Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tribal groups in different parts of the country rebelled against the changes in-laws, the restrictions on their practices, the new taxes they had to pay, and the exploitation by traders and moneylenders.
The Kols rebelled in 1831-32, Santhals rose in revolt in 1855, the Bastar Rebellion in central India broke out in 1910, and the Warli Revolt in Maharashtra in 1940. The movement that Birsa led was one such movement.
Birsa Munda (1875–1900) was an Indian tribal freedom fighter and a folk hero, who belonged to the Mundatribe, and was behind the Millenarian movement that rose in the tribal belt of modern day Bihar, and Jharkhand during the British Raj, in the late 19th century, thereby making him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement.
As an adolescent, Birsa heard tales of the Munda uprisings of the past and saw the sirdars (leaders) of the community urging the people to revolt. They talked of a golden age when the Mundas had been free of the oppression of dikus, and said there would be a time when the ancestral right of the community would be restored. They saw themselves as the descendants of the original settlers of the region, fighting for their land (mulkkilarai), reminding people of the need to win back their kingdom.
Birsa went to the local missionary school and listened to the sermons of missionaries. There too he heard it said that it was possible for the Mundas to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, and regain their lost rights.
This would be possible if they became good Christians and gave up their “bad practices”. Later Birsa also spent some time in the company of a prominent Vaishnavpreacher. He wore the sacred thread and began to value the importance of purity and piety. Birsa was deeply influenced by many of the ideas he came in touch with within his growing-up years.
His movement was aimed at reforming tribal society. He urged the Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village, and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. But we must remember that Birsa also turned against missionaries and Hindu landlords. He saw them as outside forces that were ruining the Munda way of life.
In 1895 Birsa urged his followers to recover their glorious past. He talked of a golden age in the past – a satyug (the age of truth) – when Mundas lived a good life, constructed embankments, tapped natural springs, planted trees and orchards, practiced cultivation to earn their living. They did not kill their brethren and relatives. They lived honestly.
Birsa also wanted people to once again work on their land, settle down and cultivate their fields. What worried British officials most was the political aim of the Birsa movement, for it wanted to drive out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords, and the government and set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head.
The movement identified all these forces as the cause of the misery the Mundas were suffering. The land policies of the British were destroying their traditional land system, Hindu landlords and moneylenders were taking over their land, and missionaries were criticizing their traditional culture. As the movement spread the British officials decided to act. They arrested Birsa in 1895, convicted him on charges of rioting, and jailed him for two years.
When Birsa was released in 1897 he began touring the villages to gather support. Birsa’s followers began targeting the symbols of diku and European power. They attacked police stations and churches and raided the property of moneylenders and zamindars. They raised the white flag as a symbol of Birsa Raj
In 1900 Birsa died of cholera and the movement faded out. However, the movement was significant in at least two ways. First – it forced the colonial government to introduce laws so that the land of the tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus. Second – it showed once again that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule. They did this in their own specific way, inventing their own rituals and symbols of struggle.