Tribal revolts in the 19th century

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QuestionExamine the inherent shortcomings of these revolts by highlighting the various factors responsible for the tribal revolts in the 19th century.22 October 2021


Adivasis, like other social groups in India, participated in the anti-colonial movement. The anti-colonial tribal movements were of two types: first, those against the oppressors of the tribal people, i.e. against the landlords, moneylenders, traders, contractors, government officials and Christian missionaries, and second, those movements which were rooted in the Indian national movement. The first type of movement can be called anti-colonial because these movements were aimed at those classes who were a product of British colonialism and had links with the tribals. These classes were treated as outsiders by the tribal. According to one estimate, over 70 tribal revolts took place in the 70 years from 1778 to 1848. These rebellions were anti-colonial rebellions of varying degrees.

The following are the factors responsible for the tribal revolts of the 19th century:

  • Imposition of land revenue administration: The expansion of agriculture by non-tribals in tribal areas led to the erosion of tribal traditions of joint ownership and the emergence of the notion of private property. This damaged the egalitarian structure of the tribal society and due to unauthorized transfer of land, their status was reduced to that of mere agricultural labourers.
  • Activities of Christian Missionaries: Attempts were made by the missionaries to religiously interfere in tribal life and their conversion activities disturbed the cultural equation maintained for centuries with the tribal mainstream.
  • Restrictive rules and regulations: Developmental initiatives such as the development of railways and shifting to agriculture, restrictions on hunting practices and use of forest produce changed their relationship with forests, and they faced loss of livelihood.
  • Influence of outsiders: The tribals reacted hostilely to outsiders interfering in their lifestyle. These outsiders mainly consisted of middlemen such as moneylenders, traders and revenue farmers. These middlemen were responsible for bringing the tribals under the colonial economy, resulting in widespread indebtedness and exploitation, and they mainly damaged tribal identity.

Although these early movements expressed tribal local discontent against authoritarianism, these movements also had the following inherent limitations:

  • Although these rebellions were very powerful and widespread in their territory, involving hundreds of thousands of armed insurgents, they remained largely localized and isolated from a national perspective.
  • Most of these rebellions arose out of discontent over local grievances, and the rest of the country failed to identify the agitating individuals and be sympathetic to their grievances.
  • These rebellions were not revolutionary in nature, ideas, or ideology, but were often mere ideological reliance on religion or superstition and only outward expressions of protest in the context of specific grievances.
  • The war between the tribals and the British was highly unequal. In these rebellions, traditional weapons and techniques such as the bow and arrow were used to counter the modern weapons of an organized British army. It was completely irrelevant to compare the charismatic leaders of these movements with the trained leadership of the British regiment.
  • Most of the leaders of these rebellions were semi-feudal and therefore had a traditional and conservative outlook. Thus, they were easily satisfied in case the British offered small concessions or agreed to their specific demands.

Although the tribal revolts were easily suppressed, the tribals displayed unparalleled courage and sacrifice. They helped establish important traditions of local resistance to totalitarianism.

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