Pride of India: Bhagwan Birsa Munda

Dr L Murugan
As India is celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, one great name stands tall among the galaxy of stars who  fearlessly worked for freedom of motherland  against oppressive British Raj. That is Bhagwan Birsa Munda.  Birsa Munda lived a short but valiant life of just twenty five years, but his heroic actions and noble deeds made  Bhagwan for his numerous followers.  His life story, full of gallant efforts to fight against injustice and oppression, represents a strong voice of   resistance against colonial British Raj.
Born on 15th November 1875, in Ulihatu village  of present day Jharkhand, Birsa spent his childhood in abject poverty in a  tribal Munda family. This was the time when exploitative  British Raj  started penetrating into the deep jungles of Central and Eastern India, disrupting the  tribals, living in harmony with nature and natural resources. The Britishers introduced a feudal jamindari in Chhota Nagpur region, destroying tribal ‘Khuntkatti’ agrarian system. The Raj brought in the outsiders  - moneylenders and contractors, as well as feudal landlords, which aided the British in exploitation of tribals. The  unrelenting missionary activities  continued to operate  with the active support of the Raj, insulting and interfering in the  religio-cultural ethos of forest dwelling Adiwasis.
Young Birsa grew up watching all these unfolding before his eyes, and began to understand how these colonial forces and the dikus( outsiders -enemies of the Adiwasis) worked against the interests of the local people. This acted as a fuel to firm up his resolve to fight against this unholy nexus.
During the 1880s , young Birsa closely witnessed the Sardari Larai movement in the region, which was demanding restoration of tribal rights, through  non-violent methods of sending  petitions to the British Raj. However, the oppressive colonial regime paid no heed to these demands. The Jamindari system soon reduced the tribals from the status of the landowners  to that of land labourer. The feudal set up intensified the forced labour (Vethbigari) in the forested tribal areas. The exploitation of poor ,innocent tribals now reached a breaking point.
It all culminated into Birsa taking up the cause of Adivasis. He showed a new light in matters of religious domain to the fellow tribals . He stood firm against missionaries who were belittling the tribal life and culture. At the same time ,Birsa worked for refining and reforming the religious practices, discouraged many superstitious rites,  brought in new tenets, new prayers, reformed many habits , and worked for restoring and reviving the tribal pride. Birsa impressed upon the adiwasis about “Sirmarefirun raja jai” or ‘ victory to the  ancestral king’ thus invoking sovereignty of the tribals’ ancestral autonomous control over the land. Birsa became a mass leader, and began to be  considered as a Bhagwan and Dharati Aba For his followers.
He  made the tribals aware of the exploitative and atrocious  nature of all vested interests. He knew who the real enemy were- alongwith the exploitative dikus, it was the oppressive British Rule. Birsa Munda had clearly identified that British Colonial Rule was the root cause of all the problems and oppressions. It was amply clear to him that  “ Abua raj setarjana, maharani raj tundujana ( meaning:Let the Kingdom of the Queen be ended and our kingdom  be established) Bhagwan Birsa ignited the spark in the minds of the masses. The Mundas , Oraons , other adivasis and non-adivasis responded to his call and joined  ‘Ulgulan’ or revolt against the colonial masters and the exploitative dikus under the leadership of Birsa, for their social, economical, political and cultural emancipation.  Birsa asked the people not to pay any  rent, attacked the outposts of feudal, missionary and colonial British Raj authorities. With the traditional bows and arrows, the tribals of Central and eastern India waged an effective armed resistance against the British regime. In doing so, however, Birsa  was careful that only the real exploiters were attacked, and the common people were not troubled. Birsa became an image of vitality and divinity.  Soon he  was  captured  by British police and lodged in  jail, where he died in captivity on 9 June 1900. But Bhagwan Birsa Munda’s spirited struggle did not go in vain. It compelled the British Raj  to take cognisance of the plight and exploitation of tribals , and brought  in ‘Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908’ for protection of Adiwasis. This important act  restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals, giving huge relief for the tribals, and became a landmark legislation for protection of tribal rights. The British regime also took steps to abolish Veth Bigari or forced labour.
Bhagwan Birsa Munda continues to inspire millions of Indians, even  121years after his death .  He is an icon of valour, courage and leadership. He was a leader who took great pride in his rich culture and great traditions, but at the same time , did not shy away from reforming his own  faith wherever necessary.
Bhagwan Birsa Munda is one of the tallest icons  of our freedom movement. India’s freedom struggle was strengthened by several  tribal communities such as Mundas, Oraons, Santhals, Tamars, Kols, Bhils, Khasis, Koyas and Mizos to name a few. The revolutionary movements and struggles organized by the tribal communities were marked by their immense courage and supreme sacrifice, and inspired Indians all over the country. However, for whatever reasons, established historians could not do justice to  their immense contribution in India’s freedom struggle.
But our visionary Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi appealed to all Indians to celebrate Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, and to study and understand the valour and sacrifice of many such unsung heroes in India’s freedom struggle. Under his dynamic  leadership, now for the first time, the tribal pride and contribution is being given a fitting tribute , by celebrating a Jan Jatiya Gaurav Divas, on 15th November every year, on the birth anniversary of Bhagwan Birsa Munda.
On this Jan Jatiya Gaurav Divas , let us remember and recognise the efforts of India’s tribal people  for preservation of cultural heritage and promotion of Indian values of valour, hospitality and national pride.
The writer is Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting and  Fisheries , Animal Husbandry and Dairying