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1857: Witch-hunts, Adivasis, and the Uprising in Chhotanagpur

During 1857-58, even as a multi-sided resistance broke out against the British, the Chhotanagpur region, peopled by a largely adivasi population, noted a sudden surge in "witch-hunting", a practice that the British had banned for its obvious barbarity. Did witch-hunts resume in that they symbolised an attack on the new laws and edicts issued by the "enemy"? Or were they a local response to the varied resistance that the British faced across north India? This article attempts some answers.


Witch-hunts, Adivasis, and the Uprising inChhotanagpur

During 1857-58, even as a multi-sided resistance broke out against the British, the Chhotanagpur region, peopled by a largely adivasi population, noted a sudden surge in “witch-hunting”, a practice that the British had banned for its obvious barbarity. Did witch-hunts resume in that they symbolised an attack on the new laws and edicts issued by the “enemy”? Or were they a local response to the varied resistance that the British faced across north India? This article attempts some answers.


s an event which shook the foundations of British rule in most parts of north India, necessitated largescale administrative and policy changes, and fired the nationalist imagination, 1857 still continues to be a relatively underresearched terrain. The initial obsession with simplistic epithets like “sepoy mutiny”, “war of independence”, “nationalist uprising” and “Muslim conspiracy” did subsequently pave way for a exploration of civil, popular and organisational aspects [Majumdar 1957; Chaudhuri 1957; Sen 1957] as India celebrated 100 years of the “Great Uprising”. Published the same year, 1857: A Symposium [Joshi 1957] opened up tremendous possibilities be examining issues such as the background of the rebellion, role of religion and the Wahabais, popular culture, social composition and leadership patterns, feudal rivalries, and internal contradictions. The enthusiasm generated by this centenary volume was soon lost in the absence of systematic follow-up writings. The publication of Eric Stokes’ Peasant and the Raj (1978) andThe Peasant Armed (1986); Ranajit Guha’s Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (1983); and Gautam Bhadra’s ‘Four Rebels of Eighteen Fifty Seven’ (1985) in the late 1970s and 1980s marked a significant advance in mainstream writing with the inclusion of peasants and subaltern issues against the backdrop of factors like mobilisation methods, caste, demography, and ecology. These were complemented by two intensive regional studies on the popular dynamics of the revolt in Awadh [Mukherjee 1984] and Bundelkhand [Roy 1994]. Within the larger framework of documenting “rebels’ histories”, the late 1990s saw an initiative from the Aligarh Historians Group (a special issue of Social Scientist, Vol 26, Nos 1-4, January-April, 1998) to integrate areas like popular culture, tribals, literature, alternative sources, and sepoy contingents in the 1857 repertoire. In the opening years of 21st century, Rajat Kanta Ray (2003) added another interesting dimension to the historiography by an investigation of the mentalities of the rebels.

When one looks at the last 150 years, writings on 1857 have been characterised by some conspicuous gaps and omissions

– in terms of the absence of a sustained and systematic research as also the social and geographical space traversed. The historiography of 1857 has largely been dominated by commemorative volumes on general aspects of the rebellion. Areas and characters outside the Indo-Gangetic plain still continue to be marginalised in the various historical accounts so do adivasis, peasants, dalits, and women. With the exception of Awadh and Bundelkhand, and to a lesser extent east Punjab, there is a glaring absence of to full-length regional studies. The reopening of the debate, in the wake of 150 years of the revolt, does indeed offer some alternative possibilities in relation to the use of source material, historical approaches, and revisiting received wisdom. The recent writings do raise questions of popular and contemporary interest but old concerns and characters largely predominate – Bahadur Shah Zafar, Delhi, Indo-Islamic culture, role of Wahabis [as it does with Dalrymple 2006]; sepoy mutinies and Mangal Pandey [see Mukherjee 2006]. As we celebrate the 150th anniversary there is an even greater need to recover some lost ground and expand the social and geographical horizons of the debate.

