The tribal groups were an important and integral part of Indian life. Before their annexation and subsequent incorporation in the British territories, they had their own social and economic systems. These systems were traditional in nature and satisfied the needs of the tribals.
Each community was headed by a chief who managed the affairs of the community. They also enjoyed independence regarding the management of their affairs. The land and forests were their main source of livelihood. The forests provided them with basic items which they required for survival. The tribal communities remained isolated from the non-tribals.
The British policies proved harmful to the tribal society. This destroyed their relatively self-sufficient economy and communities. The tribal groups of different regions revolted against the Britishers. Their movements were anti-colonial in nature because they were directed against the colonial administration. The tribals used traditional weapons, mainly bows and arrows and often turned violent.
The Britishers dealt severely with them. They were declared criminals and anti-social. Their property was confiscated. They were imprisoned and many of them were hanged. The tribal movement in India remained confined to some regions only. But it did not lag behind other social groups as regards participation in the anti-colonial movements.
1. The Santhal Rebellion (1855-57)
The area of concentration of the Santhals was called Daman-i-Koh or Santhal Pargana. It extended from Bhagalpur in Bihar in the north to Orissa in the south stretching from Hazaribagh to the borders of Bengal. The Santhals like other tribes worked hard to maintain their lives in the forests and wild jungles. They cultivated their land and lived a peaceful life which continued till the British officials brought with them traders, moneylenders, zamindars and merchants.
They were made to buy goods on credit and forced to pay back with a heavy interest during harvest time. As a result, they were sometimes forced to give the mahajan not only their crops, but also plough, bullocks and finally the land. Very soon they became bonded labourers and could serve only their creditors. The peaceful tribal communities were now up in arms against the British officials, zamindars and money lenders who were exploiting them.
Sidhu and Kanu were leading Santhal rebel leaders. They gave a heroic fight to the British government. Unfortunately, the Santhel Rebellion was crushed in an unequal battle but it became a source of inspiration for future agrarian struggles.
2. Munda Rebellion (1899-1900)
One of the most important and prominent rebellion which took place after 1857 was the Munda Rebellion. The Mundas traditionally enjoyed certain rights as the original clearer of the forest which was not given to the other tribes. But this land system was getting destroyed in the hands of the merchants and moneylenders long before the coming of the British.
But when the British actually came into these areas they helped to destroy this system with a rapid pace when they introduced contractors and traders. These contractors needed people to work with them as indentured laborers. This dislocation of the Mundas at the hands of the British and their contractors gave birth to the Munda Rebellion.
The most prominent leader of this rebellion was Birsa Munda who was more aware than the others as he had received some education from the Missionaries. He encouraged his tribe people to keep the tradition of worshiping of the sacred groves alive. This move was very important to prevent the Britishers from taking over their wastelands. For this, Birsa Munda fought against the moneylenders and English officials.
He attacked Police Stations, Churches and missionaries. Unfortunately the rebels were defeated and Munda died in prison soon after in 1900. But his sacrifice did not go in vain. The Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 provided some land ownership rights to the people and banned bonded labour of the tribal. Birsa Munda became the architect of Munda Rebellion.
3. Jaintia and Garo Rebellion (1860-1870s)
After the First Anglo Burmese War, the British planned the construction of a road connecting Brahmaputra Valley (present day Assam) with Sylhet (present day Bangladesh). The Jaintias and the Garos in the North-Eastern part of India (present day Meghalaya) opposed the construction of this road which was of strategic importance to the British for the movement of troops.
In 1827, the Jaintias tried to stop work and soon the unrest spread to the neighbouring Garo hills. Alarmed, the British burnt several Jaintias and Garo villages. The hostilities increased with the introduction of House Tax and Income Tax by the British in 1860’s.
The Jaintias leader U Kiang Nongbah was captured and publicly hanged and the Garo leader Pa Togan Sangma was defeated by the British.
4. The Uprising of Bhils (1818-1831)
The Bhils were largely concentrated in Khandesh (present day Maharashtra & Gujarat). Khandesh came under British occupation in 1818. The Bhils considered them as outsiders. On the instigation of Trimbakji, rebel minister of Baji Rao II they revolted against the Britishers.
5. The Kol Uprising (1831-1832)
The Kols of Singhbhum in the Chhotanagpur area enjoyed autonomy under their chiefs but the entry of the British threatened their independence. Later the transfer of tribal lands and the coming of moneylenders, merchants and British laws created a lot of tension.
This prompted the Kol tribe to organise themselves and rebel. The impact was such that the British had to rush troops from far off places to suppress it.
6. The Mappila Uprisings (1836-1854)
The Mappilas were the Muslim cultivating tenants, landless labourers and fishermen of Malabar region. The British occupation of Malabar region and their new land laws along with the atrocities of the landlords (mainly Hindus) led the Mappilas to revolt against them. It took many years for the British to crush the Mappilas.