Birsa Munda: Not Only a Chapter in History But a Revolutionary History of His Own

Raj setar jana, maharani raj tundu jana.’

‘Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom will be established.’

Birsa Munda said this while revolting against the echelons of power of the British Raj. The Chota Nagpur region in present-day Jharkhand has long witnessed massive resistance movements against oppression and exploitation led by its indigenous communities. Alongside battling the colonial power, indigenous revolts have valiantly challenged the feudal and exploitative regimes of upper-caste landlords; and the rebellion led by Dharti Aba Birsa Munda is a salient contribution to modern India.

However, in alignment with the habit of dominant-caste pens, who discredit indigenous emancipation movements, Jharkhand’s struggles have been relegated to the background.

A tribal freedom fighter, leader of the masses and staunch believer of Adivasi rights; Birsa Munda was born on November 15, 1875 in the Ulihatu village in the Khunti district. Born into the Munda tribe, amidst a childhood spent in the serene beauty of the region, and the penury and displacement caused by the upper-caste landlords, Birsa Munda had to continually move from one village to another for opportunities and education in the nascent years of his life. A bright student since a young age, he grew up to be an aware and informed individual focused on the self-respect and identity-assertion of the indigenous communities. He witnessed multitudinous aspirations and activities over the course of the Sardari Larai movement.

The British had replaced the egalitarian Khunkhatti system of joint landholding with the feudal zamindari system; as a consequence of which the Adivasi community had been compelled to become forced labourers in their own land. The barbaric land policies were further dismantling ancestral Adivasi culture, language and lifestyle. Birsa Munda unequivocally declared colonialists upper-caste landlords and other exploiters as dikus, (translating to the ‘enemies of the Adivasis‘).

He used traditional symbols and language to mobilise thousands of individuals from the tribal communities to form guerrilla armies to resist enemies. As opposed to the advanced weapons and guns of the British army, the indigenous weapons of the Adivasi rebels did face a challenge. However, the spirit, collective conscience, and organisational zeal of the indigenous communities towards the revolt were unparalleled. Between 1886–1890, Birsa Munda participated in umpteen anti-establishment activities and commenced the movement called ‘Ulgulan’ in the south of Ranchi. The revolutionaries attacked symbols of colonial and feudal power, such as the police stations and property of moneylenders and zamindars.

Also read: In Photos | Warli Adivasis Recall Birsa Munda in Fight to Save Aarey

Manifesting conviction and confrontations, Birsa Munda’s life is no victimised contemplation or binary of battles which the upper caste pens often portray it to be. A brilliant mind, skilled at archery and swords, and gifted to play myriad indigenous instruments such as the tumri and the flute; Birsa Munda fought for the political, social, and economic emancipation of the oppressed. He mobilised the marginalised masses and marched for the remission of tax which the zamindars collected from the indigenous communities. To suppress this march, the British forces had started firing and hundreds of marginalised had succumbed to the British bullets.

Birsa Munda was arrested in 1895 and held in captivity. The colonial powers intended to shun the resistance. As his followers demanded his release, the British police made even more arrests in an attempt to break their spirit. The British then held an open-air trial to show his captured and controlled body to his followers.

Post his release after two years, Birsa Munda resumed his armed struggle. Amidst a confrontation with the British police, Birsa Munda had to hide in the jungle. He was eventually recaptured and sent again to the Ranchi prison.

Birsa Munda passed away on June 9, 1900 at the young age of 24, and while the authorities claim that he died of cholera, several indigenous leaders have questioned the credibility of this statement. The consequent trial of 300 other Birsaites (his supporters) became national news, with scathing criticism against the preposterous legal cover-ups and delays of the British administrations.

After Birsa Munda’s rebellions, the British had initiated the Commutation Act of 1897 for the discontinuation of the feudal practice of Bethbegari (forced labor). They also had to do the survey and settlement of Chota Nagpur, and the promulgation of the Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, 1908. This Act has hitherto been seminal in upholding the land rights of the native population of Jharkhand comprising the marginalised across ST, OBC, and SC communities; who have fought for this land, and who for thousands of years have cultivated and lived in consonance with this land of Jharkhand, and have upheld it, not as an asset; but as a part of the family, community, identity, and responsibility.

A century after Birsa Munda’s death, the state of Jharkhand, meaning the land of forests, officially came into existence on  November 15, 2000.

Birsa Munda’s fight was not merely for the self. His revolt did not only encompass colonisers leaving the indigenous land – his fight was for self-determination, for the forests, the land, and the water of Jharkhand; where he continues to be celebrated. A prominent protagonist of tribal rights, an incomparable patriot in the prolonged list of names from the Chota Nagpur plateau including revolutionaries such as Raghunath Mahto, Nirmal Mahto, Sidho Kanho, Phulo Murmu, and Jhano Murmu; Birsa Munda’s propositions, vision, and movements continue to embolden all marginalised communities.

The revolt led by Birsa Munda challenged and changed the social hierarchies and ushered in a new era of hope and development against the nexus of capitalism, colonialism, and casteism. However, in the colossal corpus of writings on the Indian freedom movement, the one led by Birsa Munda has been sidelined and distorted by oppressor-caste authors and media.

To comprehend his cause, academicians and activists would have to re-read the colonial archive instead of categorising him into a predefined notion. For the being of Birsa Munda itself is a resistance to all such notions, for the being of Birsa Munda itself is a revolution.

Ankita Apurva was born with a pen and a sickle.

Featured image credit: Wikipedia/Editing:LiveWire