• Birsa Munda was one of the earliest tribal reformers whose actions contributed to the freedom struggle as well.
  • Birsa Munda was a tribal reformer, religious leader, and freedom fighter belonging to the Munda tribe. He amassed a large religious and informative movement against British rule in the 19th century in the erstwhile Bengal Presidency.
  • Birsa is known for challenging the Christian missionaries and revolting against the conversion activities along with the Munda and Oraon communities.
  • Birsa Munda was born on 15 November 1875, at the village of Ulihatu in Ranchi district of Bengal Presidency – now in Khunti district of Jharkhand.
  • He belonged to the Munda tribe of the Chotanagapur plateau region of present-day Jharkhand.
  • In the year 2021, the Indian government declared November 15, the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda, as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas’ (Tribal Pride Day).
    • This day corresponds with the formation of the state of Jharkhand, also recognized as Jharkhand Foundation Day. On November 15, 2000, the Chotanagpur region was bifurcated from the southern half of Bihar, formally forming the state of Jharkhand (land of forests) as the 28th state in the Indian Union.
Birsa Munda
Birsa Munda

Early Life of Birsa Munda

  • Birsa’s early life was marked by various shifts. He received his formal education in Salga under Jaipal Nag’s guidance and later converted to Christianity to attend the German Mission School.
  • However, soon, he realized that the Britishers were using education as a tool to convert tribals to Christianity. Following this realization, he withdrew himself from his school and founded a new faith named ‘Birsa Faith,’ which drew many followers from the Munda community and became a significant threat to the colonizers. These followers openly declared they identified as ‘Birsaits‘ and considered the British their adversaries.

Historical Background: Munda Rebellion

  • During this time, the exploitative British Raj had started penetrating the deep jungles of Central and Eastern India, disrupting tribal lives living in harmony with nature.
  • The Britishers introduced a feudal zamindari system in the Chhota Nagpur region, destroying the tribal “Khuntkatti” agrarian system.
    • Khuntkatti means the joint holding of land by tribals.
  • They also brought in the outsiders (called “dikus” by locals) like moneylenders and contractors, as well as feudal landlords who aided the British in their exploitation.
  • In addition, the aggressive missionary activity continued with the active support of the Raj, insulting and interfering with the religious and cultural beliefs of Adivasis.
  • Birsa was also converted into a Christian to join the German Mission School but soon dropped out after finding out that Britishers were aiming to convert tribals to Christianity through education. He later created a faith called ‘Birsait’ and many tribals joined his faith which became a hindrance to British conversion activities.
  • During the 1880s, Birsa observed the Sardari Larai movement in the region, which demanded the restoration of tribal rights through non-violent methods like sending petitions to the Raj. But the oppressive colonial regime paid no heed to these demands and the zamindari system soon reduced the tribals from landowners to laborers.
  • The feudal setup escalated the forced labor (veth bigari) in the forested tribal areas.
  • Birsa Munda took up the fight for the tribals through the religious domain and stood up against the Christian missionaries. He worked to reform religious practices, discouraged many superstitious rites, brought in new tenets, and prayers, and worked to restore tribal pride.
  • Birsa emphasized the importance of “sirmare firun raja jai” or “victory to the ancestral king” invoking the sovereignty of the tribals’ ancestral autonomous control over the land. He also stressed monogamy in the later stage of his life.

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act

  • The British implemented the Chotanagpur Tenancy (CNT) Act of 1908 in response to the uprising. The CNT Act not only directed the creation and maintenance of land records but also introduced a unique tenure category, “Mundari Khuntkattidar,” (considered to be the original settler of the land among Mundas) and imposed restrictions on the transfer of tribal land to non-tribals.
  • Additionally, the CNT Act provided for recording customary community rights, including those related to water, forest, and land (Jal, Jungle, and Zameen). These rights included the right to produce from the jungle, graze cattle, and reclaim ‘wastes’ for rice cultivation (Korkar), thus safeguarding the land rights of the tribal communities.


  • The Munda Rebellion of 1895-1900 thus stands out as an essential chapter in the history of tribal resistance against the British Raj.
  • It exposed the hardships and injustices endured by tribal communities under colonial rule, and its impact was visible in later movements of tribal rights.
  • Hence, the Munda rebellion was not just a historical event; it emerged as a substantial contribution to India’s struggle for independence.
  • Along with political justice, he also fought to preserve and revive the spiritual, economic, and cultural heritage of the indigenous tribes.
  • In doing so, he mobilized the tribal communities to resist the imposition of external cultural practices, called for the rejection of stereotypical norms and alcoholism, preached against animal sacrifice, encouraged the tribes to wear scared threads according to tribal customs, and urged them to maintain cleanliness and sanitation in order to become self-reliant.

Other tribal uprisings against colonial rule

  • Pahariya rebellion (1778)
    • This took place in Raj mahal hills (present-day Jharkhand) against the British encroachment on tribal lands. The rebellion forced the East India Company to declare their territory autonomous, which was later known as the “Daman-i-Koh” area.
  • Chuar uprising/ Revolt of the jungle mahal (1766-72 and 1795-1816)
    • Chuars were the aboriginal tribes of jungle mahal (present-day West Bengal) and they also stood up to English encroachments in their territory.
  • Khasi revolt (1829)
    • The Khasis revolted against the construction of a road from Brahmaputra valley to Sylhet by EIC, because this project increased the inflow of outsiders, threatening their tribal autonomy.
  • Kol mutiny (1831)
    • The Kols of the Chhota Nagpur area protested against their lands being transferred to outsiders by the English to increase the land revenue.
  • Khond uprisings (1837-56)
    • The Khond, Gumsar, and Kalahandi tribes of eastern ghats (present-day Odisha and Andhra Pradesh) rose against the attempt by the government to suppress human sacrifice (Mariah), the introduction of new taxes by the British, and the influx of Zamindars and sahookars (money-lenders) into their area.
  • Bhils and Koli uprising (1817-48)
    • The Bhils were concentrated in the hill ranges of Khandesh in the Maratha territories of Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. British occupation of this region in 1818 brought in the outsiders who dislocated the local community life. Similarly, the Kolis of Ahmednagar district, also challenged the British in 1829 but were quickly subdued by a large army contingent.
  • Ramosi uprising (1822-41)
    • Ramosis were the hill tribes of western ghats who were recruited as soldiers in the Maratha army. The main cause of the uprising was their disbanding by the British after the decline of Marathas. The British later pacified the movement by taking them into their armies.
  • Santhal revolt/ Santhal hool (1855-56)
    • The Santhal, who lived in the area between Bhagalpur and Rajmahal, known as Daman-i-Koh, rose in revolt; made a determined attempt to expel the outsiders (the dikus), and proclaimed the complete end of the foreign regime. The Santhal Paragana tenancy act of 1876 finally made it illegal to transfer Santhal land to a non- Santhal.
  • Rampa rebellion (1922)
    • The Rampa Rebellion against the British was organized by the tribal people of Visakhapatnam and East Godavari districts to revolt against the foreigners’ encroachment on their lands.
    • India’s freedom struggle was strengthened by several tribal communities such as Mundas, Oraons, Santhals, Tamars, Kols, Bhils, Khasis, Koyas, and Mizos, to name a few. The revolutionary movements and struggles organized by tribal communities were marked by their immense courage and supreme sacrifice and inspired Indians all over the country.
    • The government of India is now making sure that the sacrifices of such tribal movements and their leaders are not lost in history.

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