In 1857, the brothers Nilamber and Pitamber led Adivasi rebels against the British in the hills and forests of Palamau. For their descendants, the battle for water, forests and land never ended.

Barrage by Raza Kazmi; Illustration by Akshaya Zachariah for

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


….It is necessary to introduce…a brief account of the events that led to the insurrection in Palamau.

The population of that district is chiefly composed of two tribes—the Cheroos [Cheros] and the Khyroors [Kharwars]. The latter are the most numerous. They are also the Coles [Kols] and Bhooeyas [Bhuiyans] who took no part in the disturbances (and a few) Brahmins, Rajpoots and other castes of Hindoos who were opposed to the insurgents and Korewahs, a rude hill tribe having kindered with the Cole, some of whom assisted the Bhogtahs…

They [Kharwars] are subdivided into various classes (“Gashtes”) viz. 1. the Bhogtah, 2. Maighee [Manjhi], 3. Bisis, 4. Chowdhree etc. etc....

There are few Jagheerdaries in possession of the Khyrwars. One was created by our Government and conferred on the head of the Bhogtah clan, the Bhogtahs Petumber [Pitamber] and Lelumber [Nilamber]. This clan occupy a line of villages situated on a plateau or rather a steppe between the lowlands of Palamau from which they are further separated by a ridge of hills and the high table lands of Surguja. The villages are unapproachable from the low lands except by ghauts or hill passes easily defended and the hills between them and Surguja and the Surguja uplands secure to these inhabitants places of almost inaccessible fastnesses.

Places of almost inaccessible fastnesses”—the expression rang in my ears as our jeep forded through the ridge of forest-clad hills at the end of the monsoon season last year.

Over 160 years ago, in the autumn of 1857, the hills and valleys below echoed with the clarion calls of rebellion. Scholars have written extensively about how the First War of Independence had played out in the Gangetic plains and parts of central India, but what happened in the Chotanagpur plateau has invariably remained a footnote.

This forested region, home to many Adivasi communities, already had a long history of indigenous uprisings against the British across the length and breadth of the plateau. The Hos of Singhbhum, the Bhumij of Manbhum and the Mundas of Ranchi had taken up arms at various points in the first half of the nineteenth century. Later, a united front of Mundas, Oraons, Kharias and Hos—all of whom were collectively referred to as Kol by the British—led a revolt across Ranchi district in 1832. To the northwest and northeast of the plateau, a Santhal insurrection had taken place in 1855-56.

Perhaps nowhere in this region was resistance to colonialism as sustained as on the western frontier of the plateau, a district called Palamau. It was, and continues to be, a transitional zone between the settled agricultural culture of Bihar’s Gangetic plains and the forested Adivasi lands of Chotanagpur. In the late medieval era, Palamau was ruled by the Cheros who, along with the Kharwars, were the most dominant of Palamau’s many Adivasi groups.

Taking advantage of a protracted internecine dispute between two rival Chero factions, the British entered Palamau in 1771 and reduced the rulers to the status of Jagirdars. [1] The Chero Adivasis revolted against this British interference in 1800 and 1817, and were violently suppressed both times. When the great Kol rebellion of 1832 swept across Ranchi and Singhbhum, the Cheros and Kharwars of Palamau joined in as well.

All this to say that the whole of Chotanagpur was already a tinderbox in 1857. All it needed was a spark, which came in June that year, just a month after the first sepoy revolt in Meerut. Some soldiers of the 5th Irregular Cavalry, stationed at a village named Rohini near Deoghar, not very far from Hazaribagh, mutinied and killed a white commanding officer.

The reverberations of this act echoed across Chotanagpur. Then, two companies of the trusted Ramgarh Battalion stationed at Hazaribagh revolted on 1 August 1857. Captain Simpson, the Deputy Commissioner, and his colleagues managed to escape to Bagodar, about 50km from Hazaribagh, following a tip-off from one of Simpson’s servants. The mutinying sepoys began marching towards Ranchi, the headquarters of the Ramgarh Battalion, and the seat of British power in Chotanagpur.

When the news of the rebellion reached Captain Edward Tuite Dalton, the Commissioner of Chotanagpur stationed at the military garrison of Doranda in Ranchi, he immediately despatched Lt. Graham with a detachment of the Ramgarh Light Infantry. But this unit suddenly mutinied, too, and joined forces with the rebelling sepoys of the Ramgarh Battalion.

This combined force marched towards Dalton’s garrison. Dalton knew that he could trust none of his native sepoys at Ranchi, save one group: a contingent of soldiers who were part of Rattray’s Sikh Battalion. As outsiders, the Sikhs had been targeted by Adivasi rebellions in the past. Dalton ordered an immediate evacuation of all Europeans from Ranchi. Guarded by the Sikhs, he escaped to Bagodar.

The rebels held Ranchi for nearly a month, before embarking on a march towards Bihar’s plains to meet up with allies—the rebel soldiers being led by the celebrated Babu Kunwar Singh of Jagdishpur. Their route would take them through Palamau, where they would find an unexpected ally: the Bhogta Adivasi forces of Nilamber and Pitamber.

