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Civil Rebellions and Tribal Uprising

Study Material > History
  • The revolt of 1857 was the most dramatic instance of traditional India's struggle against foreign rule. But it was no sudden occurrence. It was the culmination of a century-long tradition of fierce popular resistance to British domination. The establishment of British power in India was a prolonged process of piecemeal conquest and consolidation and the colonialization of the economy and Society. This process produced discontent, resentment and resistance at every stage. This popular resistance took three broad forms: civil rebellions, tribal uprisings and peasant movements.
  • The series of civil rebellions, which run like a thread through the first 100 years of British rule, were often led by deposed rajas and nawabs or their descendants, uprooted and impoverished zamindars, landlords and poligars, and ex-retainers and officials of the conquered Indian states.
  • The backbone of the rebellions, their mass base and striking power came from the rack-rented peasants, ruined artisans and demobilized soldiers. These sudden, localized revolts often took place because of local grievances although for short periods they acquired a broad sweep, involving armed bands of a few hundred to several thousand.
  • Some important civil rebellions include – The Sanyasi Revolt, Diwan Velu Thampi  Revolt, Kittur Uprising, Poligars Revolts, Bhil uprisings, Revolt of Gadkaris etc.

Causes of civil rebellion

  • The major cause of all these civil rebellions taken as whole was the rapid changes the British introduced in the economy, administration and land revenue system. These changes led to the disruption of the agrarian society, causing prolonged and widespread suffering among its constituents.
  • The colonial policy of intensifying demands for land revenue and extracting as large an amount as possible produced a veritable upheaval in Indian villages.
  • Thousands of zamindars and poligars lost control over the land and its revenue either due to the extinction of their rights by the colonial state or by the forced sale of their rights over land because of their inability to meet the exorbitant land revenue demanded. They resented the loss, even more, when they were displaced by rank outsiders – the government officials, merchants and moneylenders.
  • The new landlords, bereft of any traditional paternalism towards their tenants, pushed up rents to ruinous heights and evicted them in case of non-payment.
  • The new courts and legal system gave a further fillip to the dispossessors of land and encouraged the rich to oppress the poor. Flogging, torture and jailing of the cultivators for arrears of rent or land revenue or interest on debt were quite common.
  • The ordinary people were also hard hit by the prevalence of the corruption at the lower levels of the police, judiciary and general administration. The petty officials enriched themselves freely at the cost of the poor.
  • The ruin of Indian Handicrafts industries, as a result of the imposition of free trade in India and levy of discriminatory tariffs against Indian goods in Britain, pauperized millions of artisans. The misery of the artisans was further compounded by the disappearance of their traditional patrons and buyers, the princes, chieftains, and zamindars.
  • The traditional rulers and ruling elite had financially supported scholarly and priestly classes like religious preachers, priests, pundits, maulvis, scholars etc..With the coming of the British and the ruin of the traditional landed and bureaucratic elite, this patronage came to an end, and all those who had depended on it were impoverished.
  • Another major cause of the rebellions was the very foreign character of British rule. Like any other people, the Indian people too felt humiliated at being under a foreigner’s heel. This feeling of hurt pride inspired efforts to expel the foreigner from their lands.

Characteristics of the civil rebellion

  • These rebellions were massive in totality, but were wholly local in their spread and isolated from each other.
  • They were the result of local causes and grievances and were also localized in their effects.
  • They often bore the same character not because they represented national or common efforts but because they represented common conditions though separated in time and space.
  • Socially, economically and politically, the semi-feudal leaders of these rebellions were backward looking and traditional in outlook. They still lived in the old world, blissfully unaware and oblivious of the modern world which had knocked down the defenses of their society.
  • These revolts were local and isolated from each other. British government ruthlessly suppressed them for e.g. Velu Thampi, the rebellious Dewan of Travancore was publicly hanged.


  • The historical significance of these civil rebellions lies in that they established strong and valuable local traditions of resistance to British rule.
  • The Indian people were to draw inspiration from these traditions in the later nationalist struggle for freedom.

Weaknesses of Uprisings

  • These uprisings were massive in totality but were, in fact, localized and isolated.
  • They were the result mostly of local grievances.
  • The leadership was semi-feudal in character; backward-looking, traditional in outlook and their resistance represented no societal alternative.
  • These rebellions were centuries old in form and ideological-cultural content.
  • The less recalcitrant of these were pacified through concessions by the authorities.
  • On the whole, however, these rebellions were able to establish valuable traditions of local resistance to authoritarianism.

Tribal Uprisings

  • Tribals are aboriginals living in the isolated areas and leading an autonomous and insulated life. The tribal people, spread over a large part of India, organized hundred of militant outbreaks and insurrections during the 19th century. These uprisings were marked by immense courage and sacrifice on their part and brutal suppression and veritable butchery on the part of the rulers. The tribals had cause to be upset for a variety of reasons.

