It has been taught to us through School textbooks and different history books that “Sepoy Mutiny” in 1987 was the first struggle for independence of India. Initially, this revolution was downplayed by British by citing it as merely a mutiny in the ranks but Swatantra Veer Savarkar named it as first freedom struggle which was promptly noted by the British. This is variously described as the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian Mutiny, the Great Rebellion, the Revolt of 1857, the Indian Insurrection, and the First War of Independence.
There were many rebellions that happened before the 1857 war of Independence against the cruel British regime but have been lost somewhere in the pages of history. Here let us try and remember some of the important ones.
The Santhal Rebellion, commonly known as Santhal Hool, was a rebellion in the present-day Jharkhand. It was a revolt against both the British colonial authority and the zamindari system by Santhal people, one of the largest tribes in Jharkhand state. On June 30, 1855, ten thousand Santhals were mobilized by two Santhal brothers, Sidhu Murmu and Kanhu Murmu and a rebellion against British colonists was declared. Sidhu Murmu started to run a parallel government against British rule. The basic purpose was to collect taxes by making his own laws. In this rebellion, almost 60000 Santhals participated who came from places like Cuttack, Hazaribagh, Manbhum, Medinapore.
British Government tried everything to put a stop to this rebellion. They utilized Nawab of Murshidabad and other Zamindars along with large troops to kill the Santhals. The tribals used bows and arrows and other primitive weapons against the mighty firepower of British guns and ammunition. It is recorded by Charles Dickens, a noted English writer, that the Santhal people never used poisoned arrows against their foes, that they usually used for hunting, as they valued the sentiment of honor more than their lives.
“There seems also to be a sentiment of honor among them; for it is said that they use poisoned arrows in hunting, but never against their foes. If this be the case and we hear nothing of the poisoned arrows in the recent conflicts, they are infinitely more respectable than our civilized enemy, the Russians, who would most likely consider such forbearance as foolish, and declare that is not war.” -Charles Dickens
A bounty of Rupees 10,000 was announced for Santhal brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu who were later killed. This rebellion was brutally crushed by the British where almost 15000 Santhals were killed and their huts were destroyed by elephants supplied by Nawab of Murshidabad. A lot of villages were destroyed and the atrocities committed by the British army were brutal that some army men felt ashamed. Then British Army Major Jervis quotes:
“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. Their arrows often killed our men, and so we had to fire on them as long as they stood. When their drum ceased, they would move off a quarter of a mile; then their drums beat again, and they calmly stood till we came up and poured a few volleys into them. There was not a sepoy in the war who did not feel ashamed of himself.”
Vellore Fort Mutiny
Vellore Fort Mutiny had occurred in 1806, 50 years before 1857. On 10th July 1806, Indian sepoys killed and wounded about 200 British officers and seized the Vellore fort. They had it in their control for one full day but were later subdued by troops and cavalry from neighboring city Arcot. The revolt started when General Sir John Craddock introduced a new law prohibiting Hindus from wearing religious marks on their foreheads and Muslims required to shave their beards and trim their mustaches. He also ordered them to wear “round hats” which resembled the ones worn by Indian converts to Christianity. The new headdress included a leather cockade and was intended to replace the existing turban.
This move severely offended the Indian sepoys both Hindus as well as Muslims and led them into mutiny. More than 350 Indian sepoys lost their lives and an equal number were wounded. The ones that survived went through a formal trial and as a punishment 6 mutineers were blown away by canons, 5 faced a firing squad, 8 of them were hanged and 5 were transported to a distant place. All the sepoys that died were dumped into heaps and burnt while the Europeans were ceremoniously buried.
Paika Bidroha or Rebellion happened in March 1817 in Khorda a city in today’s state of Orissa. Paikas were the traditional Kshatriyas of Orissa who served as warriors. They were organized into three different ranks based on the weapons they wielded.
- Paharis – Bearers of Sheild and the Khanda sword
- Dhenkiyas – Archers
- Banuas – Bearers of Matchlocks (a very early firearm)
The Paikas were subjected to extortion and oppression at the hands of the British company government and its servants after their lands were forcefully taken away. Salt was heavily taxed by the British also added to the resentment among the common people.
Paikas under the leadership of Baxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhara Mohapatra, the commander of the forces of the king of Khordha, rebelled against the British with the help of tribals. Soon it spread across other provinces and other small kings of small kingdoms also joined with them. They attacked the British center of power and lodged a Guerilla war against inflicting many casualties.
This rebellion was crushed and all rebels put into trial followed by gruesome death penalty for some but they can’t able to crush Odia uprising. Even after this incident, Odisha continued her freedom struggle by Tapanga in 1827 and the Banapur Rebellion of 1835.
Other major violent uprisings against the British was followed by two separate Kandha uprisings under Dora Bisoi and Chakra Bisoi, Kol rebellion, the Sambalpur uprising led by Veer Surendra Sai and Gond Sardars, Bhuyan uprising under Dharanidhar Naik in Keonjhar. In October 2017, the Government of India recognized Paika revolt as first war of independence earlier it was Revolt of 1857.
There are many such heroic deeds of people who fought against British colonialism in India but somewhere they disappeared from our memory lanes. Nowadays we remember only a handful of the freedom fighters few of whose names have been forcefully fed into our lives and kept alive for political gains. Indian independence struggle was huge comprising of multiple events and many selfless sacrifices. It can’t be limited to some events and some individuals. Countless people have contributed in their own way to India’s freedom struggle, we must remember those heroes and spread their story and greatness.