Tribal Movements: Causes, Classification, Major Tribal Revolts in India

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Tribal Movements: Causes, Classification, Major Tribal Revolts in India-Image




GS-I: Modern History

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Prelims:  History of India and Indian National Movement.

Mains: Modern Indian history from about the middle of the eighteenth century until the present- significant events, personalities, and issues.

Tribal movements during British rule were characterised by their frequency, militancy, and violence. These movements can be categorised into mainland tribal revolts and frontier tribal revolts, with the latter concentrated in India's northeastern part. Mainland tribal rebellions were ignited by factors like- changes in tribal land and forests, loss of joint ownership tradition, and exploitation by outsiders.

On the other hand, the northeastern frontier tribes sought political autonomy within the Indian Union or complete independence, leading to longer-lasting and unique revolts in contrast to non-frontier tribal movements. Led bytribal chiefs, these movements initially started on socio-religious issues and oppression and later merged with the National movement. Tribals generally used traditional weapons as their mode of revolt against the oppressors.

What are the Tribal Uprisings?

The tribal groups held significant and inseparable roles within Indian society. Before their annexation and subsequent incorporation into the British territories, they had their own social and economic systems. The British implemented new rules were implemented by the British and the boundary between the tribals and the state was broken. This led to many clashes between the Government and the tribal people. These struggles can be named as tribal movements/uprisings.

Causes for the Tribal Movements

By annexing their territories and clearing the forest to introduce cash crops in India, the British administration brought relatively isolated tribal groups into the ambit of colonialism. 

The factors for the tribal uprisings can be considered as follows: 

  • Land Alienation: The tribal communities faced land dispossession and encroachments by colonial powers and landlords, leading to the loss of their traditional territories and livelihoods. The British declared that forests were state property. 
  • Exploitative Revenue System: The British introduced a new land revenue system and taxation of tribal products, resulting in the loss of the traditional rights of tribals over land.
  • Forest Policies: Forest Department (1864), Forests Act (1865), and Indian Forests Act (1878) restricted tribal access to forests and natural resources, further affecting their traditional hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices.
  • The introduction of intermediaries: British introduced traders and moneylenders into the forests, and oppression and extortion by police officers & petty officials aggravated distress among tribals.
  • Cultural Suppression: Christian missionaries and their activities among tribal groups were seen as threatening their culture and beliefs.

Classification of Tribal Movements

Tribal movements before independence can be divided into three phases:

First Phase 

(1795 - 1860)

- It coincided with the rise of the British Empire. Leadership from traditional sections whose privileges were undermined.

Second Phase 


- Intensive colonialism coincided with mercantilism, impacting the tribal economy, land, and forests. Leadership from the lowest tribal rung.

Third Phase 


-Tribals engaged in nationalist, agrarian, and separatist movements. Leadership from educated tribes or outsiders.


Major Tribal Revolts

A historical overview of significant uprisings by tribal communities against colonial rule in India: 

Tribal RevoltsCharacteristics 
Pahariya Rebellion

- Leader: Raja Jagganath in 1778

- Reasons: Against the British extension of settled agriculture into the Pahariya territories

-British response: 

  • In the 1770s, the British brutally hunted and killed Paharias.
  • By the 1780s, the British had adopted a pacification policy. Chiefs received an allowance and were held responsible for men's conduct.

- Developments: 

  • Paharia chiefs rejected allowances. Accepting allowances would have led to the loss of authority. They retreated to the mountains, waging war against outsiders.
Chuar Uprising

- Location: The region between Chota Nagpur and the plains of Bengal. (1767-1802)

- Leader: Durjan Singh

- Reasons: 

  • By 1798, the tribals rebelled, took to arms, and adopted the guerrilla tactics of war when they realised that the British had taken away their land.

- Nature

  • The tribes rebelled, took to arms, and adopted the guerrilla tactics of war when they realised that the British had taken away their land. 
Tamar Revolts

- Location: 

  • By Oraon tribes of Tamar in the Chotanagpur region(1789-1832)

- Leader: Bhola Nath Sahay 

- Reasons

  • They revolted against the faulty alignment system of the British government. 
  • The alignment system exposed the British failure to secure tenants' land rights, causing unrest among Tamar tribes in 1789.

- Developments:

  • They were joined in the revolt by the tribals of adjoining areas - Midnapur, Koelpur, Dhadha, Chatshila, Jalda and Silli
  • The Government suppressed the movement in 1832-33
Bhil Uprising

- Location: Khandesh hill ranges (Maharashtra & Gujarat) (1817-19)

- Reasons: 

  • Khandesh was occupied by the British in 1818. Bhils saw them as outsiders, and the uprising began. Freedom-loving tribes challenged British rule and lost forest and land rights.
  • The Bhils again revolted in 1825, 1836 and 1846.
Ramosi uprising

- Location: 

  • Ramosis, an aboriginal community in the Western Ghats (Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh), once served in the lower ranks of the Maratha army.

- Leader

  • In 1822, Chittur Singh of Satara led a Ramosi uprising, plundering Satara.
  • In 1826, Ramosis around Poona revolted under Umaji Naik and Bapu Trimbakji Sawant.

- Causes: Uprisings resulted from the annexation and deposition of popular rulers. After the Peshwa's defeat in 1818, Ramosis lost their livelihood.

- British Response: The British condoned Ramosi crimes, granting them land and recruiting them as hill police.

Ahom Revolt

- Location: Assam (1828-1833)

- Leader:

  • Gomadhar Konwar, an Ahom Prince, had started a rebellion along with the support of Dhanjay Borgohain and Jairam Khargharia Phukan

- Reasons: 

  • British occupation despite Treaty of Yandaboo 1826. The British pledge to leave after the Anglo-Burmese War raised the Ahom nobility's suspicions and dissatisfaction.
Kol Uprising

- Location: 

  • Chotanagpur region (1831-32)
  • It spread to Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Palamau and Manbhum

- Reasons

  • British penetration and law over Kol Chiefs caused tribal tensions.
  • Occupation brought settlers, transferring tribal lands.
  • Merchants, money lenders, and British law threatened chiefs' power. Resentment led to uprisings against outsiders.
Khasi Uprising

- Location: A region between the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills (1829-33)

- Leader: U. Tirot Singh

- Reasons: 

  • The British annexed the independent tribal states of Khasi Hills in 1826.
  • The British administration wanted to build a road linking the Brahmaputra Valley with Sylhet. 
  • The conscriptions of labourers for road construction led Khasis to wage a war of Independence (1829-33)
Santhal Rebellion

- Location: Birbhum, Bankura, Singhbhum, Hazaribagh, Bhagalpur and Monghyr (1855-57)

- Leader: 

  • Sidhu and Kanhu, under them around 10,000 santhals rose against these dreadful activities in June 1855; pledged to establish a free Santhal state.
  • Santhal Revolt (1855-56) led to Santhal Pargana's creation, carving 5,500 sq. miles from Bhagalpur and Birbhum districts.

- Reasons: 

  • Santhals rebelled against colonial exploitation, and money-lenders due to Permanent Settlement. The British brought zamindars, traders, and moneylenders, imposing heavy taxes, high-interest rates. Santhals revolted for self-rule.

- Nature: 

  • Mass-scale violence- account books of moneylenders and government buildings were burnt, and their exploiters punished
Khond Uprising

- Location: Orissa from 1837 to 1856

- Leadership: Chakra Bisoi

- Reasons:

  • The Khonds faced issues with colonial administration stopping 'mariah' sacrifices. 
  • Other reasons: new taxes, the influx of zamindars, and money lenders.

- Development:

  • The uprising was later joined by Savaras and a few other militia clans led by Radhakrishna Dandasena
  • After Bisoi disappeared in 1855 and Dandasena's hanging in 1857, the movement fizzled out.
Koli Uprising

- Location: 

  • Ahmednagar of Maharashtra (1822-29)
  • The tribes in the Taranga hills of Mehsana district in Gujarat (1857)

- Leadership

  • From 1822-1829, Ramji Bhangre led a revolt against the British Raj and the local Baniya moneylenders. 
  • The uprising in the Taranga hills was led by Maganlal Bhukhan, Dwarakadas, and Jetha Madhavji

- Reasons

  • 1822-29: In 1818, the British took over Pune from Peshwas. Ramji became Jamadar in Nayakwari police. Disputes over levies and salary led him to resign and start a revolt in February 1829.
  • 1857: Kolis, affected by colonial rule, feared new legislation and colonisation's impact on customs.

- Developments:

  • 1822-29: Ramji led 500-600 rebels, including Kolis like Govind Rao Kheri, who lost jobs under British rule. They attacked moneylenders in Akola Hills and destroyed their account books.
  • 1857: Kolis rebelled in September, plundering Company territories for two months. Lack of expected support led many to withdraw, and the British easily defeated the rest
Birsa Munda Revolt

- Location: Chotanagpur region (1890s)

- Leadership: 

  • Birsa Munda, organised and led the tribal movement, giving the tribals a call for “Ulgulan” (Revolt) to the tribals. 
  • He urged the Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village, and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. 
  • He called himself Dharti Aba, father of the world.

 - Reasons:

  • The land policies of the British were destroying their traditional land system (Khuntkatti system or joint tenures), and missionaries were criticising their traditional culture
  • Outsiders and money lenders took over the properties of the Mundas and forced them into wageless labourers.

- Significance:

  • Authorities prepared land records to safeguard tribal interests, leading to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908, preventing an easy land takeover by ‘Dikkus’.
  • The movement showcased tribal people's ability to protest injustice and express anger against colonial rule.
  • Movement faded after Birsa's death.
  • Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas: The birth anniversary of Bhagwan Birsa Munda (15 November)
Koya Rebellion

- Location:

  • Took place during 1879-80 in the eastern Godavari tract of Andhra Pradesh and some regions of Malkangiri region in Odisha.

- Leadership: 

  • It was led by Tomma Dora, the Koya leader
  • In 1880, Tomma Dora captured a police station, defeating a colonel and his contingent. Koyas hailed him as the 'King' of Malkangiri. 

- Reasons:

  • Erosion of customary rights over forests, 
  • Mansabdars effort to enhance taxes on timber and grazing, 
  • Police exactions & exploitations by money lenders
  • New excise regulation restricting domestic production of toddy
Tana Bhagat movement

- Location: 

  • Tana Bhagat movement (1914-1920) is a movement that emerged among the Oraon tribes of Chotanagpur, Jharkhand. 

- Leadership:

  • The leader of the Tana Bhagat movement was called Jatra Bhagat

- Reasons: 

  • The economic and cultural exploitation of the Oraon tribes.
  • For them, Swaraj meant freedom from British rule and freedom from the oppression of the ‘Dikkus’, money-lenders, zamindars and feudal overlords.
  • Also, the leaders of this movement wanted to stop the evil practices among the tribes, like the worship of ghosts and spirits and the practice of exorcism.

- Nature: 

  • There was an active rebellion against unfair landlords who exploited them.
  • Some of the members refused to pay rent to their landlords and ceased to cultivate their lands.

- Significance: 

  • The movement was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and his idea of non-violence.
Rampa rebellion

- Location:

  • Occurred among the Koyas of the Godavari Agency area. Also known as “Manyam Rebellion” (1922-1924)

- Leader: Alluri Sitarama Raju

  • Though not tribal, he grasped British restrictions on tribal life.
  • Organized Adivasis against police, forest, and revenue officials, touring the forest area.
  • Prepared them to fight the Madras Forest Act of 1882, asserting ownership of forest produce.
  • Won grudging admiration from the British for guerrilla tactics.

- Reasons: 

  • Forced labour, embargoes on collecting minor forest produce and bans on tribal agriculture practices led to severe distress.

- Developments: 

  • In August 1922, Godavari Agency forests saw three-day attacks on police stations.
  • Alluri Sitarama Raju and 500 tribals attacked the Chintapalli, Krishnadevipeta, and Rajavommangi stations.
  • Stole 26 carbine rifles, and 2,500 rounds of ammo.
  • A trademark letter signed by Raju provided details of the booty in the station diary.

- British response: 

  • Unable to contain the ‘Manyam’ uprising, the British Government deputed T G. Rutherford in April 1924 to quell the movement. 
  • Rutherford resorted to violence and torture to get to know the whereabouts of Raju and his key followers.
  • After a relentless chase by British forces, Rama Raju was caught and martyred on May 7, 1924. 
  • After his martyrdom, repression and violence killed many of Raju's followers. Over 400 activists faced charges, including treason.
Chenchu Tribal Movement

- Location: Nallamalai forests of Andhra Pradesh. 

