Book Excerpt: How Birsa Munda's Ulgulan Shook British Raj in the Region

Birsa displayed his craft to draw people into his fold of political ambition: the Munda raj.

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(The following is an edited excerpt from Rahul Ranjan's new book The Political Life of Memory: Birsa Munda in Contemporary India (Cambridge University Press, 2023). This book examines the representation of Birsa Munda's political life, memory politics and the making of anti-colonialism in contemporary Jharkhand. It offers contrasting features of political imaginations deployed in developing memorial landscapes.)

The Forest Act gave away a large proportion of wasteland to the government and marked the limitation of the forest. Historically, Adivasis had access to the land inside the forest. The new Act completely overlooked such use value and instead villages in forests were marked off in blocks of convenient size consisting not only of village sites but also cultivable and wastelands insufficient for the needs of the khuntkatti villages.

Significantly, these institutional measures and acts failed to address the demands of Adivasis and Mundas in particular. It had led to various uprisings in the past, where Adivasi leaders such as Sidhu and Kanhu led rebellions against the British revenue system that brought massive changes to the Adivasi community. It allowed dikus – the colonial state, the zamindars and the missionaries – to colonise their land and value system.


Notably, Birsa emerged against the background of such wide-ranging administrative and political changes in the region. He organised his people and launched public attacks on the centres of power. In the process of arousing political consciousness amongst his people, Birsa used multiple guises such as a prophet, healer and messiah.

Returning to the Lost 'Munda Raj'

One excerpt from the colonial record displays the effective use of nostalgia and memory as a medium to assert the political will. In his account, British official J Reid recounts the following:

"In 1886, however, a petition was presented to the Government of India on behalf of the Mundas, in which the memorialists advanced the most extravagant claims, based on theory that the Mundas were the aborigines of the country, that they were not subject to revenue laws, and their title was not invalidated by law or prescription. The memorial was, of course, rejected. From evidence collected at the time, it appeared that the agitation was being artificially fostered by self-interested persons in Calcutta. The leaders were certain Munda Sardars, who had abandoned Christianity. These people diligently spread the report that they had obtained a 'decree' for the restoration of the Munda 'Raj' and proceeded to levy subscriptions throughout the country, under the pretence of paying the expenses of its execution."

The passage illustrates the political vision of Birsa and how well he understood Munda society. He was aware of the social dynamics and political realities of his people. He creatively placed the problems within an emotive framework: the lost Munda raj. It dovetailed the historical alienation from the land and discontentment with existing alternatives such as the Forest Act. His public reach widened, especially after his arrest in 1895.

Birsa displayed his craft to draw people into his fold of political ambition: the Munda raj.

Statue of Birsa Munda, Keshiary, Paschim Medinipur, West Bengal.

(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


Gatherings, pilgrimages and chanting surfaced as the most socially acceptable forms of preaching Birsa's political ideas. Birsa displayed his craft to draw people into his fold of political ambition: the Munda raj. Such congregations mobilised the Munda raj as a viable alternative.

In his memoir, John-Baptist Hoffman offered a detailed account of a massive rally led by Birsa and his followers:

"I distinctly remember how the known sardars were urging the common people to go on the pilgrimage to 'Birsa Bhagwan'. At first, I took no notice of what I considered for some weeks as mere acts of semi-savage foolishness. However, the large crowds I soon saw arriving from all parts on their way to Chalkads and the activity of the sardars aroused my suspicion. Rumours of miraculous cures and the resuscitation of dead men were diligently spread ... Crowds of the Mundas, especially of the known sardari villages, were constantly going armed. I got certain news, too, that the religious colouring of Chalkad was fading more and more, and that the real political aims were coming out clearer as Chalkad was getting more and more crowded with armed men, permanently settled there with provisions for many a day."

Hoffman's recollection is vivid and detailed. It attests to the political aims of Birsa. Hoffman was one of the very few who could understand the political strategy that was drawn out through the rallies and pilgrimages. These protests displayed Birsa's political ambitions imbued with religious colouring and real political aims.

Birsa Bhagwan: The 20-Year-Old Prophet

Birsa soon began to face the consequences of his political choice, primarily in the form of repeated arrests. These arrests and public demonstrations transformed his potential as a promising leader. He was not only deemed as a healer – a bhagwan – but also posed as a spearhead for the cause of the Mundas.


A semi-official letter from a British functionary marked his appearance as a political threat to the Raj. lt notes: "In 1895, the agitation was greatly fanned by a young man named Birsa Munda, then only 20 years of age ... he announced himself a prophet, foretold the destruction of all except those in his immediate neighbourhood."

Birsa displayed his craft to draw people into his fold of political ambition: the Munda raj.

On 3 February 1900, Birsa Munda was arrested from the forest, near the Santara village in West Singhbhum. He was then sent to Ranchi, where he died in prison on 9 June 1900.

(Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)

Upon Birsa's arrest on 24 October 1895, a huge crowd of people followed him to the police station, where he faced public trial. Mundas gathered to pay homage to Birsa and publicly announce their acceptance of him as their god. It was advantageous for the zamindars to misinterpret the situation to the police commissioner, who did not understand the Mundari language. This particular arrest occurred quite dramatically as the turning point in the history of what later became known as the Birsa ulgulan. A. Forbes wrote an account of an attempt to arrest Birsa:

"It is fully agreed that the present movement is in continuation of the Sardari agitation, the history of which government is aware, the leader of which is the notorious Birsa Bhagwan. It will be remembered [that] Birsa was sentenced to three [terms of] imprisonment some five years ago in connection with this agitation, his release, on [the] expiration of [the] sentences, dating from January 1898. During the time that Birsa was in jail the agitation subsided, but directly he was released, it was again taken up by the Mundari Sardars, headed by Birsa, against whom an unexecuted warrant is still in force on a charge of rioting and desecrating the Chutia temple (in March 1898)."

