Massacres Worse than Jalianwala Bagh–Resistance and Repression among Bhil Tribals in India, 1912-22

Bhil 1

There is increasing evidence that resistance to colonial and feudal exploitation by Bheel tribal communities increased significantly during the decade 1912-22, leading to extreme forms of repression by the British forces supported by princely kingdoms, culminating in at least two, perhaps more, massacres whose death toll is most likely to have been in excess of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre. Around 3000 or even more people are likely to have perished in these massacres, according to various estimates.

Around the year 1912 a movement headed by Govind Guru was peaking in what are now the meeting points of Rajasthan and Gujarat states, in areas like Banswara, Dungarpur and Kushalgarh.  This is best seen as a movement of four streams. Firstly, it was a movement of social reform, with emphasis on giving up liquor and all intoxicants as well as gender equality. The reformist message was radical, as evident in open criticism of gender injustice practiced by upper social hierarchy groups, and the use of rituals like sacred fire ‘dhuni’ should be seen more as an effort by Govind Guru to protect followers from increasing repression by feudal and colonial forces as well liquor sellers in very difficult circumstances. Any appeals made to the authorities should also be seen in this context, while actually all the four streams of his movement were increasingly radicalized.

The second stream is that of a democratic and civil rights movement as Guru Govind made several efforts to reduce the repression and victimization of his followers. He appealed for freedom to spread ideas, assembling of followers and observing of certain rituals together. Despite these appeals repression went on increasing. Even Guru Govind and his family members were imprisoned for some time in or around 1912.

The third stream of this movement was as a peasant and workers’ movement, in which consistently demands were raised for reducing taxes of farmers, for protecting land rights of tribal communities and for eliminating the practice of forced labor/ bonded labor. To his own people he appealed for giving more attention to better farming practices.

Last but certainly not the least, this became increasingly a freedom movement against the British rule, with focus mainly on asserting the rights of bheel tribals and the re-establishment of their long-lost sovereignty or self-rule in the area of their widely spread habitations.

Thus radicalized, this movement came in increasing conflict with colonial rulers and princely rulers colluding with them against their own people. A stage was reached when Guru Govind had to move from place to place with moderately armed followers as a defensive force. It was at one such gathering in Maangarh, on 17 November 1913, that he and his followers were surrounded by British forces which used tactics aimed at killing and maiming a large number of people within a short time. Nearly 1500 people, mainly bheel tribals, are estimated to have perished on this day. Guru Govind was arrested along with his close lieutenants Dhirji Punja and Punja Pargi, and all three were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Meanwhile, in Mewar region the movement against excessive land revenue and other forms of exploitation was gaining strength in Bijoliya region and spreading to other areas. It is interesting that inquiries ordered by the Maharana ( king) himself had confirmed the exploitative nature of excessive taxation.

The movement was consolidated further by the arrival of the brilliant freedom fighter Vijay Singh Pathik. His writings and documentation led to the spread of this movement’s message to a large number of people. One of these was an Udaipur based young man named Motilal Tejawat with strong instincts for opposing any injustice. He started working among Bheel tribals on issues relating to opposition to excessive taxation and forced labor. This came to be known as the Eki movement. Motilal’s sincerity as well as the urgency of issues fetched him a large number of followers, in the bheel community particularly, within a short time.

However with this success also came increasing repression and, like Guru Govind before him, Motilal Tejawat was soon moving with a number of followers from one place to another. In early March 1922 he reached Pal Chitaria village in Vjaynagar area( in present day Gujarat, close to border of Rajasthan ) where a large number of other followers were supposed to come to listen to Tejawat. People estimated to be between 5000 to 10,000 ( probably local people outnumbering those who had come with Tejawat by now) listened to him with reverence.

Unknown to them a heavily armed force had been sent by the colonial rulers to corner Tejawat and his followers here. In the massacre of 7 March, around 1200 people are estimated to have perished. This has been estimated mainly on the basis of oral accounts as due to the extremely adverse publicity following Jalianwala Bagh massacre in Punjab (1919), the British were determined to avoid any reference to these killings in any official records. Eye witness accounts have however spoken of a large number of the dead being buried in a well or perishing in or near the river-bed. It appears that most of the dead were non-local persons who had come with Tejawat, not so familiar with local geography and escape routes. However his local followers took care to take Tejawat to safety over a hill, and he could evade arrest for nearly 7 years.

Some accounts state that the repressive British machinery rolled on, and in May over 1000 people were again killed in Bhula and Balohiya  villages, although lesser evidence is available regarding this.

Meanwhile repression had been increasing also in the neighboring areas where Bijoliya movement and its off-shoots had spread. These struggles and particularly those of tribal communities have not received the attention these should have received in the documentation of the freedom movement, and one hopes that this neglect would be made up in the near future with due attention accorded to these struggles and sacrifices.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include When the Two Streams Met (freedom movement ), Azadi Ke Deewanon Ki Daastaan ( In Hindi ) and Man over Machine ( Gandhiji’s Legacy).

All photos by P.L. Patel were taken in and around Maangarh Memorials


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