Six years before the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 there was another brutal repression and massacre which took place on the border of Rajasthan and Gujarat. While this tragedy never seems to have reached our history textbooks, over 1,000 people, all members of Bhil tribe, lost their lives. Mangarh, in the Aravali hills was washed in blood on 17th November 1913.
Bhils, a tribal community living across Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh faced great harassment under the old feudal structure and British rule made it worse. By the early 20th century, the Bhils especially in Rajasthan and Gujarat, mostly worked as bonded labour. The great famine of 1899-1900 across the Deccan and the Bombay Presidency claimed over 6 lakh victims and the tribals were among the worst affected. The princely states such as Banswara and Santrampur were particularly affected by the drought.
From this tragedy emerged a social reform movement that aimed at bettering the lot of the marginalised. The movement was led by social reformer Govind Giri, who was also popularly called as Govind Guru . Govind Giri was born to a Banjara (gypsy) family near Dungarpur, Rajasthan in 1874. He served as a bonded labourer in the princely state of Santrampur. It was during the great famine that he started working with the Bhil community. During this time, desperate Bhils had resorted to banditry for survival. He realised that the socio-economic setup and a prevalence of alcohol addiction among the Bhils was to blame for their desperate plight.
To address the challenges faced by the community, Govind Giri started the Bhagat Movement in 1908. This was a movement to propagate orthodox Hindu practices like vegetarianism and abstaining from alcohol among the Bhils. He also encouraged them to reject bonded labour and fight for their rights.
The princely states of Dungarpur, Banswara and Santrampur where this movement was strongest were quiet vary of this Bhil ‘awakening’. The growing awareness among the local Bhils meant that they demanded better wages from the rulers and the British. As they took up arms and stopped work, the local economy suffered.
In October 1913, Govind Giri and his followers reached Mangarh, which was situated in middle of dense forests, on the border of Banswara and Santrampur state. Giri sent out a call to all his followers to gather there for a religious fair on the day of the waning moon in the month of Kartik, corresponding to 13 November. A large havan or sacrificial fire known as Dhuni was to be organised on that day. It is estimated that one and a half lakh Bhils began to gather on Mangarh hill. Rumour spread that they were planning to revolt against the princely states of Banswara and Santrampur, and establish a Bhil state. The worried rulers, turned to the British for help.
The British political representative to the region, R.E Hamilton, decided to take action. The combined forces of the princely states of Banswara, Dungarpur and Santrampur, along with the Bhil Corps of Mewar state (Udaipur) were asked to surround the hill. The operation was commanded by a British army officer, Colonel Sherton, along with Major S. Bailey and Captain E. Stiley. The forces surrounded Mangarh hill on all sides, machine guns and artillery were deployed. An ultimatum was given to the gathered Bhils to disperse by 15th November 1913. When the Bhils refused to surrender and disperse, the gathering was literally bombarded with bullets and artillery fire from all sides. Even automatic machine guns loaded on mules and donkeys were let loose on the crowds at Mangarh hill. Around 1000 to 1500 people are said to have been killed on that day.
After the massacre, hundreds of Bhil protesters including Govind Giri were arrested. On 11th February 1914, a special court found him guilt of waging war against Santrampur and Banswara states. He was sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of his popularity and good conduct, he was however released from jail in 1919 but was banned from entering many of the princely states where he had a strong following. Govind Giri died in 1931 near Limbdi in Gujarat. As a tribute to his legacy and his teachings, the Govind Guru University was established in Godhra, Gujarat in 2015.
Mangarh witnessed one of the bloodiest massacres in the history of British India. And what’s worse, here it wasn’t just the British at fault. The Princely states turned against their own.
Cover Image – Bhil Woman in the 19th century WIkimedia Commons
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