Written by Rahul Ranjan.
The engulfing potential of colonialism cannot be underplayed, even if we believe to have entered a globalised world, where claims about any past are seemingly displaced by various forces. These claims are about a colonial past that significantly devastated, reshaped and massively distorted the then social fabric in different communities. The colonial past is a repertoire of violence witnessed and experienced variably, and continues to inform political mobilisation in different parts of the world.
This article locates a particular moment in history, widely remembered as ‘Birsa Ulgulaan (rebellion)’, which took place towards the end of the nineteenth century, and was led by Birsa Munda, the ‘prophetic’ figure amongst the Munda Adivasi (indigenous peoples).
Within nationalist historiography, the struggle of the Birsa rebellion was recognised as an anti-colonial movement but not limited to it. The aims and scope of the movement were driven by the discontent of Adivasis, who experienced historical injustices encompassing a wide range of exploitation manifesting in the form of land alienation as a result of English laws. These laws were informed by the Eurocentric notion of private property and rational individualism, an offshoot of the Enlightenment, and powerful social experiments that Europe tried to test in the colonial laboratories. The Raj, a term widely used for the British Rule in India, and Adivasis came into confrontation more often from the middle of the nineteenth century, when land legislation was formally translated, often obfuscating the traditional and existing modalities sustained through generations of oral history.
I believe that the Birsa Ulgulaan cannot be studied as a singular and isolated moment in the history of colonial India, but rather more powerfully as a metaphor and symbol of resistance that offers an alternative political vision.
These changes were not isolated experiments and had significant implications within regions like Chota Nagpur, where Birsa Munda rose in the struggle against the Raj. They were complemented by the existing structures of alienation in the form of zamindaris (landlords). In fact, the unsettling forces of oppression created a new vocabulary within the Adivasi communities, and in the case of Chota Nagpur, the terminology used for oppressor was known as Diku (outsider). The Diku began to be frequently used for a wider group of people involved in expropriating the land and reinforcing the unfamiliar legal formulation.
Birsa Munda was a Christian convert born into a poor Adivasi family in 1875. Growing up to renounce Christianity and the missionary school because it belittled the Munda culture, he aligned himself with the ongoing Sardar movement (agrarian movement). However, eventually the ongoing intrusion of the Raj and the Zamindaris and the dismantling of the social fabric of the Adivasi community prompted him to actively engage with his community and mobilise them to assert their rights. He was known across the regions towards the 1880s through a prophetic reincarnation as ‘Birsa Bhagwan’ (God). He also appropriated saintly characteristics and eulogised practices directed towards moral disciplining, including the ban on alcohol consumption.
While we have witnessed similar forms of prophetic and millenarian movements in other parts of the world, Birsa’s movement deserves a nuanced understanding. In recent scholarship, Professor Uday Chandra has demonstrated the potential of understanding prophetic features as a site of political consciousness. This can also be seen in the writing of the historian Ranajit Guha. However, I would go further to argue that Birsa was, in fact, a political visionary and appropriated what we call millenarian movement symbols to orient his movement towards a specific aim.
This is exemplified through his attempts to not only organise a powerful front against the Raj, but also against missionaries and the Zamindars. His political visions were shaped by his vast experience of the colonisers’ practices, including acts of belittling the Munda culture in missionary schools, or the legal alienation of Adivasis through Eurocentric notions of property legislation. However, as Birsa began to instil political consciousness among his followers, he also had to face jail more frequently due to his activism, deemed errant to the establishment. He finally gave a clarion call for the Ulgulaan (rebellion) towards the end of 1897 and revolted fearlessly against the Empire. The attacks targeted symbolically significant places including Police stations and churches.
Eventually the movement came to an end in 1900 with the arrest and subsequent death of Birsa Munda in jail. Birsa and his Ulgulaan became an antecedent for the political grammar of struggles both within the communities and later for political parties. I believe that the Birsa Ulgulaan cannot be studied as a singular and isolated moment in the history of colonial India, but rather more powerfully as a metaphor and symbol of resistance that offers an alternative political vision.
Such visions can be traced through cultural reproduction evident in the contemporary political landscape of Jharkhand. Doing so highlights the merit in understanding the remarkable political visions that survive through sites of memory. Memory manifests itself in mundane everyday struggles that an Adivasi confronts in postcolonial India. It emerges as visual markers like statues on almost all major intersections of the cities of Jharkhand. This memory mobilises people through the use of cultural material like folk songs containing revolutionary prose and informs us of the historical past of the Birsa. These cultural materials come together to represent a milieu of struggle which can be effectively argued as a past that is not history but contemporaneous.
Rahul Ranjan is a PhD Student at Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He works on the historical-anthropology of Birsa Munda and his struggle, situating it within the discussion in subaltern, postcolonial and memory studies. Image credit: by Bharatiya Janata Party.