Imagine a 25-year-old who took on an empire, left an indelible mark on tribal rights across the country and was seen as a mystic and folk hero for hundreds of thousands. Few would have achieved so much in so short a time and it’s not surprising then that Birsa Munda’s portrait hangs proudly in India’s parliament.
From the Munda tribe that still dominates the Chotanagpur Plateau region in present-day Jharkhand was Birsa. He successfully rallied people across this region to take on the British attempts to grab land in the late 19th century.
The Mundas followed Sarnaism, rooted in an animistic faith. Through centuries, they inhabited fertile lands in the region which were used for cultivation. In order to take their land, the British connived with local Zamindars, and tried to force them into bonded labour.
It was then that Birsa came into the limelight.
Born in November 1875, Birsa was a lively little boy who herded sheep and played the flute. He began his education at a German-missionaries-run school, but had to drop out, when he questioned the Jesuits’ attitude towards the Munda sardars. He returned home to Chalkad, where he came under the influence of a Vaishnav monk and began practising as a healer, leading people to believe in him as a mystic with magical powers.
– Under the influence of a Vaishnav monk, Birsa Munda came to be known as a mystic with magical powers
By this time, the East India Company had swallowed up two-thirds of India and were well on track to take over the Chotanagpur area. As part of their full takeover, they began tightening the screws on freedom. They introduced laws which disallowed the tribes from freely grazing their sheep or cattle and from collecting firewood from their own forest land. Additionally, they assigned the land-buying dikus the rights to the land that the tribal community considered common property.
In 1895, the locals turned to Birsa, whom they referred to as Dharti Abba (Father of the Earth), for help. As part of his strategy to reclaim land, Birsa persuaded his followers not to plant rice, claiming that his powers would generate the crop instead. He also declared that a fire from heaven would destroy the outsiders and the Mundas who would not gather around to support him would perish.
Thus, about 6000 tribals set up a hill-top camp along with Birsa, which attracted the attention of the colonial authorities. The British viewed this as an act of resistance against them and immediately arrested Birsa, aiming to reduce his increasing influence.
– Birsa Munda rallied his followers declaring that a fire from heaven would destroy the outsiders
By holding him in captivity, the British sought to ‘explode the myth of Birsa’s divinity and to kill the faith.’ However, the two years of imprisonment only made him more determined. After his release in 1897, Birsa began a campaign of revivalism, which invoked the sovereignty of his ancestors and demanded autonomous control over their land. The slogan was ’Sirmare Firun Raja Jai’ or ‘Victory To The Ancestral Kings.’
The Munda revolt led by Birsa, called Ulgulan or the great tumult, started in 1899. A series of concerted attacks were unleashed on the British using guerrilla warfare tactics. Mundas with bows, arrows and slingshots attacked police officers and set fire to property.
– The Ulgulan involved a series of concerted attacks using guerrilla warfare tactics, with bows, arrows and slingshots
However, the rebellion did not last long and within a few days, the British attacked the warriors assembled at Dumbari Hills, killing hundreds of them with indiscriminate firing and Birsa was captured again a few months later. While in jail, Birsa’s health deteriorated and he died on 9th June 1900. He was only 25 years old.
Birsa’s untimely death and the trial that followed of the 300 other Mundas who had been arrested, became national news, and the struggle forced the British to enact the landmark Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908, which restricted the transfer of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis.
A hundred years later, the law still holds and the many tribals across India have Birsa to thank, for allowing them to hold on to their ancestral land.
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