The tribal history of resistance can be remembered by three major revolts which time can never erase. After Baba Tilka Majhi, it was the first spell of tribal awakening for freedom and independence from the British Empire. The three revolts are the Kol Revolt in 1829-1839, followed by the Santhal Revolt in 1855-1856 and the Munda Revolt in 1899-1900, which is also known as Ulgulan Revolution. The Great Bhagwan Birsa Munda led the Ulgulan revolution. All three revolutions were a victory, and that is the reason the tribals sang the first songs of victory and freedom long before the Independence of 1947.
The Birth Of Ulgulan
A leader is not born, the circumstances, the environment, the necessities, education, and self-realisation of taking the lead, makes a person a leader.
Birsa Munda was born on November 15, 1875. It was the period of the late 19th century when the British were forcefully grabbing lands from the tribals which turned them from freemen to bonded labourers, which further led to death and poverty. The exploitation of tribals and discrimination had become a daily occurrence during this period, and there was no sign of help or solace. The British, while coming to India, brought education along with them. Birsa Munda, too, attended one of the missionary schools in Ranchi. He was very sharp in studies, was a fast learner, and had an insight and vision for the future of his people, and it is all these things combined that made him rebel at an early age of his life.
Birsa Munda Jayanti and Jharkhand Sthapna Diwas is celebrated on the same day. | Image: Ashish Birulee
Birsa Munda started a movement called “Ulgulan”, which means ‘revolution’ in the Mundari language spoken by the Munda tribe. The fight was for the right to their lands. His leadership was phenomenal, and thousands of tribals stood with him. The uprising of tribals posed a threat to the British government. For a long time, they couldn’t capture this God-like man, but unfortunately, he was arrested by the British police on 3rd of March 1900 in the Jamkopai forest in Chakradharpur and was put in jail in Ranchi.
He died of Cholera on June 9, 1900, at a young age of 25, at least that is what was declared by the British government. The tribals, however, refused to trust their statement and believed that the officials in jail killed him. Even after his death, the impact of the movement remained very strong, and the British government had to form the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, which was passed in 1908.
“Ulgulan” means ‘the revolution’ in the Mundari language. | Image: Ashish Birulee
The Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908
This act restricts the passing on of land from tribal people to non-tribals. It acts as a protecting shield for the tribal land, but does it completely protect it? The answer is no—because there is another law called the Land Acquisition Act 1894, which completely undermines the CNT Act, 1908 and facilitates easy loot of tribal land.
In the name of development and public service, dams, factories, roads and railways and canals have been built in Jharkhand, in the process of which 90% of tribals have lost their lands. Cities like Jamshedpur and Ranchi are based on grabbed tribal land. If the CNT Act has been protecting the tribal lands since 1908, how come non-tribals have successfully built their homes and how come so many mines and industries have been constructed and put into operation on indigenous land? It isn’t my job to answer these questions; it is the government’s.
Land grabbers and invaders will stop at nothing to do what they came for. In 1907, the year before the CNT Act was passed, the Tata Group had already acquired the lands of tribals for mining iron ore in Noamundi and Jamshedpur for establishment of its industrial empire. Jamshedpur at one time was known as “Kalimati” (Land of Black soil) and was home to the Munda, Santhal and Ho tribes, who were forcefully displaced by the dikus (non-tribals), so that their land could be acquired. The non-tribal government tried a number of times to amend the act, and eventually, the Raghubar Das government successfully weakened the act. The government, after the amendment to Section 49, will be able to acquire land in the Chota Nagpur region without anything stopping them.
Whose Independence Was Really Celebrated In 1947?
India belongs to the tribals. The UNO admits it as well. The first invaders were the Aryans, second were the Mughals, and the last were the British. Tribals never welcomed invaders nor accepted slavery. The Mughals and the Brahmans welcomed East India Company, and that is how the door was opened to British ruling India for over 200 years. The scenario changed when the uprising of tribals began.
The continuous victory and achievements of the tribal revolution were so impactful that each revolution successfully formed acts like the Wilkinson’s Rule 1837 after the Kol Revolt, Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act, 1876 after the Santhal Revolt and Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, after the Munda Revolt. These achievements demoralised not only the British but also non-tribals because even they couldn’t breach tribal lands. The insecurity grew further as the British were on the path to hand over the documents of independence to tribal hands. What happened in 1947 clearly signifies that the country got independence only to be ruled over again. The first Prime Minister was supposed to be a tribal, not a Brahman or anyone else. Unfortunately, injustice, discrimination and exploitation against tribals continued even here, and the Brahmans occupied all the important posts. Not a single tribal was given rights.
These are not false allegations; it’s the real face of the Indian Government. If the government is made for the Indian people, then why are the laws made by the British like the Land Acquisition Act, Income Tax, Police Act still existent after Independence? The British couldn’t harm the tribals as much as the Indian Government has. The hatred of the Indian Government towards tribals could be witnessed on January 1, 1948, when the flowers of the freedom celebration weren’t even dry. The tribals who were protesting for a separate state in Saraikela Kharsawan in Jharkhand were brutally killed in police fire. It was a massacre, and till date, the tribals of Kharsawan do not celebrate New Year’s to mourn the martyrs and the day is known as a Black Day for the tribals.
Thousands of tribals paying tribute to the tribal matryrs who were killed in Seraikela Massare in 1st January in 1948. | Image: Ashish Birulee
Why We Need Birsa Munda Today
People and the government in power should understand that with great power comes great responsibility and humility, but instead, what we are seeing is that with more power comes more cruelty—a destructive superiority complex, arrogance and dictatorship. If this is how the government continues to treat the tribals and the speed at which the natural wealth and social culture are being exploited, the tribals will not be saved, and India will never progress with full potentiality.
During the Revolt of 1899-1900 Birsa emerged as the supreme leader of the Mundas.| Image: http://indiafacts.org/birsa-munda-first-tribal-martyr/
Therefore, Bhagwan Birsa Munda is needed again for the tribals to be saved. However, in the world, as we know it now, just one Birsa Munda will not be enough to carry the weight of this responsibility. It’s not just Bhagwan Birsa Munda we need; we need Baba Tilka Majhi, Sidhu Kanhu, Chand Bhairav and Phulo Jhano as well.
Once again, let’s look through the history pages of tribal revolts and learn about something which isn’t mentioned—that all the revolts were fought separately, and all of them were a huge success.
Imagine what would have happened if they fought united?
This article was first published in Youth Ki Awaaz