The cold-blooded massacre by the British at the Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 1919, is well-documented in the history of India. Six years before Jallianwala, the British were responsible for another brutal carnage, killing 1500 Bhil tribals in Banswara in south Rajasthan.
At Jallianwala Bagh, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered the British forces to open fire on a peaceful gathering of unarmed people. The soldiers gunned down 379 men, women and children and the incident shocked the entire nation.
In Banswara, which is situated on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border, the killing of tribals took place on Mangarh hill on the morning of November 17, 1913. According to the oral tradition of the Bhils, as many as 1,500 tribals were gunned down by the British forces.
The tribals were led by their leader and social reformer Govind Guru (also called Govind Giri).
The arrival of the guru
Govind Guru united the tribals in Rajasthan and Gujarat and built up a strong movement against the princely states and the British. He was born on December 20, 1858, in Bansiya village in the Dungarpur district in a Gor Banjara family. Banjara is a nomadic tribe found in many states of India.
As a child, he wanted to study but was not allowed to go to school. He educated himself with the help of a priest in the village temple. Throughout his childhood, he saw the discrimination and ill-treatment meted out to tribals by the princely states. He himself served as a bonded labour in the princely state of Santrampur.
The great famine of 1899-1900 in the Deccan and Bombay presidencies led to the deaths of over 6 lakh people with tribals being the worst affected. Many of Govind Guru’s family members too perished in the famine.
The tribal awakening
Govind Guru realised that poverty and illiteracy were shackling tribals into a pitiable condition. They were treated cruelly by the rulers and coerced into bonded labour.
He was a strong critic of the exploitation of Adivasis by the ruling classes and started working among the tribals to create awareness about their plight and improve their socio-economic condition. He motivated them to stand up against exploitation.
He asked his followers to give up liquor and meat, observe moderation, forsake crimes, shun superstition and take up agriculture as he said the tribals were the rightful owners of the land. He emphasised the importance of education and cleanliness.
Govind Guru also suggested that the tribals resolve their issues at the panchayat level and not be dependent on the rulers. He advocated that they should not pay lagan or tax, reject bonded labour and stop using foreign goods.
Govind Guru would talk about the exploitation of the tribals and exhort them to rise against this oppression.
Govind Guru’s teachings won him a huge following in a short period and he became a thorn in the flesh of the rulers of the princely states of Dungarpur, Banswara and Santrampur where he preached. As the tribals became aware, they started demanding better wages and even took up arms and stopped working. Govind Guru also put up his demands to stop levying taxes and stop forced labour before the British and the princely states.
Alarmed at the growing unrest within the tribals, the state officials hounded Govind Guru on various pretexts. He was arrested by the Dungarpur state in early 1913 but released in April 1913 as the ruler feared his followers would revolt. Govind Guru was exiled from the state.
Between April and October, Govind Guru moved from one village to another under the harassment of the rulers. When the ruler of Idar tried to capture Govind Guru, he with some of his followers, returned to Mangarh.
On October 31, Govind Guru’s followers held some police personnel who were surveying the hill to find a trace of the tribal leader. The following day, Govind Guru’s followers unsuccessfully attacked the Parbatgarh fort in Sunth state and looted a village in Banswara state. The local rulers became worried about the developing situation.
The Mangarh tragedy
Since he began work among the tribals, Govind Guru used to organise an annual gathering of the community in Mangarh (also Mangadh) on November 17 during the month of Kartik. In 1913 too, the tribals gathered in Mangarh for the fair. They carried their traditional weapons with them as was the custom.
Govind Guru had given a call for a sacred fire known as Dhuni to be organised.
The princely states thought that the tribals were readying for a revolt and turned to the British for help. The hillock was surrounded by British forces and the armies of the rulers and the British officers asked the tribals to vacate Mangarh by November 15. However, the tribals refused and said they would not leave till their demands were not met.
The British forces under Maj S Bailey and Capt E Stiley opened fire on the crowd of men, women and children, killing 1500 tribals in cold blood. Govind Guru and his aide Dhirji Punja were wounded and captured.
A special court in 1914 initially sentenced Govind Guru to death for waging war against the princely states. However, the sentence was later changed to life imprisonment. He was imprisoned in Hyderabad jail. However, he was released from jail in 1919 owing to good conduct. But he was released on the condition that he would not engage in political activities and would not enter the princely states.
Govind Guru then settled in Kamboi village near Limbdi in the Panchmahal district in Gujarat where he passed away in 1931.
In 2002, the Rajasthan government established a martyr’s memorial at Mangarh to honour the 1500 tribals who were slaughtered by the British memory of this valiant tribal leader. A university named after Govind Guru has been established in Banswara by the Rajasthan government and in Godhra by the Gujarat government.
(The image featured at the top of this page has been sourced from Wikipedia; by Yugal Joshi)
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)