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Birsa Munda: The Architect of Tribal Resilience

  • 18 Dec 2023

"Abua raj seter jana, maharani raj tundu jana" (Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established)

The above slogan is coined by one of the greatest tribal folk heroes, Birsa Munda, also referred to as 'Bhagwan' by many Indian tribal communities. Birsa Munda, born on November 15, 1875, in a village named Ulihatu of Khunti district, was not only an Indian freedom fighter and tribal leader but also a religious reformer. He belonged to the Munda tribe of the Chotanagapur plateau region of present-day Jharkhand. In the year 2021, the Indian government declared November 15, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, as 'Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas' (Tribal Pride Day). This day corresponds with the formation of the state of Jharkhand, also recognized as Jharkhand Foundation Day. On November 15, 2000, the Chotanagpur region was bifurcated from the southern half of Bihar, formally forming the state of Jharkhand (land of forests) as the 28th state in the Indian Union.

Early Life of Birsa Munda

Birsa's early life was marked by various shifts. He received his formal education in Salga under Jaipal Nag's guidance and later converted to Christianity to attend the German Mission School. However, soon, he realized that the Britishers were using education as a tool to convert tribals to Christianity. Following this realization, he withdrew himself from his school and founded a new faith named 'Birsa Faith,' which drew many followers from the Munda community and became a significant threat to the colonizers. These followers openly declared they identified as 'Birsaits' and considered the British their adversaries.

Historical Background: Munda Rebellion

Soon, when the British introduced new land settlement systems like the zamindari system in Chota Nagpur and replaced the existing tribal system 'Khuntkatti,' which allowed the entire community to hold ownership of the land, the living and working conditions of tribals were significantly impacted. This new settlement system led to outsiders like moneylenders, zamindars, and traders occupying tribal lands and reducing tribals from owners to landless laborers expected to work under new landlords. The new landlords imposed 'Bandhua Majdoori' or forced labor and often compelled the tribals to work under bad working conditions without due payment. In addition, if the Mundas used any land for cultivation, they were charged high rental rates by the zamindars and were further exploited by having to pay high-interest rates.

The Munda Rebellion, also known as 'Ulgulan' or 'The Great Tumult Movement,' emerged as a response to these land encroachment and forced conversion practices. Consequently, Birsa started mobilizing the Munda tribals against the colonizers and the outsiders, also called 'Dikus' from 1894, and established an independent 'Munda Raj' in 1895. They also adopted a white flag and designated it as a symbol of independent Munda Raj. The rebels who were part of this group used guerrilla tactics and launched a series of armed attacks on churches, police stations, and other symbols of Dikus and the British authority.

With Birsa's organizational and oratory skills, he managed to unite various tribal communities of the forests of Chotanagpur, Bengal, and Odisha against the British. He brought the Oraons and Kharias onto a common platform against the British-Thekedar alliance. However, in march 1900, the British arrested Birsa Munda while he and his followers were sleeping in a forest. He was jailed and passed away a few months later due to cholera. His death caused a severe blow to the rebellion, and the British used their military strength to suppress the uprising through regular counter-attacks. Many rebels were arrested, imprisoned, or executed, which ultimately led to the complete suppression of the rebellion by the mid-1900s. However, despite the rebellion being suppressed, it succeeded in highlighting the capacity of tribals to confront injustice and resist oppression.

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act

The British implemented the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act of 1908 in response to the uprising. The CNT Act not only directed the creation and maintenance of land records but also introduced a unique tenure category, "Mundari Khuntkattidar," (considered to be the original settler of the land among Mundas) and imposed restrictions on the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. Additionally, the CNT Act provided for recording customary community rights, including those related to water, forest, and land (Jal, Jungle, and Zameen). These rights included the right to produce from the jungle, graze cattle, and reclaim 'wastes' for rice cultivation (Korkar), thus safeguarding the land rights of the tribal communities.

Legacy

The Munda Rebellion of 1895-1900 thus stands out as an essential chapter in the history of tribal resistance against the British Raj. It exposed the hardships and injustices endured by tribal communities under colonial rule, and its impact was visible in later movements of tribal rights. Hence, the Munda rebellion was not just a historical event; it emerged as a substantial contribution to India's struggle for independence.

Along with political justice, he also fought to preserve and revive the spiritual, economic, and cultural heritage of the indigenous tribes. In doing so, he mobilized the tribal communities to resist the imposition of external cultural practices, called for the rejection of stereotypical norms and alcoholism, preached against animal sacrifice, encouraged the tribes to wear scared threads according to tribal customs, and urged them to maintain cleanliness and sanitation in order to become self-reliant.

Statue of Rebellion

Birsa's story, engraved in history, presents the spirit of resistance and resilience that defines our collective struggle for a just and free society. Inspired by the same, the Prime Minister inaugurated a museum in Ranchi in 2021. The museum is located at the Old Central Jail, where Birsa Munda took his last breath. The statue of Birsa Munda in the museum is the statue of ‘ulgulan’ (rebellion) and memory. The museum also shows other tribal freedom fighters such as Budhu Bhagat, Sidhu-Kanhu, Gaya Munda, Jatra Bhagat, Poto H, Nilambar-Pitambar, Bhagirath Manjhi, Diwa-Kisun, Telanga Khadiya, and Ganga Narayan Singh who martyred for tribal independence. On the occasion of Birsa's birth anniversary this year, the Prime Minister launched a Rs 24,000-crore project for vulnerable tribal groups. The initiative is named ‘PM Janjati Adivasi Nyaya Maha Abhiyan (PM-JANMAN)’. It aims to ensure the efficient delivery of welfare schemes to the last mile of India, with a particular focus on empowering Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs). Simultaneously, the Prime Minister inaugurated the 'Visksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra,' a nationwide drive to create awareness and facilitate saturation of welfare schemes till January 26, 2024.

Conclusion

As the nation celebrates Birsa Munda Jayanti, it is crucial to note that the day stands not just as a tribute to a remarkable tribal leader but also as a timeless reminder of resistance, courage, and the spirit of freedom that should continue to inspire the citizens of India for a just and equal society.

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