Based on a fragmentary source base, this article attempts to open up a small frontier in a “little known province of the Empire”

– the Chhotanagpur: an area where women were involved in the uprising more as victims than as active participants. Briefly outlining the 1857 experience in the region,1 this introductory piece investigates the occasioning of perhaps the first mass witch-hunts among tribal communities of Singhbhum and Santhal Paraganas. Within the broader framework of social history, it tries to argue that these witch-hunts formed a conscious contour of resistance combining both (the obvious) gender but also anti-colonial tensions.

Civil Rebellions

Chhotanagpur offers a brilliant example of the multiple contours an event (1857) can take in a region. While sepoy mutinies provided the underlying current, there were both inter and intra-district variations in the civilian movements. Both the sepoy mutinies and the civilian outbreaks had some clear interconnections and some linkage or the other with the “mainstream” mutiny. Together they posed a serious challenge to colonial rule in the region. Given the geography of the region,2 for a short period as the mainstream revolt raged (July-October 1857), with the involvement of relatively unorganised battalions, and the directorial efforts made by the rebel sepoys, the sepoy mutinies, for their part, in Chhotanagpur were more than just “spontaneous”. There was a pattern in the mutinies – with sepoy units from Hazaribagh, Ramgarh, Purulia (Manbhum), and Singhbhum marching towards the local power centre. The modus operandi was also similar: looting the treasury, attacking official bungalows and buildings, destroying government records, breaking the jails and releasing the prisoners and marching to Ranchi.3 Once in Ranchi, the sepoys did

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

make serious efforts to enlarge their social base by not only mobilising influential local zamindars but also sending emissaries to other districts. On August 4, the proclamation of the establishment of ‘Padshahi Raj’ was circulated throughout the district. Towards end-August, the rebel administration also called a political conference to resolve potential issues and to deliberate on the future course of action [Kumar 1991].4

1857 also triggered off a series of civil rebellions by giving vent to many existing tensions and contradictions some of which were not predominantly anti-British at the outset. What is interesting to note is how they intersected with regional complexities and changing socio-political configurations to acquire an anti-colonial context. Herein lay the strength of the “spirit of 1857”. It opened up the unresolved Santhal question in Hazaribagh and Manbhum. The Santhal ‘Hul’ was an extended movement in which the Santhals of Hazaribagh and Dhanbad also participated. While the Santhals of Santhal Parganas region had been pacified by the creation of a new district and administrative arrangements 5 nothing was done to address the grievances of their brethren elsewhere. The Santhals of Hazaribagh did naturally become excited by the weakening of authority and started squaring accounts with oppressive moneylenders and other perceived oppressors [Roy Choudhury 1959: 67]. They also attempted to cut off communication between Hazaribagh and Ranchi. The Santhals of the Manbhum were similarly restive when the sepoys of the Ramgarh Regiment met them at Purulia on August 5. They rebelled and attacked the zamindar of Jaipur where they looted and murdered many (Hazaribagh Old Records, p 97). The Santhal zone of depredation had in fact become the “most disturbed part of Chhotanagpur”.

Known as the “best-known episode of tribal outbreak in 1857” [Singh 1998: 77], the Chero-Bogta (tribal) uprising in Palamau caused a quite a bit of concern for the colonial administration. By end November the “whole country appeared to be in arms, and Lieutenant Graham with his small party, was shut up and besieged in the house of Raghubar Dayal (one of the local feudal lords) whilst the rebels were plundering in all directions” [Roy Choudhury 1959: 97]. Later in 1858 they were joined by sepoy mutineers from Ranchi and Hazaribagh (after the defeat at the battle of Chatra) and later by Shahabad rebels from the Kunwar Singh and Amar Singh camp.

