On the northernmost part of Jharkhand, represented by the division of the Santhal Parganas, there occurred a formidable insurrection (Hul) of the Santhals in 1855-57. The Santhals had immigrated into this region from the areas now forming the Chotanagpur region of Jharkhand, and Birbhum, Bankura, Purulia and Midnapur districts of Bengal during the later half of the 18th century and the early quarters of the 19th century, and settled in what came to be known as the Damin-i-Koh from 1832-33. The Santhals, largely through their own efforts, made this area fertile and inhabitable. For administrative purposes the area was under the civil control of its superintendent, named Mr Pontent since 1837; in criminal matters it was under the Magistrate of Bhagalpur. There was only one local magistrate in the area of Deoghar, and for justice the Santhals had to go a long way to the distant courts at Bhagalpur and other places where too it was not always certain because of the frauds practised on them by the court Amlas, Mukhtars, peons and Barkandazes.

The main causes of the Santhal Hul lay in the economic, social and political grievances of these people against their oppression and exploitation by the Zamindars, up-country merchants and Mahajans (money-lenders), as well as against the highhandedness and atrocities of the Company rule. Last, but by no means least, there was the Santhals’ yearning for independence and for recognition as lords of the soil – a motive which inspired them with the idea of establishing their own Raj under their own Subahs or Chiefs. The new settlers had amassed large fortunes at the cost of simple Santhals within an incredibly short time. They lent a few rupees, some rice or other articles to the Santhals and following a cunning and tortuous process within a short period ‘became the arbiters of their fate and held in hand their destiny throughout life.’ Not only the Santhal rapidly lost all his lands to pay off the Mahajan’s debts, but in numerous cases pledged his own person to work off the debt. This condition of rank slavery was tolerated, nay sanctioned, by the courts of law. The misfortune of the Santhals was further aggravated by the greediness of certain zamindars who coveted their lands, or would often lease Santhal villages to non-Santhals for money considerations. Further the police was oppressive and corrupt and usually a handsome bribe from the mahajans was more effective on the local daroga than the real distresses of the Santhal. Mr Pontent’s harsh conduct towards the Santhals was also regarded as a cause of the insurrection.

The growing discontent among Santhals was fired into flames through the vigorous efforts of two Santhal brothers Sidhu and Kanhu of Bhognadihi, who along with their two less pushing brothers Chand and Bhairab were moving force in the entire movement. The two brothers were men of strong personal character, and they brooded over the wrongs of their community. They claimed to have seen apparitions of their Thakur, and to have been favoured with scraps of paper, which were distributed throughout the country. They also sent forth a ‘Sal’ tree branch to their brothers and sisters, as a sign to rouse the clans. On the 30th of June, 1855, 10,000 Santhals met at Bhoganadihi, where the divine order that the Santhals should get out of their oppressors’ control was announced to them by Sidhu and Kanhu. It is said that the assemblage at Sidhu’s directions addressed Government and all subordinate authorities. The Santhals declared their determination to ‘take possession of the country and set up a Government of their own.’

They proceeded from Bhoganadihi to the neighbouring bazaar at Panchkethia to worship a local goddess there, and thereafter started their insurrection. Here, they killed 5 local mahajans, and when on the 7th July, 1855 the daroga of thana Dighu (Borio Bazar), who had already made himself obnoxious to the Santhals due to his ill-treatment of a respectable Santhal last year, reached the place with his party, he was soon killed by Sidhu along with a few others (19 persons in all), and the rest of the police party fled. The insurgents next plundered Barhet bazaar, which was then full of many rich mahajans, and then marched in different directions with bows, poisoned arrows, axes and swords, in their hands.

The news of the outbreak reached Bhagalpur as early as the 4th July, but the ‘report seemed so strange and unlikely that at first little credit was attached to it.’ But when the report of Borio thana murder reached the Commissioner (G F Brown) on the afternoon of the 8th July he immediately requested Major F W Burrows to despatch a force to Rajmahal, ‘the insurgents having given out that they intended to attack that place.’ But on receiving information the following morning that the insurgents after having plundered several villages between Borio and Kahalgaon, were moving in the direction of Bhagalpur as well as in that of Rajmahal, and that they had, in fact, arrived within 20 miles of latter place, he modified his former orders, and asked Major Burrows to arrange for sending a detachment to Rajmahal and also to be careful ‘to reserve a force sufficient for the defence’ of Bhagalpur, if necessary. Major Burrows, with 160 rank and file, marched for Rajmahal in the evening of the 10th July. He reached Kahalgaon on the 11th but he could not dare to proceed further, hearing of a large number of insurgents in the neighbourhood scattered in small parties. On the same day, the Commissioner wrote to the Officer Commanding the troops at Danapur to send additional troops ‘to aid Major Burrows in quelling the insurrection and for the protection’ of Bhagalpur.

