Birsa Munda (1875–1900)

Birsa Munda was a tribal leader and a folk hero, belonging to the Munda tribe who was behind the Millenarian movement that rose in the tribal belt of modern day Bihar, and Jharkhand during the British Raj, in the late 19th century making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement

His long stay at Chaibasa from 1886 to 1890 constituted a formative period of his life. During 1893-4 all waste lands in villages, the ownership of which were vested in the Government, were constituted into protected forests under the Indian Forest Act VII of 1882. In Singhbhum as in Palamau and Manbhum the forest settlement operations were launched and measures were taken to determine the rights of the forest-dwelling communities. Villages in forests were marked off in blocks of convenient size consisting not only of village sites but also cultivable and waste lands sufficient of the needs of villages.

Outside the blocks lay the protected forest areas in which rights were regulated, even curtailed. These orders were sometimes not understood by local officers who acted as if all right of forest-swelling communities had been curtailed. Birsa led a number of ryots of Sirgida to Chaibasa with a petition for the remission of forest dues. Men form six other villages had preceded him. Nothing came of it. The Chotanagpur Protected Forests Rules framed under the Indian Forest Act came into force in July 1894. Viewing Birsa’s involvement in the Sardar agitation with concern, Anand Panre advised him not to let him emotion overpowers him; but he would not turn a deaf ear to the inner voice. Thus his three years’ apprenticeship under the Panres came to an end in 1893-94.

In 1894, Birsa had grown up into a strong and handsome young man, shrewd and intelligent. The stories of Birsa as a healer, a miracle-worker, and a preacher spread, out of all proportion to the facts. At that period of history Mundas were utterly frustrated, disappointed and discontented. Zamindars, Jagirdars, Thikedars, Rajas, Christian missionaries and the British courts – all of them had only one point programme and that was to exploit the Mundas.

Mundas called him Dharati Aba, the father of the earth. As a matter of strategy he went with his followers to Chutia on 28 January 1898 to collect the record or rights and re-establish racial links with the temple there. He said that the temple belonged to the Kols in ancient times.
It is said that 7000 men  and women assembled around Christmas of  1899 heralding the Ulgulaan (or revolution) which soon spread to Khunti, Tamar, Basia and Ranchi. It was January 5, 1900. The entire Munda community was up in arms.

After the suppression of the first rising, in 1895 the Birsa gave a clarion call to the Munda’s ( his followers) of a decisive war  against the British. After a series of concerted attacks for nearly two years on the places loyal to the British, the Munda warriors started congregating on   Dombari Hill at village Sail Rakab  (Nearly 20 Km far from the Ranchi-Jamshedpur Highway). Documents revel that the Munda’s , adopted Guerilla war fare, and attacked the British in Ranchi and Khunti. Several persons, mostly police men were killed and nearly 100 Buildings were set on fire. The ” Ulgulaan ” (revolt) had started. The then commissioner Mr. A Fobes and Deputy Commissioner Mr. H.C. Streattfield, rushed to Khunti with an army of 150 to crush the it and the Abua Disun ” ( Self rule ).
The revolt rocked the British administration to the extent that the commissioner declared a reward of Rs 500 for the arrest of Birsa. Subsequently British forces attacked heavily on Munda warriors congregated at  “Dumbari Hill” and made indiscriminate firing like that of  “Jaliyan Wala Bagh ” and killed several hundred people. The whole hill was littered with dead human corpses. According to an editorial published on March 25, 1900, The Statesman, put the toll at 400. However, the then administration suppressed the fact and claimed that only eleven persons were killed and nine insured in two firings on January 7 and January 9, 1900. Fear and panic show spread over the area that “Dombari” was named by Mundas  as ” Topped Buru ”  – the mound of dead.

Birsa anyhow escaped to the hills of Singhbhum .He was nabbed while asleep at  Jamkopai  forest in Chakradharpur on March 3, 1900. Deputy commissioner Ranchi, vide letter no CR-1397 dated 12 nov 1900 reveals that 460 tribals were made accused in 15 different criminal cases, out of which 63 were convicted. The six death, including that of Birsa Munda in the prison during trials in less than 10 months, speaks of the probable tortures inflicted on the prisoners of Ulgulaan . Birsa Munda died in the jail on 9th June 1900. His dead body is reported to have been criminated near the distillery bridge Kokar ( Ranchi ).
This was the last of the heroic tribal movements of the 19th century in the Chotanagpur plateau. The Mundas had been living in the Chotanagpur plateau for more than 2000 years and are one of the most ancient settlers in this land. The introduction of rent for the land, a concept hitherto unknown to the tribal, infuriated them. Then there was collection of taxes for just about any reason. The British courts, unfamiliar with the tribal language had to depend upon the local interpreters to act as middle men. These people were only too pleased to help their powerful landowners. Thus, the tribal could not get justice from any direction and led them to believe that it rest upon themselves to rid the place of dikus.

Though at first the struggle commenced by attacking the land-lords, later it was directed against the  ruling British authorities who openly supported the exploiters namely the Zamindars and money lenders who took advantage of the corrupt British and Indian officials.

In 1856, there were in Bihar 600 Zamindar dikus holding land ranging from a portion of a single village to even 150 villages each.

The dikus, unable to comprehend the social and political organization of the tribal simply dismissed them and replaced with limbs of modern governmental machinery. Worst of all, the tribal customs, practices and superstitions were dismissed lightly. Another important reason for the revolt was of course, the concept of Beth Begari, or what is known today as bonded labour.

General poverty led many of the Mundas to leave their ancestral homes and shift to work in the Assam tea plantations. Birsa believed that the Mundas will be able to regain their lost kingdom with the annihilation of the enemies.
The core of Birsa’s message had initially been social and religious. He called upon the Mundas to uproot superstition, abjure animal sacrifice and cease taking intoxicants. Birsa Munda continuously infused the tribals with a sense of their destiny with many of the ancient myths that lay embedded in the popular consciousness.

He advised people to not to obey the magistrates and the landlords and to boycott the ‘beth begari sytem’. He spoke against unlawful land acquisition and tried to unite his people against the diabolic exploitative triad of zamindars, foreigner and traders.

The Mundas were galvanized into martial fury and carried out their revolts with great courage and determination. The results were, however, the same whenever the tribal fought the mighty British: they were crushed. Birsa was captured, released and finally recaptured after his forces suffered a terrible crushing by the British army in 1900. With his death, the Birsa movement slipped into oblivion but he had succeeded in giving them a solidarity which was missing before. Thus bullets crushed this great movement. Though Birsa was dead but his purpose was not defeated. Just after the movement, the Government passed the Commutation Act of 1897 and then it was decided to start survey and settlement in 1901. The Mundari Khuntkatti right was recognized and finally the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (Act-VI of 1908) came into being. Birsa Munda – the great Dharati Aba shines as the first tribal martyr who fought for the independence of the country. True, he operated in a small area but its impact was felt in the years to come. He was ahead of time.

The 20th century saw the dawn of the British policy of “Divide and rule”. One of the most disgusting testaments of this British policy was the partition of Bengal in 1905. Due to this, the tribal areas, although geographically continuous, were put under different administrations.This led to greater exploitation by landlords and angered the tribals further. The tribal leaders now turned to socio-economic development of the people. In 1914 Jatra Oraon started what is called the Tana Movement. Later this movement joined the Satyagrah Movement of Mahatma Gandhi in 1920 and stopped giving land tax to the Government.

In 1915 the Chhotanagpur Unnati Samaj was started for the socio-economic development of the tribals. When the Simon Commission came to Patna in 1928, they faced strong opposition from the Chhotanagpur Unnati Samaj. Thereafter Theble Oraon organised Kishan Sabha in 1931. These organizations were hyperactive in holding the grounds of freedom struggle in India. Many warriors from the beautiful land of Jharkhand sacrificed their lives for against exploitation.

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