Reinterpreting the Santal rebellion

Australian historian Peter Stanley in his book sheds light on the Santal rebellion, an uprising against oppressive zamindars in 1855 that has been largely overlooked by historians

Saurabh Sharma
Book cover

Hul! Hul! The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855
Author: Peter Stanley
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 369
Price: Rs 699
Narrative retellings of historical events serve one purpose. But introducing ignored perspectives enhances understanding and also makes for a fuller understanding. In Hul! Hul! The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855, Australian historian Peter Stanley does this and more.

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In the introduction, Mr Stanley examines British military records that, he says, weren’t completely deployed by previous historians in the telling of the Santal insurrection, which, in fact, isn’t documented enough. Though he confesses that the “Santal rebellion has been explained virtually from the moment it began in July 1855”, its narrative became convoluted. “Just two substantive histories of the Hul (rebellion) exist: Kali Kinkar Datta’s 1940 The Santal Insurrection and Narahari Kaviraj’s Santal Village Community and the Santal Rebellion of 1855, published in 2001”,  Mr Stanley notes. But he adds that they “were partial, in both being incomplete and in presenting interpretations unjustified by the evidence”. A combination of these factors motivated him to work on unfolding the events before, during, and after the Hul in this book, which is divided into five parts and whose structure is based on the Santal and Western year.
The histories of insurgency and counter-insurgency, no matter how exhaustive, tend to exclude specific experiences that may underwhelm select readers; this book is a standout in terms of reflecting on the course of the Hul insurrection in its totality. This carefully crafted retelling of the rebellion’s only flaw is that it relies mostly on English sources. But the author sincerely hopes Santals attempt to write about this event of immense historical significance when he says that “Santal memory should be investigated by researchers better equipped in language and cultural sensitivity. My project essentially aimed to produce the first comprehensive history of the Santal uprising, drawing upon previously unused military sources, which has been enough of a challenge.”

The book explains how the Santal country was a result of migration. “It is known that by the eighteenth century [Santals] lived by shifting cultivation in the forests largely on the Chota Nagpore plateau within a few hundred miles south-west of what became by 1855 the Santal country in which the Hul broke out,” the author notes. He credits “four brothers living near Burhyte, at the heart of the Damin” for the uprising. Two of them — Sidhu and Kanhu — shared that it was their Thakur (i.e god) who asked them to fight suppression at the hands of oppressive zamindars and seek “a solution to their plight”. This cannot be rubbished as a primitive belief. As Mr Stanley meticulously notes, Santals “shared a complex awareness of the power of magic and sorcery, with a cosmology revolving around bongas (spirits) and Thakur, the creator or supreme being.” But the Santals’ economic existence was tied to the land, which was of course occupied by upper-caste Hindus. It is not the British but these oppressive zamindars that the Santals wanted to fight.
“Expressing their detestation of foreign landlords, Santal bands attacked and destroyed indigo factories in the rebellion’s opening weeks,” Mr Stanley writes. Interestingly, these foreigners were “unable to protect [their] own subjects … from spoliation and massacre” despite being in a position of power and influence. Armed with primitive equipment to defend themselves, the Santals outsmarted the British in more ways than one. The author also notes that “even if the Santals lacked any means of transportation or communication besides bullock carts, and human voices, their opponents also had great difficulty communicating, even with steamers, the railway and the electric telegraph.”

The burden of this book, however, is to interrogate previous interpretations of the rebellion. For instance, when the Friend of India stated that the rebellion was “languishing” did that mean that the British were close to victory?  They were not, the author notes. Then invoking the Indian historian Sugata Bose’s finding that the “rebellion [was] ‘a fully-fledged armed confrontation between the rebel fauj (or army) and the state’s military forces’,” Mr Stanley asks whether “the Santal force [was] truly an army.” Besides these interjections, the notable conclusion of this book is that the Hul wasn’t suppressed by the British as it is claimed.
The reason I truly appreciated reading this historical account is that it helped visibilise the invisibilised victims in all battles: Women. “Did sepoys harass or molest Santal women? When Jugia Haram’s band was captured, somewhere in the south-west of Beerbhoom probably in October, ‘the captain’ threatened to kill the men. The captives replied, ‘who will look after our girls and women?’ ‘We will look after them’, the captain said, a phrase that to a modern sensibility suggests not chivalry but the possibility of rape…. Evidence of sexual assaults by soldiers in wartime often go undocumented in the absence of allegations, investigation or prosecution, and no Santal had recourse to any agency of justice.” Towards the end of this text, however, he notes that the women became the rebellion’s “most numerous but least visible victims.”

It was also heart-warming to find Santal poetry in this book. These verses capture the rebellion, the oppression the Santals endured at the hands of wealthy zamindars, and the nature of their communities’ struggles after Hul. For its multiple merits, it is a notable work that not only concludes that the Hul wasn’t “‘suppressed’ militarily” but also highlights the possibilities that “revisionist interpretations” allow in retelling histories. More historians and ethnographers should follow Mr Stanley’s footsteps.

The reviewer is a Delhi-based writer. @writerly_life


First Published: Apr 27 2023 | 9:55 PM IST

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