The Santal or Santhal, are a Munda ethnic group native to India. Santals are the largest tribe in the Jharkhand state of India in terms of population and are also found in the states of Assam, Tripura, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and West Bengal. They are the largest ethnic minority in northern Bangladesh’s Rajshahi Division and Rangpur Division. They have a sizeable population in Nepal and Bhutan. The Santals speak Santali, the most widely spoken of the Munda languages
Santhals enjoy dance. Dancing is one primary activity of this tribe. It is an important activity in festivals. Santhals enjoy with light music and dance after a long day of work.
According to linguist Paul Sidwell, Austro-Asiatic language speakers probably arrived on coast of Odisha from Indochina about 4000–3500 years ago. The Austroasiatic speakers spread from Southeast Asia and mixed extensively with local Indian populations.
Due to the lack of significant archaeological records, the original homeland of the Santals is not known with certainty. The folklore of the Santals claims they came from Hihiri, which scholars have identified as Ahuri in Hazaribagh district. From there, they claim, they were pushed onto Chota Nagpur, then to Jhalda, Patkum and finally Saont, where they settled for good. This legend, which has been cited by several scholars, has been used as evidence that the Santals once had a significant presence in Hazaribagh. Colonial scholar Colonel Dalton claimed in Chai there was a fort formerly occupied by a Santal raja who was forced to flee when the Delhi Sultanate invaded the territory.
Santhals in British India, 1868
In the latter half of the 18th century, the Santals entered the historical record in 1795 when they are recorded as “Soontars.” During the Bengal Famine of 1770, the drier western and southwestern parts of Bengal, especially the Jungle Mahals region, were some of the worst-hit areas and were significantly depopulated. This depopulation resulted in a significant loss of revenue for the East India Company. Therefore when the Permanent Settlement was enacted in 1790, the Company looked for agriculturalists to clear the lands. British officials turned their attention to Santals, who were being pushed out of their lands on the Chota Nagpur Plateau by newer immigrants and were ready to clear the forest for the practice of settled agriculture. Starting in 1790, large numbers of Santals from Ramgarh and Hazaribagh began to migrate into Permanent Settlement regions like the Jungle Mahals and the Rajmahal Hills, sponsored by landowners and the British who were desperate for labour. Under British direction, Santals took loans from non-Santal moneylenders to buy iron tools, seed grain and oxen as individuals and families, rather than groups as was their custom for working the land.
When they arrived in Damin-i-koh, the British provided no protection for the Santals against the preexisting Mal Paharias, who were known raiders of the plains areas and had only recently been partially “pacified.” Eventually, the Santals, with their superior technology and ability to match the Paharia’s guerrilla attacks, managed to drive them out. Their settlement took place between the 1830s and 1850s: in 1830, the area was home to only 3000 Santals, but by the 1850s, 83,000 Santals had settled in the land and had turned it into paddy fields. This resulted in a 22 times increase in Company revenue from the area.
However, as they became more agricultural, the Santals were exploited by the zamindars. Unlike the Santals, the British valued individual competition instead of cooperation, and had a rigid system of laws very different from the relatively relaxed norms of the village council, the highest form of government most Santals knew. Mahajans from Bengal and Baniyas from Bihar began selling goods from elsewhere, and many Santals, seeing them as exotic, were tricked into becoming in debt to buy them, usually with a mortgage on their land. When the Santals were unable to pay the moneylenders back, they became owners of the land and the Santals became peasants. The merchants and other outsiders also began to treat Santals as outcastes in a newly-imposed Brahminical system.
Eventually, these acts of exploitation, combined with British tax policies and corrupt tax collectors, deteriorated to the point where Santals grew discontented. In 1855, they revolted in the Santal rebellion, better known as the Santal Hul. 30,000 Santals, led by Sidhu and Kanhu Murmu, attacked the zamindars and other outsiders (dikkus) who had made their lives so miserable, as well as the British authorities. Eventually, around 10,000 British troops managed to suppress the rebellion. Although the rebellion’s impact was largely overshadowed by that of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the impact of the Santhal Rebellion lives on as a turning point in Santhal pride and identity. This was reaffirmed, over a century and a half later with the creation of the first tribal province in the Republic of India, Jharkhand. Afterwards the British satisfied all their demands due to their importance as a tax-paying group. The British created a 5000 km2 area, called Santal Parganas, where the normal procedures of British India did not apply. Administration of the community was primarily made the responsibility of the village headman, or pradhan, who was also given the power to collect taxes. In addition, it was made illegal for Santals to transfer land to non-Santals, allowing them to have legal rights over their land.
After the British government formally took control over India in 1858, the Santals continued their system of government and traditions. Newly-established Christian missions brought secular education, and many Santals moved to the tea plantations in Assam, where they still remain today. However most continued with their old life, but were still not prosperous. In addition, secular education did not become widespread until after Indian independence.
After independence, the Santals were made one of the Scheduled Tribes. After Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar in 2000, the Santal Parganas was made a separate division of the state. These Santals have also agitated for recognition of their traditions in the census as a separate religion, sarna dharam, for which Jharkhand assembly passed a resolution in 2020. Many still face poverty and exploitation, and in Bangladesh, theft of their lands is common. Although spread out over a large area, they now consider the Santal Parganas as