What lies beneath the tussle over Birsa Munda’s legacy

Ashraf Engineer

June 29, 2024


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

He died more than 120 years ago but legendary tribal activist Birsa Munda is now at the centre of a heated political battle. Sangh Parivar outfits are using his memory to co-opt Adivasi identities into the Hindu fold even as they demand that tribals who have converted to so-called non-indigenous religions, such as Christianity, be excluded from the Scheduled Tribes list and the benefits that come with it. This has Adivasis on edge. They have long maintained that they are distinct from Hindus with their own religious and cultural identity. Munda, who died in his 20s in a Ranchi jail in 1900, is a hero in Jharkhand because he raised a tribal guerrilla army to fight the British. Every Jharkhandi politician swears by his name. In fact, the state’s foundation day, November 15, coincides with Munda’s birth anniversary. Ranchi airport is named after him and his statues appear across the state. The tussle is indicative of a larger project to widen the Hindutva umbrella by making Adivasis believe they are part of it. Central to it is the battle over Birsa Munda’s legacy.


The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, tried in November 2021 to gain the first mover advantage by declaring Munda’s birth anniversary as Rashtriya Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas or Tribal Pride Day. It pointed out that it was the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that had formed Jharkhand in 2000. Never one to miss an inauguration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi opened a Birsa Munda Park and museum in Ranchi.

Then Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren responded by felicitating Sukhram Munda, a descendant of Birsa Munda, on the activist’s birth anniversary. Soren also launched the ‘Aap ke Adhikar, Aap ki Sarkar, Aap ke Dwar (your rights, your government, at your doorstep)’ campaign in Birsa Munda’s native village.

Soren, who headed the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha-led United Progressive Alliance government, has since been arrested by Central agencies who allege corruption.

Khunti, the district within which lies Ulihatu village, where Munda was born, is at the centre of the conflict over his legacy. While many tributes are paid to Munda, Khunti remains among India’s most backward tribal areas. It’s a reserved constituency for Scheduled Tribes, or STs, but lacks even basic amenities and jobs. There is a steady trickle of people moving out.

The Munda birth memorial in Ulihatu comprises a small shrine within which is a bust of his, a memorial stone and a donation box. Every year on his birth anniversary, politicians from all parties visit the shrine and then forget about it.

A few decades ago, Birsa Jayanti was smaller celebration with villagers gathering at the memorial and celebrating with song, dance and storytelling. Now, with the political wrangling, powerful politicians visit on the occasion. In the name of security, barricades are put up and villagers barred from even leaving their homes. Many see this as disrespect and fear that control of the shrine will be wrested away from them.

Even the name of the celebration has turned controversial. Locals know it as Birsa Jayanti but, after the Union Cabinet renamed it to Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, Adivasi activists say it was done to sideline Munda.

But let’s step back a bit. Who was Birsa Munda and why is he such an important historical figure?

Munda was born in 1875. Between 1886 and 1890, he attended the Gossner Mission School in Chaibasa, run by German Protestant missionaries. Munda’s father was likely a catechist in the Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church, which had a base in the region. Munda himself was baptised with the name ‘Daud’.

As a boy, Munda watched the Sardari Larai movement unfold. The Adivasi rebellion protested exploitation by dikus, or outsiders, who were taking over their lands and diluting their cultural identity.

Historians say that Munda overheard missionaries criticise the rebels, which led him to confront them. For this, he was expelled from school.

That is when he is said to have uttered the famous line: “Saheb, saheb ek topi.” It implied that all their masters, whether they were missionaries or the British, were the same. Subsequently, the family left Chaibasa and renounced its membership of the church.

Munda then spent a few years learning from a Vaishnavite preacher. Later, upon parting ways from him, Birsa gained some fame as a healer and community leader. In December 1899, he launched the ulgulan, or revolution, through a series of arrow attacks on Christmas Eve on police stations and churches in the Singhbhum and Ranchi districts.

This is presented by Hindutvawadis as proof of Munda’s opposition to Christianity and missionaries.

However, many scholars argue that the attacks had absolutely nothing to do with protecting Hinduism. The attacks, they say, were symbolic of the rise of a distinct identity in the Chhota Nagpur Plateau where Adivasis were facing persistent attacks from a range of outsiders, which included but was not limited to Christian missionaries. Birsa’s rebellion was launched in opposition to exploitative outsiders in general, and these included “rajas, hakims, zamindars and Christians”, say scholars.

When the British took over the administration of Chhota Nagpur in 1772, they introduced a range of taxes using landlords as collection agents. These resulted in excesses upon Adivasis.

At least one scholar has pointed out that Munda’s followers insisted that the real enemies were the British and the government and that any person of Munda origin, Christian or otherwise,  should not be harmed.

Munda’s chief demands were tribal sovereignty and end to oppressive land and labour policies. Though the British defeated the rebellion, it is revered by the tribal community. In the process, it transformed Munda into an Adivasi icon.

Today, his is the sole Adivasi portrait to hang in Parliament and a statue of his stands in the Parliament complex.

However, as I said earlier, the landscape of his legacy is now an ideological battleground. Adivasis see Munda as a national hero. The Sangh Parivar, meanwhile, seeks to project him as someone who resisted colonial Christianity and embraced Hinduism. These claims are offered as arguments that Adivasis are actually “backward Hindus” and that they need to be brought into the wider saffron fold.

