Long before the shot that started the First War of Indian Independence, India’s tribal communities gave their lives in opposing the colonizers. One such instance of an Adivasi rebellion against the British was that of Tilka Manjhi in 1785.
Determined to defend his people and land, Tilka organized the Adivasis into an army trained in the use of bows and arrows. For years, they would be at war with the Europeans and their army. In 1770, there was a severe famine in the Santhal region. People were dying of hunger. Tilka looted the treasury of the Company and distributed it among the poor and needy.
Inspired by this noble act of Tilka, many other tribals also joined the rebellion. With this began his “Santhal Hool” (the revolt of the Santhals). He continued to attack the British and their sycophantic allies. From 1771 to 1784, Tilka never surrendered.
The year 1784 is considered as the first armed rebellion against the British and was the beginning of the Santhal’s being historically recorded. It was due to the famine in 1770 and the consequences of Court of Directors orders which resulted in minimum chance to negotiate between local Zamdindars and Santhal villagers. Tilka Majhi attacked Augustus Cleveland, an East India Company administrator and fatally wounded him. The British surrounded the Tilapore forest from which he operated but he and his men held them at bay for several weeks. When he was finally caught in 1784, he was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged all the way to the Collector's residence at Bhagalpur, Bihar, India. There, his lacerated body was hung from a Banyan tree.
A statue to him was erected at the spot where he was hanged, after Indian independence, which is the nearby residence of S.P. Bhagalpur and named after him. Also, the Bhagalpur University was renamed after him - Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University. Another statue was established in Dumka, Jharkhand.