Decades before what our history books consider to be the ‘First War of Independence’ (1857), there was the tribal rebellion led by Tilka Manjhi, a fearless Adivasi warrior, in present-day Bihar and Jharkhand from 1771 till his capture and extra-judicial murder in 1785.
This was India’s first people’s revolt triggered by the East India Company’s (EIC) exploitative practices against Adivasi communities in conjunction with the oppressive local princely class and zamindars beholden to the British colonialists. Tilka Manjhi’s heroics would go on to inspire other Adivasi rebellions like the Halba rebellion of 1774, the Bhil revolt of 1818, Kol uprising of 1831 and Santhal Hool (revolution) of 1855-56.
No other class or community of Indians offered this sort of heroic resistance against the EIC in the early days than India’s indigenous communities across present-day Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal.
Born into an Adivasi family (historians remain unsure whether he was a Pahadia/Paharia or a Santhal) on 11 February 1750 in Tilakpur village (situated in present-day Sultanganj block, Bhagalpur district, Bihar), Tilka Manjhi’s official name as stated in British records was Jabra Pahadia. He was given the name of Tilka, which in Pahadia language means ‘person with angry red eyes’ given his fiery nature, and Manjhi when he took over as village head.
It was from a very early age that Tilka witnessed the exploitation at the hands of EIC in conjunction with the zamindars and princely class. Before the arrival of the EIC, the local zamindars would levy unreasonable taxes against Adivasis, and things only got worse with the arrival of the EIC.
When the British began directly administering and collecting taxes (1765) in the Chhotanagpur plateau (which covers much of present-day Jharkhand and adjacent parts of Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal), particularly the Santhal Pargana region in present-day Jharkhand following their victory against Mir Qasim at the 1764 Battle of Buxar, the Adivasis began incurring greater debts, particularly to local moneylenders (mahajans).
Conspiring with the mahajans, the British EIC began taking away ancestral land belonging to these communities in lieu of the debts they had racked up. As a result, many Adivasis transitioned to becoming agricultural labourers or ‘tenants’ on land that once belonged to them.
As a young man growing up in these times, Tilka witnessed this up close and personal. By the time he was only 20, Tilka had begun the process of mobilising and addressing small groups of his fellow Adivasis in the Bhagalpur area, exhorting them to rise above caste and tribal affiliations to oppose EIC’s rule and exploitation by local zamindars and mahajans.
Adding further fire to the cause was the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed over 30 million people and had a dire impact in the Santhal Pargana region and parts of Bihar adjacent to present-day Jharkhand. While the Adivasis were expecting some semblance of humanitarian aid and an exemption on taxes, the EIC went the other way.
They not only increased taxes but began adopting more stringent ways of collecting them. As they filled up their coffers and offered no assistance, millions perished because of starvation.
Robin Hood of the People
The Adivasis had no choice but to revolt against the EIC. In an act reminiscent of the Robin Hood legend, Tilka and his band of men looted the EIC’s treasury in Bhagalpur after overpowering the guards there and distributed the wealth he collected to his fellow Adivasis and peasants. This act garnered him much respect among his people.
Responding to this act of rebellion, Bengal Governor Warren Hastings sent a force of 800 men led by Captain Brook to capture Tilka and crush the seeds of rebellion sowed in the region. Despite committing mass atrocities against the Adivasis, Tilka and his band of fellow Adivasis evaded capture. In 1778, the fiery warrior and his band of comrades attacked the EIC’s Punjab Regiment stationed in Ramgarh Cantonment (located in present-day Jharkhand) and earned a decisive victory. As a result of the raid, the British fled Ramgarh.
Unwilling to take this humiliation, the British appointed an officer called Augustus Cleveland as the Collector for Munger, Bhagalpur and Rajmahal districts, to crush this rebellion. August’s methods in dealing with this rebellion were more subtle than his predecessors. His strategy was essential to sow the seeds of division among the various Adivasi communities.
Besides learning the Santhali language, which allowed him to effectively communicate with locals, he also understood that extracting unreasonable taxes would hinder his mission. Instead, he extended the olive branch to about 40 tribes in Santhal Pargana, offering them benefits like tax exemptions and even enlisted some Adivasis as sepoys in the EIC.
In some ways, these methods did loosen the foundations of unity upon which Tilka had built his rebellion. Augustus also offered Tilka employment in the Bhagalpur Hill Rangers, an auxiliary force he raised to pacify the Adivasis of the Santhal Pargana, besides other benefits like tax exemptions. However, Tilka saw through his designs and refused the benefits that would have come his way in the event of a capitulation. He understood that these benefits would be short-lived with the ultimate objective of the British EIC being the enslavement of his people.
Tilka continued to organise and mobilise tirelessly. Some accounts state that he would send messages on sal leaves to his fellow tribal chiefs, asking them to unite under one cause, which was to drive out the British and save their lands. Even though the foundations of Adivasi unity had loosened thanks to August’s enticements, Tilka still garnered a lot of support and took things to the next level in 1784. Launching a surprise offensive against EIC troops in Bhagalpur once again, he fatally wounded August with a poison arrow which further dampened British morale. Largely unharmed, Tilka and his comrades escaped to their haven–the jungle.
Seeing one of their top officers killed by an Adivasi leader pushed the EIC to send a strong force under Lieutenant General Eyre Coote to crush this rebellion and either kill or capture Tilka.
This is where the tide begins to change for Tilka. Betrayed by one of his men, who notified the British about his location, the British forces staged an attack in the middle of the night. While Tilka barely escaped, his comrades were slaughtered in the skirmish. Fleeing to the forests of Sultanganj, he began waging a guerilla war against the British who followed him there.
In a matter of no time, the British had the forest surrounded, cut off all supply lines and starved his men to death leaving him no choice but to engage them. Although he evaded capture for a few weeks, the British finally crushed the rebellion on 12 January 1785 and captured him.
To make an example out of Tilka, he was tied to horses and dragged to the Collector’s residence in Bhagalpur. Some accounts believe that he was still alive upon reaching Bhagalpur, and eventually on 13 January 1785, he was hanged to death. The legacy he leaves behind is immense, inspiring generations of his fellow Adivasis to challenge exploitation at every turn.
In 1991, the Bihar government honoured him by renaming Bhagalpur University as Tilka Manjhi University. However, if it weren’t for the records maintained by the British, oral traditions of these Adivasi communities and the popular writings of Mahashweta Devi and Hindi novelist Rakesh Kumar Singh, we may have never known his heroic struggles against colonial enslavement and exploitation. Suffice it to say, our mainstream historians didn’t do the best job of acknowledging the stellar role he played in India’s fight for self-determination.
Dagar, Nisha. (2019). Tilka Manjhi: Bharatiya Swatantrata Sangram Ka Pahla Swatantrata Senani. Retrieved on 5 February 2020 from https://hindi.thebetterindia.com/11842/tilka-manjhi-was-the-first-indian-freedom-fighter/
Anurag, Akash. (2020) Tilka Manjhi: A Tribal Hero Our History Books Forgot. Retrieved on 30 November 2021 from https://www.livehistoryindia.com/story/snapshort-histories/tilka-manjhi/
George, Goldy M. (2020) Tilka Manjhi: The Adivasi warrior who led the first people’s revolt against the British. Retrieved on 30 November from https://www.forwardpress.in/2020/02/tilka-manjhi-the-adivasi-warrior-who-led-the-first-peoples-revolt-against-the-british/
Retrieved on 30 November from https://amritmahotsav.nic.in/unsung-heroes-detail.htm?281
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)