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Issue No 34, 20-26 November 2021

Remembering Birsa Munda

A Tribal Folk Hero and Freedom Fighter

When towards the closing years of 19th century, the Adivasis rose in protest against the British rulers, it was certainly not an unexpected event. Birsa Munda's personality grew and developed in such a way in the existing turmoil in Chhotanagpur that the different strands of contemporary life in the plateau where inextricably inter-woven in it. At the comparatively young age of 25, Birsa had acquired an in-depth knowledge of the social and economic exploitation of the adivasis. Birsa's, striking personality and his revolt, which he termed 'Ulgulan', was the outcome of a long-continuing historical predicament.

Birsa Munda was born in a Munda family and he realised at an early age that every aspect of Munda life, social, religious and economic had become subject to exploitation. As a consequence, the Birsa Movement was multidimensional and Birsa tried to preserve the ethos and identity of the Mundas. The Adivasis had begun to suspect that the missionaries would not be able to provide relief from the injustice meted out to them by the authorities, zamindars, jagirdars and thekedars. The tribals also began to feel that at some point there was a collusion between the exploiters and the missionaries. At the cross roads of dissatisfaction and disillusion the Mundas felt the need for a leader and this leadership was provided by Birsa Munda. The adolescent years of Birsa's life and his personality presented sufficient indication that he would be able to provide the exploited and deprived tribals with relief. Birsa was 20 years old when he began his Movement.

Birsa spent four years from 1886 to 1890 in the school at Chaibasa. During this long period, Birsa 's character and individuality developed and were shaped.

While staying in the hostel, Birsa had sufficient opportunities to listen to the sermons of the priests. As Birsa was bold and fearless, he often questioned the priests and engaged in debates with them. A sermon by Rev. Nottrot left a deep impression on Birsa. Ref. Nottrot was talking about the kingdom of God and he said that if Mundas accepted christianity they may enter the kingdom of God even on this earth. The sermon disturbed Birsa and compelled him to think about the atrocities, the Mundas were being forced to endure. Perhaps. Nottrot's sermon inducted the seeds of revolt against injustice and helped in making Birsa a rebel.

When at the age of 15-16 Birsa left the hostel at Chaibasa, he had already become a mature, thinking individual. He had developed an insight into the mechanism of exploitation. The constant assault on Munda culture, society and religion had filled Birsa with deep anguish and anger. The background of the Birsa Movement had begun to adopt a concrete shape. Birsa had become sufficiently equipped to assume the unavoidable role of an activist.

Birsa had begun to criticize Rev. Nottrot and other priests. This resulted in Birsa's expulsion from the school and hostel. After this incident, Birsa began to distrust and to be indifferent towards the missionaries.

The Birsa Movement was antagonistic to the British not only because they supported the zamindars and the jagirdars, he also believed that as foreigners the British had no right to rule over India. Birsa also strongly objected to the right to call the Mundas dishonest as the Mundas had not harmed anyone. Missionaries them-selves, Birsa felt, were indulging in harmful activities against the Mundas.

The local Munda leaders or Sardars were convinced that Birsa possessed an inherent capacity to influence and to awaken the masses. They began to persuade Birsa to become a permanent part of their movement. During this phase of the Sardar Movement of the Mundas, Birsa had begun to oppose both the missionaries and the rulers. Birsa had indeed listened attentively to the sermons of the priests. The occasional criticism of the ancient Munda religion by these priests was painful and intolerable to Birsa. Birsa disliked the influence of any other religion upon the ancient Munda religion. Inspite of the fact, Birsa's own family had accepted Christianity and that a substantial number of the leaders of the Sardar movement were Christians, Birsa, like many others, was becoming disenchanted with the missionaries and the rulers alike.

 In 1890 itself, Birsa went to Bandgaon which is situated between Khunti and Chakradharpur. At that time Bandgaon was the domain of an influential zamindar Jagmohan Singh. Birsa came in contact with Anand who was working as a clerk with Jagmohan Singh.

Anand possessed a knowledge of Hindu religion and Puran. He studied religious books pertaining to Hindu religion. Anand provided Birsa with substantial knowledge about Vaishnavism and instructed him about its rituals. In the region surrounding Bandgaon the Vaishnav sect was prominent. Birsa spent about three years with Anand and his brother Sukhnath. During this period Birsa began wearing the sacred thread, worshiping the Tulsi plant and putting on sandal wood mark on his forehead. Stories about the heroes and warriers told in Ramayana and Mahabharata strengthened Birsa's resolve to fight against injustice.

The uprooting of the atrocities being committed on the Mundas by the zamindars and jagirdars became an important part of Birsa's mission. At this time Birsa developed a strong resentment against the missionaries, the rulers as well as against the zamindars and jagirdars. Birsa learnt and was able to memorise certain 'Mantras' while in the company of Anand. By reciting these mantras he later endeavoured to eradicate the ills and sorrows of the adivasis.

