Since the nineteenth century, the Mundas, an indigenous community residing in the Chota Nagpur region, have been engaged in a bitter battle for something intrinsic to their very existence: land. Their land provides them with animals to hunt, berries to gather, and enriching soil to cultivate.
However, its value is not purely based on sustenance, as it also has deep-rooted theological links with the Munda tradition. Each Munda Hatu (village settlement) has a village Bongako (village spirit) that is worshipped by the Pahan (chief priest) and is revered by all, thus displaying the level of attachment.
The Mundas have returned to their beloved land. The nature of their delicate relationship with their land is one infused with respect as opposed to exploitative tendencies.
Over the centuries, there have been several attempts to infringe on their precious land; none, however, have been as elaborate as that by the British. In the latter half of the 19th century, the colonial administration sought to reap immense profits by making significant economic changes.
One such change in the economic sphere occurred in the Chota Nagpur region. The change sought to replace the Khuntkhatti system, the traditional land ownership system of the Mundas.
The Munda Khuntkhatti institution of land ownership provides customary joint ownership of land to all families belonging to one tribal clan (Killi); these families then clear the forest land to make the land cultivable.
This traditional system of land ownership is not only an age-old custom but also an institution that is embedded in the very ethos of the tribe and works as a binding force to keep the community together.
By the year 1875, the colonial administration had implemented the Zamindari system in the region. This new economic system revolved around rich landlords known as zamindars who had encroached on previously owned tribal land. The tribals no longer had access to their traditional land and had transformed from joint owners to ryots, or tenants.
This tyrannical upheaval, accompanied by the alien influence of Christian missionaries, led to feelings of mass discontentment among the Munda community. This tense political atmosphere had sown the seeds of the great tumult that was to follow. With the woeful plight of the Mundas furthered by crippling famines between 1890 and 1900, the community was on its knees and in dire need of a saviour.
Birsa The Messiah
Their messiah emerged in the form of a captivating young Munda by the name of Birsa. Birsa was a handsome youth from the village chalked in Thana Tamar who successfully capitalised on the sentiments of the masses and launched a full-fledged rebellion against the Dikus (outsiders).
Birsa proclaimed himself to be the sole messenger of Singbonga (the supreme Munda deity), who had arrived to ensure salvation for his tribe. His preachings invoked a combination of both religious fervour and anti-colonial sentiments, which led him to amass a large following who affectionately referred to him as Birsa Bhagwan or Dharti Abba (Father of the Earth). With this large following of Birsaites at his side, the prophet declared the Ulgulan, or the Great Tumult.
The messiah ordered all the Munda tenants to stop paying rent to the sardars and further raised anti-British slogans such as "Abua raj ete jana, maharani raj tundu jana" (Let the kingdom of the queen be ended and our kingdom be established).
The rebellion took a fiery turn in 1899, with violent clashes and the burning of administrative buildings. The Ulgulan was, however, short-lived, with brutal suppression by the colonial regime leading to the massacre of over 400 tribals and the eventual arrest and death of Bhagwan Birsa Munda himself.
The rebellion was the first time the troubled plateau had united against oppression with such passion. The sacrifice of the courageous Mundas, however, did not go in vain when, in 1908, the British administration passed the Chota Nagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act after continued tribal agitation.
The passing of this legislature was a monumental victory for the Munda cause as it prevented land alienation by formalising the Khuntkhatti system. Essentially, the act prohibits the transfer of land to non-tribals to ensure community ownership. The strength of this magna carta of tribals was further boosted when the Constituent Assembly placed it in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution, thus making it ineligible for judicial review.
How the Fight Has Continued
Despite these positive developments, this interminable fight for their land has continued. The post-independence era has seen a series of unresponsive governments at both state and central levels that have been oblivious to the sentiments of the Munda community.
The region’s abundant mineral reserves have made it an extremely attractive investment opportunity for mining and industry. Successive governments have capitalised on this lucrative opportunity by diluting the protections provided by the CNT Act via amendment and administration. In 1996, Section 46 of the act was amended to allow for land acquisition and transfer for industrial use and mining, thus stripping away ancestral land for profit.
The troubles of the Mundas have continued even after the new state of Jharkhand was formed for the tribal demography in southern Bihar. Notwithstanding the homage paid to Birsa Munda through numerous memorials, the memory of his sacrifice to safeguard Munda lands seems to be withering away.
Proposed amendments as recent as 2016 have sought to weaken the CNT Act for corporate use; the then government led by Raghubar Das passed the ordinance in June 2017 that sought to allow the transfer of land for linear infrastructure projects such as railways, canals, and roads, as well as other government purposes. After severe backlash from tribal communities, the government finally withdrew the ordinance.
These attempts to further strip away their land mean that the community must relentlessly justify their claim to their own ancestral homes. The Dikus (outsiders) continue to exploit them, and thus the Ulgulan continues.
"Our land is blowing away as the dust blows away in the storm."Dharti Abba Birsa Munda
(The author is a student of social anthropology. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)