Agrarian movement that jolted colonial rulers

Birsa Munda (1875-1900) emerged as ‘Dharti Aba’ (Father of the Earth) in Munda society and is now being worshipped again as ‘Lord’ or ‘Bhagwan’. He was the prophet, the visionary and the ultimate revolutionary. The short life of Birsa commands profound respect.

Agrarian movement that jolted colonial rulers

Agrarian movement that jolted colonial rulers (representation image)

Birsa Munda (1875-1900) emerged as ‘Dharti Aba’ (Father of the Earth) in Munda society and is now being worshipped again as ‘Lord’ or ‘Bhagwan’. He was the prophet, the visionary and the ultimate revolutionary. The short life of Birsa commands profound respect. Mundas probably are the oldest settlers in the Chhotanagpur area. They used to be found in villages known as ‘khunkatti hatu’; cleaned forest areas for agriculture. Munda society experienced joint ownership of land. Every property in the villages was community property. The Mundas’ methods of agriculture could not produce surplus generation.

Their methods were entirely eco-friendly and they had a vast knowledge of landscape management and water resources. The British Raj in the nineteenth century with the help of local zamindars and middlemen helped establish outsiders, called ‘diku’ by Mundas, to settle in and cultivate the lands of the Mundas. These aliens were non-tribals and land-shark peasants from adjacent areas.

The British Raj wanted more and more revenues in the form of taxes and rent from the surplus agriculture production. They destroyed the Adivasi community land holding pattern and changed it to individual private ownership. Mundas started to lose their lands to ‘dikus’. British agrarian aggression resulted in large-scale deforestation in Adivasi areas for expansion of agricultural land. Due to this agrarian conquest the tribal agrarian order began to disintegrate and their basic social structure was in shambles. Modern civilisation intruded into their lives and dragged them to the so- called ‘main stream,’ although Mahasweta Devi and many others like her believe Adivasis are the mainstream in India. Many Mundas had to emigrate to the tea gardens of Assam as labourers after losing their cultivable land to the ‘dikus’. This was the only option left to them. This was an economic necessity. The truthfulness, honesty and simplicity which were the intrinsic value of the culture of the Mundas were severely hit and damaged. Some of the Mundas adopted the means of deception.


Mundas had great empathy towards nature. Conservation of forests, and worshipping flora and fauna were their tradition. But British aggression looked at forests as a resource base for commercial purposes and they started to establish forest land as the property of the administration. They enacted several Forest Acts in the nineteenth century. The concept of ‘reserve forest’ and ‘protected forest’ in these Acts denied the Adivasis even their traditional rights to collect free firewood, grazing of cattle, collecting fruits and roots and reclamation of lands for cultivation.

Thus the rights of Adivasis to the forests came under siege and started to erode in the British era. There were atrocities too on the religion and beliefs of the Mundas. Sing Bonga, the Sun, was given the chief place in their mythology. Marang Buru, the Great Spirit, is the greatest of divinities having power to do good or evil to the Mundas. The advent of Christian missionaries in the Munda land and conversions started a new chapter. Some of the Mundas converted to Christianity to ensure education and economic assistance from the church.

The number started increasing. This led to another aspect of conflict between the converts and non converts. Tribal solidarity was at stake and the rifts between the two groups deepened. The Christian missionaries tried to detribalise the tribal society. The vertical divide in the name of religion only benefited the British administration. Conflict aggravated over the ownership of the burial ground. Strikingly enough this conflict over a burial ground has come into the news recently in Narayanpur district of Chhattisgarh. In October last year the tribals did not allow use of land to bury a converted Christian.

Mundas reacted to these developments – the twin attacks on land and forest rights and religion – through uprisings called ‘Ulgulan’ against the British Raj. Mundas were facing a severe identity crisis. Birsa emerged as their leader. Kumar Suresh Singh gave an indepth account of the Munda uprising led by Birsa Munda in his book ‘The Dust, Storm and The Hanging Mist’ in 1966, which was renamed as ‘Birsa Munda and His Movement’ in a later edition. Later came the renowned novel of Mahashweta Devi, ‘Aranyer Adhikar’. This novel won the Sahitya Academy Award in 1979. Birsa proclaimed himself as God and ensured he would cure sick people free of cost. People gradually started to believe him and some miraculous cures formed the basis of his reputation as a healer. News spread rapidly.

This earned Birsa followers in many villages. Those who had faith in the ‘Messenger of God’ got cured. Birsa became ‘Dharti Aba’. Followers of Birsa used to gather around him in large numbers with weapons like ‘tangis’ or ‘bow and arrow’. Frightened by these gatherings, the British police arrested Birsa in August 1895. Birsa faced a two-year jail term on the charge of enticing people against the government and was released in November 1897. Soon after his release from jail, Birsa’s followers met him and pleaded that an organisation should be set up to recover the lost rights of the Mundas and to drive away the enemies. Their enemies were precisely the ‘dikus’, European missionaries, and government officials.

The politico-religious preparations were launched and meetings as well as propaganda were organised for the movement against the enemies. ‘People decided the violent way to win back their kingdom as they perceived that legal and peaceful methods bristled with difficulties and might not achieve its goals’. (K S Singh).

‘The movement was agrarian in its roots, violent in its means and political in its stand’, Singh adds. The epidemic of burning and arrow shooting broke out on Christmas eve i.e. on 24 December 1899 as scheduled. It was spontaneous, sudden in its eruption, and violent in fury and passion. The rebels shot with arrows and were brutal in action. They operated over an area of 400 square miles in hilly terrain spread over Singbhum and Ranchi districts, and Chakradharpur, targeting mainly churches and police stations. Khunti was the hotbed of the uprising. In almost the month-long war, Mundas killed quite a few people. But the movement was packed with decades’ long passion and violence smouldered in Mundas’ hearts due to deep rooted and widespread exploitation. The British armed forces retaliated heavily on 9 January 1900 in the hills of Sail Rakab and killed about 400 Mundas – men, women and children – using bullets. The Sail Rakab firing was the beginning of the end. It broke the back of the movement. Birsa was ultimately arrested in February along with about 500 rebels.

The Birsa movement jolted the British government. They started land settlement operations that could provide agrarian security to the Mundas. The subsequent legislation – Tenancy Amendment Act of 1903 – prohibited or restrained Adivasi land transfer by sale or mortgage. This ensured for Munda villagers uninterrupted enjoyment of land tenancy. In the past, when the Mundas refused to pay rent their tenancy was sold. Further the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act VI 1908 safeguarded various Munda rights. Most importantly the government became empowered to forcibly eject any alien from Khunkatti villages. The Munda ‘Ulgulan’ ultimately emerged triumphant. Ulihatu village was the birthplace of Birsa. Their house was made of bamboo strips but without mud, plaster or a secure roof.

Abject poverty was a daily companion of the family. Birsa’s education was up to the upper primary. His family converted to Christianity but later reconverted. Birsa fought for complete independence, both religious and political. He inculcated self-confidence in the Munda community; moved from village to village in the jungles, and prepared the Mundas for the Ulgulan.

He died in Ranchi jail on 9 June 1900. He was suave and timid – one flute was always tied to his waist – but a ‘dangerous agitator’ and a great threat to the British administration. Birsa lived an extraordinary life. He was no ordinary person.

(The writer is a Cost Accountant working for a public sector utility as General Manager (Finance & Accounts. The views expressed are personal.)