The Jharkhand government’s order that Birsa Munda should not hereafter be represented in chains is another instance of the BJP’s unnatural obsession with history. Munda, who led an Adivasi rebellion against the colonial administration in the 19th century, died in prison at age 25. His iconic image has been that of a youth in chains, raging against all forms of exploitation and urging his people to stand up and fight. It keeps alive a fiery memory and recalls the quest for freedom. Birsa in chains, in the context of modern Jharkhand and Adivasi iconography elsewhere, is a powerful and disturbing image that is representative of a people who have been failed by independent India. It is a reminder to the governing classes that the state needs to do much more for Birsa’s people, who are among the country’s poorest and oppressed.
History, and its rewriting, should be the least of the Raghubar Das government’s preoccupations at this juncture. Sixteen years after the Vajpayee government at the Centre took the lead to create Jharkhand in response to a long-standing Adivasi demand for self-rule, the Adivasis have had little to celebrate. The divide between the non-Adivasi and Adivasi populations has widened. Governments in the past were mired in corruption and state-building was ignored. Unregulated expansion of sectors like mining has led to land alienation and deep disquiet among Adivasis. The issue of development has now joined with the matter of displacement of Adivasi populations. The government’s attempts to develop the state’s immense mineral resources, instead of ushering in a modern economy and society, have only hardened old exploitative networks and patronage systems. These are complex issues that need the attention of a caring government.
By seeking to invent a new narrative around Birsa Munda, the Das government has brought back a paradigm that is far removed from the concerns of everyday governance. Birsa, of course, is central to the Adivasi imagination, but to be genuinely relevant, he needs to be discussed in today’s social and economic context. His ideal of emancipation extended beyond merely overthrowing colonial rule. It encompassed the social, economic and spiritual regeneration of Adivasi society. In its early years, the Jharkhand Movement exemplified this Birsa spirit when it campaigned against usury, alcoholism and bonded labour. It is the idea of Birsa Munda, in chains or otherwise, that the Das government must be inspired by, not how his statues and pictures are crafted.