Memories of the Kirta Dangra

Shibu Tudu

Illustration by Emma Roulette

Kirta is a small village in the Pakur district of the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand. It is located in the Maheshpur block, eight or nine kilometres west of the block’s headquarters, on the road to Pakur district headquarters. To Hindi-speakers, Kirta is known as the place where the “Kirta Goli Kaand” or “Kirta Firing” took place. Among the Santhals, the incident that took place in Kirta is remembered as “Kirta Dangra.” It was memorable and spine-chilling. It took place in the summer of 1956 and has become a kind of legend that even today old men talk about with their grandchildren.

The details of the Kirta Dangra that will be mentioned here have been collected from the frail memories of two respected elderly Santhal men: Hopna Soren, of Logaon village, and Chede Tudu, of Khiribari village. Hopna Soren and Chede Tudu witnessed the Kirta Dangra of 1956 with their own eyes and ears. Through the memories of Hopna Soren and Chede Tudu, this piece attempts to remember those hundreds of Santhals who, during the Dangra, laid down their lives to protect their honour, fraternity, and identity.

According to the memories of honourable Hopna Soren and Chede Tudu, a young man named Barsan Murmu lived in Khiribari, which is quite close to Kirta. Barsan had taken Bodge, the daughter of the majhi family of Kirta, as his wife, according to the rituals of Santhal society. After some time, for reasons unknown, the relationship between Bodge and Barsan soured and they separated. Bodge left Barsan’s house in Khiribari and returned to live with her father’s family in Kirta.

The Santhals of Santhal Pargana often go to Bagri, which is the Santhal name for the area between Pakur, in Santhal Pargana, and Murarai, in the Birbhum district of the neighbouring state of West Bengal. It is a fertile area, and Santhals go to work there as farm labourers. The farms in Bagri grow lentils, onions, and other crops, and the Santhals who work on them are usually paid a share of the farm produce for their work. After separating from Barsan, Bodge started going to Bagri to work on the farms. During her journeys to and from Bagri, Bodge met a young, non-Santhal man, who was said to be a Muslim. They fell in love and Bodge started finding more excuses to travel to Bagri. After some time, matters took such a turn that Bodge forgot all about Barsan and brought that Muslim man to her house in Kirta. The news of Bodge’s affair with a Muslim man spread far and wide through the Santhal villages around Kirta, and Barsan too came to know of the relationship.

Though Bodge had forgotten Barsan completely, Barsan, despite having separated from Bodge, hadn’t been able to forget her. The news of Bodge’s affair drove him somewhat crazy and he did not know what to do. One day, he spoke to his uncle Marang Murmu, the elder brother of his father, and some young men of Khiribari. Angered by what Bodge had done, all of them set out, after nightfall, for Bodge’s house, to catch that Muslim man.

As Barsan’s party entered Bodge’s house, the Muslim man attacked them and stabbed Marang Murmu on the left side of his chest with a dagger. Marang Murmu was a heavily-built, strong, and courageous man. The stabbing didn’t injure him much. The men grabbed the Muslim man and gave him a good beating, until it seemed like the Muslim man had died. Thinking him to be dead, Barsan’s party left him there and fled. A few days later, however, they discovered that the Muslim man had survived the beating.

On somewhat marshy land under a kowha tree in Bagduba, another village close to both Kirta and Khiribari, a moray-majhi meeting was called to discuss the affair between Bodge and her Muslim lover. The first meeting did not come to a decision, so two other meetings were called at subsequent dates at the same venue. By the end of the final meeting, the headmen of the villages finally arrived at a conclusion, and a resolution was also passed in writing. However, no one remembers what conclusion was made and what was written down. But yes, one thing was sure. Barsan Murmu did not agree with the resolution of the moray-majhi meeting, and he decided to take matters into his own hands. He did not consult Marang Murmu, nor did he consult his father—he just went to the weekly hatias at Sahargaon, Hiranpur, and Pakur and announced the Kirta Dangra to punish Bodge and her family for Bodge’s affair with a Muslim man. Barsan fixed the date of the Kirta Dangra for 26 June, 1956.

On 26 June, 1956, Barsan Murmu got up very early in the morning, when roosters were crowing and the sun had yet not risen, and ran straight to Hopna Soren, his mother’s brother. Barsan Murmu was afraid. He had, in a fit of anger, announced something as grave as a dangra against the woman to whom he had been married, but he was apprehensive of the consequences of his action. He needed wise counsel, and so he went to see Hopna Soren.

Hopna Soren was completely oblivious of his nephew’s doings. So when, first thing in the morning so soon after getting out of bed, he heard the news of what Barsan had done, he was terribly shocked. He scolded Barsan.

“You took such a big step without consulting any of your elders and now you have come to me for advice? In Kirta, there must be hundreds of people waiting for you, looking forward eagerly to an instruction from you, and you are just running away? Escaping from the consequences of your actions? Go to Kirta without delay and do whatever you have to do!”

Even before Barsan reached Kirta, the police were there. No one knows—or remembers—who called the police, but someone must have done. There were about fifty to seventy policemen, who stood at the south-western corner of the ground, where the hatia at Kirta was held, and kept watch over all the people who were gathering in the village. A dangra is a huge thing.

As for the Santhals, they had begun gathering in Kirta on the night of 25 June. It was, after all, a matter of their prestige and identity. How could a Santhal woman have an affair with a Muslim man? A dangra had been called against that woman and her family. How could they let this opportunity pass? All the Santhals had started assembling at the football ground that lay to the west of the village. The entire place reverberated with the beatings of the tamak, as if the villagers were going on a hunt and the drumming was meant to scare away wild animals. There were hundreds of Santhals gathered in Kirta for the dangra, and more were arriving, hearing the beatings of the tamak.

“Wait for me,” Santhal men and women told each other as they proceeded towards Kirta.

“Don’t leave me alone. Take me with you.”

It was a terrific gathering. It was as if Santhals from all the villages had been waiting for years for something like this to happen, to punish a wayward Santhal woman and her family. It was as if it was not a punishment but a festival—the Santhals were so excited.

It was late summer and the fields were full of ripe corn. Normally, the Santhals would be harvesting. But that day, they did not care about their farms. No man went to his field that day. Instead, holding their shovels and machetes, all the well-wishers of the Santhal society marched towards Kirta.

There were quite a few Santhals among the policemen as well. Well-meaning, as they were towards people of their own community, they advised Santhals to stay away from the site of the dangra. Anything might happen, they warned them. But would the Santhals listen? Pride in the community prevailed and, as a challenge, several Santhal men heavily struck the ground before the policemen with their shovels and machetes. Some Santhal men went even as far as pointing their bows and arrows at the policemen, pretending to take aim.

Barsan reached the football ground at Kirta and immediately all the Santhals, hundreds of them, surrounded him. They implored him to take them to Bodge’s house. Barsan was confused. He was already regretting what he had done, but he also knew that it was too late for him to turn back. The hundreds of Santhals gathered at the football ground in Kirta looked up to him as a hero who was fighting to save the honour of the Santhal community. What could he do now? He led the mob towards Bodge’s house. The police came forward and restrained the mob from proceeding further.

Just then, one Santhal man, who had been hiding in a bamboo grove nearby, shot an arrow at the police. This encouraged the other Santhals, who brandished their shovels, machetes, and other weapons and farm equipment at the police blocking their path. This was enough. The police started shooting left, right, and centre. Several Santhals fell as bullets hit them. After the shooting was over, the police themselves gathered all the dead Santhals on a truck and dumped their bodies in the Torai river that flowed through the region. Hopna Soren remembers that once the police began firing, the police themselves rescued both the majhi of Kirta and Manohar Teli (a non-Santhal man from Siristola). As Santhals ran helter-skelter, fleeing for their lives, the police fired mostly at the routes that led to Maheshpur and Devpur. The Santhals who died in this shooting were mostly from faraway places. Some of the dead and injured that Hopna Soren and Chede Tudu remembered were Lakhan Hembrom of Logaon, who had been shot in a leg but survived; Saiba Marandi of Logaon, who had been shot on the left side of his body but survived; the majhi of Tasaria, who died; one man from Hamorpur, who had been shot in his abdomen and died; and another man named Barsan, this one from Dhavadangal, who had been shot in his leg but survived. There were more dead and injured, unnamed and unremembered.

For several days, the noise of the Kirta Dangra of 26 June, 1956 echoed in the ears of the people as clearly and loudly as the gunshots that accompanied it. All the adult male members of Kirta and nearby villages fled their homes and took refuge in the homes of their relatives in faraway villages to avoid prosecution. Hopna Soren, himself scared of the consequences of the dangra, abandoned the school he worked at and fled to someone’s house in Bhilai Baramasia.

A few days after the incident, a few government officials came to Kirta and nearby villages to ask the people to return and maintain peace. The people from the government somehow found Hopna Soren in his place of hiding and made him the face of this peace-keeping task. They persuaded him to reopen his school in Siristola and convince all the Santhals that the situation was peaceful and that they could return to their villages and farms. Hopna Soren, for several days, went from village to village, urging the men to return and, gradually, all the men who had fled returned to their villages.

After the Kirta Dangra, there was no peace, however, for Barsan Murmu. He was taken into police custody. Even jailed, perhaps. It is said that Hopna Soren had to bail him out.

No one knows what happened to Bodge and her Muslim lover after the Kirta Dangra. Both of them disappeared like those many unnamed and unremembered Santhals who were killed when the police opened fire during the Kirta Dangra.

After the assault, the Santhals, who had been scared, returned to their villages. However, many of the voices of those Santhals who really fought for their honour and identity were silenced forever by the deafening shots of the police’s guns. With the death of those Santhals, the story of Kirta Dangra sank somewhere into the depths of the beings of those Santhals who had witnessed that incident. It seems that a voice as strong as that of the Santhals who were killed during the Kirta Dangra of 26 June, 1956, would never rise again.

translated from the Santhali by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar