BIRSA MUNDA

Each section of our large population contributes to the making of the nation in the same manner as each flower helps to make a garden. Every flower has right to grow according to its own laws of growth; has the right to enrich and develop its own colour and form and to spread its own fragrance to make u the cumulative beauty and splendour of the garden.

The tribes have developed their own culture and made their contribution to the cultural richness of the country. It is unnecessary to cause them to change their customs, habits or diversions so far as to make themselves indistinguishable from other classes. To do so would be rob rural and pastoral life of its colour and stimulating diversity.

Early Childhood

Birsa was born in year 1875, Thursday was the day of his birth, and he was named after the day of his birth according to the Munda custom. The folk songs reflect popular confusion and refer to both Ulihatu and Chalkad as his birth-place. Ulihatu was the birth-place of Sugana Munda, father of Birsa. The claim of Ulihatu rests on Birsa’s elder brother Komta Munda living in the village and on his house which still exist in a dilapidated condition.

Birsa’s father, mother and younger brother, Pasna Munda, left Ulihatu and proceeded to Kurumbda near Birbanki in search of employment as labourers or crop-sharers (sajhadar) or ryots. At Kurmbda 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 followed by himself.

Birsa was born in a house built of bamboo strips without a mud plaster or even a secure roof; a crop-sharer or ryot could not boast of a better house. Folk songs relating to his birth seek to embroider the event with the Biblical parallels : a comet or a flag-star moved across the sky from Chalkad to Ulihatu; a flag flew on a mountain top. At school when a teacher once saw Birsa’s palm, he observed on it the mark of the cross and predicated that he would recover the kingdom one day.

Soon after Birsa’s birth, his family left Bamba. A quarrel between the Mundas and their ryots in which his father was involved as a witness was the immediate reason for proceeding to Chalkad, Sugana’s mother’s village, where they were granted refuge by Bir Singh , the Munda of the village. Birsa’s birth ceremony was performed at Chalkad.

Sugana Munda’s elder brother, Bara Kan Paulus, had been converted to Christianity at Ulihatu long before Birsa was born. Sugana and his younger brother became Christians at Bambna; Sugana rose to be a pracharak (catechist) of the German mission. On conversion he adopted the Christian name of Masihdad and Birsa of Daud Munda, also called Daud Birsa. Birsa’s family stayed at Chalked till the uprising (ulgulan).

 

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 the grew up, he shared an interest in playing the flute, in which he became adept, and so movingly did he play that all living beings came out to listen to him. He went round 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 dancing ground). One of his contemporaries 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 pracharak who visited a few families in the village which had been converted to Christianity and attacked the old Munda order.

He remained so preoccupied with himself or his studies that he left the sheep and goat in his charge to graze in the fields covered with crops to the dismay of their owners. He was found no good for the job and was beaten by the owner of field. He left the village and went to his brother at Kundi Bartoli, and stayed with him for some time. From there he probably went to the German mission at Burju where he passed the lower primary examination.

The Formative Period (1886-1894)

Birsa’s long stay at Chaibasa from 1886 to 1890 constituted a formative period of his life. The influence of Christianity shaped his own religion. This period was marked by the German and Roman Catholic Christain agitation. Chiabasa was not far for the centre of the Sardars’ activities. Birsa was amidst them’ Eliazer of Kasmar, Gidun of Piring. Yohanna of Chapari, Mika of Dabgama, Tenga of Katingkel and Bhutka of Rugri were his own men. One day while delivering a sermon in the Chaibasa mission attended by Birsa, Dr Nottrott expatiated on the theme of the Kingdom of Heaven, and assured them that if they remained Christians and followed his instructions, he could get back all lands they had lost. Birsa took it to heart. But he received a rude shock when the brak with the missionaries came in 1886-7 and the latter started calling the Sardars cheats. He criticized Dr Nottrott and the missionaries in trenchant terms. They refused to have him in their school any longer, and he was expelled. This was a turning point in his life; he exclaimed saheb, saheb ek topi hai (all whites, the British and the missionaries, wear the same cap) it was also likely that the Sardars might have influenced Sugana Munda in withdrawing his son from the school. The sardar agitation in which Birsa was thus caught up put the stamp of its anti-missionary and anti-Government character on his mind.

Soon after leaving Chaibasa in 1890 Birsa and his family gave up their membership of the German mission in line with the Sardar’s movement against it. He apostatized to the Roman Catholics and remained with them for a little while before lapsing into hearthenism. This also followed the pattern of the Sardar agitation which turned to the Roman Catholic mission, seeking support for their claims, and the, disappointed, returned to the old faith. For a year he also served in the house of Munda at Kander, where his eldest sister Daskir lived.

