Lest We Should Forget Our Heroes


The Background

Today 9th June. On this day in 1900, he was reported dead under judicial custody pending trial in Ranchi prison, because of constant vomiting of blood. He was shouting at the jail authorities what have they given him to eat. He was warning that Bhagwan can not die, let the British know this. Let us remember him on this day.

Birsa Munda - "Dharati ka Aabaa" (father of the soil)- did not have a privileged background. The life lead by him was the same hard lot as the most of Indigenous people in India since the coming of Aryans. His fight was not against the British alone, but against the tyranny of all so called civilized Indians, the Mahajans, Purohits, Money lenders, Landlords, Tea Garden Owners, who all were sheltered and protected by the blessings of The British in the thick forest regions of Chota Nagpur Area in Bihar.

He was considered as "Bhagwan" by his people though he was just an ordinary Munda, like any other, living a life of deprivation, starvation, hunger and malnutrition. The greatest ambition of Mundas and other Tribals was to get just plain cooked rice just enough to keep them alive and a pinch of common salt. Even this was a luxury for them.

The minor forest produce always belonged to forest dwellers. They never wanted any property, only produce like leaves and flowers, gum and honey, poles and grass. That was all they wished to have. Basically they were food gatherers and minor hunters of birds and small animals. They were not poachers of big animals for sale, they were not smugglers of valuable timber unlike what we see today. They did minor farming by clearing the forests and cultivating grain enough for their survival. After they cleared the forest and made the land fit for cultivation, they were whisked away from the land by the tyrannical established agents mentioned above, through English Judges, who declared judgments on hearsay evidence of the rich through translators. They had to find another piece of land more interior and in deeper forest and start all over again. The intelligentsia was cunning enough to declare that the indigenous people "prefer" the "migratory cultivation", and nobody thought it as a clever cover up for the exploitation.

How aptly Mahasweta Devi lamented that we know very little about them, we destroyed a great land without knowledge or any research. Adivasis demand recognition and respect as they are the children of ancient Indian culture and we are sacrificing them on the altar by making them beggars. They do not have any presence in Science, Industry, Agriculture or any other field, they are the meek spectators of our march towards twenty first century.

It was under such environment Birsa, was born in 1875, in a Munda family. Many other tribes like Santhal, Oraon, Ho, Kola who inhabited along with Mundas also had become Christians and hence Birsa had some education in Mission run schools. There were hundreds of temples but no schools run by Hindus, who never wished that Adivasis should become educated. Hence in later life Birsa was not very kind to these temples too.

Birsaite Movement

A fact not well known is that, Birsa read The Bible and minutely studied the revolutionary side of Jesus. Birsa tried to search his own identity, and soon discovered that the established order of land lords, money lenders and purohitas are real exploiters under the British protection. The forests preserved by them, the lands tilled by them were cleverly taken away by those oppressors. Robbers became the owners and real owners became the offenders in the eyes of law. Birsa started awakening his people and raised a slogan of "Return our lands to us". And he leads a peaceful demonstration of thousands of "Birsaites" to demand "abolition of Forest Tax".

When the struggle became eminent, the religious heads, pundits, leaders, land lords and money lenders got scared and registered false reports against the movement. The British state rushed forward to crush the "Birsaite" movement under Deputy Commissioner of Ranchi, Mr. Trustfield. On 22nd August 1895 Birsa gets arrested with his followers and Commissioner of Ranchi asks Dr. Rogers to declare Birsa as insane, because he calls himself as Bhagwan. Dr. Rogers refuses to do so commenting that nobody declared Jesus insane when he declared himself son of God. Dr. Rogers gets transferred and the case goes to the court, which sentences Birsa for two years rigorous imprisonment on 19th November 1895. Birsa goes to Hajaribag prison, but gets released a bit earlier due to diamond jubilee celebrations of Empress Victoria's reign in 1897.


Revolt was simmering all throughout the region in the minds of Mundas, who now got ready for "ULGULAN", the complete revolution. Birsa organized them again, arranged meetings all throughout the hills. He talked in their Mundari language. There is no record of what he spoke, elites never preserved his memories. Birsa had denied Hindu religion, so pundits were against him.

Christmas eve - 24th December 1899, was night for start of fight. Arrows with burning torches were fired through the bows over the area. In the morning reports started pouring in, of such arrows, arson, burning of government offices, police stations, mission houses. There was havoc in 150 square miles in Singhbhum, 300 sq. miles in Khuti and Tamar Police stations, 100 sq. miles in Basia P.S. Birsa punished all police officers who were atrocious. There was a terror in the minds of police personnel. A letter from a sub inspector to his advocate uncle is available as a proof of terror which also is the evidence of exploitation of the oppressors.

Birsa arrested

Police and Military closed in and siege was arranged but Birsa had vanished. And the spirit of Mundas was high. Govt. declared a prize of Rs. 500/- on the head of Birsa. Army burnt the villages of Mundas but the men women and children had gone deep in forests. Women with infants tied on their backs were fighting with 'gulel' (catapult) and 'gophan' (a device of rope to throw stones) along with men with bows and arrows. War with arrows against guns. Was it a war? When army officers were charged with shooting women with children, they put up a plea that the hair and colour of men being same as women we could not make out that they were women. The officers were acquitted by court and praised by the Governor. Three months later in "The Statesman" of 25th March 1900, a news item appeared of martyrdom of four hundred Mundas on the hill.

But Birsa was running away and military was chasing for nineteen days. At last one Sashibhushan Roy and six others treacherously handed him over to police for greed of Rs. 500/- on 9th January 1900. Birsa advised his people not to dishearten, keep calm, this is not the end of "Ulgulan", there will be many leaders like me later.

The Trial and the End

Conspiracy was hatched to finish him before judgment. The charge sheet only mentioned "instigation" during 24th to 28th December, as a result of which 34 cases of arson in eight police stations where 36 were injured, out of which two later died. As Birsa himself had done nothing, they knew he would be acquitted in the fair trial.

None of the prominent "nationalist" leaders of the country came forward to defend him, neither anybody took note of his death in custody under suspicious circumstances. Only his Christian class fellow Amulya Roy helped and Barrister Jacob came forward and submitted his "Vakil Nama" as Counsel for defence. But as they knew he will be acquitted, so they managed that before any statement is recorded he was finished.


Is it not our duty to find out who and why neglected him? The movement of Phule was also neglected. But Phule had written so much literature that his movement could be understood. Most credit goes to Ms. Gail Omvedt, who wrote on "Cultural Revolution" of Phule with great pains. Ambedkar's writing were also tried to be kept in dark for a number of years, and credit goes to Vasant Moon to edit it. But in case of Birsa, there are no records. All his speeches were in local language and unrecorded. If his statement was recorded in court, that would have been a precious historical record of the War of Independence. But he was allegedly poisoned in the custody and reported as death by Cholera.

His people will one day awaken and ask for justice. In the days of talk of human rights, and global justice and peace, the elites of this land are denying the existence of Indigenous people in land. They are denying the discussion of discrimination of Caste in International fora. If we could remember the sacrifice our hero made for future generations and keep this caravan moving forward, that would be the greatest tribute to this greatest Munda in the History of Indian subcontinent. Let us bow to his memory on his 103rd Martyr's Day.

Dr. K. Jamanadas

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Published on: june 12, 2002
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