7.7 Munda Ulgulan (1899-1900)
The Munda Ulgulan, meaning ‘Great Tumult,’ was a significant tribal uprising that took place in India from 1899 to 1900. Led by Birsa Munda, a charismatic religious leader, the rebellion was concentrated in the Munda belt of Khunti, Tamar, Sarwada, and Bandgaon, in the Chotanagpur region near Ranchi, Jharkhand. The movement aimed to establish Munda Raj and independence by driving out the British. It was a revivalist movement that sought to purge Munda society of all foreign elements and restore its original character. Despite its eventual suppression, the Munda Ulgulan remains a prominent example of tribal resistance against colonial rule.
Socio-economic and Political Conditions Leading to the Uprising
- Land Dispossession: The British policies led to unwanted interference in tribal societies, causing land dispossession. The introduction of land revenue policies such as the zamindari system led to forced commercialisation in tribal regions, causing displacement and land alienation.
- Interference in Social and Religious Practices: The British interfered with the social and religious practices of tribal communities. Christian missionaries’ efforts to convert tribals to Christianity led to cultural alienation and resentment among the tribal population.
- Commercialisation of Forests: The British opened forests for commercial use, encouraging the penetration of moneylenders and outsiders who exploited tribals. The need for Oak and Timber for Railways and Navy made the British control forests and change their use, affecting traditional hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices like jhum cultivation.
- Criminalisation of Tribes: The British criminalised many tribals who were engaged in long-distance trade as criminal tribes.
- Loss of Sovereignty and Autonomy: British colonial rule threatened the system of self-governance and autonomy of tribal communities. The functions and powers of the tribal chiefs changed considerably under British rule, leading to a loss of administrative power and authority.
- Imposition of New Laws: The imposition of new laws clashed with tribal customs and social structures, causing social disintegration. The British introduced laws that were in conflict with tribal justice systems.
- Protection of Forest Rights: The British introduced forest acts such as the Forest Act 1865 and the Indian Forest Act, which further affected traditional practices of the tribal communities.
Introduction to the Munda Tribe
- The Munda people are an Austroasiatic-speaking ethnic group of the Indian subcontinent, primarily residing in the central Indian region.
- They are recognized as one of the oldest tribes with origins in the Chotanagpur region of Jharkhand.
- The Munda people are racially Proto-Australoid and speak the Mundari dialect, which belongs to the Austro-Asiatic family.
- The term ‘Munda’ is of Sanskritic origin and is used by one tribe as an alternative to their own term ‘Horo’.
- The Munda people are primarily agriculturists, supplementing their economy with hunting, fishing, and animal husbandry.
- They also collect minor forest products from the forest.
Traditional Practices of the Munda Tribe
- The Munda people have a rich cultural life, characterized by unique rites and rituals based on traditional tribal life, agriculture, and fishing.
- They have faith in their traditional deities and perform rituals to propitiate Bir Bonga (the spirit of the hills).
- They celebrate nature with song and dance all day and night.
- In every Munda village, there are three important features: SARANA, AKHRA, and SASAN.
- The Munda people also have specific rituals associated with major life events such as birth, marriage, and death.
- They have a dormitory system called Gitiora, although it is now out of practice.
The Khuntkatti System
- The ‘Khuntkatti’ system is a joint ownership of land by tribal lineage.
- Under this system, Munda tribals usually clear the forests and make the land fit for cultivation.
- The cultivable land is then owned by the whole clan and not a particular individual.
- This system was replaced with the Zamindari system by 1874, with the advent of the British and the outsider-Zamindars.
- Violation of the ‘Khuntkatti’ law, such as cutting trees illegally and selling them in the market, is considered a serious offense.
Detailed Profile of Birsa Munda
- Birth and Early Life: Birsa Munda was born on November 15, 1875, in Ulihatu, now in Jharkhand, into a Munda family. His birth was on a Thursday, and as per Munda custom, he was named after the day of his birth.
- Education: He received his early education from a local teacher, Jaipal Nag. Birsa was converted to Christianity to attend a German mission school but later renounced Christianity and dropped out of the school.
