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Birsa Munda – the son of the soil who dared to take on mighty British

He revived the traditional tribal culture which was being negatively affected by the Christian missionaries.

Debanjana Banerjee | Kolkata |

The mighty British Empire was the sole superpower of its time. After the failed 1857, better known as Sipoy Mutiny, Queen Victoria of Great Britain took over the reign of power from the East India Company and assumed the title Kaisar-i-Hind. So powerful was the empire at its peak that few could raise voice against regime.

Against this backdrop, emerged a tribal youth who rekindled the hope of freedom. He not only challenged the tyrannical and exploitative rulers but also rose in revolt against the British. It was Birsa Munda, the 22-year-old tribal youth who had gave sleepless nights to the tyrannous British rulers.

Born in Ulihatu of the Lohardaga district of then Bengal presidency (now the Khunti district of Jharkhand) to Karmi Hatu (mother) and Sugana Munda (father) on November 15, 1875, Birsa belonged to the Munda tribe, the central Indian tribe, found mainly in the south and east Chotanagpur Plateau.

He is known for his revolt against Christian missionaries and their conversion activities. He initiated the Munda revolt due to the unfair land grabbing practices of the colonial and local authorities that demolished the conventional tribal land system.

He revived the traditional tribal culture which was being negatively affected by the Christian missionaries. His was the first revolt against the British after 18 57.

His heroic exploits are itched in the memories of the nation. There are several memorials, organisations and bodies named after him – Birsa Munda Airport Ranchi, Birsa Institute of Technology Sindri, Birsa Munda Vanvasi Chattravas, Kanpur, Sidho Kanho Birsha University, Purulia, and Birsa Agricultural University.

Even the war cry of Bihar Regiment is Birsa Munda Ki Jai (Victory to Birsa Munda).

Early Life and Education
The early years of Birsa Munda’s life were spent in Ulihatu with his parents. Like any other Munda boy, his childhood days were also spent playing in the sand and dust with other boys.

After growing into a strong and handsome boy, he started grazing sheep in the Bohonda forest. As he grow, he developed an affinity with music. He used to play flute and tuila (a one-stringed instrument made from a pumpkin). A major part of his childhood was spent in the akhara (village wrestling ground) too.

Struck by poverty, Birsa moved to his maternal uncle’s village, Ayubhatu and lived for two years there. He attended a school at Salga, run by Jaipal Nag.
Jaipal Nag advised Birsa to join the German Mission School as he was a very bright student. Birsa joined the school and converted to Christianity. He was named Birsa David, which later became Birsa Daud. Seeing the ill-treatment to the Indians by the British and the Christian missionaries, Birsa became disillusioned and left the German Mission School and ceased to be a Christian.

Dharti Aba (Father of the Earth)
After learning about the intentions of the British to convert the tribal people into Christianity, he started a new faith, Birsait. The new religion worshipped only one God. Soon it became popular among the Mundas and the Oraons. He became their leader and was given the nickname, ‘Dharti Aba’ or the father of the earth.

Birsa encouraged the tribe to stick to their traditions and get back their tribal roots. He also started preaching a strong anti-British sentiment. Whenever the Indian freedom struggle is talked of, the few common names come to our mind. But there are thousands of heroes who have been forgotten. Birsa Munda is one such pioneer freedom fighter who helped initiate the freedom fight long before the dates in the history books.

Munda’s slogan – “Abua raj ete jana, maharani raj tundu jana” meaning ‘Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established’ – threatened the British Raj. Even a reward of Rs. 500 was set for Birsa.

In March 1900, Munda was arrested while fighting the British. On June 9, the same year, he died, while being in custody.

Birsa Munda not only fought the British but also for the rights of tribal people. He helped abolish the feudal system which afflicted the Adivasi lands in Bihar and Jharkhand. In 1908, almost a decade after his death, the British government introduced the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act (CTN). The act prohibits the transfer of tribal lands to the non-tribals.

The date of formation of the Jharkhand state coincides with the tribal leader, Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary. On November 15, 2000, the Bihar Reorganisation Act was passed and Jharkhand was declared the 28th state of India.

Janjatiya Gaurav Divas
At a Union cabinet meeting held on November 10, 2021, Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary was decided to be celebrated as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas. The tribal celebrate his birth anniversary and the official celebration takes place at his samadhi sthal (mausoleum) in Kokar, near Ranchi.

Art and Literature on Munda
Movies:
1. Ulgulan – Ek Kranti, a Hindi film by Ashok Saran was made in 2004. The character of Birsa Munda was played by Deepraj Rana.
2. Birsa Munda – The Black Iron Man was released in 2004, a film by Rajesh Mittal.
3. Gandhi Se Pehle Gandhi appeared in 2008 and was directed by Iqbal Durran.
4. Bhagwan Birsa Munda a biographical short film by Rajan Khosa released in 2020.
Books:
1. Gandhi Se Pehle Gandhi – a novel by Iqbal Durran, based on Birsa Munda’s life.
2. Aranyer Adhikar – a novel by Mahasweta Devi, based on Birsa’s life and the Munda Rebellion against the British Raj. She won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Bengali in 1979 for the novel.

During the Indian freedom struggle, many heroes were born whose names are written in golden letters. Their courage transformed their voice into slogans and contributed to making India free. He is worshipped like a God in the tribal areas of Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh.