Tilka Manjhi is an unsung hero of an armed struggle against East India company in the 18th century. Belonging to the tribal Santhal community in eastern India, Tilka Manjhi represents the strong sentiments of common people to liberate Bharat from foreign clutches. However, very few people know about Tilak Manjhi's sacrifice.
Tilka Manjhi is a classic example of biased history, which was taught to the people after independence. Sacrifice of Tilka Manjhi is inspirational. He fought against the East India Company
in the eighteenth century, almost 100 years before Indian National Congress was established. Tilka Manjhi represents the common man, who was willing to fight vigorously against any foreign invasion. Many historians are of the view that the revolt led by Tilka Manjhi was India's first war of independence against the foreign rule.
The most significant social aspect of Tilka Manjhi is the fact that he belongs to the Santhal community, a tribal (Vanvasi
) community. The Santhal community is still spread in parts of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Tilka Manjhi’s struggle is so inspirational that eminent writer Mahashewta Devi had written a novel on his life.
Tilka Manjhi was born into a Santhal family on February 11, 1750 in a village called Tilakpur in Sultanganj, currently in today’s Bihar. His father’s name was Sundara Murmu. Sundara named his son as Jabra, who later became village head.
In Pahadia language the village head is called Manjhi while “Tilka” means a person with angry red eyes. Jabra went on to become the village head and in the Pahadia community, it is customary to address the village head as “Manjhi”. This is the reason Jabra came to be known as Tilka Manjhi. British Record describes him as Jabra Pahadia.
Tilka Manjhi spent his childhood in dense forests. He was fond of physical exercise and used to love wrestling. Climbing on trees and walking though hills was part of his life. His lifestyle made him fearless. Tilka Manjhi was a born fighter and used to organize small meetings around Bhagalpur against oppressive East India company. He was highly angry over natural resources being exploited by the East India company. He used to inculcate spirit of patriotism among the tribals and used to appeal to them to participate in the struggle against East India company. In the process, Tilka Manjhi organized the tribals and trained them to use arrows and bows against the foreign domination.
The year 1770 was decisive when the entire Santhal region underwent severe famine. The people were dying because of hunger. Tilka Manjhi looted East India company treasure and distributed it among the local residents. Many tribals got motivated because of his action and joined the army of Tilka Manjhi. Tilka Manjhi continued to loot officials and the people, who used to help foreign power. His struggle against the oppressive East India company began in 1771 and continued till 1784. Tilka Manjhi represented popular unrest among the people as East India company continued to exploit them even during the drought conditions. Tilka Manjhi was such a brave fighter that he drove the East India company out of Ramgarh camp in 1778. At the time, Warren Hastings headed the military rule of the region. Hastings sent 800 British soldiers under the command of Captain Brook to suppress the Tilka-led revolt. Brook continued the suppression of the Santhal revolt for the next two years. James Brown succeeded him.
Finally, Augustus Cleveland was appointed as the administrator of East India Company in the Province of Bengal. He thus became the collector of revenues and a judge of the diwani adalat (civil court) in Bhagalpur, Munger and Raajmahal districts. Cleveland was hostile towards the Santhals
Unfortunately, Cleveland succeeded in persuading some tribals to help him after huge efforts. However, Tilka Manjhi continued to enjoy massive support from the local residents. Tilka Manjhi used leaves to send messages to his supporters. He used to write "We Must Unite” on the leaves. Conflict between Tilka Manjhi and East India company became fiercer. The company troops were targeted by Tilka Manjhi army, which used arrows and bows. Tilka Manjhi, himself, was leading the struggle. On January 13, 1784, Tilka attacked Bhagalpur. He climbed on a tree and shot Cleveland with a poisoned arrow. It was a huge and unexpected blow to the company.
Company troops chased Tilka Manjhi but could not succeed. Company officials started luring tribals to get the whereabouts of Tilka Manjhi. Unfortunately, one of the tribals betrayed Tilka Manjhi. British commander Eyre Coote attacked Tilka’s hideout. That night, Tilka and his revolutionary army were celebrating with dance and songs and were caught off guard by the sudden attack. Tilka somehow escaped but many of his fellow soldiers were martyred. The rest were taken prisoners. He took refuge in the mountains of Sultanganj and continued his guerilla raids on the company army.
The company surrounded the mountain areas of Sultanganj and Bhagalpur. All routes to the mountain were blocked preventing any food grain or other aid reaching the mountains. The guerilla army was in disarray. His army began to die from starvation. Tilka decided to take the British forces head on. The Santhals attacked the Company army but Tilka Manjhi was captured during the battle. It is said that they tied him to four horses and had him dragged all the way to Bhagalpur. Despite being dragged for miles, Tilka Manjhi was alive. Around mid-January in 1785, in Bhagalpur, as thousands watched, Tilka Manjhi kissed the noose and was hanged from a huge banyan tree. He was just 35 years-old at that time.
East India company felt that execution of Tilka Manjhi would stop any kind of opposition or revolt. But Tilka Manjhi was only the beginning. A statue of Tilka Manjhi has been erected on the premises of Bhagalpur court. Bhagalpur University was renamed after Tilka Manjhi, in his honour.