This concept is hotly contested by Adivasi academicians. While the Hindutvawadis have succeeded in drawing many Adivasis to their side, many continue to embrace their distinct socio-religious identity as separate from Hinduism. Hemant Soren, an Adivasi himself, has asserted: “Adivasis are nature worshippers. Their culture, religious rituals and lifestyle are entirely different from Hindus’.”

Adivasi communities in Jharkhand and elsewhere have, in fact, been demanding that their ancient indigenous Sarna faith be recognised as a unique religion in the census.

Historians have sought to debunk the claim that Munda was anti-Christian or that he embraced Hinduism. They say that the saffron right wing is twisting the narrative to project Munda as pro-Hindu and anti-Christian instead of Adivasi leader.

Hindutvawadis point to the time Munda spent learning from the Vaishnavite preacher, who used the Bhagwad Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata in his teachings. This, it is claimed, led to a spiritual transformation in Birsa.

However, scholars, using historical records, say that while Munda did adopt some Hindu practices, such as wearing the sacred thread, he wasn’t unquestioningly loyal to the preacher. In fact, there was a rift over Munda’s involvement with the Sardari Larai. These differences led to an end to his apprenticeship.

The Hindutva narrative depicts Birsa Munda as a protector of Hindu culture from Christian missionaries. This is untrue, say scholars, and an oversimplification of the facts. This narrative also turns the focus away from Munda’s battle for tribal rights and identity.

Scholars also say that, after leaving the preacher, Munda started preaching his own religion. Those who follow it are known as Birsaites.

As I said, Adivasis reject the idea that they could be considered Hindus because they follow their own faith. Munda setting up his own religion, they say, was an attempt to offer Adivasis an alternative to the dominant religions.

Munda was captured by the British on August 22, 1895, and awarded a two-year jail sentence. When he was released in 1897, he resumed his rebellion.

On January 9, 1899, the British and the Birsaites fought a battle at Dombari Buru, a hill near Sail Rakab village. The British had rifles, the Birsaites axes and arrows. Munda women too were part of the uprisings and were among the fatalities.

No match for the weaponry of the British, the Birsaites were massacred and a manhunt launched for Birsa. On February 3, 1900, he was captured. In jail, Birsa contracted an illness and died on June 9 that year. Many believe he was poisoned.

The battle of Dombari Buru is now the stuff of legends and is the centrepiece of many Mundari songs.

Munda’s rebellion made colonisers realise that agrarian disorders were at the heart of the uprising. Subsequently, several changes in policy were kicked off, resulting in the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which prohibits the sale of tribal land and upholds restrictions on its transfer. Adivasis credit this directly to Birsa Munda and his rebellion.

Today, any people’s movement in Jharkhand, whether it’s about human rights or workers’ rights or any other issue, invokes Munda. It’s a surefire way of bringing people together.

There are many who think it’s only land ownership that Adivasis are protesting for. Land is central, but not just as the foundation of livelihood. It is central, in fact, to Adivasi culture.

In fact, it was the cultural identity derived from the land that was at the centre of the movement for a separate Jharkhand state. Those agitating for the separate state had pointed out that the process of dispossession started with British colonisation but it was followed by “internal colonialism” after Independence.

Even today, the driving out of Adivasis from their land is a hot-button issue. In 2016, the then BJP state government amended the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santal Parganas Act that Adivasis believe diluted their land rights. The massive protests that followed forced the government to withdraw the amendments. The amendments were among the major reasons the BJP lost the state election in 2019.

Coming back to the socio-cultural battle being fought in Birsa Munda’s name, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has forcefully rejected the Hindutva framing of the Adivasi identity. It too has demanded that the Centre recognise the Sarna religion.

After the Centre declared November 15 as Rashtriya Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, Hemant Soren said celebrating a day and actually helping tribals are two different things.

There are large political stakes involved. By some estimates, the actual Scheduled Tribe, or ST,  population of Jharkhand is higher than the Census 2011 figure of 26.3%. With 28 of the 81 Assembly seats reserved for STs, tribals form an important vote bank. In 2019, the BJP managed to win only two of these 28 seats. In comparison, in 2014 when it won 37 Assembly seats in all, it was largely because the tribal community voted saffron. In that election, the BJP bagged 11 ST seats and the JMM 13. Five years later, the JMM-Congress alliance won 25 of the 28 reserved seats.

Having learnt its lesson, the BJP has now resorted to Birsa Munda’s memory as a way of winning back lost ground.

While political parties make a lot of noise over tribal traditions and history, as well as Adivasi development through new schemes, experts say that the major laws for the protection of Adivasi land, such as the Fifth Schedule, the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, are being violated consistently. Tribal rights that are asserted on paper are now gasping for breath in the real world.

Birsa Munda’s fight was to save Adivasi land and identity. But it’s a fact that the more things change, the more they remain the same. So, the very rights he fought for are the ones Adivasis continue to fight for today. This is being countered by an attempt to alter their cultural identity itself.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit allindiansmatter.in for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at editor@allindiansmatter.in. Catch you again soon.