- Influence of Sardars Movement: During 1886-1890, Birsa spent time in Chaibasa, close to the center of the Sardars movement, which influenced him deeply and led him to join the anti-missionary and anti-government program.
- Religious Transformation: In 1895, Birsa claimed to have had a divine vision and proclaimed himself a prophet with miraculous healing powers. He started the Birsait sect, which attracted many from the Munda and Oraon communities and infused the growing religious movement with political and economic messages.
- Charismatic Leadership: Birsa Munda was a charismatic leader who mobilized thousands of tribals under his banner. He claimed to have divine visions and miraculous powers, which earned him the title of ‘Bhagwan’ (God) among his followers.
- Political Activism: Birsa advocated for the tribal people to shun missionaries and revert to their traditional ways. He asked his followers not to pay taxes and led uprisings to protect tribal rights.
Birsa Munda’s Creation of the Birsait Sect
- Foundation of Birsait: Birsa Munda established the Birsait sect as a religious movement to counteract the influence of Christian missionaries and to revive traditional tribal religious practices.
- Influence on Munda and Oraon Communities: The Birsait sect quickly gained popularity among the Munda and Oraon communities, challenging the British efforts at conversion and becoming a symbol of tribal unity and resistance.
- Religious and Social Reforms: Birsa Munda’s leadership in the Birsait sect included advocating for social and religious reforms, such as the rejection of alcohol and superstitious practices, which were integral to consolidating tribal identity and autonomy.
- Mobilization Against British Rule: The sect played a significant role in mobilizing the tribal communities against British colonial oppression, fostering a sense of nationalism and self-determination.
- Challenge to Conversion Activities: The growth of the Birsait sect posed a formidable challenge to the British administration’s conversion activities, as it encouraged tribals to return to their roots and resist Western influence.
- Revival of Tribal Culture: Birsa Munda is credited with reviving traditional tribal culture, which had been negatively affected by Christian missionary activities, through the establishment of the Birsait sect.
- Birsait as a Unifying Force: The sect not only served as a religious movement but also as a unifying force that brought together various tribal groups in a collective struggle against British rule and cultural encroachment.
Detailed Account of Major Events During the Uprising
- Christmas Eve, 1899: Birsa Munda, the leader of the uprising, gathered a force of 6,000 Mundas armed with traditional weapons like swords, spears, battle-axes, and bows and arrows. They launched an attack on police stations, officials, churches, and missionaries.
- Attack on Churches: The rebels targeted churches in the Ranchi and Singbhum districts. The Anglican Mission at Murhu and the Roman Catholic mission at Sarwada were the main targets.
- Attack on Police Stations: By January 1900, the focus of the rebels had shifted to police stations, causing widespread panic. There were rumors that Birsa’s followers would attack Ranchi, leading to further panic.
- Attack on Landlords and Moneylenders: The rebels also raided the properties of moneylenders and zamindars. They used poisoned arrows to kill many police officers and Britishers, and many traders’ houses were burnt.
- Raising of the White Flag: The rebels raised the white flag as a symbol of Birsa Raj, a rebellion to establish Munda rule in the land.
- Defeat and Capture of Birsa Munda: On January 9, 1900, the rebels were defeated. Birsa Munda was captured at the beginning of February 1900. He was put on trial along with nearly 350 Mundas. Of them, three were hanged and 44 were transported for life.
- Death of Birsa Munda: Birsa Munda died in jail in June 1900. The British declared that he died of cholera.
Despite the defeat, the uprising had a significant impact on the tribal movement of India. It sent a message across the borders that the tribal people knew how to raise their voice and to fight for their rights.
Immediate Consequences of the Uprising and the Response of the British Colonial Authorities
- The British colonial authorities were alarmed by the growing popularity and strength of Birsa Munda and his followers. In response, they deployed a large army to crush the rebellion, which came to be known as the Ulgulan (Great Tumult) or the Munda Rebellion.
- The British faced stiff resistance from the tribal warriors, who fought with traditional weapons like bows, arrows, axes, and swords.
- The rebellion lasted from 1899 to 1900, spreading across several districts of Jharkhand.
