Wednesday, November 16


Above: Chitradurga milestone; Chitradurga hills; small-holding fields; trees beside the Vedavati river; sunflower fields; papaya-plantation; the Tungabhadra Dam; wind-farm over Chitradurga.

Chitradurga gets its name from Chitrakaldurga, an umbrella-shaped hill which is fortified. It lies in the valley of the Vedavati river, and the Tungabhadra flows to the northwest. In the Mahabharata, a man-eating gaint named Hidimbasura set up shop on the Chitradurga hill and caused general mayhem. When the Pandavas were wandering around during the course of their exile, Hidimba spied them and sent his sister, Hidimbi, to bring him their meat for food. Hidimbi was, alas, smitten by the beauty of Bhima and warned them about her brother. When a hungry Hidimba appeared in person, a battle ensued. Hidimba was killed by Bhima, who married Hidimbi, and had a son named Ghatotcacha by her. Ghatotcacha figures prominently in the plot-line of the battle of Kurukshetra, for to kill him Karna has to use the special astra he'd reserved for Arjuna. Thus the dark and uncouth has to be sacrificed for beauty and fairness.

As we pass through this iron-ore- and forest-rich land, now sprouting on the one hand high-tech BSE-traded corporatized wind farms, vast sunflower fields supplied from the Tungabhadra-Sagar Dam for the Sundrop-branded oils, and papaya plantations, as well as Naxals on the other, one reflects upon the history of power and disparity in these rural areas in the last few centuries.

The Sepoy Mutiny is considered India's first war of independence. While in its broadest sweep it was the greatest armed challenge to colonial rule during the course of the nineteenth century, a close reading of history reveals that following the collapse of the Maratha power and the first 'pacification' of Indian princes, the countryside was almost continuously in insurrection till the conflagration of 1857. 1799-1856 was not a period during which Indians accepted Company rule passively. This was not Pax Britannica, but Tax Britannica, and perhaps Axe Britannica as some historians have said. Numerous uprisings by peasants and tribal communities and princely states confronted the policy of unchecked colonial extraction of agricultural and forest wealth from the region. This period saw tremendous growth in rural poverty in India, which provided tinder for many peasant revolts.

One of the earliest rebellions was the Sannyasi rebellion -- hungry peasants of Bengal and Bihar, victims of a terrible famine in the 1770s, rose in revolt against the East India Company, which had been exacting money and crops from them after Plassey. Another was led by Dhondia Waug of Shimoga who briefly liberated Shimoga, Chitradurga, Dharwad and Bellary in 1799, a few months after the defeat of Tipu. Rani Chennamma led a revolt in the Kittur region in 1824, followed by Sangoli Rayanna's guerrilla war in 1829. In other parts of India there was the Ho revolt of the 1830s; the Oraon revolts of 1820, 1832, 1890; the Kol Uprising of 1831; Sidhu-Kanu's Santhal Uprising of 1855; the Kutch Rebellion of 1816-1832; Titu-Mir's Wahhabi rebellion in Bengal of 1833, and so on.

"Dhondia belonged to Shimoga though he was a part of Tipu's army he was imprisoned in 1794, having ambitions to set up his own kingdom. On the fall of Srirangapatnam he was set free with the other prisoners. He immediately contacted the other sardars in the service of Tipu and formed an army. He declared himself king of Shimoga. He then went about planning the overthrow of British power in Mysore. The book says: "Starting his military offensives in June 1799 itself, only two months after Mysore's fall, Dhondia gained possession of extensive territory which included most of Shimoga, Chitradurg, Dharward and Bellary districts within a year". His forces grew within a year from 200 cavalrymen to 80,000 at its peak. He never gave battle in the forts maneuvering his forces in the countryside gaining new recruits in the process. "Dhondia was obviously adopting the tactics of mobile warfare, using an extensive terrain that stretched across a few thousand square kilometers of woods, valley and plains; preferring field operations to that of cloistered warfare. Ironically it was the massive growth of his forces that led to his downfall as he was then unable to use guerrilla warfare effectively. On Sept 10, 1800 Dhondia died giving battle to the British on the banks of the Krishna."

The Vellore insurrections was a revolt of the disaffected soldiers of the British army -- most of whom were from the oppressed castes. Tipus sons were incarcerated in the jails there. In the first offensive 14 British officers were killed and 76 injured. It was the first time in India that sepoys had revolted and killed their own European officers. In retaliation the British used extensive brutality massacring over 800.

