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Birsa Munda pronunciation (help·info); 15 November 1875 – 9 June 1900) was an Indian tribal freedom fighter, religious leader, and folk hero who belonged to the Munda tribe. He spearheaded a tribal religious millenarian movement that arose in the Bengal Presidency (now Jharkhand) in the late 19th century, during the British Raj, thereby making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement. The revolt mainly concentrated in the Munda belt of Khunti, Tamar, Sarwada and Bandgaon.
|Died||9 June 1900 (aged 24)|
|Movement||Indian independence movement|
Birsa Munda was born on 15 November 1875, at Ulihatu in Lohardaga district of Bengal Presidency—now in Khunti district of Jharkhand—on a Thursday (Some sources claim he was born on 18 July 1872, and not in 1875) and hence named after that day, according to the then prevalent Munda custom. The folk songs reflect popular confusion and refer to Ulihatu or Chalkad as his birthplace. Ulihatu was the birthplace of Sugana Munda, father of Birsa. The claim of Ulihatu rests on Birsa's elder brother Komta Munda living in the village, where his house still exists albeit in a dilapidated condition.
Birsa's father, mother Karmi Hatu, and younger brother, Pasna Munda, left Ulihatu and proceeded to Kurumbda, near Birbanki, in search of employment as labourers (sajhedari) or crop-sharers (ryots). At Kurumbda, Birsa's elder brother, Komta, and his sister, Daskir, were born. From there the family moved to Bamba where Birsa's elder sister Champa was born.
Birsa's early years were spent with his parents at Chalkad. His early life could not have been very different from that of an average Munda child. Folklore refers to his rolling and playing in sand and dust with his friends, and his growing up strong and handsome in looks; he grazed sheep in the forest of Bohonda. When he grew up, he shared an interest in playing the flute, in which he became an expert. He went around with the tuila, the one-stringed instrument made from the pumpkin, in the hand and the flute strung to his waist. Exciting moments of his childhood were spent on the akhara (the village wrestling ground). One of his ideal contemporaries and who went out with him, however, heard him speak of strange things.
Driven by poverty Birsa was taken to Ayubhatu, his maternal uncle's village. Komta Munda, his eldest brother, who was ten years of age, went to Kundi Bartoli, entered the service of a Munda, married and lived there for eight years, and then joined his father and younger brother at Chalkad. At Ayubhatu Birsa lived for two years. He went to school at Salga, run by one Jaipal Nag. He accompanied his mother's younger sister, Joni, who was fond of him, when she was married, to Khatanga, her new home. He came in contact with a Christian missionary who visited a few families in the village which had been converted to Christianity and attacked the old Munda order.
As he was sharp in studies, Jaipal Nag recommended him to join German Mission School but, converting to Christianity was compulsory to join the school and Birsa thus converted to Christianity and was renamed as Birsa David, which later became as Birsa Daud. After studying for few years, he left German Mission School.
Formative period (1886–1894)Edit
Birsa's long stay at Chaibasa from 1886 to 1890 constituted a formative period of his life. This period was marked by the German and Roman Catholic Christian agitation. In light of the freedom struggle, Sugana Munda withdrew his son from the school. Soon after leaving Chaibasa in 1890 Birsa and his family gave up their membership of the German mission and ceased to be Christian and reverted to his original traditional tribal religious system.
He left Gorbera in the wake of the mounting Sardar agitation. He participated in the agitation stemming from popular disaffection at the restrictions imposed upon the traditional rights of the Mundas in the protected forest, under the leadership of Gidiun of Piring in the Porhat area. During 1893–94 all waste lands in villages, the ownership of which was vested in the Government, were constituted into protected forests under the Indian Forest Act VII of 1882. In West Singhbhum as in Lohardaga, the forest settlement operations were launched and measures were taken to determine the rights of the forest-dwelling communities. Villages in forests were marked off in blocks of convenient size consisting not only of village sites but also cultivable and wastelands sufficient of the needs of villages. In 1894, Birsa had grown up into a strong young man, shrewd and intelligent, and undertook the work of repairing the Dombari tank at Gerbera damaged by rains.
