31 May 2021

ON 9 JUNE 1900, the Adivasi revolutionary Birsa Munda died in Ranchi Central Jail. He had been arrested three months earlier, in the Jamkopai forest near Chakradharpur, as colonial authorities moved to crush his Ulgulan, or Great Tumult.

The Ulgulan was the third major Adivasi uprising in the Chhotanagpur region during the nineteenth century, following the Kol Rebellion of 1831 and the Santal Hul of 1855. All three agitations resisted the imposition of the zamindari system, which had caused dispossession, indebtedness and bonded labour. Colonial legislation on forests further alienated Adivasis from their lands and traditional means of livelihood.

Since 1858, Munda leaders had been petitioning government authorities to recognise their land rights and act against the depredations of surveyors, landlords and moneylenders. The Sardari Ladai, as this constitutional struggle was called, had little success. By 1895, Mundas had grown disillusioned with peaceful resistance, as well as with the Lutheran and Jesuit missionaries who had supported their movement but were now making onerous demands.

Birsa, who had been educated by the Lutherans before rejecting Christianity, became an itinerant preacher. He advocated a new religion that incorporated some Hindu, Christian and Munda beliefs and practices, as well as resistance against all dikus—outsiders—including zamindars, government officials and missionaries. He expanded the scope of the Sardari Ladai, asking his followers to stop paying rents and taxes. He was arrested in September 1895 and spent two years in prison.

Following his release, on 30 November 1897, Birsa resumed his agitation, with the added element of political violence against those who benefited from the colonial order. On 24 December 1899, his followers attacked police stations and launched a guerrilla movement. The British killed or arrested hundreds of Birsaites. In order to prevent further unrest, the government passed the Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act, 1908, which restricted transfers of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis.

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