Freedom 75
A Lost Page from the 1857 Revolution: Bihar's First Dalit (Rajwar) Rebellion
by Kumar Parwez

The participation of the common people, especially the lowest sections, in the 1857 revolution against oppression, loot and slavery is gradually starting to unfold, but some pages remain yet unread. The most important of these is the Rajwar rebellion in Bihar which has so far appeared only as a footnote in history books. This was the first dalit revolt in Bihar and possibly the biggest till date. The rebellion which started in 1857 continued for the next ten years. By 1859, the struggle of 1857 in other parts of the country had either run out of steam or suffered defeat, but the Rajwar rebellion continued relentlessly. This struggle was fought in former Gaya District's Nawada and the hills of Nalanda. At one time, the Rajwars had even succeeded in wiping out the British from the region. Rajauli was the main centre of the struggle, where not only the British, but also the zamindars were given a tough fight.

Basically, this was a revolt launched against the 'kamia' system (a kind of loan system by which agrarian workers were turned into bonded labour), and other castes are also mentioned as participating in the revolt. It took the British all of 10 years to suppress this rebellion. Later, they wreaked vengeance on the Rajwars for this and stopped appointing them to the post of Chowkidars. The British placed many such castes in the category of 'criminal castes'. The Rajwars call themselves 'Rajvanshi' (descendent from royalty). They have a dense population in what is known as Nawada District today (earlier, Gaya District). This area has a few castes like Rajwar, Ramani and Chauhan which come under the Dalit category, but it cannot be denied that at one time they could have been among the ruling castes. Until the ascendency of Pushyamitra Shunga, the rulers in Magadh used to come from the lower castes. This region was known as Keekat Pradesh and Vedic traditions have generally been weak here. Brahminism had to work hard to establish roots here. Possibly, after Pushyamitra Shunga's counter-revolution and the demolition of Buddhist culture, these castes were made into slaves, by removing from ruling positions.

This armed revolt extended from Nawada, Nalanda, Kauvakol, Hazaribagh and the hills of Govindpur, up to Bhagalpur. The Dalit identity was not an issue here. It was, rather, an explosion of the long-simmering anger against the 'kamia' system. Therefore, the local zamindars were also the target, along with the British. The rebel Rajwars attacked the 'kutcheris' of the zamindars and looted their property. They even killed many zamindars. There was a time when fear of the rebels was so great that Thana officials left their jobs and ran away. Jawahir Rajwar was the chief organizer of the rebellion. Among other prominent leaders were Etwa and Karu Rajwar. The Rajwars believe that the descendants of Magadh King Bimbisara had found their leader in Jawahir Rajwar after thousands of years.

Jawahir Rajwar was born in 1832 in Pasai village in old Gaya District. He was adept at wrestling and wielding the sword and other weapons. It was under his leadership that the rebellion began. The British had to launch campaign after campaign in order to crush the Rajwar rebellion. The local zamindars stood firmly with the British. Many battles took place between the rebels and the British on the banks of River Sakri at Khargobigha, Khurarnath, Pusai and other places. From the start of the rebellion Jawahir Rajwar's name in every incident associated with the revolt, but he was killed on September 29th, 1857. After Jawahir was martyred, brutal and horrifying actions were taken against the rebels. About 600 villages were burnt by the British, but the rebellion did not cease. It continued under the leadership of Etwa Rajwar. The biggest campaign against the Rajwars started in 1863. War was waged against them with an army 10,000 strong, comprising police personnel as well as zamindars who launched a three-pronged attack against the Rajwars. But, even this huge campaign could not succeed. The rebellion continued and the British were unable to arrest Etwa Rajwar. It was only after 1867, that the rebellion could be put down.

