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Book on Bhil rebels offers other side of history, neglected by 'nationalist' historians

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 

One of the major accusations against Indian historians is that of neglecting and ignoring the role of the marginalised in the freedom struggle. Most of the time, we are ‘informed’ that there were some ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ of the freedom movement, all of them belonging to the same stock of caste as well as ‘power’ positions as their opponents.
In the process, Dalits and Adivasis have been relegated to the back pages of history, one reason why narratives and issues found in folklores and live stories become an important tool to understand them. Keeping this in view, Subhash Chandra Kushwaha, an important chronicler of history, has studied the Bhil tribe in his book ‘Bhil Vidroh: Sangharsh Ke Sava Sau Saal’ ( Bhil Revolt: One Hundred Twenty Five years of Struggle, published). Published by Hind Yugm and in Hindi, the study is based on historical documents in various archives both in India as well as abroad.
Kushwaha has covered the period from 1800 to 1925, when international newspapers would report events in India, as well as various documents available in various archives. It is not that the history of Bhils has not ‘existed’ prior to this, but documentation pertaining to this period has till now not been explored in the archives. He also analyses folklores, spoken to people and visited places, including monuments and structures, listening to traditional songs and understanding the Bhils’ celebrations or festivities.
The Bhils have been victims of our hierarchical caste system and were brutalised and criminalised by the kingly clans of Rajputs prior to arrival of the British, explains the author. Bhils were the owners of Khandesh as well as Central India, but were pushed to the forests by the ‘Rajput invaders’, as suggested by by Captain E Barnes and Thomas Emily Young in ‘The Journal of Society of Art’ on February 8, 1907. Quoting Barnes and Young, Kushwaha says that Jhabua till 1550 was a Bhil kingdom and was passed on to the Rajputs by Akbar.
Kushwaha has built his narrative chronologically in order to help understand the areas where the Bhils lived. The chapter on the Bhils of Khandesh shows how both the Mughals as well as the Marathas fought to control the Bhils. With the ascendancy of Bajirao as Peshwa in 1798, Khandesh saw the downfall of various Bhil Jagirdars, and anarchy grew thereafter. The Peshwas reportedly were a brutal force who criminalised Bhils. Equally brutal were the Marathas.
Discussing the Bhil-Rajput relationship, he statesthata ‘Bhilala’ community of Bhils emerged out of relationship between Rajputs men and Bhil women or vice versa. Bhilalas considered themselves superior to others – though the Bhils don’t think so.
The British felt that the Brahmin rulers of western India made the Bhils what they had become at that time due to their brutalisation and criminalisation. By 1818, the anarchy reached its peak when the British took control of the Khandesh and had to face “80 notorious gangs” (as per the book) with over 5,000 followers.
The British knew it well that it would be difficult to control the anarchy in Khandesh unless the Bhils were taken into confidence. They realised that the chaos and anarchy in the Bhil zone is basically because of the criminalisation process started by the Peshwas and the Maratthas. Hence, the British focused on the ‘policy of reclamation’, not on the policy of extermination, as was during the previous regimes.
By April 1827, the Khandesh Bhil Corp was born, as “peace” was allegedly restored in the region. Kushwaha dwells on the policy of the British in Central India, giving detailed examples of how robbery and looting in the region was rampant. The British felt that the Bhils could be useful for them as they were brave and loyal.
The chapter on Bhil rebellion in Khandesh and Madhya Bharat gives the reasons why the Bhils turned into gangs of looters and rebelled, as the old kingdoms left them unattended during the time of massive drought and famine, killing hundreds of people, compelling them to fend for themselves. 
The Bhils became rebels because of their socio-economic conditions and exploitation. They were widespread deaths, yet they never lost fighting honorably. In 1823, as many as 172 Bhil prisoners out of 232 who died during a journey to Khandesh, which reflects upon the behaviour of the police towards them.