In Singhbhum, there are two distinct phases. The first phase (from July-August to November-December 1857) was marked by the resurfacing of the traditional rivalry between the Porahat and Saraikela families “transmitted from father to son for several generations” [Roy Choudhury 1959: 78-79]. The latter phase (beginning with the attack on Porahat, November 1857 upto 1861) was characterised by confrontations between the British (supported by the ‘raja’ of Saraikela and Kharaswan) on the one hand and Arjun Singh’s supporters and large sections of Kols on the other. There was a definite discontent among the tribes of the region – the system of written oaths, annual visits by the commissioner, insistence on regular payment of tax, attempts to increase the rate of assessment and to change the mode of assessment had led to the creation of a new situation in Kol heartland. But whether this discontent did transform into a project of direct political opposition or a “rebellion of the Kols” involving the “entire community”, as Gautam Bhadra would have us believe, is something which needs to be examined (1985: 259). Bhadra overlooks the methods adopted by Gonoo (a tribal leader and a principal adherent of Arjun Singh) and the threat of collective violence used by his followers to enforce cooperation from vacillating elements within the community. He also underplays the fact that half of the ‘mundas’ and ‘mankees’ (traditional village heads) who had earlier been incorporated in the colonial administrative setup (by giving them revenue and police powers) remained loyal to their colonial masters [ibid: 258].

There were surely other methods of extrapolitical resistance through which the Kols counteracted colonial intrusion. Bhadra does acknowledge elsewhere that “all administrative regulations like the ban on witch-hunts were systematically violated” during the upsurge [Taylor 1996: 84]. He however fails to see this as a conscious contour of resistance. Resistance to colonial rule among marginal societies was not always very “direct” and “visible” therefore what is required is a shift in focus from “extraordinary moments of collective protest” to “variety of non-confrontational resistances and contestatory behaviour” [Haynes and Prakash 1991: 1-2]. Such actions, if one were to borrow James Scott’s expression, avoid any direct symbolic confrontation with authority but are not devoid of consciousness. The symbols, the norms, the ideological forms they create constitute the indispensable background to their behaviour however imperfect or “partial their understanding of the situation might be” [Scott 1985: 38]. The world of witches, spirits and ‘ojhas’ (witch doctors and medicine men) was a very vibrant and reflective one; it resonated with, yet contested the impact of colonial rule in myriad ways.6 In the context of the significance and the fear in which witches and ojhas (also known as ‘mati’, ‘sokha’, ‘jan guru’) were held in the adivasi world, administrative regulations and a systematic tirade against witch-hunts and ojhaism in the years preceding 1857 were challenged and defied. Witch-hunts therefore represented a mode of resistance, which was apparently less direct, seemingly less confrontationist, and one with a greater community sanction. We shall further investigate this argument in the last section but a small discussion on adivasi constructions of witches here would help us comprehend things better.


Belief in ‘dains’/‘dans’/‘churails’ (witches) or ‘bongas’ (spirits) occupied a central place in adivasi cosmology and moral economy. “There is no genuine Santal”, wrote Bodding, “who does not believe in witches” (1986: 38). Reak Katha records: “Witchcraft is the great trouble with us Santals. Because of witchcraft, people in the village become enemies, doors of relatives is shut, father and sons quarrel, brothers are separated, husband and wife are divorced and in the country people kill each other” [in Bodding 1994: 160].7While accepting that the practice was common to many countries, Valentine Ball noted that conditions in the tribal heartland were particularly unique: “It is a peculiarity here that the belief (of witchcraft) was so thorough that even those who are accused of being witches or sorcerers do not deny the impeachment but accept the position readily with all its pains and penalties” [Ball 1985: 115]. Considered a general social threat, such a belief was deeply soaked in tradition and ingrained in folklore. According to an old Oraon saying the world is as full of disembodied spirits “as a tree is full of leaves” [Roy 1984: 91]. The central idea behind the adivasi religious system therefore was to seek an alliance with the highest and the most “helpful” spiritual entities and through them control the

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007 “harmful” ones [ibid: 93]. The evil powers had to be scared through exorcism or magic [Troisi 1979: 204]. The adivasis made a distinction between white magic (socially and psychologically beneficent) and black magic (maleficent or evil): The minister of white magic was known as ojha or diviner and medicine-man, while that of black magic, dan, witch or sorcerer (ibid). The ojha sought to expose and counteract the anti-social activities of witches and the evil influence of the impersonal spirits.

