PhD student, Rahul Ranjan, introduces Birsa Munda, the radical Indian freedom fighter, religious leader and folk hero who spearheaded a tribal religious Millenarian movement that rose out of modern-day Bihar and Jharkhand in the late 19th century.
In the late 19th century, colonial India witnessed a massive upsurge in resistance movements led by Adivasi (indigenous people) in the eastern part of the country called Chota Nagpur.
These movements, including that led by the young tribal freedom fighter Birsa Munda, happened against the backdrop of a history of exploitation, and land alienation. Although these issues predated the advent of the British Empire, they were augmented by the arrival of the colonial officials.
With the coming of British administration, the existing system of feudal-landlordism, which was generative of apathy for the ‘original settlers’ in the area, was further entrenched by the legal-political edifice established by the empire. These laws brought about massive changes to the existing system of land governance.
The new laws followed an imperial legal framework that worked on individual ownership, and rights. The changes were not just laid down in law, they also impacted the traditional system that had survived through collective ownership and oral history. Moreover, the legal-political changes penetrated the country’s social folds and disrupted the harmony that had been sustained for generations.
It was against this background of systemic violence witnessed by the Munda adivasi that Birsa Munda mobilised the tribal community and rose against the British, missionaries and the zamindars (landlords). He rallied people by employing a method of religiosity – where he declared himself as the prophet commissioned by the gods to retrieve the lost ‘Munda Raj’.
His methods are critically studied by the millenarian/messianic movement which often considers that the core of such movement lack a substantial agenda, and is led by the force of misguided liberation. However; recent scholarship has contested these views pointing out that such a notion fails to address the political consciousness of the community, and Birsa Munda in particular.
Birsa Munda was a visionary whose own experiences allowed him to understand what the people from his community were suffering. He did not only attempt to wage protests and lead anti-colonial movements, but envisioned a radical rupture in the historical continuity of oppression, dominance and exploitation. His rebellion was a representation of lived experiences of a Munda as a convert Christian, who was raised in a colonial state under a belief system that belittled his own. This was also at a time when tribal people were losing their history and culture.
He cannot, and must not, be seen only as a figure who shook the plinths of the British Empire and the missionaries, but also the internal colonialists – the zamindars (landlords). In fact, his rebellion left such an impression on the colonial state that officials were forced to introduce new legislation – the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act – that ensured the protection of the Munda’s land rights.
Unlike other rebellions that are documented in historical texts, Birsa Munda’s achievements have received little recognition. This is not to deny the works that do continue to tell of his struggles, but this story of the young tribal revolutionary certainly needs to be told more often.
Even though the movement he led faded after his death on 9 June 1900 at the age of 25, Birsa Munda’s struggle continues in different forms and in a different time. This is especially important when we see how the historic legislation that came out of fight against oppression has been diluted.
Rahul Ranjan is a PhD student at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His research focuses on ‘Birsa Munda and His Rebellion: An Oral History and Memory of Adivasi in Jharkhand (India)’.