The struggle of tribal communities against forestland acquisition by the government is not new to India. However, we have forgotten tribal leaders like Birsa Munda, who influenced many tribal people by encouraging a mindset to assert their rights on their land.
Birsa Munda, who was born on November 15, 1874 in Khunti in present-day Jharkhand, drove the tribal communities in the state to fight against the transformation of the tribal agrarian system into a feudal state by the British, which had led to the alienation of lands held by the tribal people. He was known as ‘Dharti Aba’ (Father of earth). Although Birsa died at the young age of 25, his influence among tribal people was all-pervasive.
On his birth anniversary on November 15, tribal communities in Karnataka celebrate Birsa Munda Jayanti. But, this year too it will be a low-key affair.
Tribal people in Chotanagpur area, which is in present day Jharkhand, practiced Khuntkatti system (joint holding by tribal lineages) till mid -19th century. The well-to-do farmers, merchants, moneylenders and dikus (non-tribals) from north India tried to replace the system with the typical Zamindari-tenancy system, which caused indebtedness and beth-begari (forced labour) among the tribal people.
Between 1780 and 1840, Mundas revolted five times against the undue interference by the British administration and the attitude of the landlords.
In the 1890s, Birsa Munda asserted the need for the Munda community to uproot superstition, stop animal sacrifice and avoid alcoholism. He demanded tribal farmers to boycott ‘beth begari system’ (forced labour) and advised the villagers against obeying oppressive and exploitative landlords, Britishers and traders. With support from the British, the scale of torture and discrimination only increased.
Birsa mobilised a protest march in October 1894 for remission of forest dues. During this struggle, he managed to bring the tribal community under a single umbrella and asked them to re-establish their own kingdom.
According to the then British government, Munda was said to have died of cholera on June 9, 1900 in Ranchi jail. Eight years after his death, the government enacted Chotanagpur Tenancy Act.
Why does he matter today?
In the 1990s, tribal communities in the south - Jenu Kurubas, Kadu Kurubas and Soligas in Hunsur and H.D.Kote taluk were introduced to and inspired by Birsa Munda’s movement.
For instance today, Jenu Kurubas, whose original occupation was to collect honey from the forests, work on other people’s lands, after the Karnataka government demarcated large portions of forestland as government land few decades ago. The story of Birsa Munda has direct links to the battle for forest rights which tribal communities are fighting today.
The celebrations of Birsa Munda Jayanti have been overshadowed by the controversy over Tipu Jayanti across the state and the celebrations of Kempegowda Jayanti in Mysuru on Saturday.
Why is he ignored?
Sreekanth, who heads the tribal rights Development through Education (DEED) in Hunsur told The Hindu that all forest-dwelling tribals who claim their rights to the forest know who Birsa Munda is.
“When the tribal rights movement gained momentum in the region and we researched similar struggles elsewhere in India, the life of Birsa Munda came prominently to the fore and he was co-opted to inspire the local struggle,” Sreekanth said.
He said that though Adivasis celebrate Birsa Munda Jayanti every year, the government has not recognized his importance and has never partnered with tribal people to observe it.