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


…Bhogtahs…were of old notorious as free booters to whom the arm of the law could with difficulty reach. Their old chief, the father of Lelumber and Petumber, lived and died an outlaw. The policy that gave to the sons the villages occupied by the clan in Jagheir at a small quit rent was however in a great measure successful in repressing their marauding propensities, till the unfortunate events of the last year incited them to break out anew.

It unluckily happened that Petumber Bhogtah was at Ranchi when the Ramgarh Force mutinied and the officers abandoned the Station. He very possibly went home thinking he had seen the end of British rule. At the same time two companies of the 8th Regiment Native Infantry that mutinied at Hazaribagh marched through Palamau on their way to join Baboo Kooer Singh’s brother Ummer Singh at Rohtasgarh.


uch has changed since the days of Dalton. Now, the hills that once formed the boundary between Palamau and the princely state of Surguja mark the border between Garhwa district [2] of western Jharkhand and the state of Chhattisgarh. This is the Burha Pahaad range, named so after the Burha river that flows through a large part of its valley.

The way these forests are known has also changed, somewhat. No longer are they simply the home of various Adivasi groups—in independent India, they have also been earmarked as an abode of the endangered tiger. Palamau Tiger Reserve was one of the nine original tiger reserves notified in 1973, and Burha Pahaad lies along its westernmost edge.

Some things, however, have remained the same. The “intractable hills and dense jungles”—as British despatches labelled this mosaic of rolling hills, gurgling streams and snaking rivers—have endured. The sound of rebellion, too, still echoes across this punishing terrain, this time under the ideological umbrella of Maoism. The hills and valleys of the Burha are the last citadel of the Maoist rebels, not just in Palamau, but in all of Jharkhand. In the past few years, though, they have lost much ground here, with the state’s security forces handing them one blow after another.

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


A general rising both of Cheroos and of Khyroors and combining with the Bhogtahs, a very large force [500 Bhogtahs], on the 21st October [1857] attacked the town of Chainpur belonging to Thukoorai Raghooburdeal Sing…the insurgents proceeded to Shahpur…they encamped for the night on the opposite side of the river [Koel]…Lt. Graham reached Chainpur on the 7th November [1857], and the immediate effect of his arrival was satisfactory; the insurgent force broke up and returned their villages but …they again assembled in great force, estimated at several thousands, and passing close to Chainpur encamped in the neighbourhood. Lt. Graham with his small party shut himself up in the Thukoorai’s house, the defences of which and of the town he had greatly improved, and the insurgents on this account or for other reasons did not attack him. They proceeded into Rajhara the station of the Coal Company and attacked…. plundered and destroyed the factory. On the 2nd December [1857] the Government Thannahs of Manika and Chattarpur were burnt by different parties of insurgents and all the records destroyed. On the 8th [December, 1857] a European force under Command of Major Cotter sent to relieve Lt. Graham, arrived and the rebels dispersed.


’d taken a break on the nearly 200km drive from my home in Doranda to Daltonganj, the headquarters of the old Palamau district. As I sipped tea, I took in the details of a terracotta-lined, mud-walled bungalow which stood on its last legs next to a newer, concrete building. The signboard said ‘Thana Manika’—the old police station. Was its predecessor the one that was burnt to the ground by the Bhogta Adivasi rebel force led by Nilamber and Pitamber? There was no way to confirm.

Driving a few kilometres further, I came across a platform erected in a clearing. It bore the statues of two muscular men, barefoot and naked from the waist-up, each with a gamcha, a thin towel, wrapped around their heads. The figures were frozen in a fast-paced gait, as if leading a legion. One of them held a mashal—a fire torch—and a bow, the other carried a bow, a battle axe, and a quiver of arrows on his back.

“Veer Nilamber aur Pitamber”—Brave Nilamber and Pitamberread the tablet below. In these parts, Nilamber and Pitamber are what Siddhu and Kanhu were to the Santhal Hool of 1855-56, or what Birsa Munda was to the Ulgulan of 1899-1900.

An hour later I was in Daltonganj, where I picked up Pintu, my childhood friend who now worked as a daily-wage employee with the Forest Department. Pintu was a native of Leslieganj, about 20km from Daltonganj, which had been pillaged by the Bhogta forces 165 years ago and was now a block headquarters. Soon after, we drove past the Nilamber-Pitamber University and crossed the expansive sandy banks of the Koel river, where once the Bhogta forces had encamped, and which separated the twin towns of Daltonganj and Chainpur.

The road snaked past the crumbling Shahpur Qila, the residence of the queen of the last Chero Raja, which had been ransacked by the rebels for guns, and then skirted the somewhat better-preserved palace of the Chainpur Estate where Lt. Graham had “shut himself” in, fearing an attack by the rebel forces. We eventually turned southeast.

We were heading to Chemo and Saneya, two small villages ensconced deep in the dense sal forests of the Palamau Tiger Reserve. Overlooked by the Burha Pahaad, drained by the Koel, its primary tributary the Burha, and hundreds of jungle streams, Chemo and Saneya were where it had all begun. They were the ancestral villages of Nilamber and Pitamber, where their descendants still lived.