The ulgulan began with what Singh calls an 'epidemic of burning and arrow shooting' on the Christmas Eve of 1899. It was shaped by accumulated frustration, denial and loss. The Birsaites rose in the full blaze of light and targets were shot at. Hoffman was also at the gathering but managed to miss an arrow that was aimed at him. The attacks led to an official order for the arrest of Birsa and his followers. The search took place at different locations, including his house and gathering points.

The Beginning of the End

The Big River is in flood, the dust-storm is brewing,

O Maina, run, run away,

The forest is filled with fire and smoke,

O Maina...

Your father is floating away, O Maina...

– Kumar Suresh Singh

I found an interesting correspondence – buried beneath colonial judicial files – between a British official and those in charge of Birsa's arrest in the final moments of the rebellion. On 10 January 1900, a copy of a letter by Captain H. J. Roche arrived at camp Burju. Roche gave a detailed description of the arrest of Birsa and his followers, and the death of a few of them in the process. Roche claimed to have left for the search for Birsa and the Bhagwanis (followers of Birsa) who had come together for a meeting at the Sail Rakab hill. Roche was accompanied by the chief commissioner of Chota Nagpur, Streatfield, and 15 armed police. As soon as they approached the hill, Roche and others took shelter around its foot. Nothing happened that night. With the dawn, however, the information about the large gathering of Bhagwanis reached them. They used techniques to seize these, who, as Roche noted, were 'endeavouring to conceal our approach as much as possible by moving through the jungle and along nullah. Streatfield joined him. They eventually began to fan out the police officers. They arrived at the top of the hill by 1 p.m. and claimed to have spotted people hiding behind the stones and trees waving swords and axes and shouting. He furthermore writes that he "regrets to inform that the bodies of 3 women were found in the jungle having evidently been shot in the pursuit".


On 25 January 1900, Forbes wrote a letter to J. P Hewlett contesting the version of the incident reported by Roche. Forbes began his letter by referring to Roche's report as a 'mistaken' piece of information and adding that it was, in fact, reported to Roche by his subeadar or hawaldar (person in charge at a police station). The letter appears to have revised most of the facts from Roche's report. Forbes concluded that the 'native officer's information was incorrect. He claimed that the report failed to mention about "4 instead of 2 injured people". Forbes took a sub-inspector with him to the site to corroborate the evidence. The number of causalities remains obscure as different accounts offer different figures. Birsa, however, did manage to escape the site.

The violent crackdown at Sail Rakab was a signal to Birsa to call for an end to the British Raj, the missionaries and the zamindars. The Sail Rakab incident marked a sharp and clear disapproval of any form of oppression. However, there is a dispute regarding this incident. Some considered it the beginning of the end while others did not think that the crackdown had shaken 'the recklessly stubborn' Mundas.

In my assessment, Sail Rakab left a deep impression on this region and created a cultural milieu shaped by the historical memory of the incident. It is interesting to note that all these events of arrests and encounters within Birsa's movement have left huge cultural imprints in the collective memory of Adivasis.


End of the Ulgulan

Sail Rakab triggered a serious administrative response. On 8 February 1900, the colonial state judicial files minuted the arrest of "Birsa and his principal adherents". On the day of the arrest, Hewlett also wrote a personal telegram stating that "Birsa, the ringleader of Mundas, and most of his adherents have been captured." In June of the same year, Birsa died in jail, leaving his legacy and teachings. His death emerged as a watershed moment in the history of Adivasi rebellion in the late 19th century.

It marked, I believe, a unique vantage point in history to think more carefully about the voices of the people at the margins of the Raj. The rebellion not only refused to accept the emergent regime of the law but also forced us to reimagine the past of the Munda community. R. D. Munda and Norman Zide, in their essay, give an interesting impression of the movement:

"In spite of its apparent defeat, the movement Birsa led was a triumph (however partial it was) after his death. The government realized that Birsa's stand had reasons (ambitious though it looked in demanding a separate 'kingdom' outside the British Empire). She realized that the agrarian disorders were at the root of the unrest, and Birsa's revolt was the climax of the earlier – Sardar and yet previously little-known – uprisings. A series of agrarian measures began with Survey and Setlement Operations in 1902 ending in the provision for a Tenancy Act."

The invocation of the glorious past as the trope of nostalgia articulated the historic angst of Mundas against the dikus. Birsa's rebellion displayed an unwavering potential using the political consciousness – consolidating all forms of methodical strategies towards attaining the rights and reclamation of memory. He emerged as the canon in the register of the resistance movement.

(The above is an edited excerpt. Paragraph breaks, blurbs and subheadings have been added for readers’ convenience.)

(Rahul Ranjan is an interdisciplinary environmental scholar and writer who currently holds an appointment as the Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Oslo Metropolitan University, Oslo (Norway). He works for the 'Riverine Rights' project in Oslo funded by the Research Council of Norway. He has also edited a volume At Crossroads of Rights for Routledge Press, London in 2022. Previously, he was awarded a PhD (2020) as a Louise Arbour Fellow from the University of London in Political Anthropology.)

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Topics:  Jharkhand 

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