Setting the Record Straight on Birsa Munda and His Political Legacy

Although the role of Birsa Munda has been seminal in championing the Adivasi cause, his political movements and legacy have been distorted, like other prominent Indian historical figures, including B R Ambedkar and M K Gandhi. Despite misrepresentations, Birsa Munda and his politics continue to inspire not just Adivasis but also Dalits and other marginalised sections in their pursuit of attaining social justice.    

 

Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was a celebrated Adivasi freedom fighter, who represented grassroot leadership in the multi-coloured Indian nationalist struggle against the British colonial rule. In Khunti district of Jharkhand, the nerve centre of his ulgulan (total revolt) from where he fought the British, between 1895 and 1900, he is still fondly reminisced in Mundari folk songs and folk tales. Until the 1920s, there had hardly been any historical account of Birsa and his ulgulan either by the British officials and Christian missionaries, or by Indian scholars. Only a few of Birsa’s disciples quietly recorded various aspects relating to his life relying on their memory. Notable among them was an account by Bharmi Munda (circa 1920). However, these were in manuscript mode and could not be circulated.    

In the mid 20th century, the first biographies on Birsa Munda began to appear in print in the wake of Indian independence movement, when the role of Adivasis in the freedom struggle had been recognised, and the question of their future in the new nation was being discussed. These publications by Muchirai Tiru (1949) and P G Purty (1951), both Adivasis, have relied upon their memory and a few manuscripts on Birsa, diligently preserved by his followers. Published locally, these books recovered Birsa from obscurity and put his life and works before the nation. The Jharkhand movement, highlighting Adivasi issues, and Adim Jati Seva Mandal, a national social work agency involved in Adivasi welfare, published Tiru’s book to add to the knowledge on Birsa. As sketchy details spread, admiration for Birsa rose resulting in the employment of Birsa’s persona and legacy for political action. Thus, Birsa came about to reflect Adivasi aspiration, assertion, and liberation across the country. Currently, he inspires movements and causes that work with an aim to deliver social justice to Adivasis, Dalits, among other marginalised sections. 

From Obscurity to Fame

The early publications on Birsa Munda have stimulated scholars to carry out a detailed work around his life and political movement. The life and political movements of Adivasi freedom fighters have been generally neglected by academics and writers. For instance, Chakra Bisoyi of Kondh revolt (1850), Sidhu and Kanhu of the Santhal revolt (1855–56), Thammandora of Rampa rebellion (1879–80), Bantu Parja and Syamnath Dhakad of Bastar rebellion or Bhumkal,  Jatra Uraon of Tana Bhagat movement (1914–21), Rani Guidinliu of Naga revolt (1932) have been neglected by academics.

In the huge corpus of writings on India's freedom struggle, including voluminous Towards Freedom (1937–47) publications by the Indian Council of Historical Research, historians rarely cared to deal with the subject matter of Adivasi freedom fighters. Despite such a scenario, Birsa has emerged as a privileged among the lot of Adivasi freedom fighters. After the independence, the Government of Bihar published a book titled the History of the Freedom Movement in Bihar (1957) and included a chapter on Birsa by historian Kalikinkar Datta, who had earlier published a book on Santhal rebellion (1940). The chapter is, perhaps, the first academic writing on Birsa Munda. 

Although Datta confined Birsa to 10 pages in a large book of 640 pages, nonetheless, it stoked research interest on the subject. Then, Bihar Tribal Research Institute undertook a project on the life of Birsa leading to the publication of Life and Times of Birsa Bhagwan by S P Sinha (1964). Concurrently, a young civil servant, K Suresh Singh, as a doctoral student at University of London, began working on the life of Adivasi leader and published his biography in 1966. Ever since, interest around his life and social movements have grown widely. It is no exaggeration but Birsa is now a well-discussed subject in social science journals and other fora. 

The scholarly trajectory on Birsa has been noteworthy. Initially, scholars like Datta and Sinha attempted to dovetail Birsa’s role to the mainstream nationalist awakening. The idea was to fill up the gap in terms of participation of Adivasis in the freedom struggle, which had been overlooked thus far. From appendix treatment, the subject has developed into a formidable topic to lend substance to leading theories in the world historiography. Well-known scholars Michael Adas (1979) and Ranajit Guha (1999) have cited Birsa Munda to build the theory of millenarianism and subaltern school respectively. 

The growing importance for Birsa Munda in scholarly work has also provided subject material to popular literature and cinema. It has inspired the publication of popular books by the National Book Trust and the publications division of the union government. In 1977, Sahitya Akademi Award-winning novel Aranyer Adhikar (in Bengali, and it was later translated into Hindi as Jangal Ke Davedar), centred on the life of Birsa Munda, was authored by distinguished writer Mahasweta Devi. The novel is based on the historical account brought to the fore by Suresh Singh. Film-makers have not lagged behind either. A few good documentaries have given cinematic expression to Brisa’s life and social movements. Some notable documentaries are: “Birsa Munda” by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (2016), “Birsa Munda: The Real Hero” by Doordarshan (2018) and “Birsa Munda” by Prasar Bharati Archives (2019). 