It was probably in 1890 that he went to Bandgaon and came in contact with Anand Panre. Anand Panre, a munshi to Jagmohan Singh. The zamindar of Bandgaon, was a Swansi. He was well versed into rudimentary form of Vaishnavism that prevailed in the area and with the Hindu epic-lores, and enjoyed some reputation and influence. Birsa occasionally accompanied him Gorbera and Patpur, but spent most of his time at Bandgaon with him or his brother Sukhnath Panre. He stayed with the Panres for three years. He also met a Vaishnav monk who visited the baraik at Bamani and preached there for two months. He adopted the sacred thread, worshipped the tulsi plants. Wore the sandal mark , familiarized himself with the Hindu concept of epochs and prohibited cowslaughter. At Patpur, his disciples claim, he had the vision (darsan) of Mahaprabhu Vishnu Bhagwan. Which marked the consummation of the Vaishnav influence on their master.

He left Corbera in the wake of the mounting Sardar agitation. During these years he did not keep himself only to the Panres. He participated in the agitation stemming form 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 1893-4 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 Singhbhum as in Palamau and Manbhum 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 waste lands sufficient of the needs of villages.

Outside the blocks lay the protected forest areas in which rights were regulated, even curtailed. These orders were sometimes not understood by local officers who acted as if all right of forest-swelling communities had been curtailed. Petitions were submitted by Jeta Maniki of Gudri, Rasha Maniki, Moni Maniki of Durkarpir claiming the resumption of what they called were their old ancestral right to free fuel. grazing etc. Birsa led a number of ryots of Sirgida to Chaibasa with a petition for the remission of forest dues. Men form six other villages had preceded him. Nothing came of it. The Chotanagpur Protected Forests Rules framed under the Indian Forest Act came into force in July 1894. Viewing Birsa’s involvement in the Sardar agitation with concern, Anand Panre advised him not to let him emotion overpowers him; but he would not turn a deaf ear to the inner voice. His three years’ apprenticeship under the Panres came to an end in 1893-4.

In 1894, Birsa had grown up into a strong and handsome young man, shrewd and intelligent. He was tall for a Munda, 5 feet 4 inches, and could perform the feat of repairing the Dombari tank at Gorbera damaged by rains. His real appearance was extraordinary pleasant : his features were regular, his eyes bright and full of intelligence and his complexion much lighter than most of his people.

During the period he had a spell of experience typical of a young man of his age and looks. While on a sojourn in the neighbourhood of village Sankara in Singhbhum, he found suitable companion, presented her parents with jewels and explained to her his idea of marriage. Later, on his return form 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 form 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 form 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 form 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.

The Making of a Prophet

Birsa’s claim to be a messenger of God and the founder of a new religion sounded preposterous to the mission. There were also within his sect converts form Christianity, mostly Sardars. His simple system of offering was directed against the church which levied a tax. And the concept of on God appealed to his people who found his religion and economical religion saving them the expense of sacrifices. A strict code of conduct was laid down : theft, lying and murder were anathema ; begging was prohibited.

Slowly, the messenger of God began to be identified with God himself. The people approached him as tier Singbonga or the Sun God, the good spirit who watches over them and can do no ill. He was looked upon as an incarnation of Khasra Kora who had destroyed the Asurs. They said the Sun (which they worship) was above the Birsa was below ; later on , it was given out that the he was Bhagwan himself. Later Birsaites formed themselves into a sect worshipping him as such.

The stories of Birsa as a healer, a miracle-worker, and a preacher spread, out of all proportion to the facts. The Mundas, Oraons, and Kharias flocked to Chalkad to see the new prophet and to be cured of there ills. Both the Oraon and Munda population up to Barwari and Chechari in Palamau became convinced Birsaities. Contemporary and later folk songs commemorate the tremendous impact of Birsa on his people, their jay and expectations at his advent. The name of Dharti Aba was on everybody’s lips. A folk songs in Sadani showed that the first impact cut across the lines of caste Hindus and Muslims also flocked to the new Sun of religion. All roads led to Chalked.

Birsa Munda and his Movement

The British colonial system intensified the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into feudal state. As the tribals with their primitive technology could not generate a surplus, non-tribal peasantry were invited by the chiefs in Chotanagpur to settle on and cultivate the land. This led to the alienation of the lands held by the tribals. The new class of Thikadars were of a more rapacious kind and eager to make most of their possessions.

In 1856 the number of the Jagirdars stood at about 600, and they held from a portion of village to 150 villages. By 1874, the authority of the old Munda or Oraon chiefs had been almost entirely effaced by that of the farmers, introduced by the superior landlord. In some villages the aborigines 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 uprising under his leadership. The movement seek to assert rights of the Mundas as the real proprietors of the soil, and the expulsion of middlemen and the Britishers. He was treacherously caught on 3 February 1900 and died in mysterious conditions on 9 June 1900 in Ranchi Jail.