendra Singh (diwan and cousin of the king). However, by the end of February 1910, British forces had quelled the revolt and arrested the leaders.
Khond Revolt (1914)
In 1914, the Khond rebellion took place in the Orissa region with the hope that British rule would end and the Khonds could gain an autonomous government.
Jatra Bhagat and Tana Bhagat Movement (1914)
The Jatra Bhagat movement was an uprising by the Oraon tribes in 1914 in the Chhotanagpur area of British India. The movement was led by Jatra Bhagat and Balram Bhagat against the interference of outsiders in their region. They also resented the policies of local British authorities.
Jatra Bhagat started the movement with the idea that there should be complete removal of British ethics from the lifestyle of the tribal population. The Movement stood for monotheism and abstention from meat, liquor and tribal dance.
Tana Bhagat movement again took place in 1920-21. Tana Bhagats was a tribal community formed by the Oraon saints, Jatra Bhagat and Turia Bhagat. The Tana Bhagats opposed the taxes imposed on them by the British and staged a Satyagraha against British rule. They opposed the zamindars, moneylenders, Christian missionaries, and the British. Tana Bhagats were the followers of Mahatma Gandhi and believed in Ahimsa (non-violence).
The Jatra Bhagat and Tana Bhagat movements stressed both anti-colonialism and internal reforms.
Chenchus Uprising (1921-22)
IN 1921-22, the Chenchus tribal people of Nallamala Hills (Andhra Pradesh) revolted against the British forest laws under the leadership of K. Hanumanthu. He organised a Forest Satyagraha in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh against the increasing British control over forests.
Rampa Revolt (1922-24)
The Rampa revolt of 1922, also known as the ‘Manyam Rebellion‘, was a tribal uprising led by Alluri Sitarama Raju in the Godavari Agency (Rampa region) of the Madras Presidency. The rebellion broke out in August 1922 against the British raj for their imposition of the Madras Forest Act of 1882, which severely restricted the free movement of tribal communities within their own forests. Under the implication of this Act, the tribals were unable to fully carry out the traditional Podu agricultural system, which involved shifting cultivation.
Alluri Sitarama Raju organised the tribal people of Vishakapatnam and East Godavari district to revolt against the British. They stormed several police stations and killed many British officers. The rebellion took the form of guerilla warfare. In May 1924, the Rampa revolt came to a violent end when the British forces captured Raju, tied him to a tree and shot him dead. The people honoured Raju with the title “Manyam Veerudu“, which translates to ‘Hero of the jungles‘.
Tribal Movements of North-East
The movements of the tribes of the North-eastern frontier were different from the non-frontier tribal revolts (uprisings in central and south India) in some aspects.
- Firstly, the tribes in the north-eastern region, which shared tribal and cultural links with the countries across the border, did not concern themselves much with the nationalist struggle. Their revolts were often in favour of political autonomy within the Indian Union or complete independence.
- Secondly, the British entered the north-eastern areas much later than the non-frontier tribal areas. Therefore, these movements were not forest-based or agrarian revolts, as these tribals were generally in control of land and forests.
- Thirdly, the frontier tribal revolts against the British continued for a longer time than the non-frontier tribal revolts.
Khasi Revolt (1830)
After the East India Company occupied the hilly regions between Garo and Jaintia Hills, the British wanted to build a road through the Khasi hills linking the Brahmaputra valley with Sylhet. For this purpose, a large number of outsiders, including Bengalis, Englishmen and labourers from the plains, were brought to these regions.
However, the tribes of these regions wanted to stop the road construction project through the Khasi hills. To drive out the outsiders and stop this project, the Khasis, Garos, Khamptis, and the Singphos, organised themselves under the leadership of Tirot Singh. The movement developed into a popular uprising against British rule in this area. However, by 1833, the British were able to suppress the Khasi rebellion.
Singphos Rebellion (1830)
The Singphos rebellion, headed by Sua Gonsai, took place in early 1830 in Assam. But it was suppressed by the British forces under Captain Neufville just after three months. However, Singphos continued to organize revolts. An uprising rose again in 1839, in which they killed Colonel White (British political agent of Assam). In 1843, Chief Nirang Phidu led an uprising, in which they attacked the British garrison and killed many soldiers. In 1849, Kadma Singpho attacked the British villages in Assam and was captured. The British Government finally put an end to this rebellion.
Kacha Nagas Revolt (1882)
Kacha Nagas’ revolt took place under the leadership of Sambhudan in the Cachar region of Assam in 1882. They revolted against the British land revenue policy. However, the revolt was brutally crushed by the British.
Kuki Revolt (1917-1919)
Kukis constitute one of several hill tribes within India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. The first resistance to British hegemony by the Kuki people was the Kuki rebellion of 1917-19. The revolt took place in Manipur in 1917 against the British policies of recruiting labour during the first World War.
In 1917, as World War I raged on, the British pressed the Kukis, Nagas, Lushais, and other tribes into service as part of the Imperial army’s Labour Corps. They were forced to carry the luggage of British soldiers. The Kukis refused, leading to the Kuki rebellion of 1917-19.
Up until their defeat in 1919, the Kukis had been living as an independent people ruled by their chieftains. After their defeat, the British subjugated their territory and divided it between the administrations of British India and British Burma. The Dobashi, Lengjang Kuki was credited as responsible for preventing the Kukis of the Naga Hills from joining the Kuki Rebellion of Manipur.
Zeliangrong Movement (1920s)
Zeliangrong people are one of the major indigenous Naga communities living in the tri-junction of Assam, Manipur, and Nagaland in India. In the 1920s, Zeliangrong revolted against the failure of the British to protect them during the Kuki violence of 1917-19. The movement was led by the Zemi, Liangmei, and Rongmei tribes in Manipur.
Naga Movement (1931-32)
In 1931, Haipou Jadonang led the Naga movement in Manipur against British rule in India. Jadonang was a Naga spiritual leader and political activist from Manipur. He established the Heraka religious movement based on the ancestral Naga religion and declared himself to be the “Messiah King” of the Nagas. Jadonang envisioned establishing an independent Naga Kingdom (Naga raj), which brought him into conflict with British rule in India.
Heraka religious movement was initially launched as a spiritual movement to reform the Zeliangrong Naga communities. But later it turned into a political movement seeking to drive out the British from Manipur and the surrounding Naga areas. Jodonang led the Zeliangrong movement against the British to establish a Naga Raj in the area. But, he was arrested and hanged by the British in 1931 and succeeded by his cousin Rani Gaidinliu.
Rani Gaidinliu‘s association with Jadonang prepared her to fight the British. After the execution of Jadonang, she took up the leadership of the movement (Zeliangrong Movement) in 1932. She started a severe revolt against the British. Gaidinliu was arrested in 1932 at the age of 16 and was sentenced to life imprisonment by the British.
Jawaharlal Nehru met Rani Gaidinliu at Shillong Jail in 1937 and promised to pursue her release. She was released after 14 years in 1947. Acknowledging her role in the struggle against the British, Jawaharlal Nehru called her the “Daughter of the Hills” and gave her the title of “Rani” (Queen).