Paradox of Popularity 

As the repertoire of academic, literary, and artistic works underscored his role, the nation recognised Birsa Munda as a prominent freedom fighter. As a rare token of honour, Birsa has been endowed with two memorials in Parliament: a 14-feet statue in the Parliament complex and a portrait inside the Parliament building. Another notable tribute to Birsa has been the choice of 15 November 2000 by the Government of India coinciding with his birth anniversary as the appointed day for the formation of the state of Jharkhand. The idea has been to uphold the spirit of Birsa to protect Adivasis, in whose interest the new state came into being, and to convey the government’s resolve of continuing the same. Besides these, commemorative monuments have been erected at Birsa’s birthplace, Ulihatu village. Many more monuments of Birsa and various other ways of commemorating him have since followed. Plans are afoot by the Government of Jharkhand to install his large statue at the old Birsa Munda Jail in Ranchi where he died. 

Paradoxically, while the fame of Birsa Munda augmented, popular and scholarly literature alike has nurtured certain misconceptions around him. This leaves Birsa as half-understood, and at times, even misunderstood. A Yale University study projects Birsa as a mere extortionist in the garb of fighting for agrarian rights on behalf of Adivasi peasants, and neither an anti-colonialist nor a nationalist (Chandra 2016). A London University study echoes the same to view Birsa’s revolt “not [as] an anti-colonial rebellion of the tribal freedom fighters per se” (Shah 2014: 3). Another set of writings, especially by Christian missionaries and their ilk, depict Birsa as an immature “fanatic” and an adventurist with floating ideas; his leadership is said to embody “exaggerated and distorted expression” of Adivasi awareness (Anonymous 1911: 545; O’Connor 1901). Lastly, Birsa has been portrayed as a sectarian—pro-Hindu and anti-Christian—instead of leading diverse Adivasi masses. That Birsa devised his own religion to be used as a mobilising force without undermining the allegiance of his followers from other faiths has also been ignored (Tiru 1949; Hoffman and Emelen 2015: 570). 

The criticism against Birsa from colonialists and missionaries is understandable. Birsa, after all, unexpectedly emerged as a fierce adversary on their way. Even his portrayal as Hindu is imaginable. The mid-20th century popular nationalism plainly perceived Adivasis as “backward Hindus” (Ghurye 1943). Strangely, the misconception on Birsa has even forayed into advance academic knowledge since. This is because existing scholarship lacks the courage to free itself from the romanticisation of Adivasi as “primitive” always tending to resort to the destined paths of violence or millenarianism when placed in a crisis, best characterised by Birsa’s uprising. This syndrome inhibits scholars to discern a working resilient psyche behind Adivasis’ political actions (Bara 2009). To read such psyche, scholars have to indulge in the “re-reading [of] the colonial archive” than simultaneously making an effort to explore alternative sources (Chandra 2016: 2).  

The dereliction of scholarship to free itself from preconceived notions lets old ideas on Birsa to become narrative. In the recent years, particularly since the formation of the state of Jharkhand in 2000, as the political use of Birsa’s name has thrived, it has become amply clear. Some of the aforementioned admiration for and criticism against Birsa have been invoked for partisan political ends. For example, the disregarding of Birsa’s efforts for the Adivasi cause, the praising of the “constructive” role of Christians adherents and individual missionaries, and the installation of Birsa’s arch-rival Jesuit J B Hoffman’s statue in the region by the church have been dubbed as “insult” to Birsa (Dey 2019). Birsa’s character has been tarnished in a blatant manner. Historical facts about his life and ideas have been distorted at will. These developments taint the image of Birsa Munda as an Adivasi mass leader. This state of affairs tears apart the soul of Birsa.

The Real Birsa 

There is nothing spectacular about Birsa Munda’s early life, which was steeped in misery. Like most Adivasis of the time, his family suffered from extensive deprivation and displacement at the hands of landlords. In the dire need for livelihood, Birsa adopted a peripatetic life, moving from one village to another. From a harsh childhood, he grew up into a young intelligent man. Yet, haunted by early bitter experiences, he was sensitive to the suffering in the Adivasi society. His youthful smile was thus eclipsed by a pensive and thoughtful look.

Socially, Birsa had an eclectic upbringing. Christian missionaries preaching in the area drew his family to Christianity. Birsa was baptised as Daud. Christianity took him to mission schools and provided him with middle-school level education, including a smattering of English. Within Christianity, his first association was with the German Protestant Mission, and later, briefly, with the Roman Catholic mission. From Christianity, he again switched back to Munda animism. Birsa was even influenced by Hinduism of the kind propagated by Kabir Panth, which was prevalent in the area. He also came under the spell of Anand Panre, a lower caste local guru. Next, Birsa witnessed a flurry of activities of the Sardari Larai movement (1858–95), which worked towards the restoration of Adivasi rights through petitions and depositions to authorities. Emerging Adivasi issues deeply influenced young Birsa’s mind. These life experiences had an influence on the leadership methods he adopted for the Adivasi cause. 

