Birsa Munda, the Dharti Aba (Father of earth)
Though there is still no unanimous opinion of Birth and Death regarding date and Place of Birsa Munda, yet Govt. has accepted that Birsa was born on 15 Nov 1875 in Ulihatu and died on 9 June 1900 in Ranchi central jail. Birsa Munda was son of Sugna Munda. Sugna Munda has three sons namely- Kowa Munda , Birsa Munda and Bhanu Munda. Sugna Munda, father of Birsa Munda, had two more brothers namely- Bhanu Munda and Pasna Munda.
Birsa Munda was born in year 1875, Thursday was the day of his birth, and he was named after the day of his birth according to the Munda custom. Ulihatu was the birth-place of Sugna Munda, father of Birsa. The claim of Ulihatu rests on Birsa’ s elder brother Komta Munda living in the village and on his house, which still exist in a dilapidated condition. Birsa’s father, mother and younger brother, Pasna Munda, left Ulihatu and proceeded to Kurumbda near Birbanki in search of employment as laborers or crop-sharers (sajhadar) or riots. At Kurmbda Birsa’s elder brother, Komta, and his sister, Daskir, were born. From there the family moved to Bamba where Birsa’s elder sister Champa was born followed by himself Birsa was born in a house built of bamboo strips without a mud plaster or even a secure roof; a crop-sharer or riot could not boast of a better house. Folk songs relating to his birth seek to embroider the event with the Biblical parallels: a comet or a flag-star moved across the sky from Chalked to Ulihatu, a flag flew on a mountaintop. Soon after Birsa’s birth, his family left Bamba. A quarrel between the Mundas and their riots in which his father was involved as a witness was the immediate reason for proceeding to Chalkad, Sugana’s mother’s village, where Bir Singh, the Munda of the village, granted them refuge. Folklore refers to his rolling and playing in sand and dust with his friends, and his growing up strong and handsome in looks he grazed sheep in the forest of Bohonda. When the grew up, he shared an interest in playing the flute, in which he became adept, and so movingly did he play that all living beings came out to listen to him. He went round with the tuila, the one-stringed instrument made from the pumpkin, in the hand and the flute strung to his waist. Exciting moments of his childhood were spent on the Akhara (the village dancing ground). One of his contemporaries who went out with him, however, heard him speak of strange things. Driven by poverty Birsa was taken to Ayubhatu, his maternal uncle’s village. Komta Munda, his eldest brother, who was ten years of age, went to Kundi Bartoli, entered the service of a “Munda, married and lived there for eight years, and then joined his father and younger brother at Chalkad. At Ayubhatu Birsa lived for two years. He went to school at Salga, run by one Jaipal Nag. He accompanied his mother’s younger sister, Joni, who was fond of horn. She was married, to Khatanga, her new home. He was found no good for the job and was beaten by the owner of field. He left the village and went to his brother at Kundi Bartoli, and stayed with him for sometime. From there he probably went to the German mission at Burju where he passed the lower primary examination.Birsa Munda as known amongst tribal, waged a massive war against the British rule in mid 1890’s. After the (suppression of the first rising, indecisive war against the British). After a series of concerted attacks for nearly two years on the places loyal to the British, the Munda warriors started congregating on “Dombari Hill” at village “Sail, Rakab” (Nearly 20 Km from the Ranchi-Jamshedpur Highway), on the call of Birsa. Documents revel that the Munda’s, adopting Guerilla warfare, attack the British in Ranchi and Khunti. Several persons, mostly policemen were killed and nearly 100 Buildings were set on fire. It raised over this ” UlguIan ” (revolt), the, then commissioner Mr. Afobes and Deputy Commissioner Mr. H.C.Stratified, rushed to Kunti with two company of army to crush the mass struggle (UlguIan) of” Abua Disun” ( Self rule).The revolt had rocked the British administration to the extent that the commissioner declared a reward of Rs. 500 for the arrest of Birsa. Subsequently British forces attacked heavily on Munda warriors congregated at “Dumbari Hill” and made indiscriminate firing like that of “Jaliyan Wala Bagh” and killed several hundred people. The whole hill was littered with dead human corpses. After Brutal slaughter the dead bodies were thrown into the deep gorges and ravines of the hill. Many of the wounded were buried alive. According to editorial published on March 25, 1900, the statesman, put the toll at 400. However, the then administration suppressed the fact and claimed that only eleven persons were killed and nine injured in two firings on January 7 and January 9, 1900. Fear and panic show spread over the area that “Dombari” was named by Munda’s as “Topped Buru” -mound of dead.
