Birsa Munda- A legendary tribal hero

Prof Ganga Prasad Prasain
The legendary hero of the tribals of Jharkhand who created history by playing a role of saviour, protector of tribal culture, defender of tribal administrative and economic system - Birsa Munda, was born on 15th of November,1875 at Ulihatu in Ranchi District of Jharkhand. Though he lived a very short span of 25 years, he aroused the tribal mind-set and mobilised them in a small town of Chhotnagpur and was a ‘terror’ for the British rulers. His movement was not just political but religious as well, which undoubtedly sowed the first seeds of nationalism by urging the common people to recall and recreate the old forgotten and disappeared world under the colonial regime. True to his greatness and achievements to free the tribals, he was called 'Dharti Abba' – the father of the earth.
The concept of modernity which the Britishers introduced in India played a crucial role in harming the peaceful relationship which the tribals had with their land and forest. The curtailment of their customary rights in the year 1884 and the introduction of new class system through the zamindars, traders and money lenders further isolated the tribals from their culture. They were constantly exploited by these intermediaries and the Dikus (non-tribals). The tribals who were for centuries, the owners of the land and engaged in cultivation could not stand the trials before the British Court. Additionally, the age old practices of verbal agreement on land ownership could no longer be recognised by law. This led the tribals to settle as bonded labourers in their own land of origin and was pushed at the periphery of so-called British modernization. As a result of such kind of exploitations in the form of encroachment or eviction from one’s own land and curtailment of the traditional social rights, a large number of tribals revolts emerged in India during the period between 1798 and 1948 who came into the forefront to raise their voices against the repressive colonial system. It is against such a backdrop of discontentment that Birsa Munda organised his struggle to free the tribal folk. It is noteworthy that these popular tribal movements, be it the Birsa Munda movement, Tamar movement of 1789-1852, Santhal movement of 1855 or Devi Movement of Midnapur in 1918-1924, gained popularity since the self - sustained lives of the indigenous people turned into hunger driven days, due to the exploitative colonial practices which undoubtedly, became worst due to the great famine of 1895.
Talking about Birsa’s movement, he led the tribals essentially to prevent land grabbing by non-tribals. It is significant that he commenced his protest march on 1st October 1894 for remission of forest dues where he gave his clarion call to the tribals in his own language saying, ‘Maharani raj tundu jana oro abua raj ete jana’. In other words he urged the tribals to end the rule of the Britishers and re-establish their own kingdom. Birsa accordingly spearheaded the tribal movement in the region of Chhotanagpur and brought the tribal community under a single umbrella. He encouraged the masses by giving examples of their ancestors and reawakening the spirit of patriotism among them which was almost at the waning state. His organisational skill, motivational speeches to regain freedom from the power grabbers like the Thikadars and money-lenders are exemplary in the history of the tribal movements in India. He exhorted the Mundas not to pay rent to the landlords and was arrested in 1895 on the charge of rioting. His arrest had accentuated the anti-government movement.
The violence grew continuously and their traditional way of fighting with arrows and spears had shaken the landlords and police forces. The final battle between Birsa and the Britishers took place in 1900 at Doumbri hill near Ranchi where thousands of Munda tribes under the leadership of Birsa fought. However, their arrows and spears could not sustain infront of the guns and cannons. People were  brutally killed. Birsa was again arrested on 3rd February, 1900 and in the imprisonment, he was denied any medial help. He ultimately died on 9th June, 1900 under mysterious circumstances. However, his journey did not end there as his movement has its intended impact on the existing British government who were compelled to revise and safeguard the tribal interests over time. This powerful leader who had such a short life span, still managed to mobilize people to fight for their rights and safeguard their identity. It is significant that his fight during his lifetime led the Britishers to promulgate the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 which prohibited alienation of tribal land and at the same time the provision of restoration of the alienated land.
Unlike other rebellions that are documented in historical texts, Birsa Munda’s achievements have received little recognition. This is not to deny the works that do continue to tell of his struggles, but this story of the young tribal revolutionary certainly needs to be told more often. Even today, tribals in several part of India are fighting for their inalienable rights to land and identity and in all such uprisings, an echo of Birsa Munda is heard. They have been continuously raising their voices and drawing our attention to the increasing deterioration of our environment and the need to re-examine our ideas of so called modernity, progress and development. Hence, remembering him on his birth anniversary will only be meaningful if we not just read about his life and ideas, but walk on the path he had shown. Birsa Munda’s dream can be achieved in modern India only if conscious efforts are made towards reaching out to the people who have been marginalized and deprived.
The writer is Vice-Chancellor of Tripura University