The witches were feared as mysterious creatures imbued with phenomenal powers: “…[they] are supposed to have intercourse with the bongas, which gives them the power of killing people by eating their entrails and also of causing fevers, murrain in cattle and other kinds of evil” [Man 1983: 152]. They can therefore kill either directly or by “setting (up) the bongas”. The bongas in turn may bring destruction and death either by themselves or through agents [Raut 1979: 402]. The witches, adivasis held, not only “ate” persons and induced illness such as cholera, smallpox, etc, but were also responsible for destroying crops, killing cattle and the like. The dains were, in fact, human embodiments of the “evil-eye” or “evil-mouth” [Roy 1985: 257] and could cause harm accordingly: if they cast “evil-eyes” on a person the victim suffered stomach complaints, headaches, fever, etc; if they uttered “harmful” lines by looking at somebody, the person was sure to suffer a fatal disease [Raut, ibid: 401-03].

Of particular interest here is the adivasi construction of disease and sickness and how they related to the urgent need for physical elimination of the witches. Wilkinson noted that the Kols believed in three causes that led to sickness – witchcraft, angry bongas or the spirit of someone who had died. While there was remedy for angry bongas and ancestor spirits who could be appeased by sacrifices – first of fowls, then goats, and if these two did not work then bullocks and buffaloes were offered – there was none for the witches who had to be removed (Singhbhum Old Records, p 271). Dalton extends the argument to include animals as well: “all diseases in men or animals (are) attributed to one of two causes, the wrath of some evil spirit who has to be appeased, or to the spell of some witch or sorcerer who should be destroyed or driven out of (the) land” [Dalton 1960: 208]. While these observations are largely true, these should not let us to believe that adivasis did not have any medicinal system. Bodding (1986), on the contrary writes about a fairly elaborate system of root medicines and herbs. However their world of “medicine” was a fairly extended one including sacrifices, mantras (incantations), divinations, and amulets. The traditional roots and herbs were mostly supplemented or substituted by prescriptions from the ojhas particularly in cases where the disease was uncommon, serious, or did not heal in a short time. Bodding says: “…it is not strange that a suspicion is always present that witches may be at work when people fall ill and do not recover” [Bodding 1986: 38]. Man writes, “no reasoning with them, nor ridicule can dissuade them of their belief in witches, and of the necessity of their being at once murdered” [Man 1983: 29-30].

Elsewhere I have argued that witch-hunts were multiple reflections of social and gender tensions and how they intersected with strains generated by the colonial rule to give new dimensions to “ritualised violence” [Sinha 2006]. The article however overlooks the fact that witchcraft also represented an arena for different, at times conflicting, notions of health and medicinal systems: a conflict reaching a showdown in the years preceding the 1857.

Understanding the Phenomena

The preceding discussion provokes a lot of questions. What is so unusual about the witch-hunts around the mid-19th century or for that matter in 1857? Are there any comparable examples from adivasi world elsewhere in India? Why would these hunts be also labelled as having an anti-colonial element? How and why they should be seen as acts of resistance? After all the region had a long history of witch-hunts. In 1792, John Shore had talked about the Santhal ways of “trying witches” [Archer 1979: 482]. Forbes in his Oriental Memoirs (1813) referred to some established witch-trials [Crooke 1969: 272]. According to the Campbell Notes, Buchanan learnt that 25 children died annually through the “malevolence of witches” at Bhagalpur [Crooke 1969: 284]. Wilkinson observed “murders related to witchcraft were a part of traditional practice in Singhbhum [and they] were not confined to the person supposed to be the witch but all near relations of the supposed witch killed so that none may remain to retaliate on parties who committed the murders” [Roy Choudhury 1958: 88]. Dalton, the commissioner of Chhotanagpur during the revolt, mentions that accusations of witchcraft were made in many districts and persons who were thus denounced were subjected to much “ill-usage” if they could escape with their lives [Dalton 1872: 208].

