Daring Birsa Munda, a maverick tribal freedom fighter

tribal freedom fighter, Birsa Munda journeyofindianhistory.blogspot.com

During the freedom movements against the Colonial rule, scores of Indian patriots actively participated in them  and sacrificed their lives to free the country from foreign domination. As part of their struggle, they underwent untold miseries and pain and in spite of it, with rejuvenated enthusiasm and indomitable spirit, they continued their tirade against the foreign invaders and fought against injustice and atrocities committed by them against Indians and the tribes in particular. One such unsung hero was  Bisra Munda. Frankly speaking, I have not heard about him and his exploits as a freedom fighter until a month or so. Perhaps, lots of people are not aware of him and his active participation in the freedom struggle; this being due to much has not been written about him.  An accidental cursory glance over a brief article on him in an unknown magazine caught my attention. I was very much impressed by  his humble  tribal family background and his his firm commitment to fight against the British and  their unjust rule. I was wondering why no publicity was given to him by the media and the government as it was given to others. It reminds me of Thomas Gray's quote:    

     "Full many a gem of purest ray serene
     The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
     Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.”  

 .........   from  An Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard

Birsa Munda (1875–1900) , an Indian tribal freedom fighter religious leader and folk hero  belonged to the Munda tribe that is primarily found in Jharkhand state North India.  He was born on November 15, 1875 in Ulihatu, Khunti, to Sugana Munda, an agricultural laborer, and  his wife, Karmi Hatu and  he  was  one among the seven children born to his parents. He was one of the important  leaders and a folk hero who led the  freedom struggle along with his tribal indigenous religious community against the British in the modern tribal belt of Bihar and Jharkhand. He died at the age of just 25 while in Jail and his  impressive portrait, along with great freedom fighters, hangs in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament as a mark of honor for his invaluable contribution towards India's freedom struggle.

Besides being a a freedom fighter Birsa was  also a social reformer and fought  against the social evils, superstitions and black magic. Despite his young age he became a healer and preacher and through his teachings he gave solace to his tribal community and boosted their morale. His name began to spread far and wide in that region. Impressed by his prophet like approach to solve people's problem, his followers called him him Birsa Bhagwan i.e. Birsa, the God. Birsa Munda was an early protagonist of tribal rights, a pioneer in mobilizing women force  for the cause of freedom and  an unrelenting  fighter for justice and human dignity.

Bisra was against the British who had already taken many tribal lands across India for cultivation of cash crops. The British, besides,  wanted coal and also wood for many railway projects, etc  and were particular about taking control over the tribal lands. In some places, they not only took away their lands but also made them work like galley slaves. It was simply exploitation galore of poor tribes. Bisra was also against the Zamindari system as many zamindars fleeced the farm workers and offered low wages to them. Using the culture, tradition and symbol of their tribal society as the main rallying points to fight the British because he did not like their tribal tradition and culture destroyed, he created an awareness among his people about their lands and their rights. At the same time, he also fought for tribal rights, social justice, cultural rejuvenation, their distinct identity, etc. Most importantly, tribal communities strength lies in forests, so  he did not like forest resources taken away by the foreign invaders. He knew very well. once their resources were gone, they would be in serious trouble.He emphasized the fact that the forest resources should be retained at any cost.   
He became a source of thorn for the British who sent him to jail on some occasions. Through sustained efforts he made the British  come up with a series of measures, guaranteed tribals' rights to reclaim their land and empowered officials to forcefully evict the occupation of tribal land by others. The Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 which partially protected the rights of tribes  is  believed be a major contribution of Bisra  and the outcome of this treaty stood as a symbol of his fighting qualities. In the wake of this treaty, his popularity was on the rise and the big leaders turned their attention to him. Appreciating his  spirited  role in awakening the masses of Chhotanagpur against the oppressive British rule, the Indian National Congress and the Forward Block (founded by Nathaji Subash Chandra Bose and supported by Pasumpon Muthuramalinga Thevar of Tamil Nadu, a great freedom fighter), observed Birsa Day in 1940 with great interest.

Bisra, unfortunately died while serving his prison term in Ranchi, Bihar. He was just 25. What a man could achive  in 50 to 60 years, he did in in a short period of time  and made a mark as a great freedom fighter and tribal leader and successfully fought against  the exploitative policies of the British with particular reference to tribal areas. He gathered an army of tribes against the British when he realized that the East India company was torturing his community to exploit their natural resources from their land when they were born and raised and unashamedly filling their coffers and sending the enormous profits to their mother land. 

Not educated, his ability to restore the land rights of the tribes is an exemplary act and it shows his vision and leadership quality at too young an age. His name is well etched in the pages of the history of India's freedom struggle.