The insurgents had an encounter, on the 13th July, with 6 or 8 men of the Railway staff who were defeated. Dak and all Railway operations between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal had been stopped. The insurgents claimed that the Company’s rule was at an end and the regime of their soobah had commenced. ….

The troops under Major Burrows were defeated in a fierce engagement with a body of armed Santhals near Pirpainti at about 2 pm on the 16th July, 1855. ‘The result was that the Quarter-Master-Sergeant, Mr Braddon, some native officer, and about 25 sepoys were killed. The party then retired to Pirpainti where they got on board boats and proceeded up towards Kahalgaon.’

Major Shuckburgh arrived Bhagalpur on the 17th and immediately 200 men under command of Lt Rubie on board the steamer ‘Benaras’ were sent to Kahalgaon. Further reinforcements were at the same time requisitioned from Danapur and Calcutta. The insurrection having by that time ‘assumed all the characteristics of a rebellion’ the Commissioner proclaimed martial law against the Santhals offering high rewards for the apprehension of the Insurgent Chiefs. ….The rebellion had spread to other quarters with great rapidity. Soon the Santhals were left masters of the country from Kahalgaon on the west to Rajmahal on the east, and nearly as far as Raniganj and Sainthia on the south. In Birbhum also the insurgents had become a formidable force. In fact, by the 20th of July, the revolt had spread from Taldanga at the south-west of Birbhum on the G T Road to Bhagalpur and Rajmahal on the Ganges in the north-west. In order to prevent the advance of the Santhals to the south of the Damodar river and of the G T Road, the Ramgarh Irregular Light Horse, the Governor-General’s Body-guard, the 37th Regiment, 200 of the Nizamat troops with 30 elephants and 32 horses and subsequently the 63rd Regiment of N I had been put in motion. Several engagements with insurgents took place, the Government troops many times meeting with partial reverses, but by the 17th of August quiet was restored to this part of the country, though the rebels under arms were still estimated to exceed 30,000.

The Santhals showed a certain chivalry in the struggle against the troops. Although it was their custom to use poisoned arrows in shooting and hunting, they did not use them against the soldiers. There is, at least, one instance of their giving fair warning before making an attack, for having captured a dak runner and looted his mail bags, they spared his life on condition that he went to Suri carrying a branch of the Sal tree with three leaves on it, to show that in three days they would attack the town. They also showed the most reckless courage. In one case 45 Santhals had taken refuge in a mud house and refused to surrender. Volley and volley was fired in, and at every volley quarter was offered; but each time the Santhals answered with a discharge of arrows. At last, when their fire slackened, the troops entered the huts and found only one old man alive. A sepoy called on him to lay down his arms, whereupon the old man rushed on the sepoy and cut him down with his battle-axe. The general character of the struggle has been vividly described by Major Jervis, who commanded some of the troops: “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 for a quarter of a mile; then their drums began 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.”

The troops reached Barhet, the Santhal capital, on the 24th July, and again beat the rebels at Raghunathpur. Soon afterwards Sidhu was given up to the Bhagalpur troops through treachery. The rainy season of the year was unsuited to the British troops for active operation against the rebels who had retired to the jungles. ….

In September, the Santhal resumed active resistance in parts of Birbhum and Bhagalpur and martial law was proclaimed on the 10th November by F J Halliday, Lt Governor of Bengal, with the consent of the Governor-General in Council. The proclamation of martial law encouraged the troops to proceed vigorously with the work of chastising the Santhal insurgents. A number of outposts, sometimes consisting of 12 to 14 thousand men, drove away the insurgents from the open country. Government then suspended the martial law on the 3rd January, 1856. But even after the suspension of martial law, certain parts of the country continued to remain disturbed for about three months more. ….The insurrection soon subsided. Kanhu had been captured by the 3rd week of February, 1856, near Operbandhah, north-east of Jamtara, by the Sardar Ghatwal of Kujra, and was executed within a few days. A few other leaders also met the same fate. A large number was tried and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

After the suppression of the Hul, an enquiry was made into the grievances of the Santhal. The investigation was conducted by Ashley Eden (later Lt Governor of Bengal) specially deputed for the purpose. It was decided that a special system of administration should be introduced, and Act XXXVII of 1855 was passed, which formed the Santhal areas into a separate non-regulation district to be known by the general name of the Santhal Parganas. This area was separated from the districts of Bhagalpur and Birbhum and formed into four sub-districts, viz., Dumka, Deoghar (including Jamtara), Godda and Rajmahal (including Pakur). This was followed by the Police Rules of 1856, originally drafted by Ashley Eden, the first Deputy Commissioner of the district (Santhal Pargana) and best known as ‘Yule Rules’ after the name of George Yule, the then Commissioner of Bhagalpur. The main feature of these rules was that in the Santhal villages, the Manjhi or the village headman was vested with Police powers to be exercised in his own village assisted by the village chowkidar. The chief Police powers and the power of supervision were vested in the Parganait assisted by the Deshmanjhi, chowkidar and Gorait. …….