- Birsa Munda was arrested by the British on 3 March 1900, while he was sleeping with his guerilla army at Jamkopai forest in Chakradharpur.
- 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.
- The British authorities launched a massive campaign to crush Birsa Munda’s Ulgulan (great rebellion), deploying thousands of troops, police, and informers. They also tried to discredit him by spreading rumours and propaganda.
- The British colonial authorities undertook a beat and search mode from 13 January to 26 January 1900.
- The rebellion prompted the administrative expansion of the region, which opened education-based new job opportunities, encouraging Adivasis to focus on attaining education.
- The British move impelled by Birsa’s struggle created an impression in the Adivasi psyche that land question was now a settled matter.
- The rebellion led to some recognition of the tribe’s khuntkatti rights through the Chotanagpur Tenancy and the outcome of the Munda Rebellion prohibited the forced labour system or Beth Begri.
Changes in Tribal Rights and Land Ownership as a Result of the Uprising
- The Birsa movement jolted the British government. They started land settlement operations that could provide agrarian security to the Mundas.
- The subsequent legislation – Tenancy Amendment Act of 1903 – prohibited or restrained Adivasi land transfer by sale or mortgage.
- British officials conceded and prepared a ‘records of rights’ of the tribal land owners after the death of Birsa Munda.
- The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 put in place restrictions on the sale or transfer of tribal lands.
- The passing of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act was a monumental victory for the Munda cause as it prevented land alienation by formalising the Khuntkhatti system. Essentially, the act prohibits the transfer of land to non-tribals to ensure community ownership.
Influence of the Uprising on Other Tribal Movements and the Broader Indian Independence Movement
- The Munda Ulgulan (rebellion) was a significant tribal revolt in the history of Indian Independence. Despite its unfavorable end, it sent a strong message that tribal people were capable of raising their voice against oppression.
- The rebellion demonstrated that the British were not invincible, inspiring the broader Indian independence movement.
- The Munda Rebellion influenced other tribal movements, as it showed the power of collective action against oppressive forces.
- The rebellion led to the establishment of the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act in 1908, which banned the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribal owners. This legal change was a significant outcome of the rebellion and had a lasting impact on tribal rights.
- The rebellion was influenced by Christianity, which helped to develop the Munda philosophy and its global influence.
- The rebellion was a representation of the lived experiences of a Munda as a convert Christian, raised in a colonial state under a belief system that belittled his own.
- The rebellion was deeply influenced by tribal chieftains, also known as Sardars, and their silent resistance to British rule between 1858 and 1896.
- The rebellion strengthened India’s freedom struggle, as it demonstrated the power of tribal communities to resist colonial rule.
- The rebellion was a significant event in the Indian independence movement, challenging the British colonizers, zamindars, and missionaries.
- The rebellion challenged unfair land grabbing practices by colonial and local authorities, which demolished the tribal conventional land system.
- The rebellion continued as the most impactful of all different tribal movements, as it generated many beneficial outcomes for the Munda tribe.
Legacy of Birsa Munda and the Munda Ulgulan in Contemporary India
- Birsa Munda’s movements and protests brought the issue of tribal rights to the fore, which eventually had a positive impact on the larger freedom struggle. His campaign for tribal rights became a symbol of resistance against the British Empire and inspired many others to join the fight for independence.
- Birsa Munda’s legacy is widely celebrated in India, with numerous monuments and memorials dedicated to his memory. His message of social and economic equality and his contributions to the tribal identity lie at the heart of contemporary social movements, inspiring and encouraging Indians to fight for their rights and address longstanding injustices.
- Birsa Munda’s struggle had a profound impact on folk culture in India. He inspired a range of artistic expressions, from music and poetry to theatre, which continues to reflect his importance and influence on contemporary society.
- The Munda Ulgulan, led by Birsa Munda, is regarded as a pivotal moment in the struggle for Indian independence. The rebellion sought to establish the Munda Raj by driving out the British and the dikus (outsiders). The rebellion had a significant impact on the tribal movement of India, showing that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their discontent.
