The Sanyasi rebellion of Bengal is another forgotten chapter of Bharatiya history. Hindu Sadhus led and encouraged the citizens to fight against the oppressive tax system of the British as their policies impacted the economy to the extent of causing famines.
The eighteenth century witnessed a power struggle between regional Islamic powers and the British East India Company (EIC) in several parts of the country. Hindus faced religious and financial persecution at the hands of both Islamic rulers and the EIC.
The EIC entered Calcutta in 1688 and began its first Diwani in Bengal in 1765. The Diwani controlled and collected taxes for Bengal, comprised of present-day West Bengal, Bangladesh, Assam, and parts of Odisha, Bihar, and Jharkhand.
The Diwani amount doubled in the first year and increased by 10 per cent the following year. Ten million people died in the famine that hit the lower Ganga plain in 1769-73. The economic policies of the British resulted in the 1770 famine. The hoarding of stocks by officials added to the woes of the people.
It was not just the rigorous taxation policy of the British during the famine but also the severe restrictions on religious movement that triggered the rebellion. The Sanyasis were banned from entering Bengal and those who violated the law were beaten up. The Sanyasis were angered by the British’s brutal policy and resolved to protest which resulted in several clashes between them. They were supported by local chieftains, farmers, and landlords.
It was and continues to be a common practice among Sanyasis to travel to various pilgrimage sites. Advaita followers are divided into ten groups on the basis of the schools of thought they follow and their functional responsibilities. The ten groups are collectively known as Dasnami. Giri, Puri, Bharati, Ban, Aranya, Parbat, Sagar, Tirtha, Ashrama, and Saraswati are the ten sects.
The Sadhus also indulged in trade and kept a sufficient amount of money to meet operating costs, travel expenses, and procure weapons. Local landlords provided financial support to the Sanyasis in places they travelled to for pilgrimage. However, the oppressive tax regime of the British EIC made it impossible for the landlords to fund the Sadhus.
The Bengali Hindus were oppressed first by Muslim invaders and subsequently by the British. Therefore, they were neither emotionally nor financially in a position to fight back. The sadhus gave direction and encouragement to the oppressed to fight against the oppressors. Sanyasis of the Naga, Giri, and Puri sects took the lead in the rebellion.
The capture of Dhaka in 1763, the battle of Malda in 1766, the battle of Ghodaghat in 1770-1771, the recapture of Dhaka factory in 1784, and the battle of Gobindganj in 1791 were the major battles of this rebellion. Hindu sanyasis-led untrained native troops forced the British to retreat and also captured important forts.
Pandit Bhabani Charan Pathak took the lead in organizing the rebellion. He led from the front in the battles and sacrificed his life in the battle of Gobindganj. After his death, the rebellion was continued by Devi Chaudhrani continued to fight till 1802.
The Sanyasis army used traditional weapons including bows-arrows, swords, and daggers among others. Although they were unorganized, they relied on guerrilla warfare to gain an upper hand over the British troops. On two occasions, the sadhus used boats to launch fights on EIC factories located on river banks. Their dexterity and lighting quick fighting strategy helped them survive against the EIC army.
Cooch Behar and Dhaka were the principal centres of rebellion during the first three years. Undoubtedly, the victory was short-lived but for a few months, the people enjoyed self-rule. Once the sadhus who were nomads left the fort, the EIC regained power. The captured Sanyasis were tortured to death and the natives who supported them were executed.
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