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Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Munda Ulgulan (1899- 1900)

Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Munda Ulgulan (1899- 1900)

Background and Causes of Munda Revolt (Ulgulan):

  • Along with the unrest among the settled agriculturists, the earlier tradition of millenarian movements among the tribal peasants also continued well into the post-1857 period, a major example of this tradition being the Munda ugulan of 1899-1900, under the guidance of a charismatic religious leader, Birsa Munda.
  • 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.
  • The alienation of Munda land and the advent of dikus had spurred an agitation under their leaders in 1890-95.
    • This movement gradually came under the leadership of Birsa, who for two years mobilised the Munda tribal peasants from a wide region in Chota Nagpur in Bihar, by promising to protect them from an apocalyptic disaster.

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 1893-94, he had participated in a movement to prevent village wastelands being taken over by the Forest Department.
  • His initial popularity was based on medicinal and healing powers, by which Birsa claimed to make his followers invulnerable.
    • 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.
  • Rumours spread about his occult powers, ability to heal diseases and perform miracles. In tribal imagination, he appeared as a messiah who could turn British bullets into water.
    • He took tribals on a pilgrimage to Munda holy places and on the way held large public meetings, talking about a golden past or satjug that was gone and the dark kaljug that had befallen, when the Munda land or disum was ruled by Queen Mandodari, the wife of the demon King Ravana-probably a metaphor for the Raj under Queen Victoria.
    • What came out in these meetings was the tribal peasants’ antipathy towards the foreigners, the dikus— the landlords and the moneylenders and their patrons, the sahibs (Europeans)— both officials and Christian missionaries.
    • The grounds were thus prepared for a massive anticolonial tribal uprising that started during the Christmas of 1899.
  • He declared December 24, 1899, as the day for the launching of the armed struggle.
    • On Christmas eve the attacks began.
    • It targeted churches, temples, policemen and other symbols of the new regime.
    • 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.
  • What was important, however, about the Munda ulgulan was their greater awareness of the wider political realities of the colonial state.
    • Tribal territoriality notwithstanding, Birsa’s ambitions were no longer localised.
    • The aim of his movement was not merely to drive out the dikus, but “to destroy their enemies and put an end to the British Raj” and establishing in its place “a Birsa Raj and a Birsaite religion“.
  • It was this political awareness and ability to connect to the broad picture that was new in the late nineteenth century tribal movements.

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.
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