- The British enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, 1908 which restricted the transfer of tribal land to non-tribal people. The “Khuntkatti” rights were recognised and ”Beth begari” was banned. Consequently, tribals won a degree of legal protection for their land rights.
- Birsa Munda’s legacy has been represented in various forms of art and media over the years. In some depictions, he is shown as a heroic figure, while in others, he is shown as a mystical figure imbued with spiritual power.
- Birsa Munda is known as ‘Dharti Aba,’ meaning ‘Earth Father.’ An airport, a park and some institutions have been named after him to commemorate the legendary tribal hero.
- As part of India’s celebration of ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’, the Union Cabinet has approved 15th November as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas to commemorate the brave tribal freedom fighters. 15th November also marks the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda who is revered as God by tribal communities.
- Birsa Munda’s legacy continues to hold relevance in contemporary India, not just as a symbol of resistance against the British, but also as a rallying point for addressing issues of social and economic inequality.
Impact of the Uprising on the Socio-Cultural Fabric of the Munda Community and Other Tribal Communities
- The uprising led to the destruction of the traditional land system (Khuntkatti system) of the tribals, which was a significant socio-cultural change.
- The rebellion was a revivalist movement that sought to eliminate Munda society of all foreign components and rebuild its original form. This led to a significant cultural transformation within the Munda community.
- The rebellion led to the recognition of the tribe’s khuntkatti rights through the Chotanagpur Tenancy, which prohibited the forced labor system or Beth Begri.
- The rebellion was influenced by Christianity, which helped to develop the Munda philosophy and its socio-cultural aspects.
- The rebellion led to the destruction of symbols of British and diku rule, which included the property of moneylenders and zamindars, churches, and police stations. This was a significant cultural shift for the Munda community.
- The rebellion led to the emergence of protectionary legislation (Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act), which had a significant impact on the socio-cultural fabric of the Munda community and other tribal communities.
- The rebellion led to the emergence of Birsa Munda as a significant cultural and political figure within the Munda community and other tribal communities. His image and legacy continue to play a significant role in the socio-cultural and political landscape of these communities.
Commemoration of Birsa Munda and the Munda Ulgulan in Modern India
- The Indian government has declared November 15th, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas (Tribal Pride Day). This day is dedicated to the memory of tribal freedom fighters, and pan-India celebrations are held to pay tribute to Birsa Munda and make the younger generations aware of their sacrifices.
- The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, visited the Bhagwan Birsa Munda Tribal Freedom Fighter Museum in Ranchi, Jharkhand, on this day. The museum was earlier a jail where Birsa Munda was imprisoned. The Prime Minister also visited Ulihatu Village, the birthplace of Birsa Munda.
- Floral tributes were paid to Birsa Munda at the Parliament House on his birth anniversary. Several MPs and other dignitaries also paid their respects.
- The state of Jharkhand was created on the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda in 2000, in recognition of his impact on the national movement.
- The Indian Parliament Museum has a painting of Birsa Munda on display, commemorating his contributions to the tribal uprising and the Indian independence movement.
- A book titled “The Political Life of Memory: Birsa Munda in Contemporary India” by Rahul Ranjan, published by Cambridge University Press in 2023, examines the representation of Birsa Munda’s political life and the making of anti-colonialism in contemporary Jharkhand.
- On Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary in 2023, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a Rs 24,000 crore welfare scheme for tribals.
- A statue of Birsa Munda is displayed at Chennai airport as part of the Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, a series of events organized by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, to celebrate the 75th year of Indian Independence.
- A YouTube video titled “PM Modi Honors Birsa Munda at Ranchi’s Memorial Park” was released, showcasing the Prime Minister’s visit to the memorial park.
Birsa Munda and the Munda Ulgulan have left a profound legacy in contemporary India, shaping the course of tribal rights and resistance. The rebellion led to significant socio-cultural changes within the Munda community and other tribal communities, fostering a new form of tribal solidarity and resistance against British rule. Today, Birsa Munda’s contributions are widely commemorated across India, with his birth anniversary declared as Janjatiya Gaurav Divas (Tribal Pride Day), and his life and struggle depicted in various forms of art, media, and institutions.