While on a sojourn in the neighbourhood of village Sankara in West Singhbhum district, he found a suitable companion, presented her parents with jewels and explained to her his idea of marriage. Later, on his return from jail, he did not find her faithful to him and left her. Another woman who served him at Chalkad was the sister of Mathias Munda. On his release from prison, the daughter of Mathura Muda of Koensar who was kept by Kali Munda, and the wife of Jaga Munda of Jiuri insisted on becoming wives of Birsa. He rebuked them and referred the wife of Jaga Munda to her husband. Another rather well-known woman who stayed with Birsa was Sali of Burudih.
Birsa stressed monogamy at a later stage in his life. Birsa rose from the lowest ranks of the peasants, the ryots, who unlike their namesakes elsewhere enjoyed far fewer rights in the Mundari khuntkatti system; while all privileges were monopolized by the members of the founding lineage, the ryots were no better than crop-sharers. Birsa's own experience as a young boy, driven from place to place in search of employment, given him an insight into the agrarian question and forest matters; he was no passive spectator but an active participant in the movement going on in the neighbourhood.
Birsa's claim to be a messenger of God and the founder of a new religion sounded preposterous to the missionaries. There were also within his sect converts from Christianity, mostly Sardars. His simple system of the offering was directed against the church which levied a tax. The concept of one God appealed to his people who found his religion and economical religion healer, a miracle-worker, and a preacher spread. The Mundas, Oraons, and Kharias flocked to Chalkad to see the new prophet and to be cured of their ills. Both the Oraon and Munda population up to Barwari and Chechari became convinced Birsaities. Contemporary and later folk songs commemorate the tremendous impact of Birsa on his people, their joy and expectations at his advent. The name of Dharti Aba was on everybody's lips. A folk song in Sadani showed that the first impact cut across the lines of caste Hindus and Muslims also flocked to the new Sun of religion.
Birsa Munda started to advise tribal people to pursue their original traditional tribal religious system. Impressed by his teachings, he became a prophet figure to the tribal people and they sought his blessings.
Birsa Munda's slogan threatening the British Raj—Abua raj ste jana, maharani raj tundu jana ("Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established")—is remembered today in areas of Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh.
The British colonial system intensified the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into a feudal state. As the tribals with their primitive technology could not generate a surplus, the non-tribal peasantry was invited by the chiefs in Chhotanagpur to settle on and cultivate the land. This led to the alienation of the lands held by the tribals. The new class of Thikadars was of a more rapacious kind and eager to make the most of their possessions.
In 1856 Jagirs stood at about 600, and they held from a village to 150 villages. But by 1874, the authority of the old Munda or Oraon chiefs had been almost entirely annulled by that of the farmers, introduced by the landlords. In some villages, they had completely lost their proprietary rights and had been reduced to the position of farm labourers.
To the twin challenges of agrarian breakdown and culture change, Birsa along with the Munda responded through a series of revolts and uprisings under his leadership. In 1895, in Chalkad village of Tamar, Birsa Munda renounced Christianity, asked his fellow tribesmen to worship only one God and give up the worship of bongas.
He declared himself a prophet who had come to recover the lost kingdom of his people. He said that the reign of Queen Victoria was over and the Munda Raj had begun. He gave orders to the raiyats (tenant farmers) to pay no rents. The Mundas called him Dharati Aba, the father of earth.
Due to a rumour that those who didn't follow Birsa would be massacred, Birsa was arrested on 24 August 1895 and sentenced to two-year imprisonment. On 28 January 1898, after being released from jail he went with his followers to Chutia to collect the record and to re-establish racial links with the temple. He said that the temple belonged to the Kols. The Christian missionaries wanted to arrest Birsa and his followers, who were threatening their ability to make converts. Birsa went underground for two years but attending a series of secret meetings. During this period he visited the Jagarnath Temple.
It is said that around 7000 men and women assembled around Christmas of 1899, to herald the Ulgulaan (revolution) which soon spread to Khunti, Tamar, Basia, and Ranchi. The Anglican Mission at Murhu and the Roman Catholic Mission at Sarwada were the main targets. The Birsaits openly declared that the real enemies were the British and not Christian Mundas and called for a decisive war against the British. For two years, they attacked places loyal to the British.
