Tilka Manjhi, who led the first major tribal revolt against the British rule primarily in and around Bhagalpur. Another hero whose story deserves to be known more.
Jharkhand whose name literally means “Bush land” or “Forest land” had a long history of resistance to the British colonial rule. Among the numerous tribes that make up the state, the Santhals are one of the dominant ones.
The Santhals are located mostly in south eastern part of the Chotanagpur plateau and Midnapore in West Bengal. While they lived in the valley, the Mal Paharias primarily inhabited the hills.
The British acquired the Junglemahal region, primarily covering Midnapore, Burdwan, Birbhum and Bankura, from Siraj-ud-daulah in 1750, followed by taking over the Santhal Parganas, Chotanagpur in 1765, and the entire Dewani of Bengal, Bihar, Odisha after their victory at Buxar.
With the East India Company directly collecting taxes, they collaborated with the mahajans( money lenders) to grab the tribal land against unpaid loans. The tribals were in effect reduced to tenants or laborers on their own lands.
Also the British followed a policy of divide and rule, pitting the hill dwelling Paharias who were more nomadic, followed the Jhum( slash and burn) cultivation, against the Santhals who lived in the valley and practiced a more settled form of cultivation.
Tilka Manjhi who raised the first major revolt against the British exploitation was born on February 11, 1750 in a small village near Sultanganj in Bhagalpur district. While it was not clear, whether he was a Paharia or Santhal, his real name was Jabra Paharia.
He got the moniker of Tilka from a local Paharia term meaning “a man with angry red eyes” owing to his fiery rebellious nature, while Manjhi was due to his position as the head of the village later.
At the age of 20 itself, Tilka Manjhi was rallying the tribals in Bhagalpur against the Company rule, urging them to reclaim what was their rightful lands. The trigger was the devastating famine that hit Bengal in 1770, where over 10 million starved to death.
Bihar, Santhal Parganas were the worst hit areas in that famine. The Company instead of providing assistance, collected taxes even more forcibly from the starving peasants and tribals.
Tilka Manjhi rode on the anger of the masses against the Company rule, as he made a daring raid on the treasury at Bhagalpur, overpowered the guards and distributed the money among the peasants and tribals.
This event, made him popular in the eyes of the long suffering masses, as he became a Robin Hood figure of sorts. Warren Hastings, then Governor of Bengal, sent an 800 strong forced under Captain Brook to capture Tilka and crush the revolt.
However inspite of the atrocities inflicted on the Santhals, they failed to capture him. By 1778, Tilka Manjhi united all the various tribes in Jharkhand, Bihar, as he launched an attack on the Ramgarh cantonment.
So furious was the assault, that the British with all their advanced weaponry could not counter, the tribals with very primitive weapons. Realizing the threat, the British appointed August Cleveland, a very shrewd oficer as the Collector in charge of Bhagalpur.
Cleveland, used the typical divide and rule tactics, learning Santhali to communicate better with the natives, giving tax exemptions, and also raising an army unit from the hill tribes.
The tactic worked as around 40 tribes in the Santhal Parganas region, accepte the Company’s authority. Though Cleveland tried to win Tilka over by offering him a position in the army, as well as granting tax exemptions, he refused to fall for their luring.
He kept organizing the various tribes, sending messages on sal groups to those which had not accepted the British rule, as he managed to win their support.
He then made a daring raid on Bhagalpur in 1784 taking the British by surprise. Cleveland was killed when a poison tipped arrow from Tilka’s bow hit him, as they retreated to the jungles again.
The raid on Bhagalpur, and Cleveland’s death rattled the British even more, as they sent a strong force under Lt. Gen Eyre Coote to end Tilka’s revolt and capture him. With one of his own men betraying his location to the British, Tilka had to escape from his hideout.
While Tilka managed to escape, many of his fellow comrades, were killed in the raid. Though he still carried out the raids from the forests near to Bhagalpur, the British blocked all the routes, leaving him with no option but to engage with them in the open.
Tilka Manjhi was finally captured on January 12,1785, with his hungry and tired forces being overpowered. And executed on January 13,1785 in one of the most brutal manner ever, tied to horses, dragged for miles.
Tilka Manjhi's bloodied body was hanged from a banyan tree at the Bhagalpur court on January 13,1785. He was just 35 when he laid down his life for the cause of freedom. #Naman
Tilka Manjhi’s sacrifice would not go in vain,he inspired many other tribal revolts in Jharkhand, like the Santhal revolt of the Murmu brothers, and later Birsa Munda’s.
A statue of Tilka Manjhi has been erected at the Bhagalpur court, where he was hanged, while the University at Bhagalpur has been named after him too. Many Santhali folk songs sing about his bravery and sacrifice.
While many point to 1857 being the first major revolt against British, the fact is there were many others before, that have not been given due attention, especially the tribal revolts in Chotanagpur, Santhal Parganas.
Jharkhand-Bihar especially has a very long history of tribal resistance to British rule, Raghunath Mahato, Tilka Manjhi, Murmu brothers, brothers Nilambar and Pitambar, Vishwanath Shahdeo, all before Birsa Munda.

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