Munda Rebellion, also known as the “Ulgulan Movement“, was one of the most significant tribal uprisings during the 19th Century. The revolt took place under the leadership of Birsa Munda in the Chotanagpur region (near Ranchi, Jharkhand). The uprising mainly concentrated in the Munda belt of Khunti, Tamar, Sarwada, and Bandgaon. The movement came to be called ‘Ulgulan‘ or the ‘Great Tumult‘, aimed at establishing the Munda Raj by driving out the British.
Historical Background – Munda Rebellion
During the 19th Century, the British colonial system intensified the transformation of the tribal agricultural system into a feudal state. As the tribals, with their primitive methods, could not generate a surplus, the Cheifs in the Chhotanagpur invited the non-tribal peasantry to settle on and cultivate the land, which led to the alienation of the lands held by the tribals. The new class of “Thikadars” (or contractors), coming as merchants and moneylenders, was more eager to make the most of their possessions.
By 1874, the authority of the old Munda or Oraon chiefs had been almost entirely annulled by the that of farmers introduced by landlords. In some villages, they had completely lost their proprietary rights and had been reduced to the position of farm labourers. The incident of “forced labour” or “beth begari” also increased dramatically. Another change associated with British rule was the appearance of Anglican and Catholic missions.
To deal with the twin challenges of agrarian breakdown and culture change, these tribals under the leadership of Birsa Munda responded through a series of revolts and uprisings. Birsa urged the tribals to destroy “Ravana” (Dikus/outsiders and Europeans) and establish a kingdom under his leadership.
In 1895, in the Chalkad village of Tamar, Birsa Munda renounced Christianity and asked his fellow tribal people to workshop only one God. He declared himself a prophet who had come to recover the lost kingdom of his people. He announced that the rule of Queen Victoria was over, and the Munda Raj had begun. He gave orders to the tenant farmers to not pay rents. The Munda tribesmen called him ‘Dharati Aaba‘, the father of earth.
The rebellion, which began as a religious movement, gathered political forces to fight against the introduction of feudal, zamindari tenures and exploitation by money lenders and forest contractors.
Causes of Munda Rebellion
The cause of the Munda revolt was the unfair land-grabbing practices by colonial and local authorities, which demolished the tribal conventional land system.
- Erosion of Khuntkattidar system:
- The Mundas traditionally enjoyed a preferential rent rate as the khuntkattidar (the original clearer of the forest). But during the 19th century, they had seen this khunkhatti land system being eroded by the jagirdars and thikadars, coming as merchants and moneylenders.
- Land alienation and exploitation by the outsiders:
- The establishment and consolidation of British rule in India accelerated the mobility of non-tribal people into the tribal regions.
- The outsiders, called Dikus, were invited by the British to cultivate on tribal lands.
- Landlords and moneylenders were taking over their land.
- Money lending at very high-interest rates, and lack of legal knowledge of Mundas, were used to deprive these tribesmen of their land and wealth.
- The incidents of ‘beth begari’ or forced labour also rose dramatically.
- Unscrupulous thikadars (contractors) had turned the region into a recruiting ground for indentured labour.
- Missionary activities:
- With the British rule in India, there was the arrival of several Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic missions.
- Missionaries were criticising their traditional culture.
- The spread of education through missionary activities made the tribals more organised and conscious of their rights.
In December 1899, Birsa Munda launched an armed struggle against the landlords and the British government. Munda used traditional symbols and language to rouse people, urging them to destroy ‘Ravana’. Birsa’s followers began targeting the emblems of Diku and European power. They attacked police stations and churches and raided the property of moneylenders and zamindars. They put forward the white flag as an emblem of Birsa Raj. However, on 9 January 1900, the British armed forces were deployed, and the rebels were defeated.
On 3 March 1900, Birsa Munda was arrested by the British police while he was sleeping with his tribal guerilla army at Jamkopal forest in Chakradharpur (Jharkhand). Birsa died of cholera in the jail, and the movement faded out.
Significance of Munda Rebellion
- The Munda rebellion forced the British government to introduce the “Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908“. This Act prevented the transfer of tribal land to the non-tribal parties so that the land of the tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus.
- The Government also banned forced labour and recognised the Khunkatti rights.
- This rebellion showed that the tribal people could protest against injustice and express their anger against British rule.
Who was Birsa Munda?
Birsa Munda was an Indian Tribal Freedom Fighter and religious leader who belonged to the Munda tribe. He was born on 15 November 1875 in Ulihatu village (now in Jharkhand) in the Bengal Presidency.
In 1895, Birsa announced his declaration against the British and the Dikus (outsiders). He began the Munda Rebellion (Ulgulan Movement) in 1899. He died on 9 June 1900, at the age of 24 years, in Ranchi Jail.
How is Janjatiya Divas related to Birsa Munda?
In 2021, the Government of India celebrated ‘Janjatiya Divas’ on November 15 (the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda). This day was celebrated to remember the contribution of Indian tribal freedom fighters.