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The Sannyasi Rebellion refers to short period of a dozen odd years through the 1770s, after the Battle of Plassey that Clive won in 1757 and the great famine of 1770 in Bengal province. Those involved were Hindu renunciates, who were avowedly without any root in the world and were not attached to anything material or mental, including their very body. The movement, if it could called, also had Muslim “fakirs” who had taken to ascetic life along lines institutionalised in Sanatan way of life.
The rebellion was limited to Murshidabad and Baikunthapur forests of Jalpaiguri, in north-west of the province. It has been variously considered in significance as : a law and order problem; early war for India’s independence from British rule; reaction to atrocities during tax collection, especially at a time of severe and widespread starvation, since British East India Company had acquired that right after its victory at Plassey.
The Rebellion itself prompted recognition as a phenomenon with three distinct extended events over a couple of decades …
One, refers to a large body of ascetics – Hindu sannyasis – who traveled from North India to different parts of Bengal and beyond, to shrines in north-east region including Assam. En route, it was customary for many of these holy men to ask for monetary support from village heads and local landlords who, in better times, generally obliged. However, with “diwani” or collection rights won by East India Company, the regime’s tax demands from the populace increased and local landlords and headmen were unable to pay both the ascetics and the English mercenaries. Crop failures, and famine, which killed ten million people, or an estimated one-third of the population of Bengal, compounded the problems when much of the arable land lay fallow.
In 1771, about 150 of the renunciates were put to death by the British Company troops, for no apparent reason. It led to a violent retaliation, especially in Natore in Rangpur, now in modern Bangladesh. Some historians however argue that the particular reaction never gained popular support and hence could not be considered a major cause behind the rebellion.
The other two movements involved a sect of Hindu ascetics, the Dasnami Naga sannyasis. It was alleged that they engaged in lending out money on interest while passing through the region and collected it on their way back. The British looked upon this as an encroachment on their domain and declared the Dasnamis as brigands, liable for criminal offense. They arranged not only for prevention of such money gathering, which right they felt belonged to the Company, but also to stop their entry into the province. The entire propaganda may have been a cover, since a large body of people on the move would always be a challenge and a possible threat to law and order administrators anywhere.
Most such clashes are recorded during the years following the great famine; but they continued sporadically up until 1802. The rebellion actually spread all over the province during those last three decades of 18th Century. Attempts by Company’s forces to prevent the sannyasis and fakirs from entering the province, or from collecting their money, met with resistance and fierce clashes often ensued. In these instances, the regime’s troops were not always victorious, inviting cheers from the oppressed population of the day. The Company’s hold was poor over territories in far-flung and forested areas of Birbhum and Midnapore districts, as a result of which it often faced reverses in their clash with Naga ascetics and suffered humbling losses.
The Sannyasi rebellion was the first of a series of revolts that the British faced in western districts of Bengal province, which included practically the whole of present-day eastern states of Bihar, Odisha and Paschim Banga. The Chuar Rebellion of Midnapore and Bankura took place 1798 – 99, Laik Rebellion in Midnapore extended through 1806 – 16, and the Santhal Revolt posed a severe task in 1855 – 56.
The inspiration the Sannyasi Rebellion gave to these uprisings that followed is without doubt. Later, it was instituted in vernacular literature by India’s first modern novelist, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. His novel, Ananda Math ( Monastery Of Bliss ), inspired many a rebel in early 20th Century and its song, Vande Mataram, is regarded as the National Song of India.