Chemo and Saneya is also where it might all end soon. The Indian state has taken it upon itself to write the final chapter in this enduring saga of state control over jal, jangal, zameen—water, forest, land—that has spanned nearly two centuries. A controversial dam project on the Koel will consign the two villages—the last physical link to a historic Adivasi resistance against the British—to a watery grave.

Along with the village fields and lands will also perish thousands of hectares of primordial forests, the very tracts that Nilamber and Pitamber, and their rebel forces, had sacrificed themselves for.

From Captain J.S. Davis, Assistant Commissioner, Lohurdugga, to Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore 

Dated: Camp Lesliegunge, 23 December 1858


I regret that I cannot report any satisfactory progress towards the permanent tranquillity of this district...the whole of the inhabitants without exception are, if not openly, on the side of the rebels who receive every information of our movements whilst it is with the utmost difficulty that we are enabled to trace them.

Since occupation of Saneya on the 17th instant no precise information obtained until today when I hear that the rebels are in great force…. It is necessary to follow them up at once to prevent the plunder of the open country, (if attacked) they will immediately make a retrogade move and seek the protection of their jungles and on our return they will resume the same tactics, while owing to their intimate knowledge of the country and the fact of the people being in their favour they can do with utter impunity as they never will fight, their object being only plunder…


ur journey to Saneya had thrown up unanticipated challenges. The previous evening, we’d tried a road that runs from Marda to Madgarhi, then becomes a kuccha forest road that goes on to Kutku village and from there to Chemo and Saneya. However, we soon ran into a roadblock. Lying between Madgarhi and Kutku, the Hareya river, which drains into the Koel, was flooded after incessant rains and had washed away the kuccha roads on both banks.

We returned to the forest bungalow at Bhandaria, resigned to taking the longer and more arduous route next morning. This would entail us climbing up Burha Pahaad, driving for nearly 20km along old forest roads that lay along the ridge which doubled as the Jharkhand-Chhattisgarh border, and eventually descending into the valley. Once we had descended, we’d reach Saneya only after a drive of around 15km through the forest.

The trouble was that the entire Burha Pahaad range had been a theatre of intense conflict between Maoists and the Central Reserve Police Force in recent weeks. The forest roads, which had not been repaired for many years owing to the Maoist threat, had been washed away by the monsoon. The entire stretch was said to be booby-trapped with IEDs. Along the very route we would have to take, the CRPF had been discovering rebel bunkers stashed with explosives and ammunition.

But we decided to give it a go, encouraged by the presence in our party of two daily-wage Forest Department trackers from Madgarhi. Incidentally, both of them are named Muneshwar. We left Bhandaria early in the morning hoping to return before it got dark.

In recent months, with security forces gradually inching forward to wrest control of these hill ranges from the Maoists, new CRPF camps had come up along the beginning of the ridge at places like Kulhi, Hesatu, and Bahiratoli. We were stopped and searched at each of these camps. Our jeep crawled along kuccha roads, many sections of which resembled a foot trail more than a dirt road. We finally descended into the valley at a beautiful forest village called Turer.

To delay things further, our jeep got bogged down in a forest stream just a few kilometres before Saneya. We were able to extricate it only with the assistance of a few men from Saneya. By this time, it was already late in the afternoon. It had taken us nearly eight hours to cover barely 40km.

One of the rescuers of our jeep was a man named Santosh. He had once worked with the Forest Department and knew the Muneshwars well. Seeing as we couldn’t make the return journey that night, he kindly offered us shelter in his home.

Unlike villages in the plains, the houses in Adivasi forest villages are not clustered together. Even if the village has a small number of homes—Saneya had 133—they are spread out over a large area, making the village appear like a series of endless rolling fields dotted with houses here and there. Our walk from Santosh’s residence to the ancestral home of Nilamber-Pitamber would thus take us nearly an hour.

So, with the waning sun illuminating the farms, we walked in a single file, through fields of tall maize, across the crystal-clear Saneya stream, sloshing our way across undulating paddy fields. We walked past the mud-house grocery store where I was offered sweets that I was not allowed to pay for, the fallow fields with a hut demolished by crop-raiding elephants, past the child running through green paddy shimmering in the golden light of the evening sun. Throughout the walk, the Burha Pahaad looked down upon us from a distance, like a silent sentinel.

Halfway through, the trail opened into a large clearing with a giant tamarind tree as its centrepiece. There was a bamboo platform under this tree. “We were told by our fathers and grandfathers, and they by theirs, that Nilamber and Pitamber used to call the villagers to meetings below this very tree to plan the next course of action,” Santosh said.

By now, the shadows cast by the treeline had lengthened, and cattle were returning home for the day, the bells around their necks tinkling rhythmically. Nilamber-Pitamber’s home lay up a gentle slope further ahead.

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


….By the end of November [1857] the whole country [Palamau] appeared to be up in arms and Lt. Graham, with his small party, was shut up and besieged in the house of Raghooburdeal, whilst the rebels were plundering in all directions….

