The Kharsawan massacre of 1948

News Excerpt:

Adivasis from Jharkhand’s Kolhan region observe January 1 as a day of mourning and remembrance.

Historical background:

  • In 1912, the Bengal Presidency was partitioned to create Bihar and Orissa Province.
    • However, this new province had a large Adivasi population with its distinct culture and many grievances with both the British and non-tribal populations.
  • Thus, in 1912 itself, the demand for a separate tribal state was articulated for the first time at St Columba’s College, Hazaribagh.
  • The Simon Commission, mandated to report on constitutional reforms in India, gave it official credence in 1930.
    • It deemed Bihar and Orissa the most artificial Indian province, as it unified three distinct areas with varying physical, social, linguistic, and cultural characteristics under a single administration.
  • While Orissa was carved out in 1936, Adivasis’ demands remained unheard.
  • In 1938, the Adivasi Mahasabha was formed to continue the struggle, with Jaipal Singh Munda (1903-70), former captain of the Indian hockey team, emerging as its tallest leader.

Issue of Kharsawan’s merger with Orissa:

  • Kharsawan was a small princely state lying to the west of Jamshedpur.
  • At the time of Independence, Kharsawan, alongside 24 other princely states in eastern India, decided to accede to the Union of India and join the state of Orissa.
    • After all, Kharsawan and neighboring Saraikela (which today form the Seraikela Kharsawan district in Jharkhand) had more Odia speakers than Hindi speakers.
  • However, most Adivasis did not support this merger. They also did not want to join Bihar — the alternative option.
    • They wanted a separate Adivasi state.

Action in Kharsawan:

  • A huge meeting was called at Kharsawan on January 1, 1948, the day when the merger was to take place.
    • The 50,000-strong crowd gathered and raised their demands in Kharsawan.
      • However, due to some reason, Munda could not show up.
    • This was also the day of the weekly haat in the town.
      • Moreover, many more were shopping at the nearby haat.
  • Orissa military police had taken charge of law and order in the town.
    • It opened fire at the crowd gathered for a protest and the weekly haat (market), killing hundreds.

Aftermath and conclusion :

  • To date, there is no consensus regarding just how many lives were lost in the massacre.
    • The then-Orissa government confirmed only 35 dead.
  • There is also no clarity regarding who was responsible for ordering the massacre.
    • Several committees were made, and investigations were carried out, but no report came out.
  • Today, a memorial stands at the marketplace in Kharsawan.
  • It has been a “political pilgrimage” site in the state, with several state leaders visiting the memorial on New Year’s Day through the years.

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