Birsa Munda was one of the most prominent vanvasi ( forest dwellers) leaders and freedom fighters of Bharat in the 19th Century. He led the famous “Ulgulaan” (meaning the great tumult) movement towards the end of 19th Century. He is worshiped almost like a God esp amongst the people of Munda community – such is the respect and adulation that Birsa Munda commands from his people.
Birsa Munda was born on 15th November 1875 to to Sugana Munda and Karami Haatu in Ulihatu Village of Ranchi . After his primary education in Saalga Village, he went to Chaibasa English Middle School. He was disturbed by the atrocities meted out by the British on his people. Even in School debates, he was vociferous in his advocacy for the cause of “Jal, Jungle aur Jameen” (water, forests and land) of the vanavasis.
In those days, a Christian missionary by the name Dr. Notret was active in the area and he tried to entice the Munda people into converting to Christianity by promising to get the British to return the land that they had usurped. But in 1886-87 when the Chiefs of Mundas launched an agitation to reclaim their lands from the British, all the missionaries admonished them and helped the British in a brutal suppression of the movement. Birsa Munda was aghast by this and revolted. He was terminated from his school and had to return along with his parents to his village.
The years form 1886-1890 were the formative years for Birsa Munda. These were the years which shook up Birsa from the inside and gave rise to an intense feeling of revenge and restoration of self-respect & pride. He was influenced a lot by the revolts of the Santhals, the Chuars and the Kol janajaatis ( tribes) . The piquant position of his tribe and great threat to their social, cultural and religious ethos sowed the seeds of rebellion in him. He resolved to restore the pride and self-rule of his people. His efforts to unite the Munda people were so successful that the British grew increasingly worried and uncomfortable. He “Birsaayit” and stressed on simplicity, devotion and brotherhood. He gave the slogan of “British go back” and called for restoration of traditional democracy. He said that the “Queen’s rule will be gone and the Abua rule will come!”
On 1st October 1894, as a young leader, he launched a movement for “lagaan-maafi” (exemption of land tax). He was arrested in 1895 and lodged in Hazaribagh central prison for two years. But the influence of Birsa only kept increasing and he came to be known as “Dharti Baba.” The flame of revolution amongst the tribal people was well and truly lit.
There were several clashes between the followers of Birsa Munda and the British in the years 1897-1900. In August 1897, 400 soldiers of the Birsa Army, armed with their bows and arrows attacked the Khunti Police station and won. In 1898 also, in another battle fought on the banks of river Tanga, the Birsa army defeated the British. However, the British struck back and arrested scores of their leaders. A lot of women and children also lost their lives in crackdown.
Birsa Munda was arrested along with 482 other members of his guerilla army on 3rd February, 1900 and was lodged in the Ranchi Prison. 15 different charges were slapped against him. Charges could be proved only against 98 of the 482 people arrested. Gaya Munda, a close confidante of Birsa Munda, and his son Sanare Munda were hanged to death.
On 1st June 1900, the jail doctor declared that Birsa Munda was afflicted with Cholera and on 9th June 1900 he was declared dead.
In all of 25 years, Birsa Munda achieved so much that he became revered almost like a God. He was the one who gave the tribal people pride, respect and confidence in their own culture, religion, society and nation. He was the one who opened the eyes of his people to the motives and machinations of the Christian evangelists and the British. He was a great freedom fighter whose contributions are celebrated till date.
It is to the credit of Birsa Munda and his revolt that the British were forced to enact a new law in form of Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 under which the sale of Tribal lands to the non-tribal people was prohibited.
Let’s take a moment to remember and salute this great son of India – Birsa Munda.
- Translated from Hindi by Sri Ashish Naredi