Causes of tribal revolts

  • Extension of settled agriculture in to the tribal areas led to influx of non-tribals(dikkus) in the tribal areas. These outsiders(dikkus) exploited them and extension of settled agriculture led to the loss of land by the tribals which reduced them to agriculture labourers. So this disruption of the old agrarian order of the tribal communities provided the common factor for all the tribal uprisings.
  • Increasing demand for the wood from the early 19th century, first for the Royal Navy and then Railways, led to increasing control of government over the forests lands. Some of the tribal uprisings took place in reaction to the efforts of the landlords to impose taxes on the customary use of the timber and grazing facilities, police exactions, exploitation by middlemen which were generally outsiders.
  • Colonial administration encouraged influx of Christian missionaries into the tribal areas., which were responsible for bringing about changes in the socio-economic and cultural aspects of the tribal life and the mainstream society. Also, the tendency of the missionaries to discourage people from rising against the government made the missionaries to be viewed as extensions of colonialism and was often attacked by the rebels.
  • Colonialism also transformed tribal people’s relationship with the forest. They practiced shifting cultivation, taking recourse to fresh forest lands when their existing lands showed signs of exhaustion. But the colonial government usurped the forest lands and placed restrictions on access to forest products, land and village common lands. It refused to let cultivation shift to new areas.
  • Imposition of land revenue settlement, expansion of agriculture by non-tribals to tribal areas or over forest cover led to erosion of the tribal traditions of joint ownership and increased the socio-economic differentiation in the egalitarian structure of the tribal society.
  • Some important tribal uprisings include – Santhal rising, Khond uprisings, Kols mutiny, Rampa revolt, bhil uprising etc.

Characteristics of the Tribal Uprisings

  • Tribal uprisings were basically against the colonial administration’s effort to destroy their aboriginality, and their traditional thread of a protected social and economic life.
  • Ethnic ties were a basic feature of the tribal rebellions.
  • These uprisings were localized and isolated, and lacked any modern feeling of nationalism.
  • Often, religious and charismatic leaders – messiahs – emerged at this stage and promised divine intervention and an end to their suffering at the hands of the outsiders, and asked their fellow tribals to rise and rebels against foreign authority. Most of these leaders claimed to derive their authority from God.
  • The warfare between the tribal rebels and the British armed forces was totally unequal. On one side were drilled regiments armed with the latest weapons and on other were men and women fighting in roving bands armed with primitive weapons, believing in the magical powers of their commanders.

Some important Tribal Revolts

Khond Uprisings

  • The Kho-nd uprising included tribals from Ghumsar, China-ki-Medi, Kalahandi and Patna. The movement was led by Chakra Bisoi in the name of the young Raja.
  • The main issue was the attempt by the government to suppress human sacrifice (mariah), introduction of new taxes by the British and the influx of zamindars and sahukars  (money lenders) into their areas, which was causing the tribals untold misery.
  • Chakra Bisoi disappeared in 1855, after which the movement petered out. Another important leader of revolt was Radhakrishna Dandasena.

Kuka Revolt

  • The Kuka  Movement was founded in 1840 by the Bhagat Jawahar Mal (also called Sian Saheb) in western Punjab. After the British took Punjab, the movement transformed from a religious purification campaign to a political one. Its basic tenets were abolition of caste and similar discriminations among Sikhs, discouraging the eating of meat and taking of alcohol and drugs, encouraging women to step out of seclusion.

Rampa Rebellion

  • A unique example of tribal militancy came from the Rampa region north of Godavari which had witnessed various uprisings in the 19th century. In 1916, it saw Revolt that was a prelude to veritable guerrilla warfare in the region between August 1922 and may 1924.
  • Their grievances as earlier were against money lenders and forest laws. An unpopular Tehsildar, provided the immediate cause by trying to construct forest Road with unpaid labour.
  • The movement was led by an Alluri Sitarama Raju claiming astrological and healing powers, who has become a folk hero in Andhra Pradesh. He was inspired by the Non-cooperation movement and admired Gandhi, though he considered violence necessary to win tribal goals. He claimed to be bullet proof.
  • Sitarama Raju was a formidable tactician and his band of Rebels enjoyed the confidence of the surrounding population of about 2500 square miles. Raju was captured and killed in May 1924, after immense effort, which finally ended the massive rebellion which cost the Madras government Rupees 15 lakh.

Munda Revolt

  • For over three decades, the Munda sardars of Chhotanagpur had been struggling against the destruction of their system of common land-holdings by the intrusion of jagirdars, thikadars (revenue farmers) and traders-money-lenders.
  • During the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Mundas rose under Birsa Munda in a religious movement or rebellion (“ulgulan”) with an agrarian and political content.
  • They aimed to establish a Munda rule in the land by killing thikadars, jagirdars, rajas, and hakims. To bring about the liberation, Birsa gathered a force of 6000 Mundas armed with swords, spears, battleaxes, and arrows. Birsa was, however, captured in 1900 and he died in jail the same year.

