The Central Government has declared November 15 as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, to eulogise the contribution of the tribal community to the nation. The birth anniversary of the great tribal leader, Birsa Munda also falls on the same day. His role in India's freedom struggle is unforgettable. He was largely instrumental in mobilising the tribal communities against the British. The government has also planned a week-long celebration to mark the memory of the great tribal heroes who remained unsung even to this date. Without remembering their sterling contribution, the commemoration of 75 years of Indian Independence would fall short of public expectations. In this connection, the government is setting up 10 tribal museums in the country to preserve their rich heritage.

In India, there are more than 700 tribal communities. These tribal people have enriched the Indian culture, heritage, and traditions. Even before the freedom struggle of 1857, the tribals and their leaders rose in revolt against British rule. Across India, tribals ranging from the Santhals, Kol, Ho, Pahadia, Munda, Oraon, Chero, Lepcha, Bhutia, and the Bhuyan tribes in the east, the Khasi, Naga, Ahom, Meamaria, Able, Nyishi, Jaintia, Garo, Mizo, Dingulo, Kuki and Lusai in the north-east, the Padyagars, Kurichya, Beda, Bonds and Great Andamanese in the south, the Halba, Kol, Muriya, Koli, Mina, and Dubla in the west, made sustained and ferocious attacks on the British. It is surprising that their contribution in the right against British rule has not found a place in the tomes written by India's frontline historians.

A bare perusal of the annals of Indian history shows that much has been written about in regard to the unceasing conflicts between the British rule and the Indian people centres around the Western-educated elite class living in major cities. These people generally belonged to the rich heritage and dominated the political landscape of India. Besides these, there existed a larger group of people comprising tribals, villagers, industrial workers, etc. who also contributed their might in their own way to fight the colonial rule from time to time. "There exists considerable anthropological and sociological literature in the form of studies of particular tribes, villages, and castes", but there is "very little so far in the way of rounded general studies of major social groups at even a regional level... analysing the changes both in their conditions of living and in their consciousness." This crucial gap is easily discernible in the accounts of major works on Indian history. This gap has been filled up by the latter historians in the late twentieth century in the form of subaltern history or "history from below", "As in earlier or later periods, the most militant outbreaks tended to be of tribal communities". They "revolted more often and far more violently than any other community including peasants in India5 This kind of historiography included the tribal resistance to British rule also. Some of such revolts may be cited as such:

Some Important Revolts

  1. Kherwar or Sapna Har movement of the 1870s:  In the initial stage, this movement was directed towards preaching monotheism and internal social reforms. However, it gradually changed its course by turning into a campaign against revenue settlement operations before it was finally suppressed.

  2. Naikda forest tribe in Gujarat started attacking police stations in 1868 with a view to establishing a dharma-raj.

  3. Kacha Nagas of Cachar in 1882 became violent and attacked the whites led by a miracle worker, Sambhudan who claimed that his followers became immune to bullets under the spell of his magic.

  4. In 1900, a Konda Dora named Korea Kalkata of the Vizagapatam Agency, pretending that he was inspired being a reincarnation of one of the five Pandava brothers, collected a horde of about 4 to 5 thousand people. He further claimed that his son was the god Krishna and he would drive out the English people from the country and rule by himself. He also armed his followers with bamboos which would change into guns and the weapons of the British authorities would be converted into water by his magical prowess. In the ensuing skirmishes with the authorities, 11 of the 'rioters' were shot dead and 60 were put on trial by the police.

  5. The 'Rampa' country of Chodavaram situated at the heart of the hills of Godavari Agency had been a witness to a more formidable rebellion in 1879-80. Its tribal Kiya and Kandla chiefs (muttadars) had revolted against their Mansabdar, an overlord, in 1840, 1845, 1858, 1861, and 1862. The major revolt happened in 1879 when Mansabdar efforts culminated in enhancing taxes on timber and grazing. At the same time, police exactions, new excise regulations restricting domestic preparations of toddy, exploitation by low-country traders and moneylenders, and restrictions on shifting cultivation (podu) in forests added to the existing grievances. The rebellion affected an area of no less than 5000 square miles which could be suppressed by November 1880 only with the help of the armed regiments of Madras Infantry. In 1886, another uprising started in which the rebels acted as a soldier of Rama's army (Rama Dandu)

