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Birsa Munda, a tribal legend who was a nightmare for Christian missionaries during the British Raj

Birsa Munda had called for a decisive war against the British and attacked the places loyal to the British for the next two years. 

Even though he lived for just 25-years, Birsa Munda is one legend who has made a long-standing impact on India’s fight against the British. A young freedom fighter and a tribal leader, whose spirit of activism in the late nineteenth century, is remembered to be a strong mark of protest against British rule in India.

Birsa Munda – a tribal freedom fighter, religious leader and a folk hero belonged to the Munda tribe. Birsa Munda spearheaded an Indian tribal mass movement that arose in the tribal belt of modern Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh in the late 19th century during the British Raj. Munda is one of the most important faces of Indian tribal movements against the British, who inspired various tribes not only Mundas but also Kharias and Oraons, who accepted him as their leader.

Birsa Munda was born at Ulihatu in the Bengal Presidency (presently in Jharkhand) on 15 November 1875 into a Munda family. Munda spent his childhood amidst poverty in a typical tribal setup, where he converted to Christianity and became Birsa David in order to receive an education from a missionary school.

During the late 1880s, Munda began to understand the nature of exploitation meted out by the British against the native tribals. The huge disruption caused by British agrarian policies made an impact on the livelihood of these tribal people, disrupting their usual way of life which was hitherto peaceful and in tune with nature. Not only British economic and political policies but also aggressive religious and cultural policies of the Christian missionaries which belittled the tribal people and their culture acted as fuel for their fight against the British.

During the period 1886 to 1890, Birsa Munda spent a long period of time in Chaibasa which was close to the centre of the Sardars agitation. By the time he left Chaibasa in 1890, Birsa was strongly entrenched in the movement against the British oppression of the tribal communities.

The British agrarian policies provided for the spark for the Mundas to revolt. The Mundas had followed the Khunkhatti system of joint landholding. The British replaced this with the Zamindari System, which allowed outsiders to enter these tribal areas. The entry of outsiders aided by the British lead to exploitation of the native tribals. Mundas, who were once the landowners were soon reduced to forced labourers resulting in further more impoverishment and deprivations.

As a reaction to the introduction of the Zamindari system or Permanent settlement in tribal areas,  Birsa Munda in 1894 declared “Ulgulan” or revolt against the British and the Dikus – the outsiders. He was soon known as Birsa Bhagwan in these areas and a huge number of tribals began to follow Munda.

In 1894, Birsa also started his own religion and proclaimed he was God’s messenger. With the advent of a new religious order, Munda began to awake masses and also arose them against the British atrocities. Not only the tribals but also many other Hindus and Muslims also flocked to see the new leader of the masses.

Birsa Munda travelled to every village to raise the consciousness of the people by combining his politics and religion. Munda forbade eating all forms of meat and also advocated for wearing the sacred threads. With his politico-military organisation, Munda declared an end to Victorian rule and proclaimed the beginning of Munda rule. He organised an effective movement wherein people stopped paying debts to moneylenders and taxes to the British.

However, the biggest threat for the Britishers and Christian missionaries came after Munda decided to start his own religion. The Christian missionaries were unnerved as Birsa was becoming the stumbling block in the path of conversion. Along with this, many within Christianity also began to join his sect as there was no tax to be a follower as against Christian missionaries, who collected tax to let others follow Christianity.

He was arrested in 1895 and released after two years. After his release in 1897, Munda picked up the movement by re-organising the tribals. Munda went underground and sowed the seeds of revolt against British and the landlords. By 1899, he had built a strong army with proper training to tribal soldiers.

On December 24, 1899, Munda launched an attack on police stations and churches, killing few policemen. The energised tribal had spread to almost entire Chotanagpur region. Birsa Munda called for a decisive war against the British and attacked the places loyal to the British for the next two years. The British forces put all their might to suppress the revolt and attacked heavily on Munda guerrillas. The Britishers with strong organisational skill, modern weapons and better skill made indiscriminate firing attack on the tribals and killed hundreds of people. Birsa had to escape to the hills of Singhbhum.

On February 3, 1900, Birsa Munda was finally caught by the British in 1900 from Jamkopai forest, Chakradharpur. Birsa Munda died on June 9, 1900, while lodged at the Ranchi jail aged just 25. Authorities claimed he died of cholera although this is doubted.

Interestingly, some of the objectives of Birsa Munda’s “Ulgulan” revolt were realised later after his death as the Britishers enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908. The landmark act was an important piece of legislation for the tribal population of Jharkhand as it restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals. The British government also recognised “Khuntkatti” rights of the tribals and also banned ‘Beth begari’ or forced labour.

Even after 119 years of his death, Birsa Munda is remembered by the masses as one of the greatest tribal icons of the country who is a symbol of anti-feudal, anti-colonial struggle despite the fact that left-leaning Marxist historians deliberately subdued his greatness to achieve their ideological aspirations.

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