Today marks the 121st death anniversary of Birsa Munda. Birsa was a social leader in colonial India, and died at the age of 24 in jail in 1900. He was born on 15th November 1875; he belonged to the Munda tribe from the Chota Nagpur Plateau region. He lead the Dharti Aba Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan or Call for Revolt, known to be a significant revolt of tribals/adivasis, against feudalism, Brahminism and colonialism, and for the goal of self rule of tribals.
He spent a large part of his childhood in regions of Adivasi hinterlands, as his parents often migrated to many parts in these areas. He received his early education in Chalkad with the guidance of his teacher, Jaipal Nag. After this, he studied in the German Missionary school, on the recommendation of his teacher.
He lead the revolt against the Brittish Raj in 1895 to demand forest dues in lieu of land taken away belonging to tribals. From 1897 to 1900, Birsa led anti-feudal and anti-government agitations involving guerrilla warfare to attack Brittish troops and strongholds. This lead to a Rs. 500 reward announced for his arrest.
Hindu feudal landordism over Adivasi lands had been consolidated in Central India with the help of the British by mid-19th Century. The immigration of Hindu landlords or Jagirs, Christian missionaries and extension of British tax system to the domain of the Munda tribe, allowed for such a consolidation, and negatively altered the socio-economic conditions and cultural practices of the Mundas and other tribal communities in the region. Many were trapped due to debt, under the exploitative tax collecting regime, which sought to police, govern and control the territories and resources of indigenous rulers.
Birsa’s revolt was one not only against colonialism but also against Brahminism of landlords. Simultaneously, other anti-Brahminical movements in Central India were beginning to taking shape. Ghasi Das in Chhattishgarh, Bhim Bhoi in Odisha and Jotirao Phule in Maharastra, are few examples of this. Munda envisioned for an independence from oppressive, political as well religious, hegemony, with the establishment of an ideal agrarian order. One that is free from landlords, colonial authorities, and missionaries. Birsa also was the founder of the “sarna” religion which went against superstition, and aimed to assert an Adivasi way of life in new form.
Birsa’s contemporaries such as Phule and Bhim Bhoi, as well as many other revolutionaries to come, have looked to Birsa’s example of asserting a counter-culture of the oppressed to break away from dominant cultural systems.