One of the more ignored aspects of the Indian freedom struggle has been the various tribal revolts that broke out against the British rule. Tribals were prohibited from cutting trees for firewood, their traditional Podu cultivation was banned, and they were often exploited by contractors who used them as labor for building roads in those areas. Many protests broke out in the tribal areas of Eastern Indian, notably Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Western Odisha, Bengal, one of the more famous one was that of Birsa Munda in Jharkhand. The only tribal leader whose portrait hangs in Parliament Central Hall and whose Jayanti is celebrated as Jharkhand Day too.
Birsa Munda was born on November 15, 1875, in the tribal hamlet of Ulihatu to Suguna Munda and Karmi Hatu in Jharkhand’s Khunti district , though some versions state it as Chalkad. He got his name from the fact that he was born on a Thursday as per the custom of the Munda tribe. His parents along with his younger brother Pasna Munda, left Ulihatu and migrated to Kurumbda, near Birbanki, to work as farm labor. He grew up with his parents at Chalakkad, and his childhood life was like any normal Munda kid. Grazing sheep in the forests of Bohonda, he often played the tulla, a one stringed instrument made from pumpkin, as well as the flute. Well built and tall, he was a good wrestler too.
He spent some time at his maternal uncle’s village Ayubhatu, where he lived for a couple of years. As he was good at studies, his school teacher Salga Nag, recommended him to study at a German Missionary school. However with the tribal sardar’s agitation against Christian missionaries and conversions, his father removed him from the school, and also the membership of the German mission.
He came under the influence of the Vaishnava devotee Anand Pandey, and his stay in Chaibasa from 1886-1890 in a way shaped his own thoughts and ideology. It was the period when the tribal Sardars launched an agitation against the missionaries, and the Govt. It was against both the unjust taxation of the colonial Government, as well the proselytizing activities of the missionaries. Under the Indian Forest Act, the Government took control of all the forest and village areas, depriving tribals of their own land. The officials marked off large tracts of forest land, that consisted of both waste as well as cultivable land as per their convenience. In a way the Indian Forest Act, deprived the tribals from cultivating their own lands, and denying them rights over the forest produce. It led to many tribal revolts like the one by Birsa Munda and one in Agency area led by Alluri Sitaram Raju.
Coming from the poorest of poor, Birsa Munda, more than any one else, was well acquainted with the misery of the ryots and tribals. Most of his growing up years, were of a nomadic nature, moving from place to place in search of employment. His experiences as a laborer at various places, gave him an insight into the problems faced by the peasants and tribals.
During the British time, the non tribals, were invited by the tribal Sardars to take over the land and cultivate it. These non tribals known as Thikadars, were one of the most greedy, ruthless lot and together with the British looted the tribals . By 1874, most of the tribals had lost possesion of their lands, and were reduced to mere serfs, living in the most pitiable conditions.
Birsa Munda, now began to mobilize the tribals against the British rulers, as well as their middle men like the Thikadars. Abua raj seter jana, maharani raj tundu jana.- Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established, this was Birsa’s slogan, which is still remembered to date in the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Bengal and MP. Consider this in 1856, tribals had possesion of around 600 Jagirs and owned around 150 villages in Chotanagpur region itself. By 1874, with the non tribal Thekedars taking control, they completely lost control of their lands, reduced to serfs.
Birsa Munda’s movement was to assert the tribals as the real land owners and expulsion of British, Thikadars. Adopting guerilla tactics, he launched a series of armed attacks on the Thikadars and the British Govt. With his excellent oratory skills, good organization skills, Birsa Munda managed to rally the various tribal communities in the forests of Chotanagpur, Odisha, Bengal against the British. He bought together the Oraons, Kharias on to a common platform agains the British-Thekedar combine, forging a tribal unity. His fight was also to save the native traditions of the tribals, from the Christian missionaries. He vigorously campaigned against Cow Slaughter, urging the tribal communities to protect cattle.
Soon the movement spread like wildfire in the Chotanagpur region, and Birsa Munda became one of the most wanted men by the British. He harassed the Thekedars and British, with a series of guerilla attacks, and soon the revolt was a major worry for them. He was arrested following a rumor that those who did not follow him would be massacred. Released from prison in January 1898, he once again began to re-organize his men, went underground for some time.
Around 7000 assembled in December 1899 to herald the ugulaan(revolution) that soon spread to Khunti, Tamar and Ranchi. The Birsaits, as his followers were called, targeted the Anglican Mission at Muthu and the Roman Catholic mission at Sarwada, and for close to a year they regularly harassed the British. On January 5, 1900 they attacked two constables at Etkedih, while 2 days later,the police station at Khunti was attacked, killing a constable. The British stuck back, sending their commisioner A.Forbes and Dy.Comissioner H.C. Streattfield to Khunti with a force of 1500 to surpress the revolt.Munda guerillas were indiscriminately fired on at Dumbari Hill, while Birsa escaped to the hills of Singhbum.
Finally the British managed to arrest him on March 3, 1900, when he was sleeping in the Jamkopai forest near Chakradharpur, through a stealth operation. Around 460 of Birsa’s associates were arrested, one of them was given capital punishment, 30 deported to Cellular Jail.
Apparently Birsa Munda passed away in Ranchi jail of cholera, on June 9, 1900. Though many versions, state that the British actually executed him in prison, but showed as if cholera was the cause. He died at a very young age of 25, but the impact he made on the movement was quite significant. Though his movement died out, it forced the British Govt, to introduce laws that prohibited non tribals from occupying tribal lands. His revolt led to a series of similiar tribal revolts against British rule throughout India, which have not really got their due.
Incidentally the war cry of Bihar Regiment is Birsa Munda ki Jai, he is pretty much of a folk hero in the tribal parts. The airport in Ranchi is named after Birsa Munda, as is BIT at Sindri. Also the university at Purulia, the Agricultural University at Ranchi are all named after him. Mahasweta Devi’s historical novel Aranyer Adhikar for which she won the Sahitya Akademi award is based on Birsa Munda’s life. She also wrote an abridged version of Birsa Munda’s life story for younger readers.