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Durable Link to this BlogSunday, June 3, 2007

Remembering the 1857 Revolt: The Bedas of Halagali

The nationwide agitation of 1857, against the British rule in India is termed as a rebellion, a revolt, The "Sepoy Mutiny" and "War of Independence". But all these terms do justify together if interpreted in the national context.

There is no doubt that there was overall resentment against the foreign rulers and attempts were made at different levels to overthrow it. But a powerful and centrally organized force to combine the agitating agencies spread over the huge (then undivided) peninsula was lacking. There were numerous small states and principalities and kingdoms big and small. Individual and state interests were at stake. The doctrine of lapse, high taxes, the "Divide and Rule" policy, fleecing of resources along with unscrupulous suppression of local agitations, led to resentment at all levels of the ruled population. In Northern India the revolt was prominent because of the active involvement of ex-rulers like the Mogul emperor and the Peshwas and their still powerful halo.

In South India also the revolt took place in different regions and in specifically at five places in Karnataka. It was to remember the role of these martyrs on the 150th year of 1857, that a seminar was arranged in Mythic Society on May 27, 2007.

1857 Revolt in Karnataka

The five local forces who fought the British were from 1) Halagali 2) Surpur 3) Mundaragi 4) Naragund and 5) Supa. There was a time-lapse between the breaking of fighting in the north and that of south, which gave sufficient time for the British Government to organize the military force and suppress the so called mutiny leaders one by one. In many cases the poor and innocent suffered because, the Britishers never applied their mind to ethos of Indian pluralism. The rightful cause for rebel was overlooked as was the case of Bedas of Halagali.

Halagali was a village of Beda (hunters) population in the small state of Mudhol in Bijapur district. Most of the residents lived by hunting wild beasts and birds and selling forest products. These Bedas kept tools and instruments useful to their vocation, all the time. Once when the rains failed and there was shortage of food, a gang of Bedas took to decoity. It was a stray case. But the matter was reported to the British authority that law and order situation was at stake!

Months of 1857 "Mutiny" were just over. The nightmare lingered. An order was issued on behalf of the Chief of Mudhol state (There was no chief at that time!) that "all arms and ammunition may be surrendered by the Bedas at once".

The weapons the Bedas possessed, were all useful in hunting only, like axe, pick-axe, knife, hatchet, sickle, different nets etc. which were country-made and which they kept with them all the time. There were no guns or pistols, or arms and ammunition of which the forest-dwellers were innocent. But the law of disarmament passed in 1857, forbade all Indian citizens to keep arms, unless approved and licensed by the Briotish authorities. This law was made applicable to Bedas who made a living out of the crude tools which were interpreted as lethal weapons. They refused to surrender their tools.

This resistance was too much for the British army officer to swallow. On 29th November 1857 Halagali was attacked and 290 Bedas were made prisoners. Scores were shot down ruthlessly. 13 Beda leaders were hanged in public on market day (sante) of Mudhol and six more at Halagali itself three days later.

The exemplary courage and self-sacrifice of the Bedas who did not yield to the British is well preserved in Lavanis (folk song-stories or ballads) which the moving bards sang in the villages of North Karnataka. John F. Fleet collected five such lavanis and published them. Late Kyatanahalli Ramanna collected the longest among these lavanis. The suppression of Bedas of Halagali is an example of apathy and in

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Jyotsna Kamat

Jyotsna Kamat Ph.D. lives in Bangalore.


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