Review of Peter Stanley’s Hul! Hul! — The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855: Some Santal, more military

An exhaustive history of the tribal uprising against the British and its aftermath

Updated - September 10, 2022 12:26 pm IST

Published - September 09, 2022 09:01 am IST

This book is dedicated to “all the Hul’s unnamed victims; Santals, Bengalis and sepoys”. 

This book is dedicated to “all the Hul’s unnamed victims; Santals, Bengalis and sepoys”. 

Peter Stanley’s book, Hul! Hul!:The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855, somewhat demolished the notions that I had for Santal Pargana, the heroes of the Hul (rebellion), and Santals.

In the prologue, the market in Burhyte — the present-day Barhait, in Sahebganj district of Jharkhand — has been described thus: “[The Santals] bought and sold rice... which was newly harvested and threshed... along with tobacco, sugar, chillies, tamarinds and spice; as well as potatoes”; hence presenting Santal Pargana as a seemingly prosperous zone. But what I saw during my stay in Pakur — about 50 kilometres from Barhait — was a region riddled with poverty and migration of Santals.

In the same paragraph is this line: “In just fifteen years of settlement, Santal migrants, urged on by the Superintendent of the Damin, Mr. James Pontet, had turned what had been ‘heavy forest, in which wild elephants and tigers were numerous’, into a region of ‘several hundred substantial Sonthal villages with an abundance of cattle and surrounded by luxuriant crops’.” That Santals were migrants was a notion that I had accepted quite early on, but I had always thought that the Santals of the Chhota Nagpur plateau region had migrated from Santal Pargana. I had heard this being said that the Santals of Santal Pargana were actual Santals and that the Santals of the Chhota Nagpur region had their roots in Santal Pargana, this belief having stemmed, quite certainly, from the fact that the Hul arose in Santal Pargana and not in Chhota Nagpur — an example of how the Hul, in Stanley’s words, “continues to permeate Santal consciousness and identity.” In his book, Stanley reveals how, “[in] the sixty-odd years after Robert Clive’s victory over Siraj ud Daula in Plassey in 1757,” the British gradually settled Santals in Santal Pargana.

“Company rule brought changes to all. One of the least noticed changes was the migration of entire peoples. From the 1820s officials encouraged landless indigenous Santals to migrate from the jungle plateau of what they called Chota Nagpore into the uplands of ‘Lower Bengal’ — the core of which was the Damin-i-Koh and the Rajmahal Hills.”

British might

For Santals, “[unused] to facing volleys of musket,” the Hul was difficult to sustain for it involved entire villages being vacated and being constantly on the move, which led to “permanent alienation of land to zamindars, who appropriated farms apparently abandoned by Santals, refusing to give them up [even] after their owners returned.” Kanhu’s words — which “exposed the needlessness of the Hul, if only Company officials had noticed, heeded or acted upon Santal concerns” — are as moving as the Santals’ reason to join the Hul, that they would “march to Calcutta to seek an audience with ‘the great Firingee Sahib’ — Dalhousie — asking why he allowed money-lenders to rob and harass the Santals, or to seek more immediate redress.”

This book is dedicated to “all the Hul’s unnamed victims; Santals, Bengalis and sepoys.” In the context of the Hul, a Santal usually sees any Diku (non-Santals, but usually upper castes; not Dalits coexisting with Santals) as an exploiter.

However, as Stanley shows, the Hul, inadvertently, turned out to be a concerted effort as “[other] non-Santals also joined the Hul. Company records refer to rebels who were manifestly not Santals. Santal metal tools and weapons, for example, were made by Bengali smiths living in their villages, and the records contain references to Hindu cattle-herders and oil-men who often lived among their Santal neighbours, and who became swept up in the turbulence of the Hul.”

Who were those Bengali and Hindu blacksmiths, cattle-herders, and oil-men who collaborated with the Santals in the Hul? In the Hindu caste hierarchy, smithy, cattle-herding, and oil-pressing are professions relegated to the lower castes. The zamindars and the mahajans, the “target of Santal resentment,” were possibly of the upper castes, thus showing that perhaps the lower caste Hindus and Bengalis were as exploited as the Santals.

The die is caste

Stanley’s book brings out another nuance related to the caste of the Indian sepoys in the Bengal regiment. The regiment was served by “bhisties, sweepers and dhoolie bearers,” all lower caste Hindus. “British officers also engaged ‘private’ servants... [but] sepoys were often men of substantial families — land-holders, often Brahmins; respected figures — and they might employ servants too.” This testifies to the irony that a person who indulges in caste privilege and social entitlement would continue to do so no matter at which station in life they might find themselves at.

Stanley’s book charts the attitude of the British towards the Hul. What started off as indifference turned into a full-fledged war that became Britain’s “only active conflict” after the end of the Crimean War. This book mentions the victories as well as the shortcomings, like, Superintendent Pontet’s failure to speak Santali “even after twenty years in the Damin.”.There are too many British compared to Santals, the narration might appear a bit heavy-handed with all the military details and multitude of characters, and Stanley too rues that the “greatest single flaw in the sources used for this book... is that they are all in English”; yet, this book achieves what it had set out to do: present an exhaustive military history of the Hul.

Hul! Hul!: The Suppression of the Santal Rebellion in Bengal, 1855; Peter Stanley, Bloomsbury India, ₹699.

The reviewer lives in Chandil, Jharkhand.

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