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Pride of India: Bhagwan Birsa Munda

As India is celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, one great name stands tall among the galaxy of stars who fearlessly worked for freedom of the motherland against the oppressive British Raj.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda

Sentinel Digital Desk

Dr L Murugan

(Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting and Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying)

As India is celebrating Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, one great name stands tall among the galaxy of stars who fearlessly worked for freedom of the motherland against the oppressive British Raj. That is Bhagwan Birsa Munda. Birsa Munda lived a short but valiant life of just twenty-five years, but his heroic actions and noble deeds made Bhagwan for his numerous followers. His life story, full of gallant efforts to fight against injustice and oppression, represents a strong voice of resistance against colonial British Raj.

Born on 15th November 1875, in Ulihatu village of a present-day Jharkhand, Birsa spent his childhood in abject poverty in a tribal Munda family. This was the time when exploitative British Raj started penetrating the deep jungles of Central and Eastern India, disrupting the tribals, living in harmony with nature and natural resources. The Britishers introduced a feudal zamindari in the Chhota Nagpur region, destroying the tribal 'Khuntkatti' agrarian system. The Raj brought in the outside moneylenders and contractors, as well as feudal landlords, which aided the British in the exploitation of tribals. The unrelenting missionary activities continued to operate with the active support of the Raj, insulting and interfering in the religio-cultural ethos of forest-dwelling Adivasis.

Young Birsa grew up watching all these unfoldings before his eyes and began to understand how these colonial forces and the dikus (outside-enemies of the Adivasis) worked against the interests of the local people. This acted as fuel to firm up his resolve to fight against this unholy nexus.

During the 1880s, young Birsa closely witnessed the Sardari Larai movement in the region, which was demanding restoration of tribal rights, through non-violent methods of sending petitions to the British Raj. However, the oppressive colonial regime paid no heed to these demands. The Zamindari system soon reduced the tribals from the status of the landowners to that of land labourers. The feudal setup intensified the forced labour (Vethbigari) in the forested tribal areas. The exploitation of poor, innocent tribals now reached a breaking point.

It all culminated in Birsa taking up the cause of Adivasis. He showed a new light in matters of the religious domain to the fellow tribals. He stood firm against missionaries who were belittling the tribal life and culture. At the same time, Birsa worked for refining and reforming the religious practices, discouraged many superstitious rites, brought in new tenets, new prayers, reformed many habits, and worked for restoring and reviving the tribal pride. Birsa impressed upon the Adivasis about "Sirmarefirun raja Jai" or 'victory to the ancestral king' thus invoking sovereignty of the tribals' ancestral autonomous control over the land. Birsa became a mass leader and began to be considered as a Bhagwan and Dharati Aba For his followers.

He made the tribals aware of the exploitative and atrocious nature of all vested interests. He knew who the real enemy were- along with the exploitative dikus, it was the oppressive British Rule. Birsa Munda had identified that British Colonial Rule was the root cause of all the problems and oppressions. It was amply clear to him that "Abua raj star Jana, maharani raj tundujana (meaning: Let the Kingdom of the Queen be ended and our kingdom is established) BhagwanBirsa ignited the spark in the minds of the masses. The Mundas, Oraons, other Adivasis and non-Adivasis responded to his call and joined 'Ulgulan' or revolt against the colonial masters and the exploitative dikus under the leadership of Birsa, for their social, economical, political and cultural emancipation. Birsa asked the people not to pay any rent, attacked the outposts of feudal, missionary and colonial British Raj authorities. With the traditional bows and arrows, the tribals of Central and eastern India waged an effective armed resistance against the British regime. In doing so, however, Birsa was careful that only the real exploiters were attacked, and the common people were not troubled. Birsa became an image of vitality and divinity.

Soon he was captured by British police and lodged in jail, where he died in captivity on 9 June 1900. But Bhagwan Birsa Munda's spirited struggle did not go in vain. It compelled the British Raj to take cognizance of the plight and exploitation of tribals and brought in the 'Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908' for the protection of Adivasis. This important Act restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals, giving huge relief for the tribals, and became landmark legislation for the protection of tribal rights. The British regime also took steps to abolish Veth Bigari or forced labour.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda continues to inspire millions of Indians, even 121 years after his death.

He is an icon of valour, courage and leadership. He was a leader who took great pride in his rich culture and great traditions, but at the same time, did not shy away from reforming his faith wherever necessary.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda is one of the tallest icons of our freedom movement. India's freedom struggle was strengthened by several tribal communities such as Mundas, Oraons, Santhals, Tamar's, Kols, Bhils, Khasis, Koyas and Mizos to name a few. The revolutionary movements and struggles organized by the tribal communities were marked by their immense courage and supreme sacrifice and inspired Indians all over the country. However, for whatever reasons, established historians could not do justice to their immense contribution to India's freedom struggle.

But our visionary Prime Minister Sh Narendra Modi appealed to all Indians to celebrate Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav and to study and understand the valour and sacrifice of many such unsung heroes in India's freedom struggle. Under his dynamic leadership, now for the first time, the tribal pride and contribution are being given a fitting tribute, by celebrating a Jan Jatiya Gaurav Divas, on 15th November every year, on the birth anniversary of Bhagwan Birsa Munda. On this Jan Jatiya Gaurav Divas, let us remember and recognise the efforts of India's tribal people for the preservation of cultural heritage and promotion of Indian values of valour, hospitality and national pride. (PIB)

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