….I was at this time advancing with a small force of Madras sepoys under Major Mac Donell. I reached Manika on the 21st January, and being joined during the night by Lieutenant Graham, next morning, after a reconnaissance of the Palamau fort, finding that it was held by the enemy, we determined on an immediate attack….Ten bodies of the enemy were found; our loss amounted only to one killed and 2 wounded. Letters to Lelumber and Petumber Sahee and Nucleut Manji were found with the baggage, and amongst them communications from Ummer Singh, promising immediate assistance from Kooer Singh....

On arriving at Leslieganj I issued a general notice to all Jagheirdars to attend with their followers. This had the desired effect…It was certain that many of the Cheroo Jagheerdars who now joined us and were prepared to co-operate against the Bhogtahs were not long previously fighting on the other side, but under the circumstances I considered it advisable to accept of their services without in any way pledging myself to pardon those who might eventually be convicted of crimes. This policy pretty well completed the secession of the Cheroos from the Bhogtahs alliance and we now only had the latter to deal with…


antosh had more to say about the bamboo platform under the ancient tamarind tree. “After Nilamber Pitamber’s era passed, and when the age of ‘Party’”—a euphemism for Maoists—“began, even their cadres used to sit and relax here,” he said. “When the security forces raided the village in search of Maoists, even they used to rest below this tree.”

The villagers had been asking the district administration to convert the bamboo platform into a cement one. “But they don’t listen to us. They tell us that all this area will be submerged soon by the dam anyway,” said Santosh.

The North Koel Reservoir project—the official name of what is popularly known as the Kutku Dam or the Mandal Dam Project—was conceptualised in 1967 and given a go-ahead by 1972. Its showpiece was to be the Kutku barrage, a 67.86m high and 343m long construction near Kutku village. A network of canals was meant to channel the water across the old Palamau, Aurangabad and Gaya districts. By 1975, survey work had been completed and construction begun even though several clearances were yet to be applied for, or were in different stages of approval.

The ostensible purpose of the North Koel Reservoir Project was to end the drought crises of Palamau, a region crippled by severe water shortages. “Palamau is notorious as a drought-prone district that has faced famine twice in twenty-five years,” the journalist P. Sainath reported when he toured the district after a devastating drought in 1992-93 claimed the lives of more than 200 people. “In Palamau, the distance between drought and famine or near-famine conditions seems to be much shorter.”

The Kutku Dam was originally meant to have a hydroelectric power generating capacity of 24 MW. Proponents cited this plan to argue that the project would also solve the district’s power shortage problem. The catch was that 15 villages, including Chemo and Saneya, would be submerged. A prediction by the Chhotanagpur Samaj Vikas Sansthan, a non-governmental organisation, was more dire: over 30 villages would go. “In all, nearly 14000 people would lose their homes,” Sainath wrote in 1993.

A significant portion of these people were Birjiya, Korwa, and Parhaiya Adivasis who belong to what the Ministry of Tribal Affairs categorises as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups. [3] Others belonged to larger Adivasi communities: the Oraon, Kisan, Bhogtas, Kharwar, and Chero people, along with Dushad and Bhuiyan Dalits.

Activists said they saw through the project’s claims of solving Palamau’s drought problems. The dam was going to irrigate just 12,470 hectares in Palamau, with some critics, including officers, putting the figure even lower at roughly 6,800 hectares. [4] On the other hand, it would water nearly 1,11,800 hectares (1,93,000 hectares, according to a 1993 report in Down to Earth magazine [5] ) of land in Gaya and Aurangabad districts in the plains of Bihar. At the time of the project’s establishment, and even today, neither district faces the kind of water scarcity that Palamau contends with. Nonetheless, the project marched ahead on the back of strong political support, especially that of Jagadanand Singh, the influential irrigation minister from the Rashtriya Janata Dal.

The first calamity hit as the base of the dam neared completion in the late 1970s. The Koel, burdened by a heavy downpour and the obstruction of its natural course, flooded over. The village of Kutku was inundated. The forest department establishment at Kutku, including a charming bungalow, range office and staff quarters, was wiped out, forcing a relocation of the entire staff to the block headquarters at Barwadih, 18km away.

By 1979, the first murmurs of protest against the dam had begun and some villages organised dharnas. These fizzled out in the absence of leadership and formal organisation. Reluctantly, many villagers decided to accept a rehabilitation package from the Bihar government.

The rehabilitation process began in the early 1980s. It turned out to be mostly lip service. Promises of jobs remained unfulfilled under one pretext or the other. The total rehabilitation amount had been arbitrarily fixed by the government at ₹1,350 in cash, while the value of submerged land for compensation was grossly underestimated, up to five times less than the actual value in many cases. [6]

The alternate land plots proved to be inadequate, or just never delivered. The 110 acres of land earmarked around Tehri village turned out to be of poor quality for agriculture. The land in a 40-acre rehabilitation colony established near Marda village was uncultivable. Most people who had moved out of their villages returned soon.

Simultaneously, the protest movement against the dam had begun gathering steam. Then, it received a shot in the arm—the Maoists had entered the fray.


n the wake of the Naxalbari movement, the Community Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) had splintered into several groups. One of these was CPI(ML) Liberation, which declared itself as the true inheritor of the revolutionary legacy of the original CPI(ML) and soon gained a foothold in central Bihar.

