Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was an Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe. He spearheaded an Indian tribal religious Millenarian movement that arose in the tribal belt of modern-day Bihar and Jharkhand in the late 19th century, during the British Raj, thereby making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement. His achievements are even more remarkable for having been accomplished before the age of 25. His portrait hangs in the Central Hall of the Indian parliament, the only tribal leader to have been so honored.
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 ulgulan, meaning ‘Great Tumult’, sought to establish Munda Raj and independence. 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. The incidence of forced labour or beth begari also increased dramatically. Unscrupulous contractors, moreover, had turned the region, into a recruiting ground for indentured labour. 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.
An agrarian and political note was then injected into what initially was a religious movement. From 1858 onwards, Christian tribal raiyats had been on the offensive against alien landlords and beth begari through lawsuits. This was the mulkai ladai or the struggle for land, also known as the Sardari ladai. The complexion of Birsa Munda’s religious movement changed through its contact with the Sardar movement. Initially the Sardars (tribal chiefs) did not have much to do with Birsa, but once his popularity swelled they drew on him to provide a stable base for their own weakened struggle. Though influenced by the Sardars, Birsa, however, was not their mouthpiece and despite the common agrarian background of the two movements, there were considerable differences between them. The Sardars initially professed loyalty to the British and even to the Raja of Chhotanagpur and only wanted the elimination of intermediary interests. Birsa, on the other hand, had a positive political programme, his object being the attainment of independence, both religious and political. The movement sought the assertion of the rights of the Mundas as the real proprietors of the soil. This ideal agrarian order, according to Birsa, would be possible in a world free from the influence of European officials and missionaries, thus necessitating the establishment of the Munda Raj.
The British, who feared a conspiracy, jailed Birsa for two years in 1895, but he returned from jail, much more of a firebrand. A series of nocturnal meetings were held in the forest during 1898-99, where Birsa allegedly urged the killing of thikadars, jagirdars, rajas, hakims and Christians.
The rebels attacked police stations and officials, churches and missionaries, and though there was an undercurrent of hostility against the dikus, there was no overt attack on them except in a couple of controversial cases. On Christmas Eve 1899, the Mundas shot arrows and tried to burn down churches over an area covering six police stations in the districts of Ranchi and Singhbhum. Next, in January 1900, the police stations were targeted and there were rumours that Birsa’s followers would attack Ranchi on 8 January, leading to panic there. On 9 January, however, the rebels were defeated. Birsa was captured and died in jail. Nearly 350 Mundas were put on trial and of them three were hanged and 44 transported for life.
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.