- Leader: Venkattappaya and even Gandhiji provided the links for the movement.

- Development: 

  • They launched forest satyagraha during the non-cooperation movement (1920s).
  • Congress wanted a limited social boycott of forest officials, but peasants sent cattle into the forest without fees.
  • In Palnad, people proclaimed swaraj and attacked the police.
Rani Gaidinliu’s Naga Movement

- Location: 

  • In the Zeliangrong territory in Manipur (the 1930s)

- Leadership: 

  • It was a socio-religious movement (also known as Heraka movement) initiated under the leadership of Gaidinliu’s cousin, Haipou Jadonang.
  • After Jadonang was hanged, Gaidinliu emerged as the political and spiritual leader of the movement. 
  • Rani Gaidinliu was born on 26 January 1915 in Luangkao village (now in the Tamenglong District of Manipur) and belonged to the Rongmei tribe
  • Gaidinliu’s introduction to the movement was at the age of 13 when she joined the Heraka Movement
  • In 1937 Jawaharlal Nehru visited Gaidinliu. He conferred upon her the title “Rani” for her courage.
  • An article published by the Hindustan Times described her as the “Daughter of the Hills”. 
  • Although Nehru tried to persuade for her early release, it bore no result. She was released only after India gained independence in 1947.

- Reasons:

  • This Tribal movement championed the cause of the Naga’s self-rule.
  • Jadonang, the clan’s spiritual leader, preached against the British missionaries, which aimed to convert the Naga tribes to Christianity.

- Developments: 

  • Gaidinliu started preaching Gandhian principles at the age of 17 and launched an open rebellion against British rule.
  • They refused to pay taxes or cooperate with the British and stood together in the face of the repressive measures imposed by the police and the Assam Rifles.

- British response: 

  • Although it had reformist religious objectives, there were also political undertones against British rule, which made the British wary of the movement and its leader.
  • This tribal movement received a significant setback with the arrest and hanging of Jadonang after a mock trial in 1931.
  • Gaidinliu was finally captured on 17 October 1932 and sentenced to life imprisonment.

PYQs on Tribal Movement 

Question 1: Which amongst the following provided a common factor for tribal insurrection in India in the 19th century? (UPSC Prelims 2011)

  1.  Introduction of a new system of land revenue and taxation- of tribal products
  2.  Influence of foreign religious missionaries in tribal areas
  3. Rise of a large number of money lenders, traders and revenue farmers as middlemen in tribal areas.
  4. The complete disruption of the old agrarian order of the tribal communities

Answer: (d)

Question 2: After the Santhal Uprising subsided, what were the measures taken by the colonial government? (UPSC Prelims 2018)

  1. The territories called 'Santhal Parganas' were created. 
  2. It became illegal for a Santhal to transfer land to a non-Santhal. 

Select the correct answer using the code given below: 

  1. 1 only 
  2. 2 only 
  3. Both 1 and 2 
  4. Neither 1 nor 2

Answer: (c)

Question 3: With reference to the history of India, ‘Ulgulan’ or ‘the Great Tumult’ is led by? (UPSC Prelims 2020)

  1.  Bakshi Jagabandhu
  2. Alluri Sitaramaraju
  3. Sidhu & Kanhu Murmu
  4.  Birsa Munda

Answer: (d)

FAQs on Tribal Movement

Q) Why did the tribal movement start in India?

Tribal movements started in India due to land alienation, economic exploitation, cultural suppression, denial of rights, forest policies, lack of development, injustice, and the influence of national movements.

Q) What are the major causes of tribal uprisings in India under British rule?

Several factors, such as the introduction of a new land revenue system and taxation of tribal products, the influx of intermediaries like money lenders, exploitation by police, loss of forest rights etc., caused tribal uprisings in India.

Q) What was the Santhal rebellion of 1855? 

Santhal rebellion: Tribal uprising against British policies like Permanent settlement and moneylender exploitation, led by Sidhu and Kanhu. Crushed ruthlessly in 1856.

Q) Who was Rani Gaidinliu?

Naga leader Gaidinliu led an insurrection against the British in Manipur, Nagaland, Assam. Joined the Heraka movement at 13 with cousin Haipou Jadonang to revive the Naga tribal religion and establish Naga self-government (Naga Raj) against British rule.