In 1978, the CPI(ML) Liberation split further to form the CPI(ML) Unity Organisation or CPI(ML) UO, which merged with another ML faction in 1982 to form CPI(ML) Liberation-Party Unity, colloquially known as Party Unity. Locals use the term ‘Party’ as a euphemism for all Maoist parties that became active in Palamau over the years.

In the early 1980s, there was a quiet storm brewing in the hinterlands of Palamau. Party Unity (PU) rebels were looking to gain a firm footing in southern Bihar. Palamau, riddled with caste wars, poverty and deprivation, was the perfect launchpad. The first squads moved in.

For the initial couple of years, PU rebels could not make much headway. Then, their paths crossed with the radical social activists of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangram Samiti (MKSS), which was leading the protests against the Kutku Dam. Even before their formal alliance with the PU, MKSS had been constantly targeted by security forces across Bihar as a Naxal outfit, on the basis of allegations that some of their personnel had contacts with PU rebels. This targeting eventually culminated in the infamous 1986 Arwal massacre in which 21 unarmed MKSS workers, almost all landless peasants, were killed in police firing at a rally. Incensed, MKSS finally bit the bullet, and joined hands with PU. With this, more than a century later, rebellion returned to the hills of Burha.

PU would intermittently take up the cause of the villagers, either under the aegis of MKSS, or by issuing independent statements and warnings against the project. In the next few years, PU rebels firmly established themselves in the villages that would be affected by the dam. Around this time, there emerged reports of PU cadres, organising under the MKSS banner, manhandling dam workers. Construction continued despite these simmering tensions, and despite the requirement of obtaining fresh clearances from the Union government under new environmental legislations enacted in the 1980s.

Then, in the early 1990s, a young Indian Forest Service officer named S.E.H. Kazmi was posted as the Divisional Forest Officer of Daltonganj (South) Forest Division. (He also happens to be my father.) Until then, the Forest Department had been passive in its efforts, but Kazmi upped the ante against the project.

“During one of my first field visits into the villages in Barwadih block, a crestfallen villager told me about how his home and that of hundreds of others were to be drowned by a dam near Kutku,” Kazmi told me. When he looked into the paperwork related to the dam, he noticed the lack of environmental clearances: construction had proceeded in violation of the Forest Conservation Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, and the Environment Protection Act. When he overlaid his forest maps with those in the project documents, it turned out that the area slated for submergence was actually 119.5 sq. km—a staggering 11.5 percent of the total area of the Palamau Tiger Reserve then—as opposed to the 47.1 sq. km claimed by the Water Resources (Irrigation) Department.

S.E.H. Kazmi was quick to issue orders to halt the construction. “I did three things,” he said. “I had a check post erected on the forest road leading up to the dam site so that no trucks with construction material could pass through. Then, I wrote a letter to Santosh Matthew, District Commissioner of Palamau, informing him that as custodians of law and order, the civil and police apparatus must support the forest department in its efforts. Simultaneously, I sent a letter to the engineers stationed at Mandal Dam colony, in which I said that I would personally ensure their arrest for violation of the FCA, WLPA, and EPA if they even moved a stone on the dam site.” He sent a copy of all these letters to his immediate superior P.K. Sen and the Irrigation Department.

Simultaneously, his staff started organising baithaks—meetings—with the project-affected villagers to increase awareness about their legal rights. The villagers were subtly encouraged to intensify their protests.

All this did not go down well with those in favour of the project. “Jagadanand Singh was a very powerful minister,” Kazmi told me, “and when we did not yield to local pressures to let the work continue, both Sen sahab and I were called to Patna. I made an alibi and did not go, while Sen sahab was instructed by the then Forest Secretary to let the dam work proceed.”

In the meantime, because of the Forest Department’s letters threatening arrest, the engineers were reluctant to resume work until they had explicit permission and protection. Eventually, a joint meeting to sort the issue out was called between the Forest Department, the Irrigation Department led by V.S. Dubey, and the District Administration led by Santhosh Matthew. “Santosh was a dynamic and sympathetic officer,” explained Kazmi, “He refused to take sides with the Irrigation Department over the issue and said he would act as per the law. And it was clear as daylight who was on the right side of law at the time.”

The protests against the dam had also intensified. All this forced the hand of then chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. He called another joint meeting in Patna, after which the Union environment ministry was sent a status report. Finally, on 14 July 1993, the ministry ordered a moratorium on the dam’s construction with immediate effect.

“It was a great victory not just for the people,” Kazmi said, “but even for the forest department, as it created a lot of goodwill for us.”

The Kutku saga, however, did not end there. The state government continued to lobby for the project. In late 1996, Baijnath Mishra, an ex-army man, took over as the Superintendent Engineer of the dam. A no-nonsense administrator, he was widely believed to have been tasked by the Irrigation Department to kickstart the project by evicting villagers, while the Bihar government tried to obtain clearances. Mishra stayed at the workers’ colony constructed at Mandal, the dam site.

On 6 August 1997, a heavy downpour caused a flash flood as the sluice gate openings were choked with debris. Overnight, 1,100 families were affected, with Kutku, Chemo and Saneya facing most of the brunt. Nineteen people drowned. Villagers alleged that their repeated appeals to dam officials to clear the sluice gate openings had been ignored.

