Mangarh Hill Massacre — The Janjaatiya Jallianwala Bagh And What It Represents

Mangarh Hill Massacre — The Janjaatiya Jallianwala Bagh And What It Represents

by Ujjawal Mishra - Nov 17, 2022 11:16 AM +05:30 IST
Mangarh Hill Massacre — The Janjaatiya Jallianwala Bagh And What It RepresentsBhils rounded up by the British forces.
  • Mangarh Hill is a testament to the bravery of this civilisation’s forest-dwelling communities, who refused to bow to the foreign occupiers.

    Today marks 109 years of the horrific massacre of Bhils.

Today (17 November 2022) marks 109 years of a horrific massacre that took place in Banswara, currently in Rajasthan. 

Also known as the ‘Adivasi Jallianwala Bagh’, the Mangarh Hill massacre is a sordid tale of bravery, the unrelenting brutality of the British colonisers and the criminal deletion of the sacrifices of Indians, at the hands of Indian historians.

On 17 November 1913, six years before the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Mangarh Hill in Banswara saw the killing of over 1,500 largely unarmed Bhils — all of whom had assembled to protest against the inhumane practices of bonded labour and the exploitation of the tribal community living in the region.

Men, women and children were shot dead — for the sole ‘crime’ of standing up for their rights.

Bhils today, are one of the largest tribal groups in India. They are spread across Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra. 

A section of the community lives in Tripura, Andhra Pradesh and even in Sindh, Pakistan.

Known for having their own local deities called kuldevta, kuldevi or jatidev, Bhils have been an integral part of the civilisation’s history. Their contribution to Dharma’s struggle against invaders — Islamic or European — is widely known, albeit largely in oral renditions.

Cut To The Late 1800s

Back then, the Bhils were facing the threat of their traditions and rituals being erased, due to excessive interference from the local princely states — all of whom were functioning ‘independently’, bound by a subsidiary alliance with the British and accepting paramountcy of the British crown.

Conditions were so dire for the Bhils that they had been reduced from being a proud, self-sufficient community to being bonded labour for the princely states of Santrampur, Banswara, Dungarpur and Edar.

A combination of factors, including famines in 1899 and 1900, restrictions by the British on the movement of forest dwelling communities, changed taxation system and increased interaction with the officials and state bureaucracy, was responsible for the Bhils’ conditions.

The community that once was prominently visible on the Mewar insignia with the slogan Jo Dridh Raakhe Dharm Ko, Taahi Raakhe Kartaar (One who bears Dharma steadfastly, is protected by the divine), was now reduced to alcoholism and demeaning work, including begaar (bonded labour). 

Govind Guru And His Influence

It was here that Govind Giri, now revered as Govind Guru, stepped in.

Born in a Banjara family in Dungarpur, Govind Guru was pained by the fall of the once mighty Bhils.

For the social and moral upliftment of the Bhils, he started the Bhagat Aandolan and propagated practices like vegetarianism, abstinence from alcohol, being morally upright and giving up all kinds of criminal activities.

He asked his followers to worship the ‘fire god’ by performing a purifying havan in fire pits called dhuni. His preachings brought to him the support of over 5 lakh Bhils.

In 1903, Govind Guru set up his main dhunion Mangarh Hill, situated in the dense forests on the border of Banswara and Santrampur.

In his article "The Bhil Revolt Of 1913 Under Guru Govindgiri Among The Bhils Of Southern Rajasthan Ans Its Impact", Vijay Kumar Vashishtha, history professor at the University of Ajmer, said that this personal and communal reform infused the Bhils with self-esteem and made them acutely aware of their rights.

As the Bhils started demanding better treatment and a change in rules governing ‘Lagaan’, the local rulers got nervous.

They saw the emergence of Govind Guru as a threat to their own authority and hence, began harassing Govind and his followers.

False cases were registered and Govind Guru’s family was put behind the bars. His crusade to reform the Bhil society also received resistance from the liquor lobby, which was facing losses due to Govind Guru’s preaching to give up alcohol.

Around March 1913, Govind Guru was arrested and later, owing to apprehensions about large-scale protests from the Bhils, released.

However, he and his followers were harassed, causing them to constantly be on the move.

Finally, when the Raja of Edar state tried to have him arrested, Govind Guru and his followers fled to Mangarh Hill, where they formed a defensive position and armed themselves with arrows, revolvers and swords.

Vijay Kumar Vashishtha says that the Bhils captured a police constable, attacked the fort of Pratapgarh and looted the village of Bhamri. These acts of rebellion were affront to the authorities of the Rajas.

