Revisiting the legacy of an iconic tribal leader and freedom fighter

Birsa Munda was a tribal leader and the creator of an alternative religion called ‘Birsait’, who belonged to the Munda tribe in the Jharkhand region, then the Presidency of Bengal.

The anniversary of Munda’s death is celebrated on June 9 every year. He was the first tribal freedom fighter, considered an important figure in India’s struggle for tribal identities and rights since independence. He died in prison after being arrested for revolt against the British.

Reject Christianity

One of the lesser known facts about Birsa Munda was its rejection of Christian missionaries and conversion activities in tribal areas.

He was an exemplary student, which is why his father Sugana Munda put him in the German missionary school, where he converted to Christianity and was called Birsa David. When the seeds of freedom against the British erupted in the late 1800s, Birsa’s father took him out of school and left Christianity, and they returned to their traditional tribal religion.

As Birsa was negatively affected by Christianity, he came up with an alternative religion called ‘Birsait’. He was shocked by the British government and the forced religious conversions of the Christian Church.

Many tribal people converted to his religion, and he became the representative of their tribal religion and was considered a healer.

Fighting for tribal roots

The Munda Revolt, led by Birsa Munda, was against the “unjust land grabbing activities” carried out by the British government, which aimed to destroy tribal lands, livelihoods and cultural roots.

To establish surplus agriculture, the British introduced a new agricultural system encouraging non-tribal peasants to farm on the prosperous lands of the native tribes. The alienation of tribals from their lands and livelihoods has enraged Birsa Munda.

Birsa announced himself as the prophet of the Munda tribe and swore to fight. He wanted to establish a kingdom for the tribes called ‘Munda Raj’. The Munda tribe started worshiping him as ‘Dharati Aba’ which means father of the earth. About 7,000 tribal men and women followed him into battle in 1899 to form the revolution.

The revolutionary tremors spread to Khunti, Basia and even Ranchi. Unfortunately, he was arrested in February 1900 and died in prison.

Revered Tribal Hero

On his birthday on November 15, 2021, the Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, Navaljit Kapoor, said: “Birsa Munda fought bravely against the corrupt system of the British colonial system. He spearheaded the movement against British oppression“, as reported by The New Indian Express.

On the anniversary of his death on June 9, 2022, the Tribal Army tweeted: “Birsa Munda was a visionary and the first tribal freedom fighter who fought for the independence of the country and against the British explanation for Jal, Jangal and Jameen and maintaining the Adivasis.”

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Thelma J. Longworth