Birsa Munda: The Messianic Tribal Folk Hero of Jharkhand

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The iconic tribal leader of Jharkhand, Birsa Munda, is a fascinating case of a messiah-turned-revolutionary.

In the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament, a portrait of Birsa Munda shows him poised with a bow and a quiver of arrows. His right arm is bent at an angle, with his hands clenched into a fist. Since 1989, this is the only portrait of a tribal leader in the Indian Parliament.

In Birsa’s home state of Jharkhand, his statues and icons are markedly different – the renowned tribal leader is instead depicted in chains. In 2016, an order came from the Chief Minister’s office to unchain the tribal leader in all of his images, as it was becoming difficult to explain his bondage to youngsters and children. For many, he is a tribal hero of the freedom struggle – who led an insurgency against the British presence in Jharkhand.

For his fight against the British, Birsa was arrested and died in prison. It was the right material for the making of a nationalist hero – a martyr in Tribal’s shoes. But later studies on the Adivasi movements of Jharkhand found that Birsa’s real chains were the narratives built around him.

Birsa’s followers being escorted to prison by the British

When there was confusion around a statue of Birsa (chained) on the road to Kunthi, his home district, a play was made with the following lines:

Birsa is tied with ropes. Then culture comes and cuts the ropes. With that, the Mundas are liberated.

It suggests a yearning for freedom – one that many of India’s Adivasis continue to face. The Bokaro Steel Town, whose construction displaced many tribes, has to its benefit an airport named after Birsa. Hindutva forces also have started to appropriate Birsa in their own imagery, as someone who was somehow ‘Hindu’. Along the way, the historical aspect is lost.

Birsa led quite an unnatural movement. For one, it was not solely against the British – it was against the Dikus (outsiders). It was in some ways, an agrarian struggle – for the British had brought in Thekedars to farmlands that the Mundas could not. Over time, the immigrant moneylenders, merchants and farmers replaced the older Munda power structure. The sense of bereavement was accelerated by large-scale tragedies – the famine of 1897, a cholera epidemic in 1888 and the failure of the Winter crop in 1889. But to ignore Bisra’s own leanings neglects the religious aspect of it all.

The moment Birsa changed from an ordinary tribal to a messiah, was a flash of lightning in a dark forest. The year was 1895, and Birsa was travelling the forest with a friend. Lightning struck, and when Birsa’s face was illuminated, his friend saw an extraordinary visage. Capitalising on this, Birsa said that he had received a vision. His friend ran back to the village; the very first convert to Birsa’s personal religion.

Among the first studies of Birsa’s life was by the anthropologist, S.C. Roy, considered the founder of his field in India. The Mundas and Their Country was Roy’s first published book, in 1912. The picture it paints of the tribal leader is starkly different from the ‘nationalist’ narrative.

Birsa was inspired by both his Munda roots as well as his childhood schooling in the German Missionary School at Chaibassa. He claims to heal the sick, who start to crowd at his door, in the village of Charkad. Those who were not immediately cured were blamed for approaching him without reverence.

Birsa then began to build a movement. Tackling superstition, he called for the Mundu people to recognize only a single God, to abstain from eating meat, to be clean and to wear the sacred threads of Hindus. Birsa had created a religion that blended Hinduism and Christianity – in anticipation of a looming catastrophe from the heavens. One of his commandments was retold in the following lines:

Birsa says, give up drinking rice-beer and liquor.
For this reason our land drifts away.
Drunkenness and sleep are no good.
The enemies laugh at us.
The beer distilled from fermented rice stinks.
A person’s body and spirit too decay likewise.

It is for this reason that he is viewed by scholars in the West as a ‘millenialist‘ – one who believes in 1000-year cycles of good and evil. For Birsa, the tribals suffered under the ‘Kali Yuga’ era, under the evil rule of Queen Mandodari. Ranajit Guha theorized that this Queen was a metaphor for Queen Victoria – granting Birsa his anti-colonial credence.

But then, in Roy’s narrative, Birsa announced that the end of the world was nigh. He and all his followers gathered to wait for fire and brimstone (sulphur) to consume the earth. A few police constables also gathered, to watch over the crowd. When nothing happened, the crowd turned violent – and threw the policemen’s items into the river.

Amidst rumours that Birsa planned a massacre of the unbelievers, a police force was dispatched on an elephant to arrest him in his sleep. Birsa was sent to jail. A local Reverend named Lusty produced the now-famous photograph of Birsa, initially titling it as “Sick Birsa.” The British administrators went to lengths to prove Birsa’s non-messianic nature, holding an open trial so all could witness his shackled form.

He promised to return within four days of imprisonment – but this did not happen. This cost Birsa some of his following, and the messiah languished in prison (notwithstanding a minor miracle, where the prison’s mud walls collapsed).

The Chutia temple that Birsa took over

In 1897, he was released. Among his first acts was to occupy a Hindu temple at Chutia, for his followers. The local Hindus got wind of the plot and arrested his men. Birsa went into hiding for a couple of years.

What happened next varied based on who you asked: Marxists suggest this was an agrarian revolt of the tribal communities, but subaltern theorists suggest an indigenous political-theological movement. The former look at the Indian Forest Act and its deprivation of land for tribal groups. The latter see the toppling of power structures, as Birsa’s followers started attacking local power holders, such as Christian missionaries, community heads and lower government officials.

On January 7, 1900, 300 Mundas attacked the Kunthi police station – killing two constables and setting fire to some of the houses. It was feared that Ranchi would be next. A British force was assembled, and with firearms, they crushed the Munda movement. Hundreds were arrested, including Birsa.

The slim tribal leader was famously chained, and given a police escort to jail. It is during this escort that Birsa’s image as a chained tribal hero was built. He died in prison that year, at the age of 25. His sickness was attributed to dysentery and cholera, but this is disputed, as some suspect a British ploy to kill him in prison. On his passing, his body was cremated by the river by a follower; at night, far from the public eye.

The Birsaites’ 1900 attack took place just a year after the Bhils of Gujarat launched their own movement against the imperial state. In this period, it was easy to view any opposition to the British as part of a larger anti-colonial struggle. But Birsa is better placed as a tribal folk hero, for his struggle is deeply linked to the tribal struggle for land rights.

In 1908, as a consequence of Birsa’s struggle and the unhappiness over land ownership that surrounded it, the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act was passed – prohibiting the sale of tribal land to non-tribal communities. No sooner were the chains taken off Birsa’s statues in 2016 than the act was diluted. Jharkhand is a mineral-rich state, ripe for the picking, and home to an ongoing struggle between industrialization, tribal ways of life and the state.

From tribal communities to colonizers, anthropologists and subalterns, everyone had their eye and lens on Birsa and his movement. The more he is pigeonholed, the less his story is given the ability to ‘speak‘. Birsa’s ultimate miracle was transcending a regional movement to become a national icon. The Naxals, Hindutva leaders and private entities who appropriate his name today are all equally distant from the young, impressionable man’s worldview.

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