Dr Vinay Nalwa gives detailed account of Tilka Manjhi, the first revolutionary Santhal warrior of India. His ultimate sacrifice showed how tribals played no less a role than anyone else in India’s freedom struggle.
The first revolutionary Santhal warrior of India, Tilka Manjhi was born on 11th February 1750 in the small village Tilakpur in Sultanganj, Bihar. After a fierce resistance, he was arrested by British forces and hanged in 1785. Some sources mentioned 1784 as the year of his gallows. He was the first freedom fighter who fought against the British Empire with bows and arrows, long before the armed 1857 revolt of Mangal Pandey.
Within his short life of 35 years, his invincible courage and determination against the oppression gave him the name Jabra Pahadia. He organized the tribal and formed an armed group. He adopted guerrilla warfare to fight against the resource grabbing and exploitation by the British.
His upbringing was in the shadow of forest culture and wild animals. Workouts like wrestling, climbing on the big trees, walking in the valleys, playing with wild animals, roaming in wild forests, rivers, etc. were his daily routine of life. His Life in the jungle made him fearless and brave.
Since young, he had seen the oppression of tribes and their cultivated land at the hands of British officers. Not only the poor tribal community’s lands were snatched, even Tribal children, women, old men were also facing oppression by the British.
Santhal Pargana was severely affected by drought, hunger, and exploitation at the hands of The British East India Company. These hardships led Tilka in 1772 to organize the tribes and revolt against the oppression. The struggle that ensued between the tribes and the British made him a revolutionary. At a place called Shana char (Banachari Jor) Tilka gave a clarion call of war against the brutality of the British.
Under the leadership of Tilka, the tribal proceed towards forest areas of Bhagalpur and Sultanganj, giving a tough fight to British soldiers in Rajmahal. To stop Tilka’s campaign Lord Clive used the divide and rule policy by bringing few local tribal leaders under the British by forgiving their revenue. But Tilka Manjhi understood their tactic and soon organized the tribal communities under one armed group to fight against exploitation and tyranny. His fierce campaign started upsetting the British. Seeing the gravity of the situation the British appointed officer August Cleveland as superintendent of Rajmahal.
Tilka’s small contingent of soldiers with indigenous weapons continued to fight against the British. Tilka’s force was in constant conflict with the English government in the jungles, terai, and river basins of Ganges and Brahmi. The hilly areas of Munger, Bhagalpur, Santhal, and Parganas became witness to his guerrilla war.
In January 1784, Tilka attacked Superintendent August Cleveland with bows and arrows in which Cleveland died. The news of the death of Cleveland shook the British government and created fear in soldiers and officers of the rule. Tilka Manjhi’s war against the British continued in Tilapore.
One night when Tilka and his revolutionary partners were attacked by a traitor warlord Jaudah. In this sudden attack, many soldiers were martyred but Tilka survived and had to flee and take refuge in the mountainous region of Sultanganj. English army laid a trap for him in the accompanying hilly areas of Sultanganj and Bhagalpur.
It started a hard struggle for heroic Tilka and his army who were camouflaged in the mountainous areas. Despite lack of food and starvation, his troops fought with the British army which was invaded by the Santhal tribes. The British army surrounded the forest, but Tilka and his men held the enemy engaged for several weeks before he was trapped and finally caught by the Britishers in 1785. The British tied him to four horses with thick ropes and dragged him all the way to Bhagalpur in Bihar. There his lacerated body was hung from a Banyan tree publicly.
Tilka Manjhi was the first Indian who fought against the British to free India from slavery. His supreme sacrifice led to a series of tribal resistance from Bhumij Revolt in Manbhum in 1798, the Chero Uprising in Palamau (1810), the Munda uprising in Tamar (1819-1820), the Kol rebellion (1833), the Second Bhumij Revolt (1834) to the Santhal Hool (1855). All these revolts did not allow the British to set their feet in Jharkhand(present) and adjoining tribal areas and their territories remained outside the purview of the general law.
It was after 90 years of his revolt that the struggle for independence rekindled in 1857.
In the memory of Tilka, a statue of him was erected in the court of Bhagalpur. There is also a university named after him. Tilka Manjhi will always be remembered eternally as a son of Mother India.
(The writer is a senior fellow at Delhi based think tank Vichar Vinimay Kendra. She has authored ‘Ramjanmabhoomi: Truth, Evidence, Faith’. Views expressed are personal.)