    In the nineteenth century, tribal insurgencies remained an endemic feature encompassing many parts of India. In Nallamalai hills of Cuddapah and Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, the very primitive food-gathering Chenchu tribe's traditional rights of forest products were increasingly restricted by the government from 1898 onwards. In the year 1913, a Forest Committee tightened up restrictions for conservancy and revenue purposes led to a powerful "forest satyagraha" in Cuddapah. In Rampa country also, a fituri or revolt n 1916 paved the way for the major rebellion led by Aluri Sitarama Raju in 1922-24 who had become a folk hero in Andhra Pradesh. The reasons for this rebellion were old ones, particularly the exploitation by moneylenders, and forest laws curtailing shifting cultivation and age-old grazing rights. When the local Tehsildar tried to construct forest roads with unpaid labour, the local resentment found a violent expression. In the Damarapalli ambush of 24 September 1922, the rebels shot down two British officers while letting go the rest of the advance party comprising Indian soldiers. Ultimately, Raju was captured on 6 May 1924 and was reported shot in an attempted escape. The rebellion was finally suppressed in September 1924. Raju is alleged to have claimed that he was bullet-proof and a 'rebel proclamation announced the imminent coming of Kalki avatar'. The British authorities admired him as a guerrilla tactician.

  6. In 1910, an uprising in the Jagdalpur region was suppressed by the British troops against the Raja of Bastar. Its main cause was the recent imposition of forest regulations banning shifting cultivation and free use of forest produce. The rebels went to the extent of disrupting communications, attacking police stations and forest outposts, burning schools that were generally built by using forced labour and compulsory levies on tribals. They also tried to besiege Jagdalpur town.

  7. In October 1914, a rebellion flared up in the Orissa feudatory state of Daspalla where a rumour set afloat that the war had started leading to the exit of the British authorities from the country and the home rule was in the offing. The British authorities out of fear of general Khond uprising set ablaze the whole of the vast inaccessible mountain tracts adjacent to the Eastern Ghats extending up to Kalahandi and Bastar. Similar news also affected the Oraons of Chote Nagpur, the neighbours of the Mundas. Jatra Bhagat in 1914 started a movement here calling for monotheism, abstention from meat, liquor, and tribal dances, and a return to shifting cultivation. It was soon suppressed by the British authorities. However, one more specific 'Tana Bhagat' movement survived among the Oraons which developed links with Gandhian nationalism from the 1920s.

  8. A Santal rising in Mayurbhanj and a rebellion in Manipur among the Thadoe Julie's in 1917 were the offshoots of the British efforts to recruit tribal labour for menial work on the Western front. It was also accentuated by adopting the practice of Pothang which forced the tribals to carry the baggage of officials without payment and restrictions on jhoom cultivation. For two years, the guerrilla war went on here.

  9. Bhils of Banswara, Sunith, and Dungarpur states in Rajasthan led by Govind Guru joined the action under the spell of the reform movement. Beginning as a temperance and purification movement in 1913, it was transformed into an endeavour to set up a Bhil raj. A large number of Bhils gathered on Mantar hill who were dispersed by the British after putting up considerable resistance. In the operation, 12 tribals were killed and 900 were taken prisoners.10 The tribal movements also spread to princely states when in Sirohi in Rajasthan, the Bhil movement under the leadership of Motilal began, protesting against the Jagirdars oppression and the land taxes of the government in 1921-22. They were inspired by Gandhi's nationalist movement.

  10. The most widely followed and best known tribal upsurge of this period is the Ulgulan or the Great Tumult of Birsa Munda in the region of the South of Ranchi. Born on November 15, 1875, in Ulihatu village in present-day Jharkhand, Birsa underwent a heart-rending phase of abject poverty in a tribal Munda family. This was the time when the British authorities had started penetrating the deep forests of Central and Eastern India disrupting tribals' normal life. They also introduced a feudal zamindari system in the Chhota Nagpur region which almost destroyed the tribal "khuntkatti" agrarian system. In the wake, outsiders like moneylenders and contractors sneaked into the jungles, along with the feudal landlords. The unwelcome missionary activity also fuelled the fire hurting the religious-cultural ethos of Adivasis. During the 1880s, Birsa keenly followed the Sardari Larai movement in the region demanding the restoration of tribal rights through non-violent methods which included sending petitions to the British Government. But nothing happened. The zamindari system changed the status of tribals from the landowners to that of labourers. This feudal setup strengthened the forced labour or veth bigari in the tribal areas living in the forests. In 1893-94, Birsa participated in a movement that was directed to prevent village waste from being taken over by the Forest Department. In 1895, young Birsa experienced a vision of a supreme God and he claimed to be a prophet endowed with miraculous healing powers. Birsa was imprisoned for two years by the British fearing a conspiracy. After his return from the jail, he started a series of night meetings in the forest area where Birsa is said to have urged the 'killing of Thikadars and Jagirdars and Rajas and Hakims and Christians'. He promised to his followers 'that the guns and bullets would turn to water'. On Christmas Eve,1899, his followers shot arrows and tried to burn down churches over an area falling in the districts of Ranchi and Singhbhum. In January 1900, the police itself became the main target. However, on January 9, the rebels were defeated at Sail Rakab hill leading to Birsa's capturing by the British three weeks later. He died in jail on June 9, 1900. Nearly 350 Mundas were put on trial, three were given capital punishment and 44 were transported for life. His charisma earned him the title of "Bhagwan".