As the legend goes, the idea of leading Adivasis occurred to Birsa when struck by a lightning and his face glowed and became reddish, which has been described by his followers as the moment when Birsa was delivered divine power and the ability to perform supernatural acts. Seeing crowds converging on him, Birsa assumed the role of a religious guru—“Bhagwan” or “Dharti Aba”—and a messiah of the crisis-ridden Adivasi society. He devised his own religious tenets, practices, and prayers, drawing upon Hinduism, Christianity, and Munda beliefs. Channelling people’s support for religious belief into political action, Birsa forayed into the agrarian cause, which had already gained traction by then. At that time, Sardari Larai agitators had already been fed up with their long-drawn constitutional non-violent methods. Birsa became their new hope. Large cadres of Sardari Larai from different parts of Chhotanagpur, many Christians, and Uraons and Kharias joined Birsa. His “ardent” followers were tenacious on the land rights question (Hoffmann and Emelen 2015: 567). Birsa’s religious work took a back seat, with agrarian issues coming to the fore. This development catapulted Birsa into a mass leader.  

Framing the Foes

Though supported by the Sardari Larai movement, Birsa emerged in his own right. He injected new radicalism into existing agitations in three ways. First, Birsa was outright in declaring all foreigners—colonialists, Christian missionaries, landlords, and other exploiters—as dikus (Adivasis’ enemies). This was a remarkable departure from Sardari Larai leaders who tended towards showing loyalty, openly in the beginning, to the king of Chhotanagpur, the symbol of landlordism, and were reluctant to distance themselves from European authorities and missionaries. Second, while Sardari Larai believed in the constitutional method of agitation for years, despite half-hearted government responses and officials’ stony indifference to the Adivasi cause, Birsa ordered his followers to arm themselves for a concerted resistance. Third, in the place of Sardari Larai’s vague notion about “Munda Raj,” Birsa propounded the idea of a “Munda disum,” a call to gain freedom from all diku elements, and the British colonial rule was perceived as the mother of all of them, and had to be done away with completely. 

With these firm ideas in mind, Birsa identified friends and foes of Adivasis. The enemies were named, in local expression, as “Rajas, Hakims, Zamindars, Christians and Samsars (non-Christians),” whom Birsa asked his followers to attack (Anonymous 1911: 549). Although it could appear like ethnic or religious cleansing, the fact remains otherwise. The guiding principle to fix the target was to see who was the direct exploiter or the source of exploitation. The poor non-Adivasis sharing day-to-day life with Adivasis were assured not to worry. Similarly, Christian Adivasis, initially considered as the agents of missionaries and came under attacks, were later conveyed not to fear (Hoffmann 1900).

Zamindars, the traditional exploiters, were among the most hated foes. The Raja (king) of Chhotanagpur was seen as a usurper of the authority from manki Munda (a chief of a group of villages). Believing that the inscription of Raja’s authority was kept in his official shrine, Chutia Temple, the first operation of Birsa upon his release from jail in 1997 was to lead a midnight attack on the shrine. Birsa also attacked British rulers, the key enemy and the patron of zamindars and other dikus. Christian missionaries were considered alongside the colonial rulers with the slogan of "topi topi ek topi," meaning hat-donning white men, whether officials or missionaries, are of the same breed (Hoffmann and Emelen 2015: 567). Birsa felt that, despite personal proximity with the officials, missionaries never strived for Adivasi justice, rather they informed the authorities about Birsa’s activities from villages (Hoffmann 1900). Thus, missionary and government establishments were attacked together.    

Unveiling a New Era

Against the sophisticated guns of the British army, traditional weapons of Adivasi rebels were no match. But Birsa’s spirit and method of organising the ulgulan conveyed to the British authorities the message from Adivasis and its importance. After Birsa’s initial attacks, the British initiated a permanent measure by the Commutation Act of 1997 to discontinue the feudal practice of Bethbegari (forced labour). This culminated, following Birsa’s second phase of assault (1899), in the survey and settlement of Chhotanagpur, and the promulgation of Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act, 1908, supposedly a Magna Carta for the protection of Adivasis (Fraser 1908).

Peculiarly, when the colonial government began to act, Jesuit missionary J B Hoffmann, an arch-enemy of Birsa, stationed at Sarwada, was roped in. An expert on the Munda land system and culture for over a decade, he was solicited by the government authorities for expert advice.[1] Hoffmann was asked to draft the CNT Act, 1908 based on the Munda land system, prevalent in the area for centuries. 

The British move impelled by Birsa’s struggle created an impression in the Adivasi psyche that land question was now a settled matter. The ulgulan also prompted the administrative expansion of the region, which opened education-based new job opportunities, encouraging Adivasis to focus on attaining education. This ushered in a new era of Adivasi development. Birsa Munda and his times reflect a case of Adivasi agility against the oppression of British colonialism. This was markedly different from the narrative of an atavistic, “primitive” tribal mind as it had been perceived until then. The vigour not only inspired Adivasis to devise and experiment with different modes of protest but also influenced prevalent dominant views. Of the autonomous origin, Birsa’s revolt was pristinely anti-colonial, concerned also with the reconstruction of small local Adivasi society under colonial ruination.

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