Birsa Munda: The Tribal hero of India

birsa munda statueAfter the Revolt of 1857, conflicts against the British rule on communal or regional basis continued. It is a false conception that the British enjoyed their stay in India. The truth is that the people of India kept battling, not for supremacy or power but for equality and freedom. Every corner of the governed state had an uprising and the revolutionaries were always more than a handful for the brutal administration.  Weapons the Indians used were will, courage and desire of living under free skies- something that every individual deserved as a child of an eternal soul.

One such war was waged by the tribal hero of India, Birsa Munda. Though little is known about this extraordinary seeker of freedom, he is worshipped in the present states of Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa. Birsa Munda belonged to the tribal Munda tribe, he was born on a Thursday hence he was named the same in a regional dialect. The Mundas like many other tribes belonged to the dense forests of Jharkhand. Even today there are a lot of such tribes residing in the state.

Birsa Munda the student

Birsa Munda was an intelligent child and showed keenness in learning new things. At Chalkad, where he spent his early years with his family, he had a pretty ordinary tribal childhood before he was asked to relocate out of poverty. Birsa was asked to assist his uncle in Ayubhatu. There he attended a rural school where his skills were on display and the ‘Guru’s’ of that rural institute encouraged him to progress even more.

He was advised to join the German Mission School where it was a compulsion to be a Christian. Birsa then converted and became Birsa David so that he could attend school. After a few years of education, he sought the guidance of a Vishnu devotee, Anand Pandey and became his disciple. Under his new found Guru, Birsa gained exceptional knowledge of Indian culture, scriptures, epics and other teachings.

The British oppression

After 1857, Britain knew that a limited army cannot contain the diverse force of India so laws were imposed to divide the society and control them collectively. One of such laws was the Land Acquisition Act 1894. This Act gave government authorities to categorize land and claim rights on it. It also empowered the British administration to snatch any person’s land and make it their own if it can be used in a better way. The British obviously misused this act.

The tribal communities of Orissa, Jharkhand and Bihar faced severe oppression. Tribal owned lands that had no legal status in British records were confiscated. The tribals used primitive methods to cultivate crops so, Zamindars were appointed to manage the land. The people of the tribes who owned the land were not enslaved and forced to work as labors. Moreover, Indian Forest Act of 1882 imposed restrictions on the tribal which were hard to abide.

The Ulgulaan (revolt)

Birsa was angered by everything that his people were going through. He organized gatherings and used people’s anger to create a synergy. His talks would be brief but, motivating. Many people believed in him as he had now read the ‘Shastras’. Birsa brought all their sorrows under one force. His knowledge of Hindu scriptures and his regular references from them made him a Saint-like entity.

The Ulgulaan was not widely spread but, many communities joined their hands to get back what was truly theirs. Birsa Munda and his associates managed to get some ammunition from Indian soldiers who revolted in 1857. But, their primary weapons were tools that they used to cultivate crops. With a burning fire of vengeance and outburst against discrimination and injustice, the Mundas- followers of Birsa Munda- chalked out plans to disrupt the administration. From 1896-1900, the Mundas were a nightmare to the administrative forces in the three forest states.

Police was targeted mainly because of their inhumane behavior against the tribal communities in Jharkhand. Police stations were lit up in fumes and many police personnel were killed; for the unknown tribes of India, violence was the only way out. The Mundas attacked army convoys and bases as well. No officer in and around Jharkhand and Eastern Bihar was safe. The strategy implemented was Guerilla warfare. The Mundas would attack secretly and vanish in broad daylight.

The attack on Mundas

The then Commissioner of Police, Mr. A Fobes and Deputy Commissioner Mr. H.C. Streattfield were shocked by the Mundas’ actions. A group of tribals had become a stone in the foot of a humongous administration. Both officers searched for locations like hound dogs and deployed two army companies to execute a massive assault. The moment arrived in January 1900 when Munda and his clan had set fire to another police station near Kunti and had rested at Dombari Hill.

The army got the information and an intense fire, one that was equivalent to Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, was unleashed on the unarmed Mundas. Over 400 of Birsa Munda’s men had been martyred. Birsa escaped but was finally caught on the night of 3rd March 1900 when he was sleeping with a few of his men at Jamkopai forest.

The legacy of Birsa Munda

Birsa Munda is a hero in Orissa, Bihar and Jharkhand. He is as popular as any great freedom fighter but, his popularity in limited in those areas sadly. For the tribals, who exist even today, he was the one who united them and made them realize of their purpose.

Birsa Munda’s portrait hangs at the Indian Parliament’s Central Hall. He shares the wall with the likes of many legendary freedom fighters. This is a great icon of pride for tribals in India who are on the verge of extinction. But, luckily for them, a great man from their community made his name as one of the most feared men among the British.

Birsa Munda was celebrated as ‘Dharti Aba’ which means Father of Earth. He is referred even today by the same name.

“Our land is blowing away as the dust blows away in the storm”
-Dharti Aba Birsa Munda

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