Bhil revolts

The first Bhil revolt took place in 1804 against the Peshwas who had brutally criminalised the Bhils. Prior to the British takeover, the Bhils fought against the local chieftains and the caste prejudiced Rajas and Majarajas, who were exploiting them. 
The book documents important heroes of Bhil rebellion in the early 19th century such as Nadir Singh Bhil, Gumani Nayak, Cheel Nayak, Dasharath and Kania, Hiriya Bhil and Bhari Bhil. It details numerous stories ranging from the Mulher (Nasik, Maharastra) battle of 1825 to the rebillion of Kunwar Jeeva Vasava in 1846. It also explains how the English tried to divide Bhils on religious lines, as Muslim Bhils were found to be more aggressive and rebellious.
The Adivasis were fighting to protect their own land from the outsiders, and for them whether it was Indian outsiders or the British, it did not matter. However, the fact is, the British too wanted to exploit their natural resources. The British wanted to exploit the forest resources and wanted to push their ‘citizenship agenda’ everywhere. The census operations started for the purpose of identifying people and resources, so that everything is documented.
The British knew well that it would be difficult to control the anarchy in Khandesh unless the Bhils were taken into confidence
In 1852, land survey was ordered in the Jal Gaon area, as the East India Company wanted to push through its new revenue model, and the forest was an income generating or revenue generating model for them. Hence, there was massive revolt against the British in 1853 and 1858 against the exploitation of the local resources.
The rest of India, too, witnessed revolt against British policies, but Adivasis and Dalits were also maltreated by those who were claiming discrimination from the British. Dalits and Adivasis were exploited by feudal lords, who treated them worse than the animals. Kushwaha has referred to this his two-landmark works, ‘Chauri Chaura Revolt and Freedom Movement’, now available in English, as also ‘Avadh Kisan Vidroh’ (in Hindi), both of which give the other side of the history which has been neglected by historians.
All these movements subsided in the nationalist war cries of Gandhiji and the Congress, which assimilated them and converted the entire issue as the fight against the British Raj. Ignoring the local feudal caste culture was the biggest drawback of the national movement, though Gandhiji symbolically tried to address the issue of untouchability, albeit without attacking the caste system.
The second part of the book focuses on Rajputana, Revakanta and Mahi Kanta agencies, giving us details about the geographical location of the region, followed with an analysis of Rajputs and the Bhils of Rajputana. Rajputs and Bhils had complex relationship, and perhaps historians can work further on the issue, particularly in Rajasthan, where the Rajputs are very particular about their historical heritage and mention Maharana Pratap as an extremely benevolent ruler and a friend of the Bhils.
Revakanta was an agency in Gujarat, as was Mahi-Kanta in Bombay Presidency, where the Bhils lived in large numbers and revolted against the British policy of acting against the Bhil Jagirdars. The British military action in 1820 hardly got any success. The rebellion could be contained only to some extent in December 1823.
A separate chapter deals with the icons or heroes of the Rajputana, Revakanta and the Mahi Kanta Bhil revolt, beginning with the Baroda Bhil revolt in 1804. The first among the heroes was Jagga Rawat who rejected the domain of the Rajput kings and was arrested on February 27, 1826 and was kept in jail till 1830, though not much is known about his condition thereafter.
Another interesting documentation is that of the Banswada rebellion (1872-75) led by Dalla, Deva, Onkar Rawat and Anupji Bhil. A pact in 1868 between the Banswada State and the British got the British the right to suppress the Bhils and exploit the natural reserves in the area. 
There are interesting descriptions of the Mewar Bhil Revolt of 1881 and the heroic fight of Govind Guru at Mangarh Tekri in the Dungarpur province in 1913, and how the British finally neutralised the Bhils in the region. The Bhils rebelled against exploitation and refused to do slave labour. There was campaign against alcoholism as well as for vegetarianism, monogamy and against dowry.

Tantya Bhil

In the part third of the book, there is a biographical sketch of Tantya Bhil, who was referred to as the Great Indian Moonlighter by the foreign media. He was a rebel with a cause and his ferociousness got him the Robin Hood-type image. He was a messiah of the poor. 
Born in 1842, Tantya saw exploitation from the childhood, as his ancestral property was illegally grabbed by the local feudal lord whose caretaker was killed by Tantya. Tantya was arrested in 1873 and got one year imprisonment. He continued his fight against the exploiters and went in and came out of the jail many a time.
From 1878 to 1888 Tantya had over 400 cases of dacoity against, him but he was never caught. Police always disturbed his relatives and other family members. Tantya was finally arrested on August 11, 1889. On October 19, 1889, Tantya was sentenced to death by sessions judge Lindse Niel in Jabalpur. On December 4, 1889 Tantya was hanged to death inside the jail. Kushwaha is writing a separate book on Tantya Bhil.
Kushwaha, who has worked on Adivasi issues passionately and voluntarily for the last so many years, documenting things from various archives and libraries, can a starting point for the researchers in universities to follow it up and dig up the Adivasi history further. We need more such initiatives, particularly from the Adivasi communities and their scholars, to take this further towards a logical conclusion.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat; twitter: @freetohumanity

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