Regarding the second type of armed rebellions they were mostly of the small feudatories who were deprived of their kingdoms who rose in revolt in Aigur, Koppal, Bidar, Bijapur, and the most famous one of Chennamma in Kittur in 1824. The Kittur garrison had a large force. On behalf of the British Thakeray sought to enter with a force of 250. They were not allowed to enter. Chennamma decided to attack them at the gate itself. In a surprise attack she annihilated the entire force and took 40 prisoners. But latter in battle she was caught and imprisoned, dying at a young age in 1829.

But these wars by the feudatories continued in many places with a notable one being in Bidar in 1852.

But the most significant uprisings were of the third category of the peasants that targeted both the feudals and the colonialists. The book traces three major uprisings -- that of Sangolli Rayanna's guerrilla war (1829-30) again around Kittur area; the Nagar peasant Insurrection (1830-33); and Kalyanaswamy's Armed Uprising (1837) of Kodagu area.

The Kittur principality encompassed parts of Belgum, Dharwad, and Uttara Kannada districts and was covered on its western part by the Malnad forest tract. Sangolli Rayanna had joined Chennamma's army. But his lands were confiscated, and of what remained it was heavily taxed. He taxed the landlords and built up the army from the masses. He used guerrilla methods to attack government property; burnt land records and extracted the loot from notorious landlords and bureaucrats. Finally he was captured and hanged. At the time of being hanged he said "My last wish is to be born again in the country to fight against the British and drive them away from our sacred soil".

The Nagar was a wide scale peasant insurrection that had spread to various parts of Karnataka. From Shimoga and Chikmangalur it spread to Uttara Kannada, Chitradurg, Tumkur, Hassan, Mysore, Mandya and Bangalore. Like with the Sangolli uprising, in the Nagar revolt the peasantry located its anti-feudal anti-colonial aspirations within a political framework. They recognized Budibasappa Nayaka as the heir of the Ikkeri kings and sought the restoration of Ikkeri rule over Nagar.

The struggle took place in three waves: The first was that of mass struggles; the second, of mass action, and, the third, when armed struggle predominated.

The mass struggle started in early 1830 and assumed a host of forms. The most important of these was the "koota" or simply "gathering". The koota was a broad forum to organize the peasant masses. The kootas spread from Nagar (town in Shimoga district) to Bellary, and even as far as Mysore. Budi Basappa, a cultivator was its leader, who claimed the Gadi of Nagar. He appointed Manappa as his "commander-in-chief. As the movement built up on Aug. 23 1830 at a huge rally, a peasant charter was passed and signed by those assembled. It said:

· The peasant organisation must be built everywhere.

· The struggle must be advanced till the demands are accomplished.

· Government officials must be prevented from entering the village.

· Revenue payment to the government must stop.

· The government must recognize that the "tiller is the owner" of land.

· Land must be returned to those tenants who had forfeited it.

And as the movement gained momentum it changed to forms of mass actions -- officials, bureaucrats were attacked. Manappa built up a fighting force of 200 men. As the book recounts: "The mass actions which were directed against the Amildars, corrupt bureaucrats and reactionaries in the villages. Amildars who feared the wrath of the people either fled or surrendered to the groundswell. By the end of 1830, as the phase of mass action began to conclude, they often culminated in the seizure of the Amildar's offices by the insurgent peasants and the collection of all revenue was annulled by the new authority in power."

Then from Dec.14 1830 began the Raja's reign of terror, which resulted in the peasant movement taking the form of guerrilla war. A guerrilla army was built with detachments varying in size from 20 to 200. The norm was 40. They beat back the raja's offensive. They captured the Nagar fort; but retreated into the forests on the night before British troops entered. As a major section of enemy forces moved to other areas of combat, they attacked the fort, killed its occupiers and re-took it. In this way the Nagar fort changed hands six times. Each time they appealed to the towns people who joined them in large numbers. The guerrilla army was given secret training in Brahmagiri, Ulavi, Chennagiri, Chandragutti, Sonale and Sasehwalli. As the battles intensified enemy troops mutinied and joined the guerrillas. Enemy officers were targeted.

The British were unable to stem the growth of the armed struggle. Finally they were able to crush it by infiltration and killing of the leadership. By 1833 the bulk of the leadership were captured and killed and the movement died down."



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