The rebellion was put down, but the issues raised by the Rajwars were yet to be resolved. The British officials had realized that it was necessary to end the bonded labour system. Albeit after 70 years, the British had to pass a law ending the 'kamia' system in Bengal Presidency. The law was passed, but in reality the bonded labour system in this region continued till after the Independence and labourers were forced to work for very low wages. On the other hand, the British regime passed an amendment to the Criminal Act in 1871, to bring these 'rebel castes' under control. A list of many castes was prepared. Castes of the warlike kind were placed under these hard laws. The list of 'criminal' castes included the Rajbhar, Bhar, Rajwar, Musahar, Pasi, Dusadh, Khatak, Nat, Chamar and other castes. Astonishingly, the savarna and OBC castes were not placed in this list, and neither was the Muslim community. Only the Dalits were targeted. The tendency to associate the Dalit castes with crime was probably institutionalized from this time onward.

Jawahir Rajwar, Bhokta Rajwar, Fagu Rajwar, Daood Miyan and Ganauri Khalifa were among the chief organizers of the rebellion who were martyred. Etwa Rajwar could not be arrested, but what became of him was never known. Ugrasen, Jitan, Dina Rajwar, Mohan and Govind were among the rebels whose properties were confiscated. There is evidence that women also participated in the rebellion. Other prominent names are Sohan Dusadh, Suraj Manjhi, Jodhan Musahar, Ghanshyam Dusadh, Dina Rajwar, Ugrasen Rajwar and Bandhu Dhobi. Many of these were martyred and others were sentenced to 'kalapani'.

Prominent in the suppression of the rebellion were Worseley, Campbell, Nazir Ali Husseini, Daroga Ram, Baksh Singh, Malik Inayat Ali, Zamindar Babu Nandkishore Singh, Mahadev Singh, Faful Singh, Thakur Kripal Singh Raja Mehendi Ali Khan and Leela Singh.

A mass program was organized at Rajauli on September 21st, 2022 to commemorate this glorious struggle. An Azadi (freedom) march was held on that day from Sitamarhi to Rajauli. CPIML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya, as well as renowned historians and intellectuals, took part in the program. The historic Rajwar rebellion and the brave martyrs are a source of inspiration for us that is found only rarely in history.

Commemoration of Rajwar Revolt of 1857 in Nawada

During 1857 war of independence the Rajwar revolt in the hills of Nawada in Bihar continued for almost ten years. In commemoration of the heroes of this historic battle – Jawahir Rajwar, Aetawa Rajwar and Karu Rajwar – and for constructing their memorial a mass meeting was organised on 21 Sep. 22 in Sitamarhi of Nawada district. The meeting was addressed by CPIML General Secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya and attended by thousands of people from nearby villages and towns. A pledge was taken to preserve the memory of those martyrs by erecting a national memorial at Sitamarhi (Nawada), by including life sketches of the heroes of this war of independence in school text books, to increase awareness about our history of freedom struggles and to commit ourselves for today’s struggle to fulfil the yet unfulfilled dreams of the martyrs.
Comrade Dipankar said that real tributes can be paid to the martyrs by carrying forward their ideas, dreams and struggles forward. Those in the seat of power in India today are the people who never were part of India’s freedom movement and are now trying to subvert equality, freedom and fraternity which had been the fundamental tenets of freedom struggle. Shaheed-e-Azam Bhagat Singh had warned us of brown Angrez, and we have to struggle against such forces now for an India of martyrs’ dreams, for freedom and equality for all.
The commemoration event was also addressed by CPIML Bihar secretary Kunal, senior leaders Amar, Rambali Yadav, Arwal MLA Mahanand Singh, and more than a dozen activists and leaders from the Ranjvanshi community.
The speakers pledged to carry forward the spirit of Freedom75 campaign and dreams of the martyrs. Nawada District panchayat president Pushpa Rajavanshi, Vijay Rajvanshi, Pradeep Rajavanshi and others also spoke at the meetings which was presided by CPIML leader Mevalal Rajavanshi and conducted by Bhola Ram.
A Lost Page from the 1857 Revolution