Khasi Uprising

  • Area: Tribal area of Garo and Jaintia hills.
  • Leader: Tirath Singh
  • Cause: After having occupied the hilly region between Garo and Jaintia Hills, the East India Company wanted to build a road linking the Brahmaputra Valley with Sylhet. For this, a large number of outsiders including Englishmen, Bengalis and the labourers from the plains were brought to these regions. The Khasis, Garos. Khamptis and the Singhpos organized themselves under Tirath singh to drive away the strangers from the plains. The uprising developed into a popular revolt British rule in the area. By 1833, the superior English military force had suppressed the revolt.

Ahom Revolt

  • Area: Assam.
  • Leader : Gomdhar Konwar.
  • Cause: The British had pledged to withdraw after the First Burma War (1824-26) from Assam. But after the war, instead of withdrawing, the British attempted to incorporate the Ahom’s territories in the company’s dominion. This sparked off a rebellion in 1828 under the leadership of Gomdhar Konwar. Finally, the Company decided to follow a conciliatory policy and handed over Upper Assam to Maharaja Purandar Singh Narendra and part of the kingdom was restored to the Assamese king.

 Chuar Uprising

  • Area: Midnapore district.
  • Causes: Famine enhanced land revenue demands and economic distress goaded the Chuar aboriginal tribesmen of Midnapore district to take up arms. The uprising lasted from 1766 to 1772 and then, again surfaced between 1795 and 1816. The leader of the rebels was Durjan Singh, a former zamindar of Raipur. He had a following of about 1,500 men and created havoc in certain areas. The police force was simply not in a position to control the situation. At the time Bankura appears to have been part of Jungle Mahals. While the Chuars continued to be a menace, Bankura played an important role in the commercial department of East India Company.

Ho Rising

  • The Ho and Munda tribesmen of Chhotanagpur challenged the company’s forces in 1820-22, then again in 1831, and the area remained distributed till 1837.

Kol Mutiny

  • This covered Ranchi, Singhbhum, Hazaribagh, Palamau and the western parts of Manbhum so basically South Bihar. The trouble started with large-scale transfers of land from Kol headmen (Mundas) to outsiders like Sikh and Muslim farmers. The Kols of Chottanagpur resented this under the leadership of Buddho Bhagat and in 1831, the Kol rebels killed or burnt about a thousand outsiders. Only after large-scale military operations could order be restored.

Santhal Rebellion

  • The Santhal rebellion of 1855-56 was marked by some of the worst features of elemental tribal passions and open denunciation of British rule. The rebellion covering the districts of birbhum, Singhbhum, Bankura, Hazaribagh, Bhagalpur and Munger in Orissa and Bihar was precipitated mainly by economic causes.
  • The money lenders and colonial administrators both exploited them. The Diku (outsider) merchants charged interest on loans, ranging from 50 to 500% and exploited and cheated the tribals in many other ways, often grabing their lands.
  • The tribals turned against the British Government when they found that the British officers, instead of redressing their, grievances were more anxious to protect their oppressors from the tribal’s wrathful vengeance.
  • Under the leadership of two Santhal brothers, Sidhu and Kanhu, more than 10000 santhal is assembled in June 1855, when a divine order was issued asking the Santhals to get out of the control of their oppressors and take possession of the country and set up a government of their own. within a month, the rebellion had assumed a formidable shape.
  • The Rebels cut off the postal and Railway Communications between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal proclaimed the end of the company's rule and commencement of the Santhal regime. They attacked the houses of money lenders, zamindars, white planters Railway engineers and British officials.
  • The open war with the British continued till February 1856, when the rebel leaders were finally captured and the movement was put down with a great deal of repression.

Naikada Revolt

  • The Naikada forest tribes in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, launched revolts against British officers and caste Hindus with religious fervour and attacked police stations in 1868, in a bid to establish a Dharma Raj under their charismatic leaders.

Bhil Uprising

  • In Southern Rajasthan, the Bhils were is stirred to action by a Reform movement under Govind Guru, who was a bonded labourer. By 1913, it developed into a bid to set up a Bhil Raj, The British were able to surprise them only after considerable resistance, in which 12 tribals were killed and 900 taken prisoner.

Koya Rebellion

  • It occurred in 1879-80 in the Eastern Godavari tract of present day Andhra Pradesh and also affected some district in Orissa.
  • The rebellion was led by Toma Sora and reflected problems faced by tribals, like erosion of customary rights over forest, Police exactions, exploitation by money lenders and new excise regulations restricting domestic production of toddy.
  • Sora was shot dead by the police and the movement collapsed, but only with the use of six regiments of the Madras infantry. In 1886, another uprising took place here.
  • The Rebels led by Raja Anantayyar, formed themselves into a Ram Sandhu (Ram’s Army) and appealed to the Maharaja of Jeypore to help them in throwing out the British.

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