‘The tribal and peasant rebellion laid the foundation of the revolt of 1857.’
The British rule and its accompanying commercialization strengthened tendencies towards penetration of tribal areas by outsiders from the plains. Christian missions were active in many tribal areas, bringing education and some promise of social ascent but often provoking an interesting variety of reaction which included hostility as well as attempts to use some Christian tenants in antiforeigner ways.
The resentment of tribal’s against the British exploitation can be traced back to 1768 when Chuars of Nambhum and Barabhum (West Bengal) rose in arms against the British authority. Bhils revolted against the British occupation of Khandesh in 1818. It was also suppressed through military operation combined with conciliatory measure in 1848. The British occupied Sirghbhum and Chotanagpur. Hos, the inhabitants of the area, resisted violently and tried to expel them. In all the three attempts- 1820, 1822, and 1832- they were suppressed after extensive military operations.
The repeated revolts – 1824, 1828, 1839, 1844-48- of Kolis in Sahyadri Hills, Kols in Chota Na’gpur (1831- 32), Koyas in Andhra Pradesh (1840), Khonds (1846- 48, 1855) in Khondmals in Orissa played a significant role in preparing the ground for the revolt of 1857.
Sidhu and Kanhu led the revolt of Santhals and established their own government in July 1855. The revolt was suppressed and a separate district of Santhal Paragana was created to prevent Santhals from revolting again in future.
The peasant rebellion was also an important precursor of the 1857 revolt. The colonial economic policies, the new land revenue system, the colonial administrative and judicial systems, and the ruin of handicrafts led to the overcrowding of land. It
transformed the agrarian structure and impoverished the peasantry. In the Vast Zamindari area, the peasants were left at the tender mercies of the Zamindars who rack-rented them and compelled them to pay illegal dues and perform beggar. In the Ryotwari areas, the government itself levied heavy land revenue. This forced the peasants to borrow money from the moneylenders. Gradually, over large areas, the actual cultivators were reduced to the status of tenants at will.
When the peasants could take it no longer, they resisted against oppression and exploitation. They found whether their target was the indigenous exploiter or colonial administration. They came to realise that their real enemy, after the barriers were down, was the colonial state. Many dispossessed peasants took to robbery, dacoit and what has been called social banditry, preferring it to starvation and social degradation.
1857 can be regarded as the culmination of the orderly types of anti-British resistance, led by dispossessed Chiefs with restoration aims.