Birsa Munda was nabbed while he was fast asleep at “Jarnkopai” forest in Chakradharpur on March 3, 1900. Deputy commissioner Ranchi, vide letter no CR-13 97 dated 12 Nov 1900 reveals that 460 tribals were made accused in 1015 different criminal cases, out of which 63 were convicted. One was awarded Capital Punishment, 39 were sentenced to transportation for life and 23 were imprisoned for terms upto 1: 14 years. The six death, including that of tribal hero Birsa Munda in the prison during trials in less than 10 months, speaks of the probable in the jail on 9th June 1900. The dead body of Birsa Munda is reported to have been criminated near the distillery bridge Kokar (Ranchi). People say, actually Birsa was buried under the bridge (In 1900 there was no bridge).
The formative period (1886-1894)
Birsa’s long stay at Chaibasa from 1886 to 1890 constituted a formative period of his life. This period was marked by the German and Roman Catholic Christian agitation. Chiabasa was not far from the center of the Sardar’s activities. Birsa was amidst them Eliazer of Kasmar, Gidun of Pi ring. Yohanna of Chapari, Mika of Dabgama, Tenga of Katingkel and Bhutka of Rugri was his own men. One day while Delivering a sermon in the Chaibasa mission attended by Birsa; Dr Nottrott expatiated on the theme of the Kingdom of Heaven, and assured them that if they remained Christians and followed his instructions, he could get back all lands they had lost. Birsa took it to heart. But he received a rude shock when the bark with the missionaries came in 1886-7 and the latter started calling the Sardars cheats. He criticized Dr Nottrott and the missionaries in trenchant terms. They refused to have him in their school any longer, and he was expelled. This was a turning point in his life; he exclaimed sahib, sahib Ek topi hai (all whites, the British and the missionaries, wear the same cap) it was also likely that the sardars might have influenced Sugana Munda in withdrawing his son from, the school. The sardar agitation in which Birsa was caught up put the stamp of its anti-missionary and anti-Government character on his mind. Soon after leaving Chaibasa, in 1890, Birsa and his fame gave up their membership of the Germanmtsslon inline with the Sardar’s movement against it. He apostatized to the Roman Catholics and remained with them for a little while before lapsing into heathenism. This also followed the pattern of the Sardar agitation which turned to the Roman Catholic mission, seeking support for their claims and the disappointed, returned to the old faith. For a year, he also served in the house of Munda at Kander, where his eldest sister Daskir lived.It was probably in 1890 that he went to Bandgaon and came in contact with Anand Panre. He left Corbera in the wake of the mounting Sardar agitation. During these years, he did not keep himself only to the Panres. He participated in the agitation stemming from popular disaffection at the restrictions imposed upon the traditional rights of the Mundas in the protected forest, under the leadership of Gidiun of Piring in the Porhat area. During 1893-4 all waste lands in villages, the ownership of which was vested in the Government, were constituted into protected forests under the Indian Forest Act VII of 1882. In Singhbhum as in Palamau and Manbhum the forest settlement operations were launched and measures were taken to determine the rights of the forest-dwelling communities. Villages in forests were marked off in blocks of convenient size consisting not only of village sites but also cultivable and wastelands sufficient for the needs of villages. Outside the blocks lay the protected forest areas in which rights were regulated, even curtailed. These orders were sometimes not understood by local officers who acted as if all right of forest swelling communities had been curtailed. Petitions were submitted by Jeta Maniki of Gudri, Rasha Maki, Moni Maniki of Durkarpir claiming the resumption of what they called were their old ancestral right to free fuel, grazing etc. Birsa led a number of ryots of Sirgida to Chaibasa with a petition for the remission of forest dues. Men from six other villages had preceded him. Nothing came of it. The Chotanagpur Protected, Forests rules framed under the Indian Forest Act came into force in July 1894. Viewing Birsa’s involvement in the Sardar agitation with concern, Anand Panre advised him not to let his emotion overpowers him; but he would not turn a deaf ear to the inner voice. His three years’ apprenticeship under the Panres came to an end in 1893-4.Birsa Munda (1875-1900) as he is known among his followers was a revolutionary who led his men to rise against the imperial government and its policies. He and his army would attack the British regiments and landlords, armed with bows and arrows and reclaim what was taken away from them. For his bravery and wide support in the entire region, Birsa was a cause of distress for the British government. The British army led several expeditions against him when ultimately he was captured in 1900, by the deceit of his own men. Birsa used the myths and symbols of his society and culture and became a rallying point for people to rise against foreign rule, oppression and injustice. His movement was also infused with the spirit of religious reform, social justice and cultural regeneration. Birsa Munda became Christian while schooling in a Christian mission school at Bulj. It was renamed as Daud. Instead of improving his life, Birsa Munda realised that his culture was destroyed and his lifestyle came down. Because thousands of Mundas were converted, the great martyr Birsa Munda was aggrieved and rebelled against Christianity. He denounced Christianity and become Munda again. The colonialist connection of Christianity was a powerful tool of selling Christianity as the religion of the downtrodden. Any connection between the rulers and the missionaries was however indirect. The districts around Ranchi is still the stronghold of santhals. The tribals still continue to be exploited even 50 years after independence. ‘Diku’ in the local parlance means the outsider who exploited’ the inhabitants. In fact this particular region is fertile and at the same time one of the most mineral-rich regions in the country. The santals are very peace loving and unpretentious tribals. However, modern-day civilization has looted them of everything they possessed, felled their trees, took away their lands, minerals and made a mockery of their age-old rituals and customs. Modern India distinguishes the entire territory as one of its industrialized regions with birth of heavy engineering and mining, and in spite of all the riches, the region continues to be one of the poorest and economically underdeveloped regions. Thus, the fight of Birsa Munda is yet to be over, nonetheless his contributions are immense to his tribe and the nation.
