Analyse the importance of Birsa Munda Movement for tribal rights in British India.

Munda Rebellion is one of the prominent 19th century tribal rebellions in the subcontinent. Birsa Munda led this movement in the region south of Ranchi in 1899-1900. The Mundas traditionally enjoyed a preferential rent rate as the khuntkattidar or the original clearer of the forest. But in course of the 19th century they had seen this khuntkatti land system being eroded by the jagirdars and thikadars coming as merchants and moneylenders.

This process of land alienation had begun long before the advent of the British. But the establishment and consolidation of British rule accelerated the mobility of the non-tribal people into the tribal regions. Yet another change associated with British rule was the appearance of a number of Lutheran, Anglican and Catholic missions. The spread of education through missionary activities made the tribals more organised and conscious of their rights. Tribal solidarity was undermined as the social cleavage between the Christian and non-Christian Mundas deepened. The agrarian discontent and the advent of Christianity, therefore, helped the revitalisation of the movement, which sought to reconstruct the tribal society disintegrating under the stresses and strains of colonial rule.

Birsa Munda (1874-1900), the son of a sharecropper who had received some education from the missionaries came under Vaishnava influence and in 1893-94 participated in a movement to prevent village wastelands from being taken over by the Forest Department. In 1895 Birsa, claiming to have seen a vision of god, proclaimed himself a prophet with miraculous healing powers. Thousands flocked to hear the ‘new word’ of Birsa with its prophecy of an imminent deluge. The new prophet became a critic of the traditional tribal customs, religious beliefs and practices. He called upon the Mundas to fight against superstition, give up animal sacrifice, stop taking intoxicants, to wear the sacred thread and retain the tribal tradition of worship in the sarna or the sacred grove. It was essentially a revivalist movement, which sought to purge Munda society of all foreign elements and restore its pristine character. Christianity influenced the movement as well and it used both Hindu and Christian idioms to create the Munda ideology and worldview.

The government attempted to redress the grievances of the Mundas through the survey and settlement operations of 1902-10. The Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 provided some recognition to their khuntkatti rights and banned beth begari. Chhotanagpur tribals won a degree of legal protection for their land rights.

 

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