Tribal people are considered as the people who live in simple societies with its member coming from the same ethnicity, speaking common dialect and share a strong relationship with their surroundings. For a large part of our history, they lived in harmony with the mainland Hindus having kingdoms. The relationship between the two communities existed at the religious level with some tribals; some had a relationship through exchange of forest produce, and some were part of the Kings army.
This harmony is visible through the tribal people who were part of mainstream texts like Ramayana, Mahabharata or through the help extended by them to kings like Maharana Pratap. After set up of Islamic Kingdoms on the mainland, the tribal region still remained fairly peaceful as the interference from the Islamic rulers in the tribal affairs and their resources was negligible.
But the situation changed with the arrival of the British. The British treated India as a colony and tried to maximize benefits from India through the use of Indian resources for personal wealth creation. With tribal regions being among the naturally most gifted regions in terms of mineral resources, flora and fauna, it was natural for the British to interfere in the tribal affairs. E.g. British required wood for railway tracks; British required coal for running trains, ships etc.; British required control over the forests and its resources to earn revenue, kill animals for pleasure; and so on.
So, they imposed restrictions on the movement of the tribe in forests, especially in the forest regions and introduced outsiders to promote commercial cropping activities. Add to that, the activities from Christian Missionaries were a threat to local identities and cultures. Because of this exploitative interference from outside and other social, cultural and political threats like end of own culture, a number of movements were initiated by the tribal leaders and people, some of which are important part of Indian Independence Movement.
It started in 1768 when Kondha (Khonds) tribe of Odisha fought against the British under local King Krushna Bhanja of Ghumsar. In 1772, another tribal leader Tilka Manjhi, also known as Jabra Paharia, became the first leader to launch a movement against the British tyranny and exploitation of resources from Tilapore forest. Similar movements happened in other regions like Bankura, Palama etc. before another uprising, as Bhils Uprising started from 1818-31 AD. The main reason for the uprising was the British occupation of Khandesh in central India. In Satara (Maharashtra), another revolt happened under Chittur Singh from 1822-29 AD because of the high land revenues and harsh methods used by them for its collection.
In 1831-32, a major uprising started under the Kols of Singhbhum (near Chotanagpur Plateau). The main reason for this uprising was the interference from British administration through their laws in Kol tribe and their chief’s sovereignty. They were further angered by the introduction of outsiders (as merchants and moneylenders) with access to land for them. Soon it spread to other regions like Hazaribagh plateau, Manbhum, Palamau and Ranchi. Because of ruthless suppression from the British, a large number of tribals lost their life in this revolt.
Many Khonds rebellion happened against the British Rule from the 1830s. The most significant of this was the militant struggle of the Khonds under the leadership of Chakara Biso (from 1846-56). But the interference from British through laws and introduction of outsiders in tribal region never stopped, leading to some of biggest resistances from some of the numerically biggest tribes of India like:
- Santhal Rebellion (1855-56): The Santhal rebellion, commonly known as Santhal Hul, was to free Santhal region from the British authority and the number of outsiders (zamindars, moneylenders, police etc.) introduced by British. The main reason for this was the oppressive rule from the British and their active help to outsiders who took away the land cultivated by Santhals for centuries. It occurred in Rajmahal Hill area of Santhal region with Murmu Brothers (Sidho, Kano, Chand and Bhairav) acting as the leader and large scale participation from Santhals. They used the archery skills and guerrilla warfare tactics but the modern weapons and cannons were too much. From 15,000 to 25,000 tribals are estimated to lose their lives in this with large number of their villages being destroyed and leaders like Sidho and Kano also getting killed.
- Munda Uprising (1897-1900 AD): Though we had other rebellions also in between like Kherwar rebellion, in term of scale, Munda uprising of Chotanagpur plateau was very much similar to Santhal rebellion. This rebellion was lead by Birsa Munda, and it was not just against the same oppressive and interfering policies from British with use of outsiders to exploit the local tribes but also against the activities of the Christian Missionaries who promoted religious conversion in the region. It started as a socio-religious protest but Birsa Munda was jailed by British. After his release, Birsa Munda turned it into a political and militaristic revolution by raising his army for armed revolution against the British tyranny. The prime goal of the movement was to establish self-rule. Though Birsa Munda died in 1900, the movement continued and considered to be the precursor of modern Jharkhand movement.
- Tana Bhagat movement (1914-1919 AD): Tana Bhagat movement was lead by Jatra Bhagat with other members of the Oraon tribe. The movement was primarily against the taxes imposed by the British and launched probably the first Satyagraha (Civil Disobedience movement) against the British in India. The movement was against the activities of British, Christian Missionaries and the outsiders introduced by the as landlords. It also promoted internal reforms in the tribal people by giving up of eating meat, liquor and tribal dance with the adoption of Monotheism. By this, Jatra Bhagat introduced the Bhakti cult in the movement and linked it with the national movement.
- Other Revolts: From 1922-24 we had Rampa Rebellion under Alluri Sitarama Raju in Andhra region of Madras Presidency against the limitations imposed by the British on the free movement of tribes in forests as it stopped them from practising their traditional shifting cultivation called as Podu. Another significant movement from tribal India for Indian Independence was the movement led by Rani Gaidinliu, 16-year old girl in Nagaland who ran the Civil disobedience movement of Mahatma Gandhi in her region. She told people to not to pay taxes to British and not to work for them. But she was captured in 1932 and given life imprisonment. In 1937, the title of Rani was given to her by Jawaharlal Nehru and she was finally released from jail after independence.