Birsa Munda rose from the lowest rank of peasants to mobilise people against the appropriation of tribal and disintegration of their way of life, economy, and culture by the colonial system. He fought against the predatory tendencies in the name of modernisation and the oppressive Zamindari system, invoking the spirit of tribal order characterised by simplicity, the absence of tyranny, and living in harmony with nature.
He used the myths and symbols of his society and culture and became a rallying point for people to rise against foreign rule, oppression and injustice. His movement was also infused with the spirit of religious reform, social justice and cultural regeneration. He fought against British rule, suffered imprisonment and subsequently became a martyr. Through his struggle, he became a cult figure, a part of the folklore and was even deified by the people as ‘Dharti Abba’. The Bihar Regiment of the Indian Army invokes his name in one of their battle cries. The British authorities suppressed Birsa Munda’s struggle. But it did not go in vain. His fight for the rights of the people for forest resources, land and preservation of their distinct identity was subsequently recognised when the then British Government, through a series of measures, guaranteed tribals right to reclaim their land and empowered officials to forcefully evict the occupation of tribal land by others. The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which partially protected the rights of tribals, is considered as an important outcome of Birsa Munda’s fight. The arduous fight of Birsa Munda against British rule and its ramifications found articulation in the larger context of our struggle for independence when Surendranath Baneljea took up the issue in the Legislative Council and many other leading newspapers of the period editorially supported its cause. The impact of this movement was significant enough that even the British Government that suppressed it, recognised its gravity. This was reflected in the secret report of the then Lt. Governor who wrote, “the disturbance may have quieted down but Simla requires to be constantly reminded that it is sitting on a powder magazine.” The popularity, intensity and relevance of the movement launched by Birsa Munda were so widespread that all the mainstream political groups supported it and eulogised its contributions to arouse the common people to stand against the mighty British empire. Acknowledging his crucial role in awakening the masses of Chota Nagpur against British rule, the Indian National Congress and the Forward Block observed Birsa Day in 1940 with great enthusiasm. The awakening triggered by Birsa Munda found its manifestation in the formation of Kisan Sabha by many tribal groups, which later joined the struggle for freedom. The then British Government was perplexed by the willing and large-scale participation of women in the agitation launched by Birsa. Birsa Munda stood out as an early protagonist of tribal rights, a pioneer in mobilising women for the cause of freedom and as an irrepressible fighter for justice and human dignity. His movement launched in late 19th century has significance for our own times. Today our tribals, in all parts of our country, are fighting for their inalienable rights to land, forest resources and cultural identity. In all such fights, we find an echo of Birsa Munda’s strivings. Today our tribal brothers and sisters are heroically standing against the forces so-called modernisation which runs antithetical to their lifestyle, and understanding of nature and culture. They resist the alarming deterioration of environment as they are the protectors and preservers of “Jal, Jungle and Jantu” and draw our attention to the need for re-examining our concepts of development and progress. They underline the need for truly sustainable development projects. Since the days of our struggle for independence, we have taken steps to guarantee the rights of our tribal brothers and sisters. Our Constitution, the fundamental law of the land, stipulates the provisions for their upliftment.
Birsa Munda and his Movement.
The British colonial system intensified the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into a feudal state. As the tribals with their primitive technology could not generate a surplus, non-tribal peasantry was invited by the chiefs in Chotanagpur to settle on and cultivate the land. This led to the alienation of the lands held by the tribals.