As India celebrates Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, one name stands tall among the galaxy of stars who fearlessly worked for the freedom of the motherland against the oppressive British Raj — Bhagwan Birsa Munda. Birsa Munda lived a short — just 25 years — but valiant life. His life story, full of gallant efforts to fight injustice and oppression, represents a strong voice of resistance against colonialism.
Born on November 15, 1875, in Ulihatu village in present-day Jharkhand, Birsa spent his childhood in abject poverty in a tribal Munda family. This was the time when the exploitative Raj started penetrating the deep jungles of Central and Eastern India, disrupting tribals living in harmony with nature. The Britisher introduced a feudal zamindari system in the Chhota Nagpur region, destroying the tribal “Khuntkatti” agrarian system. The Raj brought in the outsiders — moneylenders and contractors, as well as feudal landlords — who aided the British in their exploitation. The unrelenting missionary activity continued with the active support of the Raj, insulting and interfering with the religious-cultural ethos of Adivasis.
During the 1880s, Birsa closely witnessed the Sardari Larai movement in the region, which demanded the restoration of tribal rights through non-violent methods like sending petitions to the Raj. However, the oppressive colonial regime paid no heed to these demands. The zamindari system soon reduced the tribals from the status of landowners to that of labourers. The feudal setup intensified the forced labour (veth bigari) in the forested tribal areas. The exploitation of tribals now reached a breaking point.
This culminated in Birsa taking up the cause of Adivasis. He shed new light on the religious domain. He stood firm against missionaries who were belittling tribal life and culture. At the same time, Birsa worked to refine and reform religious practices, discouraged many superstitious rites. He brought in new tenets, prayers and worked to restore tribal pride. Birsa impressed upon the Adivasis the importance of “sirmare firun raja jai” or “victory to the ancestral king” — thus invoking the sovereignty of the tribals’ ancestral autonomous control over the land. Birsa became a mass leader and began to be considered as Bhagwan and Dharati Aba by his followers.
Birsa knew who the real enemy was — in addition to the dikus, it was the oppressive Raj. He was clear that “abua raj setar jana, maharani raj tundu jana” (let the kingdom of the Queen end and our kingdom be established). Bhagwan Birsa ignited the minds of the masses. The Mundas, Oraons, other Adivasis and non-Adivasis responded to his call and joined the “Ulgulan” or revolt against the colonial masters and exploitative dikus. Birsa asked the people not to pay any rent, and attacked the outposts of feudal, missionary and colonial authorities. With traditional bows and arrows, the tribals of Central and Eastern India waged an effective armed resistance against the British. In doing so, however, Birsa was careful that only the real exploiters were attacked, and the common people were not troubled. Birsa became an image of vitality and divinity. Soon, he was captured by British police and lodged in jail, where he died in captivity on June 9, 1900. But Bhagwan Birsa Munda’s spirited struggle did not go in vain. It compelled the British to take cognisance of the plight and exploitation of tribals, and bring in the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 for their protection. This Act restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals, giving Adivasis a huge relief and became a landmark legislation for the protection of tribal rights. The British regime also took steps to abolish Veth Bigari or forced labour.
Bhagwan Birsa Munda continues to inspire millions of Indians, 121 years after his death. He is an icon of valour, courage and leadership. He was a leader who took great pride in his rich culture and great traditions, but at the same time, did not shy away from reforming his own faith wherever necessary.
He is one of the tallest icons of our freedom movement. India’s freedom struggle was strengthened by several tribal communities such as Mundas, Oraons, Santhals, Tamars, Kols, Bhils, Khasis, Koyas and Mizos, to name a few. The revolutionary movements and struggles organised by tribal communities were marked by their immense courage and supreme sacrifice and inspired Indians all over the country.
However, established historians could not do justice to their immense contribution to India’s freedom struggle. Our visionary Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed to all Indians to celebrate Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and to study and understand the valour and sacrifice of many such unsung heroes in India’s freedom struggle. Under his dynamic leadership, for the first time, tribal pride and contributions are being given a fitting tribute by celebrating Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, on November 15 — the birth anniversary of Bhagwan Birsa Munda.
On this Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, let us remember and recognise the efforts of India’s tribal people for the preservation of their cultural heritage and the promotion of Indian values of valour, hospitality and national pride.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 15, 2021 under the title ‘The legend of Birsa Munda’. The writer is Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting; and Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying