The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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BIRSA MUNDA AND HIS MOVEMENT (1872-1901) By K.S. Singh, Seagull, Rs 625

“The forest takes up her children to her lap afresh like a Munda mother... That was why Birsa demanded the right of the forest. He tried to snatch the forest away from the dikus, because the forest is the mother of the Mundas and the dikus have sullied her.” — Aranyer Adhikar by Mahasweta Devi.

Ulgulan. The word still sets the Munda blood on fire. A watershed in tribal history, the word represents a movement led by Birsa Munda against the usurpation of the tribal land by the zamindars and dikus or thikadars, who drove its owners to penury and starvation. The new set of exploiters, pampered by the British administration, replaced the traditional khuntkatti land tenure. Under the new system, the land could be an exclusive privilege of the landlords only on the death of the bhuinhars or descendants of the original settlers, or if these people could be made to leave their villages by force or by persuasion. This, along with the introduction of both begari or forced labour and failure of the British courts to deal effectively with the tribal complaints due to the language barrier, signalled the breakdown of the traditional tribal agrarian system, jeopardizing the value system and social hierarchy.

The Ulgulan in 1899 comprised the twin processes of armed resistance and a revitalization programme. The movement which took off in Ranchi and northern parts of the Singhbhum district of Bihar, gradually spread and seeped into the tribal culture. To the Mundas, Birsa was not just an icon, he was a prophet, a miracle man, an incarnation of Singbonga (the sun god). The movement he ushered in contained both political and religious components, one pre-empting the other at different points of time.

The tribal community was no stranger to rebellion. There was the Kherwar movement of the Santals in 1855-56, which bore striking similarity to the Birsa movement. There were also the Tamar and Kol insurrections and the Sardar agitation or mulkui larai (the struggle for land) which formed the political core of the Birsa movement. Though agrarian in origin, the Ulgulan however had a far-reaching impact on Munda life-style, shaping their views and their dreams so much that it constituted as much a part of tribal history as the substance of myth. This was evidently due to the leader of the movement, Birsa Munda. His ever-growing popularity did not cease even after his capture and death. In fact, the Birsa cult pervaded with incredible rapidity the whole of the tribal population in India in the first half of the 20th century.

The present volume is a centennial edition of K.S. Singh’s Dust Storm and Hanging Mist published nearly 40 years ago. Singh’s erudition and critical acumen are evident from his analysis of the background of the movement, its consequences, and especially his meticulous unravelling of Birsa’s personality. Singh shows how Birsa magically transformed the tribal discontent into the first stirrings of tribal nationalism. Nationalist sentiment proceeds from the invention of tradition — so thinks Eric Hobsbawm. Singh’s study illuminates how Birsa revived — rather re-invented — the tribal tradition to the effect of rewriting it altogether.

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