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(Mis)Representing Birsa Munda: How The Mainstream Portrays This Radical Adivasi Leader

On the occasion of Birsa Jayanti, Abhay Majhi writes about the portrayal and depiction of the 'Dharti Aba' by the mainstream media and literature. He contends that the mainstream has eliminated the very essence of a charismatic leader like Birsa Munda, to suit their own requirements and agenda.

Postal Stamp was issued by Gov. of India in his memory on 15/11/1988, Source:- Internet

Watching Ulgulan-Ek Kranti (The Revolution) in the misty days of the dreadfully pacifying year of 2022 is not a good cinematic suggestion. The movie has its flaws in the direction, and we can look at some questionable decisions made by the screenwriter. But the biggest criticism which I could point out was the coltish plot of the story of one of the greatest freedom fighters the Chhotanagpur had ever seen or will ever have. The soulless and connectionless treatment of a story, which in reality had moved nonchalant tribes and forest dwellers to come to learn about their identity, rights, ideas and language; leading them to move against a powerful omnipotent force of the Dikus, the British and the Christian missionaries together, was both painful and disappointing.

Birsa Munda’s legacy, with such a short but eventful life, has been long verified in various pop culture stereotypes. It seems the narrators of his story are coy in traversing the unfiltered path, the roads which lead to a greater acceptance in a larger audience and not losing the truest essence of the life of the man. This whimsical treatment of a narrative which is becoming more and more relevant in recent years has removed the struggle of the individual and the hundreds who led such stories.

Painting of Birsa Munda in prison; Image Source: Abhay Majhi

'Abua raj ete jana, maharani raj tundu jana' ("Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established") - the slogan of thousands of Mundas, who joined the movement, has been embezzled from the history to pave the path for “better” stories to be told. We have more sensational and well-performing mediums telling stories of men and women who have laid their lives for the society and rights of their lands. Why the portrayal of a revolutionary who moved a population of 7000-odd men and women to revolt against the oppressors, depicted in such a manner? Maybe we need to rethink our way of projecting how we want to see our superheroes in literature and media.

The popular narrative of Birsa has been a bit exaggerated and built upon so much that he seems and feels like a mythical creature in a human form (not that he was not revered as a supernatural form in his wee days). We must not forget that, although, with his highest prowess, he was nothing but a young man with radical ideas and the potential to execute them with hard-hitting dedication. He had a very normal childhood just like any other child from those eras of the British Raj. He even attended school under the guidance of Jaipal Nag. Because of his outstanding academic performance, his father Sugana Munda sent him to the German Mission School, where he became a Christian and was given the name Birsa David. Birsa's father left Christianity and returned to their traditional tribal religion when the seeds of freedom against the British began to grow in the late 1800s. Birsa offered an alternative religion he called "Birsait'' because Christianity had a negative impact on him. He was shocked by the compelled religious conversions of the British government and the Christian Church. He became the symbol of their tribal religion and was regarded as a healer after many tribal members converted to his faith.

Image Source: Internet

The British government's "unfair land-grabbing actions," which attempted to destroy tribal land, livelihoods, and cultural roots, were the cause of the Munda insurrection, which was led by Birsa Munda. The British developed a new agricultural system that encouraged non-tribal peasants to cultivate on the productive lands of the local tribals in order to establish surplus farming. Birsa Munda was incensed by the indigenous peoples' expulsion from their homes and means of subsistence. Birsa proclaimed himself to be the Munda tribe's Prophet and pledged to battle. He desired to build the "Munda Raj," or tribal rule. He came to be revered by the Munda tribe as "Dharati Aba," or the "father of the earth." In 1899, he was joined by 7000 tribal men and women who went into the fight to start the revolution. The vibrations of the revolution reached Khunti, Basia and even Ranchi.

He had a personality so charismatic and powerful that he saw the heights of leadership and change in an age that people could not even dream of. He was nothing short of a miracle for people who had never seen or known what the true sense of freedom was like. For a man like that, whose story not only encapsulates the history of a struggle for Raj but creates through the flow of time to inspire generations of young minds of indigenous children who have ever doubted their place in the larger society, we need to present him with more reverence and honour. We cannot capture his power just by merely telling his story and calling it literature; we need more. We need minds from our own lands and our own identities telling his story, just like he would have wanted, owning what is ours.

About the Author: Abhay Majhi is an undergraduate student studying English Literature at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, India. He loves having discussions on social issues, international politics, history, mythology, science fiction, and fantasy literature. He is also into creative writing and political writing.


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