K. S. SINGH*
The 'Tribals' and the 1857 Uprising
"Shut the mouth of slanderers, bite and eat up backbiters, trample upon the sinners, O
the destroyer of enemies!
Kill the British, exterminate them, O Mother Chandi!
Let not the enemy escape, nor their wives and children, O Goddess Sanharaka
Show favour to Shankar, support your slave
Listen up the Mlechhas, make no delay
Now devour them, and that too quickly,
(Composed by Gond chief Shankar Shah, Jahalpur)
The 1857 uprising has largely been studied in terms of the participation in it of sepoys, particularly of the Bengal Army, and the peasants who saw in this event an opportunity to ventilate their grievances and assert their rights, led by the feudal aristocracy which saw its privileges threatened or taken away. The tribals are not mentioned as such in the chronicles of the uprising, but the exploits of the communities known as tribes today, have been documented. While the tribes and peasants demonstrated many similarities in their response to the uprising, there were also significant differences emanating from their social structures and political systems. There was in fact a plurality of responses. The tribes were not only fighting the colonial rulers, the enemy outside, but they also tried to settle scores with the enemies within, the exploiters, the moneylenders, the rivals in regional power structure and so on.
The notion of tribes, as we understand it today had not crystallized until the end of the 19th century. The official records referred to the uprising of the communities of such names as the Kol, Bhumij, Santals, Bhils or the Khonds. However, the very mention of such names suggested the presence at the back of the officials' minds of the communities
* Former Director General, Anthropological Survey of India, New Delhi
Social Scientist, Vol. 26, Nos. 1 - 4, Jan. - Apr. 1998