According to Rajasthan-based historian and author of A History of Rajasthan Rima Hooja, Govind Guru’s followers — largely consisting of Bhils, Garasiyas and Banjaras — wrote a letter to Captain J P Stockley, Commander of Mewar Bhil Corps, asking for the redressal of the Bhils’ issues with the princely states and putting an end to the harassment of Govind Guru and his followers.

As their demands went unmet, the Bhils ignored the directions for them to leave their defensive position. The pot was boiling. An explosion was imminent.

The D-Day

On 13 November 1913, seven companies of British forces (each with around 120 armed personnel) and an equal number of armed men from the riyasats of Mewar, Pratapgarh, Dungarpur, Banswara, Kushalgarh, Santrampur and Edar surrounded Mangarh Hill.

Under the command of British officers Major S Bailey and Captain E Stoiley, they loaded their cannons and machine guns on donkeys and mules and began firing indiscriminately.

The donkeys and mules bearing machine guns were made to run in circles around the hill to cause maximum casualties. The revolver and bow and arrow-wielding Bhils and Banjaras were no match for the advanced weaponry which was deputed to kill them.

In the massacre that followed, over 1,500 Bhils were killed and around 900 — including Govind Guru — were arrested for waging war against the state.

According to Bhil accounts, the firing came to an end only when a British officer found a Bhil baby breastfeeding on its mother’s corpse.

While the British records have denied casualties, independent researchers, historians and Bhil oral accounts have concluded that the ones killed numbered around 1,500.

Such was the dread that the massacre generated, that Bhils did not even go near Mangarh Hill for years to come.

According to an AajTak report, the survivors of the Mangarh horror would often sing a Bhil revolutionary song ‘Oh Bhuretia, Nahi Manu Re, Nahi Manu’ (Oh Britisher, we won’t bend, we won’t bow).

Govind Guru was given the death penalty, which was later changed to life imprisonment.

In 1919 — the year of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — he was released from Hyderabad jail, on the condition that he would not travel to the princely states where he had a following. He passed away in 1931 in Kamboi, Gujarat.

Akin To Jallianwala Bagh, Yet Not Remotely As Known

Retired IPS officer and author of When Arrows Were Heated Up: A Tale of Tribal Struggle against British Colonialism Hari Ram Meena says that the incident was one of the hundreds of similar events of tribal valour that were forgotten or deliberately ignored by historians — events that only survive in folktales and oral renditions.

Mangarh Hill, popularly known as Mangarh Dham, is a testament to the bravery of this civilisation’s forest-dwelling communities, who refused to bow to the foreign occupiers, be it in the forests of Jharkhand or the Aravallis of Rajasthan.

For the longest time post-independence, Mangarh Hill was a disputed land, with both Rajasthan and Gujarat vying to have it within their boundaries.

According to Hari Ram Meena, a solution was reached somewhere around 2000, when around 80 per cent of the hill was considered to be in Rajasthan while the remaining 20 per cent went to Gujarat.

Between chief ministers Ashok Gehlot and Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan and the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, the site received significant attention and care.

Today, almost one lakh people travel to the site for the annual Mangarh fair, where they offer their respects to the forgotten heroes.

Forgotten Or Erased?

The Mangarh Hill massacre is a reminder of the poor record-keeping done in post-independence India. The lack of awareness about Mangarh could have been dismissed as a one-off instance of ignorance.

But the sheer length of the list of unsung heroes of the freedom struggle makes this nothing more than a flimsy excuse for the deliberate erasure of Indian history, to further widen the cracks in the Indian society, caused and nurtured by the British, and carried forward by the anti-syncretic Nehruvian socialism.

It’s a relief that these pages of Indian history are now becoming legible again.

The reason why they need even more scholarship and research is for these events of exemplary bravery to act as the dots of the larger picture, where Indians organised themselves to violently overthrow the colonial government.

These examples of heroism have to come out, to bust the narrative of a single man being responsible for the independence of India.

To shatter to pieces the narrative, that it was Gandhian non-violence that drove the Britishers out.

While M K Gandhi’s contribution to the Indian freedom struggle is undeniable, so is the unflinching courage of everyday Indians, who put the fear of death in the colonisers’ minds, thus making way for passive resistance to make the final push.

To proudly proclaim the truth, that the civilisation of vasudhaiv kutumbakam is also the civilisation of shaktayaah dhairyamayati — From strength comes courage.

Ujjawal Mishra is a Staff Writer at Swarajya. He tweets @Ujjawal1Mishra.
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