The new entrants to the scene were a series of regulations by the colonial administration banning witch-hunts and ojhaism. Hardiman says that after their conquest of India, the British sought to outlaw persecution of witches; a practice seen by them as barbaric. Around the middle of 19th century (1840s-1850s), the ban on witch-hunts was enforced in Gujarat and Rajasthan [Hardiman 2006: 217-18; Skaria 1997: 135]. Wilkinson, the political agent of the Chhotanagpur agency in the 1830s, banned the practice of witchcraft and ‘sokhaism’ [Roy Choudhury 1958]. His famous directive (1837) necessitating comprehensive administrative interventions included specific instructions against murders related to witchcraft. Wilkinson wrote, “I found a hope of destroying their belief in witchcraft by establishing a hospital, more particularly if the medical gentlemen who may have to attend the sick will take an interest in the human undertaking.” He stated:

The conviction in the minds of the aboriginals that some persons have in their possession witchcraft causing illness, or epidemic had to be liquidated. There should be an encouragement to bring the diseased to the hospitals and the doctors for a proper cure. The medical officer should be liberally encouraged to explain that medicine only can cure the disease and if this message of cure through proper medicine be spread, belief in witchcraft will decrease (Singhbhum Old Records, p 271).8

Bhadra says that by entrusting the ‘mankis’ with police powers, the colonial state gave them the task of punishing such new “crimes” as witch-hunting [Bhadra 1985: 258-59]. Later, Dalton took firm measures to put down the practice of ‘soka’. He declared it a crime for any person to practise a soka or any person to employ a soka. Cases of murder, which originated in witchcraft and in the power to be possessed by a soka, were to be treated as crime (Singhbhum Old Records, p 279).9

Skaria points out that most adivasis responded to the ban with hostility and resistance (p 138). In his study on the Bhils of western India, Hardiman asserts that colonial administrators failed to acknowledge the degree to which the notion of

Economic and Political Weekly May 12, 2007

witchcraft was socially embedded and universally believed in as a matter of common sense [Hardiman 2006: 219]. Roy Choudhury argues that the zeal with which the early British administrators in Singhbhum threw themselves into reforming the “jungleterry” into a civilised tract was also partially responsible for the havoc that followed. He writes, “It was mostly a case of mistaken wisdom and a result of not getting into the genius of the people and their mental framework before the policy was made…To them (policymakers) the very ideas that went to make up the mental frame-work of the Hos were an anathema” [Roy Choudhury 1959: 88]. The administrator mostly recruited from the military was in a state of perplexity. He cites a letter (No 57 dated October 21) where the administrator was instructed that “it was not expedient to treat the enticing way of a married adult woman as a criminal offence while on the other hand was given repeated instructions to fight the deep belief in witchcraft and ‘Sokhaism’” (ibid). While the administrators were confused the adivasis were agitated.

The witches eat us and when we catch them and worry them just a little, the magistrates again turn the matter round and resort to imprisonment; we feel great distress; what can we possibly do, so that it might go well with us; we are utterly bewildered. Also when we explain it to magistrates they do not believe it; they say: Well then let her eat my finger, then only shall I believe she is a witch and then they jail you. The witches do not eat using a vessel and a knife, quite so; by sorcery they send people off to the other world straightaway (from the Reak Katha, p 160).

The belief that witches were flourishing under the benevolent power of the British was increasingly gaining ground.

Formerly the village headmen and his deputy were subduing them, and if they would not be peaceful, they would together with the village people, drive them away from the village after having disgraced them; but nowadays the magistrates have made them utterly audacious so that we men have become absolutely disheartened (ibid).

