Facts unstated

Azim Akhtar

Azim Akhtar

Away from the gaze of Delhi rulers; under the shadow of Bengal and the bhadralok discourse, Jharkhand has seldom been a subject of great debate when it comes to events of historical importance. Yet the truth is, it is the State where uprisings against the British took seed. Noted academic Abdul Azim Akhtar’s book “Uprisings Against Colonialism in Jharkhand” seeks to shift the focus to the State that has, for long, been denied its place in our history books. Excerpts from an interview:

One school of thought believes the seeds of the First War of Independence were sown in Jharkhand with the Santhal and Kol uprisings. How far do you agree?

Jharkhand, or for that matter Bihar, never got its due from the historians of the modern period. Jharkhand remained under the shadow of Bihar during the freedom struggle and even after Independence. And until 1912, Bihar and Orissa were struggling for their own identity and separation from Bengal. The intellectual discourse was dominated by Bengali bhadralok, (many of whom) enjoyed the fruits and favours of colonialism. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and his father were loyal servants of the East India Company. Yet his novel “Anand Math” was promoted by some sections as a Bible of nationalism. There was a deliberate attempt to black out the sacrifices and heroism of millions of tribals, peasants, who sacrificed their lives for the cause of the motherland. The heroism of the Santhals, who answered bullets with bows and arrows in 1855-56, may have been a source of inspiration for the future leaders of the national movement. British historian Malleson said that Azimullah Khan (agent of Nana Saheb) on a visit to London saw the effect of the Crimean war on the English and was convinced to plot the Mutiny (1857 Rebellion). What was the need to look for inspiration miles away when our own tribals had shown in 1855 that only courage and conviction were required to fight colonial oppression, power and injustice? The Santhal Rebellion was the real source of inspiration for the sepoys in 1857. I would say the Santhal Rebellion should be actually called the First War of Independence! It is time to go beyond the accepted narrative in Indian history and give due space to the tribals, peasants and other neglected sections.

The role of the State as a supplier of raw materials to the British has not been as well documented. Could you elaborate?

The coal mines and iron ore mines of Jharkhand were important for the growth of the British Empire in India and the Industrial Revolution in England. The steamships, which ferried the soldiers and goods of the East India Company, required a huge quantity of coal, and Jharkhand mines met this demand. The output of coal rose from 15,000 tonnes in 1831 to 91,000 tonnes in 1846. After the introduction of railways with steam engine, the demand for coal multiplied and there were 555 coal mines in 1955. Iron ore was another important raw material which led to the growth of iron and steel companies in Jharkhand. It is true that the role of the State in this sphere has not been properly highlighted, owing to its association with Bihar and Bengal.

The landlords played an important role in quashing many rebellions yet not enough has been written about them. Does not this approach defeat the purpose of looking at history from the grassroots level?

The zamindars and Mahajans got a new lease of life with the coming of the British East India Company. When the company looked for maximum revenue collection after acquiring the Diwani rights in 1765, the landlords came forward as their agents and collaborators in oppressing the hapless farmers. The age-old freedom of tribals was lost owing to the introduction of the forest laws. It is interesting that the leaders of the Santhal Uprising united against the ‘unholy alliance of the zamindars, the Mahajans, and the British’. During the Revolt of 1857, many zamindars actually acted as spies for the Company and put obstacles in the path of the rebels, or stopped supply of food.

With a renewed interest in history of Bihar, isn’t it time to focus on the freedom fighters and martyrs of Jharkhand too, considering the State played a pivotal role in the early days of our freedom struggle?

Regional history has not got its due share in India. And there seems to be a regional bias against Bihar-Jharkhand, so that the works of the Patna/Ranchi school are not highlighted. History of the Marathas and Punjab has been highlighted to promote Shivaji and Ranjit Singh. Great souls such as Sidhu, Kanhu, Jaggu Diwan, Amanat Ali, Jaimangal Pandey, Salamat Ali, Birsa Munda, Hathiram Munda should be given the status of national icons. It surprises me that the British have kept all the records of their heroics against Sirajud Daula, Tipu Sultan and the alleged Black Hole story, yet they have left very little official records of the Kol and Santhal Uprisings, and the rise of Mundas. In many tribal areas, people consider Birsa Munda ‘Bhagvan’. It is interesting to note that Tana Bhagat popularised khadi in the Jharkhand region before Mahatma Gandhi made it a national passion.

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Printable version | Jun 23, 2022 10:40:14 pm |