One significant incident took place while Birsa was in the forest with some friends. It seemed that a flash of lightning came from the sky and enveloped Birsa's entire body. Birsa's complexion and colour suddenly changed from dark brown to yellow. This incident confirmed Birsa 's identity as an unusual and god-gifted person. Birsa's friends talked about this incident and Birsa's prestige multiplied. Following these incidents Birsa 's behaviour underwent noticeable changes and he became instrumental in curing the physical ills of the people. Crowds from different villages began to gather around Birsa. During that period Birsa used to eat only once during the day and spend a great deal of time in worship and meditation.

 Birsa's fame spread to distant areas of Chhotanagpur. The crowds of people who desired to see him began to grow with each passing day. People began to believe that Birsa was endowed with super-natural powers. Huge unprecedented stream of people began to march to Chalkad to listen to Birsa 's discourses. Birsa made a small platform for himself under a large mango tree near his house. He surrounded the small platform with sacred threads. He used to address the people from this platform.

Birsa began to be known as 'Dharti Abba' or the father of the earth. This name was given to Birsa by Birsa himself. The constant and continuing overgrowing crowd of people assembling at Chalkad at last caught the eye of the rulers. The significant aspect was that the crowd was not made up of Mundas alone but also comprised other tribal communities and even non-tribals. People no longer came to Birsa only to get cured of their physical Adivasis but also to listen to his religious and political discourses. Birsa's influence could be seen not only in the Adivasis but also on the indigenous non-tribals.

 By 1895 Birsa was fully transformed into a leader of a religious movement and this movement had begun to acquire political undertones. The leaders of the Sardar movement who had become disheartened after their separation from the missionaries also began to feel that someone like Birsa with his powerful and popular image, who was even being considered as 'Bhagwan' by a substantial number of people would be able to infuse new life into their dying and dormant movement. Birsa's fame was spreading like wild fire and the amazing increase in the volume of crowd coming for an audience with him had naturally attracted the attention of the colonial rulers.

It was during the later half of 1895 that the gravity of the situation dawned on the rulers. On 6th August 1895, the local chowkidars filed a report in Tamar Police Station that a Munda named Birsa has proclaimed the end of British rule. The same day a head constable was sent to inspect and find the nature of the crowd gathering there. The constable reached on the evening of 8th August and he arrested Birsa on the morning of 9th August. The crowd assembled there Birsa and the constable had to go back without completing his mission. This was an incredible incident. Those were the times when a single constable could arbitrarily decide the fate of an entire village without any protest. He represented the might of the colonial rulers.

After this, the expedition to arrest Birsa Munda gathered momentum. On 13th August there was another attempt made to take Birsa into custody with the help or Paulus, the priest at Kochang village. The attempt did not succeed. These attempts to arrest Birsa Munda created a great deal of anger in the adjacent villages.

It was on the morning of 26th August when it was raining heavily that Meyers arrested Birsa. On the whole, the arrest was peaceful and Meyers with his group returned to Bandgaon. Following this the authorities decided to put Birsa on trial. Birsa was brought to Khunti for the trial. In Khunti also huge crowds began to assemble. Shortly after the verdict of the court Birsa was transferred to Hazaribagh jail. A little before the completion of the duration of his imprisonment he was brought back to Ranchi jail where he was released from prison on 30th November, 1897 and was taken to his paternal village Chalkad.

 Birsa was spending his days of confinement in Hazaribagh jail. A mere chronology of incidents is insufficient to reveal his personality and thought. A revolutionary is guided and controlled by elements which are not easily analysed. The background of tyranny and the urge for liberty had given to Birsa - an ordinary Munda young man used to grazing goats and eating rice mixed with water - an unquenchable thirst for removing the yoke of colonial rulers. He ultimately challenged the might of the British empire in whose colonies the sun never set.

The Birsa Movement was different from the series of uprisings against the British which continued from 1790 onwards. The Birsa Movement has an enduring human quality about it. Birsa Movement was not limited to physical level alone, it was a complete revolution, it took into account the entire history of the Mundas, their enduring culture, religion and ethos. It was like a reawakening. It is for this that Birsa is placed in the front line of freedom fighters of India.

 Indeed, Birsa left an indelible impression not only on tribal society but also on the exploiters. What distinguished him from others who were leaders of uprisings against the British, is the fact that he became a symbol and icon of nuances that envelop the entire society in Chhotanagpur. Religious purification and social awareness were integral ingredients of his movement. Birsa raised his voice and flexed his muscles culminating in an armed struggle against the marauding outsiders and their protectors, the colonial masters. He also dreamt of recreating the grandeur and wonder of ancient tribal culture and made an attempt to underline the distinctive features of the ancient religion of the Munda. Birsa was a visionary and he tried to remove external influences tarnishing the purity of the ancient Munda social structure.

Above is an extract from the book Builders of Modern IndiaBirsa Munda. It is available for sale both through physical and online medium. The p-Book can be purchased from the Publications Division's Sales Emporia and its authorized agents across the country, and online through Publications Division's website www. publicationsdivision.nic.in.