Today is the Jayanti (birth anniversary) of Birsa Munda, a freedom fighter, who fought against the British rule in Jharkhand during late 19th century. He is the only tribal leader whose portrait hangs in Parliament Central Hall. His Jayanti is celebrated as Jharkhand Day too.
Birsa Munda was born on 15th November in 1875 in the tribal hamlet of Ulihatu in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, though some versions state it as Chalkad. Being born on a Thursday, he was named after the day as per the custom of the Munda tribe.
For sometime Birsa Munda, studied in a German Mission school, however with the tribal sardar’s agitation against Christian missionaries, his father removed him from the school, and also membership of the German mission.
Birsa Munda came under the influence of the Vaishnava devotee Anand Pandey, and his stay in Chaibasa from 1886-1890 in a way shaped his own thoughts and ideology.
The period at Chaibasa was when the tribal Sardars launched an agitation against the missionaries and the government. It was against both, the unjust taxation of the colonial government, as well as the proselytizing activities of the missionaries.
Under the Indian Forest Act, the government took control of all the forest and village areas, thus depriving tribal of their own land. Officials marked off large tracts of forest land, that consisted of both waste as well as cultivable land as per their convenience. In a way the Indian Forest Act, deprived the tribals from cultivating their own lands and denying them rights over the forest produce. This Act led to many tribal revolts like the one by Birsa Munda in Jharkhand, and one in Agency area led by Alluri Sitaram Raju.
Coming from the poorest of poor, Birsa Munda, more than any one else, was well acquainted with the misery of the ryots and tribals. Most of Birsa Munda’s growing up years, were of a nomadic nature, moving from place to place in search of employment.
His experiences as a laborer at various places gave Birsa Munda an insight into the problems faced by the peasants and tribals. During the British time, the non-tribals were invited by the tribal Sardars to take over the land and cultivate it. These non-tribals known as Thikadars, were one of the most greedy, ruthless lot and together with the British looted the tribals. By 1874, most of the tribals had lost possession of their lands and were reduced to mere serfs, living in the most pitiable conditions.
Fight Against the British Rule
Birsa Munda then began to mobilize the tribals against the British rulers, as well as their middle men like the Thikadars.
“Abua raj seter jana, maharani raj tundu jana”
Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established, this was Birsa’s slogan.
To date, this slogan of Birsa Munda is still remembered in the tribal regions of Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, Bengal and MP.
Consider this in 1856, tribals had possesion of around 600 Jagirs and owned around 150 villages in Chotanagpur region itself. By 1874, with the non-tribal Thekedars taking control, they completely lost control of their lands, reduced to serfs.
Birsa Munda’s movement was to assert the tribals as the real land owners and expulsion of British, Thikadars. Adopting guerrilla tactics, he launched a series of armed attacks on the Thikadars and the British Govt.
With his excellent oratory skills, good organization skills, Birsa Munda managed to rally the various tribal communities in the forests of Chotanagpur, Odisha, Bengal against the British.
Birsa Munda bought together the Oraons, Kharias on to a common platform against the British-Thekedar combined, thus forging a tribal unity. His fight was also to save the native traditions of the Tribals from the Christian missionaries.
Birsa Munda, not just fought against the British, he vigorously defended the native tribal customs from Missionaries. He vigorously campaigned against Cow Slaughter, urging the tribal communities to protect cattle.
Soon the movement spread like a wildfire in the Chotanagpur region, and Birsa Munda was one of the most wanted men. Birsa Munda harassed the Thekedars and British, with a series of guerrilla attacks and soon the revolt was a major worry for them.
Finally, the British managed to arrest Birsa Munda on March 3, 1900, when he was sleeping in the Jamkopai forest near Chakradharpur, through a stealth operation. Around 460 of Birsa’s associates were arrested, one of them was given capital punishment, 30 were deported to Cellular Jail. Apparently, Birsa Munda passed away in Ranchi jail of cholera, on June 9, 1900. Though many versions state that the British actually executed him in prison, but showed as if cholera was the cause.
Birsa Munda died at a very young age of 25 but the impact he made on the movement was quite significant. Though his movement died out, it forced the British government to introduce laws that prohibited non-tribals from occupying tribal lands.
Birsa Munda’s revolt led to a series of similar tribal revolts against British rule throughout Bharat, which have not really got their due. One of the more famous ones was the revolt in Agency area, led by Alluri Sitarama Raju, that shook the British for more than 2 years.
Dharati Aba, Birsa Munda, his Jayanti today is also Jharkhand day, and celebrated by many tribal people all over Bharat. Incidentally, the war cry of Bihar Regiment is Birsa Munda ki Jai. He is pretty much of a folk hero in the tribal parts.
The airport in Ranchi is named after Birsa Munda, as is BIT at Sindri. Also the university at Purulia, the Agricultural University at Ranchi are all named after him.
Mahasweta Devi’s historical novel Aranyer Adhikar for which she won the Sahitya Akademi award is based on Birsa Munda’s life. She also wrote an abridged version of Birsa Munda’s life story for younger readers.
The Jharkhand State government is proposing a 150 ft tall statue of Birsa Munda, called Statue of Ulgulan, to be completed this year. The initiative for this statue is by Ulgulan Foundation, patronized by Birsa’s descendant Sukhra Munda and Sudesh Mahto.
On his Jayanti, Naman to a true hero Bhagwan Birsa Munda, who led the tribal revolt against the British and Thekedars in Jharkhand. He is a legend for the tribals in Eastern and Central Bharat and a great son of Bharat.
(This article has been collated from the tweet thread of the author)
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