On 5 January 1900, Birsa's followers killed two constables at Etkedih. On 7 January, they attacked Khunti Police station, killed a constable, and razed the houses of local shopkeepers. The commissioner, A. Fobes, and deputy commissioner, H.C. Streattfield, rushed to Khunti with an army of 150 to crush the rebellion. The British administration set a reward of Rs 500 for Birsa. The British forces attacked Munda guerillas at Dumbari Hill, indiscriminately firing on and killing hundreds of people. Birsa escaped to the hills of Singhbhum.
He was arrested at Jamkopai forest in Chakradharpur on 3 March 1900. According to Deputy commissioner Ranchi, vide letter, 460 tribals were made accused in 15 different criminal cases, out of which 63 were convicted. One was sentenced to death, 39 to transportation for life and 23 to imprisoned for terms up to fourteen years. There were six deaths, including that of Birsa Munda in the prison during trials. Birsa Munda died in the jail on 9 June 1900.
In popular cultureEdit
His birth anniversary, which falls on 15 November, is still celebrated by tribal people as far away as Mysore and Kodagu districts in Karnataka. The official celebration takes place at his samadhi sthal (mausoleum) in the Kokar neighbourhood of Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand.
Today, there are a number of organizations, bodies and structures named after him, notably Birsa Munda Airport Ranchi, Birsa Institute of Technology Sindri, Birsa Munda Vanvasi Chattravas, Kanpur, Sidho Kanho Birsha University, Purulia, and Birsa Agricultural University. The war cry of Bihar Regiment is Birsa Munda Ki Jai (Victory to Birsa Munda).
In 2004, a Hindi film, Ulgulan-Ek Kranti (The Revolution) was made by Ashok Saran. Deepraj Rana played Birsa Munda in the film, and 500 Birsaits (followers of Birsa) appeared as extras. Another film, Birsa Munda - The Black Iron Man, by Rajesh Mittal was released the same year.
In 2008, a Hindi film based on the life of Birsa, Gandhi Se Pehle Gandhi (Gandhi Before Gandhi), was directed by Iqbal Durran, based on his own novel of the same name. Bhagwan Birsa Munda, an Indian biographical short film by Rajan Khosa, was released in 2020.
Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, writer-activist Mahasweta Devi's historical fiction, Aranyer Adhikar (Right to the Forest, 1977), a novel for which she won the Sahitya Akademi Award for Bengali in 1979, is based on his life and the Munda Rebellion against the British Raj in the late 19th century; she later wrote an abridged version Birsa Munda, specifically for young readers.
Ulgulan, the annual college festival of the National University of Study and Research in Law, in Ranchi, is inspired by the freedom struggle of Birsa Munda.
Gopi Nainar, the director of Aramm, is set to direct a movie, in Tamil, on the life of Birsa Munda. Well known Tamil director and anti-caste activist Pa. Ranjith will direct a Hindi movie which is based on Birsa Munda's life.
He is commemorated in the names of the following institutions and organizations:
- Birsa Agricultural University
- Birsa Institute of Technology
- Birsa College, Khunti
- Birsa Institute of Technology Sindri
- Sidho Kanho Birsha University
- Birsa Munda Athletics Stadium
- Birsa Munda Airport
- Birsa Munda Central Jail
- Birsa Seva Dal, a controversial defunct organization
- Birsa Munda Tribal University
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He was lodged in Ranchi jail, for trial along with his 482 followers where he died on 9 June 1900.
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- Biography for Mahasweta Devi Archived 26 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine " Ramon Magsaysay Award Official website. "
- "बिरसा मुंडा 150 फीट ऊंची प्रतिमा लगाएंगे" [Birsa Munda will get 150-foot-tall statue]. Inextlive (in Hindi). 16 November 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
- Prasath, Rajendra (9 October 2018). "பழங்குடி இன சுதந்திர போராளி பிர்ஸா முண்டா கதையை திரைப்படமாக்குகிறார் கோபி நயினார்!" [Life of indigenous freedom fighter Bursa Munda being made into a movie]. Filmibeat (in Tamil). Retrieved 16 November 2018.
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