Ten days later, Naxals raided the dam’s staff colony. They were looking for one man: Baijnath Mishra. He was dragged to the top of the dam and shot dead just above one of the sluice gate openings. The rebels also reportedly tried dynamiting a section of the dam but failed to bring it down. Mishra’s killing sent shockwaves across the district. The dam site was abandoned, and the workers’ colony at Mandal slowly withered away. Several leaders of the anti-dam movement were arrested but eventually released. The state government declared the project postponed until further notice.

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


I remained at Leslieganj till the 8th February, collecting supplies and making preparations. I was now determined on forcing the passes into the Bhogtah country, having with me a force of upwards of 2,000 men, whilst that of Lelambur and Petambur were said to be much reduced and not to number more than 1,000…. on the 13th [February, 1858] I reached Chemu [Chemo], on the banks of the Koel, the principal residence of the insurgent brothers, where they had a fortified house. I having crossed the Koel, the rebels did not await my attack in the village, but retreated and took up positions behind masked breastworks of stones on the sides and ridge of a hill overhanging the village. These were carried in succession, and the enemy put to flight… A dafadar of the Ramghur cavalry was killed at the beginning of the fight.

The village and the fortified house were afterwards destroyed, as was Saneya, another stronghold of the rebels, close to Chemo, which was also found deserted.


fter the birth of Jharkhand state in 2000, the Kutku project became an inter-state issue. Eventually, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by Bihar and Jharkhand in 2006 for the completion of balance works.

By now, the forests of Palamau had reclaimed much of the infrastructure at the dam site and in the Mandal Dam colony. In the years following the killing of Baijnath Mishra, and the virtual abandonment of the project, locals had dismantled much of the iron, wood and other material used in the construction.

In 2012, when the state government started flexing its muscle again, people responded with vigour. In July that year, nearly a thousand villagers assembled to organise a meeting reiterating their resolve to oppose the dam and reject government compensation. A week later, four villagers involved with the anti-dam movement were arrested from Kutku, Chemo and Saneya on the pretext of being Naxals. Around the same time, a push was made by security forces to flush Maoists out of the forests of old Palamau, now trifurcated into Latehar, Palamau and Garhwa districts. It resulted in the heavy exchange of fire over the following weeks.

After a brief lull, the dam issue was brought to the fore in the run-up to the 2014 general elections by none other than Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. He accused the Congress government at the Centre of stalling the dam. “Centre, Bihar Govt. & those who returned from jail must answer—why the delay in Kutku Dam? Crores have been spent but nothing has happened,” he tweeted on 27 March. A year later, close to the 2015 Bihar state elections, Kutku became an electoral plank once again. In May, the BJP’s Union Minister of Environment and Forests, Prakash Javadekar, announced the creation of a task force to expedite the forest, wildlife and environmental clearances for the dam.

A few weeks before polling began in Bihar, Javadekar flew down to the Kutku dam site en route to Aurangabad. Here, he vowed to complete the dam, and publicly berated the Forest Department and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). He blamed the non-completion of the project on “obstructionists” who had “violated national interest” by using “irrelevant forest laws.”

In May 2015, based on the recommendations of the NTCA, the governments of Bihar and Jharkhand agreed to reduce the dam height at the Full Reservoir Level (FRL) in order to reduce the submergence area within the Palamau Tiger Reserve. This brought down the height of the dam from 367.25m to 362.28m. But a significant chunk of the reserve’s Critical Tiger Habitat, also known as Core Area, would still be affected.

Eventually, the government agreed to further lowering the FRL to 341m, with the Water Resources (Irrigation) Department now claiming that the submergence area would be 10 sq. km and would only impact eight villages within the reserve. Of these eight, three would be fully submerged while five would undergo partial submergence. (Ironically, as confirmed by Mukesh Kumar, the Chief Engineer of the Water Resources Department, the new 341m FRL means that the project is no longer a hydroelectric project as originally proposed.)

On 27 June 2017, the project was cleared by the National Board of Wildlife. Subsequently, an MoU was signed on 12 January 2018 between the Union water resource ministry and the state governments of Bihar and Jharkhand for completion of balance works of the project at a staggering estimated cost of ₹1,622.27 crore. The Union environment ministry granted permission to fell an estimated 3,44,644 trees inside the tiger reserve and auction the wood. [7]

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: Camp Chaibassah, 21 June 1858


…..I remained in the Bhogtah country till the 23rd of February [1858], but was not successful in capturing the ringleaders, Lelambur and Petambur.

A full retaliation was, however, exacted for all the mischief done by them. Their villages were destroyed, their goods and cattle seized, and their estates confiscated to the State; but, whilst stern justice was thus meted out to the inciters of this rebellion, every endeavour was made to conciliate their less guilty followers and the inhabitants of the country, which now seemed to be gradually settling down.

Sarkaar jaanat ba, baaki sarkaar maanat naikhe,” said a visibly agitated elderly woman from the household of Devnath Singh. The government knows who we are [descendants of Nilamber-Pitamber], and of our troubles but it simply doesn’t care. “What will you do knowing my name?” she seethed when I asked her name.

Her husband, the octogenarian Devnathji, finally spoke up. “I am the fifth generation grandson of Nilamber-Pitamber, and my son here, Charkhu Singh, is the sixth,” he said. He has never ventured outside Saneya, he told me. That evening, he answered many of my questions about his illustrious ancestors. “Nilamber and Pitamber were raised in Saneya at their mother’s home while their father lived in Chemo,” he said. “When the brothers came of age, they were made the chief of both Chemo and Saneya. However they continued living in Saneya and they also spent time in their father’s house in Chemo.”

Every alternate year, both villages come together to organise a jatra, a fair, in honour of Nilamber-Pitamber in the Hindu month of Magh, spanning January and February. The brothers are enshrined as the presiding spirit-deity of the two villages. To maintain the link with Chemo, the family from Saneya heads there to preside over the ceremonies.

“It is only for namesake that we are known as their descendants; else there is nothing here,” Devnathji said. “There are no amenities here. At least the government could have given us a road, even if it was a dirt road.” Many representatives of the administration had visited them over the years, he told me. “And what do they say?” I asked. “All that you are saying today,” interjected Devnathji’s wife angrily. “That you are the family of such revered freedom fighters, this village is a sacred land of the brave, we will do this for you, give that to this village and so on,” she said.

The dam looms like a spectre throughout our conversations. The government asserts that all legal claims—including those under Forest Rights Act, 2006—have been settled with all gram sabhas having given their consent. But the Site Specific Wildlife Management Plan of North Koel Reservoir Project (Mandal Dam), submitted in 2017 to the Water Resources Department by the Nature Conservation Society, Daltonganj told a different story: “Water Resource Department is contemplating that all 8 villages under submergence area had been paid compensation and rehabilitated,” it reads, “The ground reality suggests that these villages are still there with their local administration of Panchayat and Mukhiya elections. The Mukhiyas of the affected villages are still demanding suitable compensation and rehabilitation package.”

I asked Mukesh Kumar, Chief Engineer of the department, about this. He told me that all 634 families in the eight villages had been provided compensation and rehabilitation packages in the 1980s. “However, it is also true that nearly 40 years have transpired since then and it would not be socially amicable to now suddenly evict all those people,” he said. More recently, a revised survey had landed on a compensation amount of ₹15 lakh per family, which had been approved at the district level and accepted in principle by the Union government.

Kumar made it clear that this was a special package proposed on compassionate grounds: there was no legal obligation to offer it considering the land title has already been with the government since the 1980s. “The families have already been given alternate land and other non-monetary benefits in the 1980s,” Kumar said, “even though many families did not move despite accepting the package.”

Devnathji and his family, on their part, contend that they have never been offered any alternate land or rehabilitation site. “They just come every now and then to announce that this area will be submerged soon, that we should move out, but they never tell us where and how,” said a young lady, whom I presumed to be a daughter-in-law of Devnathji. (By that point, given the dark mood of the meeting, I had stopped actively asking for names and simply noted down everything the family had to say.)

Some years ago, there were news reports doing the rounds about the Jharkhand government’s plans to build a model village, named in honour of Nilamber and Pitamber, where the families of Chemo and Saneya would be rehabilitated. What about that, I asked. “These are all false reports,” Devnathji said. “Governments merely use the name of Nilamber and Pitamber to do their political and financial bidding.”

In a recorded address from his Ranchi office in January 2019, Hemant Soren, the present chief minister of Jharkhand but then in the opposition, while criticising the BJP government over the displacement of Adivasis, lamented that “The dam will also submerge the ancestral village of our brave martyrs—Chimo Sariya,” (Soren, and his press note, had even got the names of the villages wrong.) When this came up in discussion with Devnathji, he muttered a local aphorism, “Vidhaayak badhi chahe neta, kaam bhele baad sab ho jaat anpeta.” Once the politician has finished canvassing, then remember o’ brother they all go missing. [8]

While no offer for rehabilitation has been forthcoming, Devnathji believed that the families should have a right to turn down any scheme that doesn’t work for them. “This place has its own joys and bounties,” he said. “We don’t need construction material from outside, we get wood from the forest, we have our own land here, there is plenty of water from the rivers and streams. But we may think of relocating if we were to get all the  amenities and rehabilitation package as promised.”

Shraddha Kumari, Devnathji’s teenaged granddaughter, was listening to these discussions from the front door of the mud house, and wanted to have her word. “The government tells us that we must sacrifice our village for the cause of development. But what about the villages outside the submergence zone? Wahaan vikaas aa gaya?” Has development arrived there? “Our generation has no amenities because the government says we are in the submergence zone. There is no doctor here, no healthcare. Teachers come and go in the one primary school here till Class 5. Our elders accepted their fate and remained illiterate. But our generation cannot afford that.”

