Bastar’s Bhumkaal Rebellion and its Forgotten Legacy

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    The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh only finds occasional mention in the mainstream media, that too, for being a part of India’s dangerous ‘Red Corridor’ of Maoist insurgency. But this tribal resistance to authority is not a recent phenomenon. One of the fiercest tribal revolts against the British Raj was mounted here. Led by a charismatic tribal leader named Gunda Dhur, it was the Bastar Revolt of 1910.

    Bastar, in South Chhattisgarh, is covered in thick forests inhabited by the Gond, Dhurwa, Halba, Bhatra and other tribes. The Indravati River, a tributary of the Godavari, made the land cultivable and the region habitable. The tribes maintained little or no contact with the rest of the world; they worshipped forest deities and lived off the land. Their lives were unchanged for over a millennium. Politically, rulers came and went but these tribal communities remained unaffected.

    In the 14th century, the Kakatiya Dynasty, headquartered in present-day Warangal, established its rule over Bastar. Later, the Kingdom of Bastar paid tribute to the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and later the Marathas, who were happy to leave this forest kingdom untouched. But this changed with the coming of the British East India Company and the British Raj in the 19th century. Slowly and steadily, the British made inroads into the lives of the local people and it resulted in a deep, simmering resentment that spread to the remotest villages.

    Simmering Discontent

    The biggest trigger for resentment was the Indian Forest Act of 1878, which had a direct impact on the tribals, whose livelihood depended on forest produce. This legislation divided forests across India into three categories – reserved, protected and village forests. The richest part of the forest came under direct government control and was designated ‘reserved forest’ land. Suddenly, tribal communities who had lived in symbiotic harmony with the forest, became ‘trespassers’. The ‘protected forest’ areas were partially controlled by the government while the areas categorised as ‘village forest’ were leftover forestlands.

    This segregation didn’t go down well peasants and tribals in India. In fact, a previous attempt to control the forests had led to the Santhal Revolt of 1855, in the Jharkhand region. Now, this tribal wrath extended to Bastar. Sadly, the tribals did not understand why they were suddenly allowed to visit their ‘own land’. And there was more to come.

    In 1905, the colonial British government wanted to reserve almost two-thirds of the forests and stop shifting cultivation, foraging and hunting by the local people. Also, free labour (begar) was expected from those who wanted to work in reserved forests. Land rents were already a huge bone of contention and now there was brutish police exploitation too.

    Then came a terrible famine in 1907-08, the second devastating famine since the one in 1899-1900. Despite these conditions, in 1908, contractors were given access to reserved forests, to take timber and wood for the construction of railway sleepers. The tribals’ main source of livelihood was thus commercialised and they were pushed to destitution. In addition, locally made country liquor, traditionally brewed by tribals, was also declared illegal. This turned Bastar into a simmering cauldron of resentment.

    Rise of the Dhurwas & Gunda Dhur

    The Dhurwa tribe of the Kanker forest was worst hit because the reservation of forests first took place there. As resentment grew, there was talk of a revolt. Just like chapattis, lotus flowers and gun cartridges were symbols of the 1857 Revolt, mango twigs, a lump of soil, arrows and chillies were circulated among Bastar’s villagers to rally them to the cause. Finally on 2nd February 1910, the Bastar Rebellion, also known as the Bhumkaal Rebellion, broke out under the leadership of Gunda Dhur, a tribal leader from Nethanar village.

    At the beginning of the revolt, Gunda Dhur and his followers looted the granaries of Pushpal bazaar village in Bastar and redistributed food to the poor. This was followed by a series of guerrilla attacks on the houses of officials and sahukars in Jagdalpur, the capital of Bastar. The Jagdalpur police station and missionary schools were also attacked.

    The rebellion quickly spread to 46 of the 84 parganas (administrative divisions) of the Bastar Kingdom and, for two to three days, the British were wiped out from Bastar. But the tables soon turned. The British sent in additional troops to suppress the rebellion. They also bribed one of the rebel leaders, Sonu Manjhi, who was promised a handsome sum and a position of power if he helped them.

    With the help of Sonu Majhi, British troops surrounded the tribal camp and there was no way out. The final show of resistance took place in Alinargaon village, where a large number of tribal fighters were killed. Gunda Dhur escaped under the cover of darkness, never to be seen again.

    Despite the charismatic leadership of Gunda Dhur, the rebellion had not been systematically and strategically planned and this became a critical factor for its defeat. Neither did it systematically spread from one region to another nor did the leadership attempt to consolidate control over their areas of influence. Lack of investment, both material and strategic, in arms was another limitation.

    Following the revolt, British troops marched into the villages and punished the families of the rebels. As a result, most villages were deserted and people migrated to the jungles to take refuge. It took three to four months for the British to regain control of the region. Despite persistent efforts to track him down, Gunda Dhur was never found. But the Bhumkaal Rebellion of 1910 had its desired effect – the forest area which was to be reserved was reduced to almost half that which had been proposed.

    Gunda Dhur has since emerged as an immortal hero of the tribals. Stories about him still circulate in the region and folk songs woven around his bravery are sung in the Kanker forest area, with every child identifying himself as an incarnation of Gunda Dhur! After India’s Independence, the state government recognised and instituted a state-level sports award in his name. Also, during the 2014 Republic Day celebrations, the official state tableau of the Government of Chhattisgarh was themed on the life of Gunda Dhur and his struggle to crush British dominance in the region. It may have taken more than a century, but this brave tribal leader was finally given his due.

    Cover Image: Gunda Dhur via


    Vishal Singh is a student of Ramjas College, University of Delhi, and a national level quizzer with a penchant for independent research in history.

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