  11. In 1944, the Varli tribal agricultural labourers in Umbargaon and Dahanu talukas in Thana district of Maharashtra were aggrieved by the practice of forced labour (veth) performed for the landowners and moneylenders at a time the prices of daily goods were on an upward trend due to war. Their cause was espoused by the Maharashtra Kisan Sabha. The Varlis of Umbargaon staged an unsuccessful strike on their own in the same year. They were demanding a minimum daily wage of twelve Annas (1 rupee=16 Annas) for agricultural work like grass cutting and tree felling. Thereafter, the Kisan Sabha stepped in and organised the Varlis. At a conference in May 1945, it was decided to launch a more prolonged movement for the abolition of forced labour and claiming a minimum wage of twelve annas. The movement caught momentum in the Umbargaon taluka where forced labour was stopped and debt-serfs were released. The movement further spread to nearby Dahanu producing similar results. In October during the grass cutting season, the movement entered into the second phase, and the Kisan Sabha called for a strike. In response, the landlord resorted to intimidation, court cases, and appeals to the district administration for help. On 11th October, the police opened fire at a peaceful gathering. Five Varlis lost their lives. Consequently, many landlords yielded to their demands. Later, on 11th November, an agreement was signed by all the stakeholders ensuring the payment of minimum wages to the tribals.

In post1857 India, tribal revolts occurred in all parts of the country, "but they remained disjointed or isolated and local."

The above-mentioned list is not exhaustive, to say the least. There are many other such incidents of the tribal uprising which are yet to be recorded on paper by historians. These tribal revolutionary movements brought to focus such leaders as Tika Majhi, Tikendrajit Singh, Veer Surendra Sal, Telanga Kharia, Veer Narayan Singh, Sidhu, Kanu Murmu, Rupchand Konwar, and Laxman Naik who became a source of inspiration for the entire tribal community. Further, one cannot overlook the contributions of tribal women to the freedom movement like Rani Gaidinlieu, Jhano Murmu, Helen Lepcha, and Putali Maya Tamang. Their proud place in the annals of India's History is always secured.


From the above discussion, it looks obvious that the role of the tribals in India's freedom struggle is tremendous, though it has not caught the attention of historians in an adequate manner. Tribals living in forests in different parts of the country were amongst the firsts who dared to challenge British rule and its malpractices. But their acts of rebellion were sporadic and lacked efficient and potent leadership. Although the issues of their grievances were the same everywhere, no central leadership could evolve to espouse their cause and unite them in their fight against British rule. The colonial power in the form of the British imposed the much-hated zamindari system in the forest areas which turned them into labourers overnight from the landowners. Moreover, they were deprived of the minimum wages for their menial works. The intrusion into their religion and beliefs was systemically brought about by the missionaries. All this and certain other factors nearly uprooted the tribals from their own moorings at the behest of foreign rulers. Since the tribals were the primary sufferers and easy targets, the British introduced their repressive laws with impunity. The tribals were not organised, hence the British authorities found it easy to quell the disturbances without much ado. Despite all odds, the tribals time and again rose in rebellion against the British misrule. This is high time our historians gave their due by writing a comprehensive history of the tribal uprisings under the British rule. That will be a real tribute to their shining valour and courage of conviction.

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  • Divyaa, Coming up across the country, 10 tribal museums, The Indian Express, November 18, 2021.
  • Arjun Munda, Recognising the role of tribal communities in Indian Independence, The Hindustan Times, November 15, 2021.
  • Sumit Sarkar, Modern India 43, 1885-1947, Macmillan, 1983.
  • Ibid.
  • K.Suresh Singh, Ibid. p.44.
  • Thurston and Rangachari, Castes and Tribes of Southern India, Vol. III, Madras 1909, p.353, cited in Sumit Sarkar, Modern India,1885-1947, p.45.
  • Ibid. p.46.
  • Ibid, p.240.
  • Ibid, p.154.
  • Ibid, p.155.
  • Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, From Plassey To Partition And After 327, A History of Modern India, Second Edition, Orient BlackSwan, 2017.
  • L. Murugan, The Legend of Birsa Munda, The Indian Express, November 15, 2021.
  • Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, 1885-1947, p.46-47.
  • Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, From Plassey To Partition And After, A History of Modern India, p.434.
  • Ibid, 204.
  • Arjun Munda, Recognising the role of tribal communities in Indian Independence, The Hindustan Times, November 15, 2021.