Munda Rebellion of 1899-1900: Causes, Events, Significance

Munda Rebellion of 1899-1900: Causes, Events, Significance upsc

The Munda Rebellion, also known as the Munda Ulgulan, was one of the most prominent tribal revolts in the history of Indian Independence. It was led by Birsa Munda, a tribal freedom fighter and folk hero belonging to the Munda tribe. This rebellion took place in the Bengal Presidency (now Jharkhand) in the late 19th century, during the British Raj. It is considered an important event in the Indian independence movement.

Background/Causes

  • The Munda tribe was based in Chhota Nagpur of Jharkhand and their means of living was agriculture.
  • The main causes of the rebellion were the British colonizers, zamindars and missionaries.
  • The Mundas practiced the Khuntkatti System, where the whole clan jointly owned the land fit for cultivation. However, over the course of the 19th century, non-tribal people started to settle in the land of the Munda and became Jagirdars and zamindars.
  • The land owned by the Mundas was seized or forfeited, and they were forced to work as landless labourers (begari) in the fields of these Jagirdars and zamindars. They were also exploited by high rates of interest and withholding of receipts. This led to conflicts with the “dikus” (outsiders).
  • In addition, large forest areas were designated as protected forest by the British government and the Mundas lost their rights to these lands.
  • Missionaries were also converting tribals to Christianity
  • As a result, the Mundas were in dire need of a leader who could guide them in fighting for their land.
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The Rebellion

  • It was at this time that Birsa Munda came forward to lead the tribal movement.
  • Birsa had a knowledge of the Golden Age of the Munda tribe, which existed before the arrival of the dikus, and had witnessed its transformation into an impoverished tribe.
  • Birsa strived for a positive political program, with the goal of attaining both religious and political independence for the Mundas.
  • The movement sought to assert the rights of the Mundas as the rightful proprietors of the soil.
  • Birsa called upon the Mundas to fight against superstition, give up animal sacrifice, stop taking intoxicants, to wear the sacred thread and retain the tribal tradition of worship in the sarna or the sacred grove.
  • Birsa Munda also created a new religion called ‘Birsait‘ which became a challenge for the British conversion activities. The religion believed in One God and encouraged them to revert to their original religious beliefs.
  • Thus the rebellion was essentially a revivalist movement that aimed to purge Munda society of all foreign elements and restore its pristine character.
  • By the 1890s, Birsa was mobilizing the people and inciting the tribal in the region.
  • In 1894, he declared a revolt against the British and the dikus and declared the establishment of a ‘Munda Raj’.
  • Under his leadership, the villagers attacked police stations, churches, and government properties in 1899.
  • However, on 9 January, 1900, the rebels were defeated. Birsa was captured and died in jail. Nearly 350 Mundas were put on trial, and of them, three were hanged and 44 transported for life.

Significance of the Movement

  • Although the rebellion did not achieve its desired outcome, it had a significant impact on the tribal movement of India.
  • It showed that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule.
  • The British enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, which restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people.
  • The “Khuntkatti” rights were recognized by the British government and the practice of “Beth begari” (wageless labor) was banned. This provided legal protection for the land rights of the tribals and helped in improving their condition to some extent.
  • Birsa Munda, in just 25 years of age, left a legacy behind him, and he is named among the exceptional freedom fighters of India.
  • The rebellion, led by Birsa Munda, also served as a reminder of the sacrifices and devotion of the Munda tribe and their legacy continues to be followed by people in India.
  • The Munda Rebellion and Birsa Munda’s contributions have been remembered and celebrated in Jharkhand and India, with the state government commemorating his birth anniversary as “Birsa Munda Jayanti” and the Indian government recognizing him as a freedom fighter and national hero. His portrait even hangs in the Indian Parliament Museum.
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