The British East India Company, a trading organization, slowly and gradually through wars and diplomacy transformed itself into a political power between 1757 and 1857.
The British power made India a colony of the British and established colonial rule in India and introduced far-reaching changes into administrative, legal, social and religious spheres.
Colonialism of the British and introduction of British values had shaken the Indian society. While this transformation was taking place, Indians did not keep quiet as passive spectators helplessly but the subaltern groups of peasants and trial’s expressed their resentment through popular resistance, movements or civil disturbances mostly which were localized, sporadic, isolated and unorganized.
These popular resistance movements reflect a certain kind of currents of political and social consciousness which influenced them to fight against the authority of the British to regain their identity and interests of theirs, prior to the British annexation of India. Sumit Sarkar points out that in the past two decades intense research on civil disturbances makes it clear that Pax Britannica was largely a myth and we notice the revolts of the predominantly lower classes in social composition which are called subaltern groups and a study of this aspect is called ‘Towards a History from Below’.
Katherine Gough, an anthropologist, listed 77 per cent of peasant uprisings and classified them as ‘restorative’, ‘religious’, ‘social banditary’, and ‘terrorist vengeance’. K. Suresh Singh observes, “The tribal insurrections were the most militant outbreaks and they revolted more often and far more violently than any other community including the peasants in India”.
Bipan Chandra records that the series of civil rebellions, which run like a thread through the first one hundred years of the British rule were led by impoverished Zamindars, landlords and poligars but the backbone of the rebellions, their mass base and striking power came from the rack rented peasants, ruined artisans, and demobilized soldiers. Bipan Chandra further observes that these sudden localized revolts often took place because of local grievances, although for periods they acquired a broad sweep, involving armed bands of a few hundred to several thousands.
We may agree with Bipan Chandra that the very foreign character of the British rule hurt the pride and made them rise in revolt to expel the foreigner from their lands. In Bengal and Bihar, we notice more than fifty major rebellions apart from hundreds of minor ones between 1756 and 1856.
In the series of uprisings of the period, the Sannyasi Rebellion of 1763-1800 needs to be mentioned as the first one. The East India Company’s official records refer to this rebellion of northern Bengal. The targets of this group of sanyasis and fakirs were grain stocks of the rich and government officials. The rebellious sannyasis by adopting the guerilla techniques of fighting, also looted the local treasuries. They went to the extent of establishing an independent government in Bogra and Mymen Singh.
One feature to be noted is the equal participation of Muslims and Hindus in it. Manjushah, Musashah, Bhawani Pathakand Debi Chaudhurani were some of the important leaders of this rebellion. Till 1800, the conflict between the British forces and the sannyasis and fakirs – became a common feature.
The Khasis, a primitive tribe, a resident of Jaintia and Garo hills in Assam also rebelled against the British authority. They came into contact in 1765 and since then hostilities continued between the Khasis and the British and it provided impetus to similar risings among the Singhas in 1890. The English Captain Neufvilie succeeded in suppressing the revolt. The revolts of the chief of Kapachor Akas, the Nagas and Kukus took place respectively in 1835, 1849 and 1826-1849. Mundas, a tribe of Chota Nagpur also revolted against the British in 1831.
The primary reason for the revolt of the Mundas was the new policy of farming for outsiders and the revenue and judicial policies. It was suppressed by the British with the massive support of the British military force.
The peasants of Rangapur and Dinajpur districts of Bengal rose in revolt in the year 1783 against the harsh and inhuman attitude of Debi Singh, the revenue contractor. It is because he and his agents created a reign of terror in these districts by beating and flogging the peasants. The peasants appealed to the government, seeking justice but the silence and apathy of the government made the peasants revolt under the leadership of Dinajnarain. They formed the government of their own and stopped payment of revenue and the government with great difficulty suppressed the revolt.
Between the period of 1818 and 1831, the Bhils of Khandesh ravaged the plains to show their anger against the occupation of their territory by the British in 1818. In spite of the use of force and conciliatory measures, the Bhils could not be suppressed. In 1830-31, the peasants of Nagar and other provinces rose in revolt under the leadership of Sardar Malla, the son of an ordinary ryot of Kremsi. They defied the authority of the ruler of Mysore and ultimately the British forces suppressed this rebellion and the territory of Mysore went into the hands of the British.
In 1830-31, the Kols of Singabham, the tribals of Bihar opposed the British occupation of Singabham and rebelled against the British because their land was occupied by plains people, by which they were made to forgo their livelihood. The rebellion was active in the areas of Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Palamaw and Manbhum. Though they gained victory initially, ultimately they were defeated by the British militia. Between 1838 and 1851, the Foraizi sects founded by Haji Shariatullah of Faridpur rebelled against the oppression of the landlords and the British.
The Fazis opposed the British legal system and maintained the village courts to settle their disputes. They opposed the British and the Zamindars for their excesses but they too were suppressed by the British and the Zamindars in the end and Dudi Miyan, the leader of the Fajai sect was imprisoned. Between 1836 and 1854, the Mappilla uprising of Kerala posed a great challenge to the British administration. These are the descendant of the Arabs and converted Muslims. Majority of them earned their living by working as daily agricultural labourers, petty traders and fishermen. They rebelled against the British for their brutal behaviour.
The reasons for Mappilla rebellion are the transfer of Zamin to an independent owner, over-assessment, illegal taxes, forceful eviction from land and hostile attitude of the government. The religious leaders kindled unity among the Mappillas and they rose against the British government. Between 1836 and 1854, there were 22 uprisings against the government in Malabar and the participants were from the lower strata of society.
It was a prolonged movement, wherein with great difficulty, the government subdued the Mappilla movement. The last of revolts before the 1857 great revolt was the Santhal rebellion of 1855-56. The Santhals inhabited the districts of Birbhum, Banlarua, Murshidabad, Palkur, Damka, Bhaglapur and Purnea. Their area is known as Daman-l-kosh or Santhal Paragana. As the plainsmen in collaboration with the local Zamindars began to settle in their area, it became inevitable to the Santhals to rebel for their motherland and livelihood. Interestingly, the Santhals, the tribals were supported by non-tribals belonging to the lower strata. Finally, in the end the superior arms and armaments of the British succeeded.
A critical examination of the pre-1857 peasant and tribal uprisings reveal that they did not emerge in a ‘full blown form’. It is because the consciousness of the insurgence and rebellion was limited in perspective and mostly it was shaped by their vision of the past and what they have forgone by the annexation of the British.
We may say that the urge to recover their past provided them inspiration to struggle to regain that past from the newly established political power. Here the past refers to their identity as reflected in their livelihood and the land on which their forefathers have been living for ages. What this movement of peasants and tribal risings lacked is the awareness of the need for integrating consciousness of all those adversely effected by the British colonial policies.
No doubt, all the peasants and tribal uprisings are localized and isolated, but they served as the forerunners for the great uprising of 1857 which reflected the deep frustration, agony and anger of all sections of the effected people which shook the fabric of the British regime to the core.