Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Munda Ulgulan (1899- 1900)
Background and Causes of Munda Revolt (Ulgulan):
- The forests were like mother to the tribals. The British came with their forest, land and other laws and stripped the tribals of their natural rights. They introduced moneylenders, landlords, traders, mahajans, into the region, through which to loot the adivasis. They usurped the tribal lands, and reduced them to a slave-like existence.
- Munda tribals practiced Khuntkatti system (joint holding by tribal lineages). But rich farmers, merchants, moneylenders, dikus (outsiders who made the tribal people dependent upon them), thekedars from Northern India came and tried to replace it with typical Zamindari-tenancy system. These new landlords caused indebtedness and beth-begari (forced labour) among the tribal.
- Against this oppression the Munda tribes fought continuously, for over three decades. And it was to this on-going struggle that Birsa Munda gave a new turn and a new meaning.
Birsa Munda and Munda Ulgulan:
- Birsa Munda,Born in 1875 to a poor family of the Munda tribe, referred to often by Jharkhand’s tribal residents as “Birsa Bhagwan,” led what came to be known as “Ulgulan” (revolt) or the Munda rebellion against the British colonial government-imposed feudal state.
- In 1894 Birsa declared himself a god, and began to awaken the masses and arouse them against the landlord-British combine. Combining religion and politics he went from village to village giving discourses and building a politico-military organisation. He declared an end to Victorian rule and the establishment of Munda Rule. He organised the people to stop paying debts/interest to moneylenders and taxes to the British. He broke all links with the missionaries and took the path of “Ulgulan” (revolt).
- The British retaliated and brought in the armed police. One night, while in his sleep, Birsa was arrested. He spent two years in jail.
- When he left jail in November 1897, he once again began organising the tribals. He now went underground. He sowed the seeds of revolt against the landlords and British. He raised the self-confidence of the tribals, who increased their attacks on the landlords. He formed two military units — one for military training and armed struggle, the other for propaganda. He declared December 24, 1899, as the day for the launching of the armed struggle.
- On Christmas eve the attacks began. In the first phase police stations were attacked at Khunti, Jamar, Basia, Ranchi, etc. Eight policemen were killed, while 32 fled; 89 houses of landlords were burnt down; churches and British property were reduced to ashes. The flames of the struggle spread to 550 sq. miles in the Chota Nagpur region. The struggle was so intense that on the fourth day itself, Ranchi’s deputy commissioner called in the Army.
- Not only were attacks launched on the moneylender-landlord-mahajan-contractor combine, but directly against the British. Using poisoned arrows many police and Britishers were killed; many traders’ houses were burnt; the flames of armed struggle spread far and wide. But, the British army entered with their guns, brutally massacring the tribals.
- Finally, on February 3, 1900 Birsa was caught. Severe cases were put on him, and 482 others. On June 9, 1900, Birsa Munda became a martyr in Ranchi’s Central Jail, aged just 25. British declared he died of cholera.
Result of Munda Ulgulan:
- Government enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act 1908.
- Government recognized Khuntkatti rights
- Government banned Beth Begari (forced labour)
- Birsa Munda became a legend to the tribals of Chota Nagpur, and a symbol of the anti-feudal, anti-colonial struggle of that time.