Shraddha is a Class 12 student at a school in Bhandaria, about 50km from Saneya. She was home for the Durga Puja holidays when I visited. “To reach home, I walked all the way from Parro”—about 25km away—“because there are no roads. It took nearly four hours. When I am here, I can’t study because we do not have electricity. Solar lanterns were given to us for the first and last time more than 10 years ago, but most of them have run out of batteries. I use small solar battery torches when I’m here, but it is very difficult to study under those.” Her two older brothers dropped out of school. What did she want to do for work, I asked. “I want to become a nurse,” she answered with a smile.

Darkness had enveloped the house and the village by then. Charkhu got ready to go to the fields for his nightly vigil. Crop raiding by elephants, who sometimes even knock down homes, has become a routine affair in Saneya and neighbouring villages. Earlier, villagers said, elephants never ventured into this part of the tiger reserve. Wild boars pose another menace to the fields. The villagers complained that compensation for crop losses is rare to come by. On the occasions it is paid out, it can be wholly inadequate.

When we commenced our walk back to Santosh’s home, it was only 7pm. But the mud houses that I knew were strewn across the horizon were invisible under the cloak of darkness. Rain clouds were beginning to build up across the Burha Pahaad. For a few glorious seconds, lightning illuminated the sky and the village. Crickets chirped incessantly, only to be interrupted by the croaking of frogs. Thousands of fireflies danced over the fields and in the canopies of the trees that interspersed them as the waxing moon rose from behind the Burha Pahaad, playing hide and seek with the clouds.

It was a beautiful night in a beautiful village, and yet an air of sadness and defeat permeated across the land. Soon, Saneya, these forests, valleys, rivers, and streams would be gone, along with the human and non-human inhabitants of this landscape.

When we finally reached Santosh’s house, he saw my slumped shoulders and said: “Sarkaar aur kismat, do cheez ke aagey ant mein sabko jhukna padta hai…chaliye, khaana ban gaya hai” At the end of the day, government and fate are the two things everyone is forced to bow down before…come, your dinner is ready.

From Captain E.T. Dalton, Commissioner of Chota Nagpore, to A.R. Young, Esq., Secretary to the Government of Bengal, Fort William 

Dated: 31 January 1859


….Nothing worthy of being recorded has since happened in the district of Palamau, and the restoration of complete tranquillity and confidence seems now only to be a question of time….The local rebels under the chiefs Lelambur and Petambur are now again reduced to a small and insignificant band. I propose … [conferring] on Thukoorai Raghooburdeal Sing [of Chainpur], the Jagheir of Chemoo Sunnya lately belonging to the rebels Petumber and Lelumber and now confiscated...


nce the rebellion was quelled, the British had their revenge in Palamau. Many villages in the Chemo-Saneya region were burnt down by the army. To induce the brothers to turn themselves in, the women of Nilamber’s family and his son Kumar Sahi were captured. Eventually, the brothers were captured, tried and hanged at Leslieganj in early 1859. [9]

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at Daltonganj (renamed Medininagar, after the Chero ruler Medini Ray) while laying the foundation stone for the revival of the North Koel Reservoir Project on 5 January 2019

“To the brave motherland of Palamau which is part of the great life story of freedom fighters Nilamber-Pitamber who took on the British might....[I give Mandal Dam]. A project which was supposed to be completed in 30 crores will now be completed at around 2400 crores…Tell me those who did this [stopped the dam], are they not the sinners? Have they not sinned against the society, against the farmers, against you, against Bihar, against Jharkhand? Shouldn’t such sinners be punished? Shouldn’t Modi fight such sinners?”

Raza Kazmi is a conservationist, wildlife historian, storyteller, and independent researcher. He is a recipient of the New India Foundation Fellowship for 2021, under which he is currently writing a book tentatively titled The First of the Nine: The Story of Palamau Tiger Reserve. He tweets at @RazaKazmi17 and can be contacted on

Note: The obsolete spellings of place names mentioned in the British despatches reproduced in this essay have been replaced with the corresponding contemporary ones for ease of reading.


To my friends in Saneya—Santosh Singh, Bijender Singh, Mahendar Bhuiyan, and Kishun Lohra, for their friendship, kindness, and hospitality. To my friends in the forest department—Pintu Kumar, Muneshwar Singh, and Muneshwar Paswan, for their insights, and without whom I couldn’t have done my fieldwork. 

This essay is dedicated to scholar-bureaucrat Pranab Chandra Roy Choudhury who was a scholar and historian of the highest calibre, yet unfortunately remains little-known in contemporary historiography. I relied heavily on his books 1857 in Bihar: Chotanagpur and Santhal Parganas (1959) and Hazaribagh Old Records: 1761-1868 (1957), as well as the multiple volumes of the Bihar District Gazetteer series that he authored in the 1950s. I also referred extensively to historian Dr. Jagdish Narayan Sarkar’s work titled “The Mutiny of 1857-58 and the Palamau Jagirdars” published in The Journal of the Bihar Research Society (1955). 

To my father S.E.H. Kazmi, to whom I owe everything and without whose insights, inputs, encouragement, and unflinching support, this essay would not have been possible. To my mother Sanjida Kazmi and sister Zehra Kazmi for their encouragement, love, and support. To my brothers Yasir Rizvi and Ali Rizvi for always supporting me, having my back, and keeping me in good spirits. To my brother Mihir Vatsa for his friendship and company.