Friday, July 2, 2010

The Sannyasi Rebellion

The Sannyasi Rebellion or Sannyasi(Monk) Revolt is a term used to describe activities of sannyasis and fakirs, or Hindu and Muslim ascetics respectively, in Bengal, in the late eighteenth century. It is also known as the Fakir-Sannyasi Rebellion. It as an early war for India's independence from foreign rule, since the right to collect tax had been given to the British East India Company after the Battle of Plassey in 1757.
At least three separate events are called the Sannyasi Rebellion. One refers to a large body of ascetics both Hindu sannyasis and Muslim madaris, religious fakirs that travelled from North India to different parts of Bengal to visit shrines. On route to the shrines, it was customary for many of these holy men to exact a religious tax from the headmen and zamindars or regional landlords. In times of prosperity, the headmen and zamindars generally obliged. However, since the East India Company received the diwani or right to collect tax, many of the tax demands increased and the local landlords and headmen were unable to pay both the ascetics and the English. Crop failures, and famine, which killed ten million people or an estimated one-third of the population of Bengal compounded the problems since much of the arable land lay fallow.
In 1771, 150 fakirs were put to death, apparently for no reason. This was one of the reasons that caused distress leading to violence, especially in Natore in Rangpur, now in modern Bangladesh. However, some modern historians argue that the movement never gained popular support.
The other two movements involved a sect of Hindu ascetics, the Dasnami naga sannyasis who likewise visited Bengal on pilgrimage mixed with moneylending opportunities. To the British, both the Hindu and Muslim ascetics were looters to be stopped from collecting money that belonged to the Company and possibly from even entering the province. It was felt that a large body of people on the move was a possible threat.
When the Company's forces tried to prevent the sannyasis and fakirs from entering the province or from collecting their money in the last three decades of the eighteenth century, fierce clashes often ensued, with the Company's forces not always victorious. Most of the clashes were recorded in the years following the famine but they continued, albeit with a lesser frequency, up until 1802. The reason that even with superior training and forces, the Company was not able to suppress sporadic clashes with migrating ascetics was that the control of the Company's forces in the far-removed hilly and jungle covered districts like Birbhum and Midnapore on local events was weak.

The Sannyasi rebellion was the first of a series of revolts and rebellions in the Western districts of the province including (but not restricted to) the Chuar Revolt of 1799 and the Santal Revolt of 1831–32. What effect the Sannyasi Rebellion had on rebellions that followed is debatable. Perhaps, the best reminder of the Rebellion is in literature, in the Bengali novel Anandamath, written by India's first modern novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, from which the song Vande Mataram was taken and declared to be India's National Song.
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