The adivasis of the Dangs would say “that since the Dakuns had received our [British] sympathy, they had become quite outrageous.” Others felt that dakans had increased since the British had established their rule [Skaria 1997: 139]. So intense and widespread was the belief in witchcraft that a fracture had already occurred in the colonial regulatory mechanism in the years preceding 1857. Ricketts in his report on the district of Singhbhum (1854) noted that the Mankis and the Mundas were reluctant to report cases related to witchhunting because to the community it was no crime [Bhadra 1985: 259]. To use Hardiman’s words, “the practice was driven underground rather than suppressed …local holders of power took action against witches because they were convinced that they had a duty to preserve their society from malign supernatural forces” [Hardiman 2006: 220]. Skaria points out that the general sympathy for witch-killers led to attempts by ordinary Bhils, their chiefs, and even the local Rajput powerholders, to conceal killings from the British [Skaria 1997: 138].

The climax came during the political disturbances surrounding 1856-57 when the hold of the British administration was temporarily loosened. In his account of the hul (the Santhal rebellion) Chotrae Deshmanjhi describes how a number of girls accused of witchcraft were shown “the pod and pea” and slained [Archer 1984: 482-83; Archer 1979: 4]. Ball similarly points out, “during the disturbed times of the mutiny in 1857-58, when law was suspended in these regions, the Kols of Singhbhum and other parts of the province availed themselves of their freedom to make a clean sweep of the witches and sorcerers who had accumulated in their midst, under the benign influence of British authority” [Ball 1985: 116]. Though most killings went unreported one could even see the turnaround in the cases registered with the police.

Under the first class of offence against the person there is a remarkable increase in the number of murders. The average of the previous five years was seven cases in which eighteen persons were implicated. The returns of 1859 exhibit fifty-nine cases of murder, in which 218 persons were implicated. It appears, however that 50 of these cases occurred during the disturbances of 1857 and 1858, the people availing themselves of the temporary withdrawal of our authority to indulge in their superstitious desire of exterminating witchcraft. Further, the terrible destruction of human life, as Lieutenant Birch remarks, which was caused by this superstition is difficult to contemplate (Singhbhum Old Records, p 134).10

Effectively combining both gender and anti-colonial tensions, witch-hunts were systematically incorporated into the mobilisation strategies of the anti-colonial adivasi movements in Chhotanagpur. In the ‘Ulgulan’ (the famous Birsa Munda Uprising of 1899-1903), to secure recognition of the clan brotherhood’s right to the forest they had settled in, women were denounced as witches and killed. K Suresh Singh refers to an Ulgulan song in which the principal enemies of the tribes – witches, Europeans, and other castes (dikus) – are placed in the same category.

Oh kill the witch, such the poison, O kill, kill O Father, kill the Europeans, the other castes O kill, kill [Singh 2002:101].




1 have enormously benefited from rich collection of primary documents in three sourcebooks compiled by P C Roy Choudhury – Hazaribagh Old Records (1761-1878), (1957); Singhbhum Old Records (1958); and 1857 in Bihar (Chhotanagpur and Santhal Parganas (1959) all published by Gazetteer’s Revision Section, Revenue Department, Patna.

2 Chhotanagpur had very irregular topography with forests and plateaus; therefore movements were very difficult.

3 In the case of Santhal Parganas, there were three phases of sepoy action between June and October 1857. The sepoy units marched to their respective headquarters at Rohini or Bausi.

4 For a detailed discussion on the military government in Ranchi, see Kumar 1991. 5 There were no civil rebellions in the Santhal

Parganas during 1857. 6 For a detailed discussion see Sinha 2006. 7 The first version of this Santal text was

published in 1887 by L O Skrefsrud, was translated with notes and additions by P O Bodding in 1942.

8 Witchcraft Leads to Murder, Notes from the Singhbhum Old Correspondence in Commissioner’s Record Room, Singhbhum Old Records, Ranchi. Wilkinson’s tenure also marked the direct administration of Singhbhum by the British.

9 Notes on ‘Soka’ or Witch Finder (1860), Digest of some letters in Commissioner’s Record Room, Singhbhum Old Records, Ranchi.

10 Letter from Officiating Secretary to the Government of Bengal to the Commissioner of Chhotanagpur, Vol No VII – Old Correspondence, Singhbhum, 1860, No 4455 in Singhbhum Old Records.


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