The Birsa Munda birth memorial in Ulihatu village, in Jharkhand’s Khunti district, is centred around a small shrine, situated in a compound the size of two basketball courts. Inside the shrine are a bust of Munda, a memorial stone and a donation box.

On the morning of November 16, heaps of yellow and orange marigold garlands lay withering on the marble-tiled floor of the memorial’s courtyard, whose walls were painted with Sohrai art.

The flowers and the art were remnants of the local administration’s efforts to honour Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had visited the previous day and paid tribute to the Adivasi leader on the occasion of his 148th birth anniversary. While the administration had said they would send workers to clean the mess left behind, none had showed up that morning.

But several residents of the village said they preferred to look after the memorial on their own. “As an increasing number of politicians visit Ulihatu every year to pay respects, we worry that the memorial will be wrested out of our control,” said one villager who asked not to be named.

There was a time, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the celebration of Birsa Jayanti was a humbler affair in Ulihatu – villagers would gather around the memorial and celebrate with song, dance and storytelling. But lately, important politicians from the state and Centre have taken to visiting Ulihatu on the occasion. On such days, the administration puts up barricades near the memorial, and villagers are barred from venturing out of their houses owing to the high security that is in place.

“There is no respect for us,” the villager said. “We feel we should stop allowing politicians to visit Ulihatu, so that we can celebrate Birsa Jayanti in the way we used to before.”

A statue of Birsa Munda in Ulihatu. Munda’s birth anniversary celebrations were once a modest affair, but in recent years, politicians from the Centre and state have taken to visiting Ulihatu on the occasion. Photo: Nolina Minj

It is not just the nature of the celebration, but even its very name, that is the matter of considerable discontent. While locals know the day as Birsa Jayanti, in 2021, following a decision by the Union Cabinet, the Central government renamed the day to Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, which translates to Tribal Pride Day. It claimed that this move was intended to honour the legacy of tribal heroes and give the communities the respect they were due.

But veteran Adivasi activist Dayamani Barla argued that the old name was more fitting. “After all, the day is celebrated in his name,” she said. “That way people across the country could remember Birsa’s work, revolution, and ideology. But all of that has been sidelined.”

Barla suggested that the day could also be named after the Mundari word used for revolution – ulgulan. “Why not call it Ulgulan Diwas?” she said. “Because you don’t want to imbibe Birsa’s actual values.”

In November 2022, when President Droupadi Murmu visited Ulihatu, Munda’s great-nephew Budhram Munda and his family members handed Murmu a collective letter written by them. In it they requested that the name of the occasion be changed to Birsa Munda Adivasi Diwas, or Birsa Munda Indigenous Day. “We wanted Birsa’s name to be remembered and for Adivasis to also get representation,” explained Budhram. So far, their plea has gone unheard.

The tussle over the nature of the celebration, and its name, is indicative of a larger conflict over Munda’s legacy itself.

In the 1890s, although he was only in his early twenties, Birsa Munda led the Munda Adivasis in an armed struggle against the British empire and those associated with it in the Chotanagpur region, in what came to be known as the Ulgulan. Their chief demands were Adivasi sovereignty and the end of oppressive land and labour policies. Though the British quelled the revolution, it remains a much-admired part of the community’s history.

It also transformed Munda into the most revered Adivasi icon in the country. His is the sole Adivasi portrait to hang in the parliament building, and a statue of his also stands in the parliament complex. His statues are also found in most Adivasi-dominated areas in the country, from Rajasthan to Assam to Kerala.

“Birsa was probably the least educated amongst all the big national icons, but he has won hearts across the country,” Budhram said. “The masses feel a special connection to him because he was a simple villager like them.”

Munda’s significance was further cemented when, in 2000, the state of Jharkhand, long sought by Adivasi communities of Chotanagpur, was formed on his birth anniversary.

But as Adivasi historian Joseph Bara wrote in his paper “Birsa Munda and the Nation”, the historical figure of Munda remains “at times grossly misunderstood”. Specifically, Bara noted, though Adivasis hold Munda up as a national hero and freedom fighter, some scholars have rejected these labels, arguing, for instance, Bara noted, that he was simply an “ordinary fighter, out to extract agrarian rights for the deprived Adivasi cultivators”.

Further, in recent years, the Sangh Parivar has sought to project Munda as a leader who rejected colonial Christianity and instead embraced Hinduism. They have sought to use these claims as part of a larger strategy to argue that Adivasis are “backward Hindus” – a theory first propounded by upper-caste sociologists like GS Ghurye – and that they need to be mainstreamed and brought into the Hindu fold.

Birsa Munda's great- nephew Budhram Munda (left), was among those who submitted a letter to the president demanding that the name of his birth anniversary celebrations be changed to Birsa Munda Adivasi Diwas. Photo: Nolina Minj

This idea has been contested by Adivasi academics like Virginius Xaxa. While large numbers of Adivasis have indeed been drawn into the Hindu fold, many have also asserted for years that Adivasis are not Hindus, and that they have a distinct socio-religious tradition. As Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, who is an Adivasi, has said, “Adivasis are nature worshipers, their culture, religious rituals, and lifestyle is entirely different than Hindus.” Adivasi communities in Jharkhand and neighbouring states have been fighting for the Sarna religion, their ancestral indigenous faith, to be recognised as a unique religion in the census through the addition of a specific enumeration code for it.

This debate continues to unfold today. In the post-Independence-era, right-wing groups have referred to Adivasis using the terms janjati and, more commonly, vanvasi, which mean tribe and forest dweller respectively. Activists and scholars have criticised the use of these terms, arguing that they elide the fact that Adivasis are the original inhabitants of the region.

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A key aspect of right-wing groups’ attempts to appropriate Munda has been their claims that he was anti-Christian. But historians argue that this is a misreading of a more complex series of events from Munda’s life.

Munda was born on November 15, 1875 in Ulihatu and, between 1886 and 1890, attended the Gossner Mission School in Chaibasa, run by German Protestant missionaries. According to historians, Munda’s father was employed as a catechist by Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Church, a German Protestant denomination with a base in the region. Munda himself had been baptised with the name Daud.

Growing up, Munda closely witnessed the Sardari Larai movement led by Munda and Oraon Adivasis protesting their exploitation by dikus, or outsiders, who took over their lands and diluted their cultural identity. As Bara wrote, “Widespread deprivation of the Adivasis and their multiplying distresses deeply influenced young Birsa’s mind.”

Munda was born in 1875 in Ulihatu. The Adivasi historian Joseph Bara has written that “Widespread deprivation of the Adivasis and their multiplying distresses deeply influenced young Birsa’s mind.” Photo: Nolina Minj

In his book Birsa Munda and his Movement, the historian and bureaucrat KS Singh noted that while in school, Munda heard missionaries criticise the Sardars and call them cheats, which led him to confront them. Due to this, Munda was expelled from school.

Upon his expulsion, Munda is famously said to have declared, “saheb, saheb, ek topi” implying that all overlords, from Christian missionaries to the British administration, wore the same hat, and had the same approach towards the Adivasis.

According to Singh, in 1890, Birsa and his family left Chaibasa and also renounced their membership of their church, like most people who were involved in the Sardari agitation.

Following this, Munda spent a few years under the tutelage of a Vaishnavite preacher. After he parted ways with the preacher, Birsa became known as a healer, a preacher and a leader of his community. In December 1899 he launched the ulgulan. Singh wrote that on Christmas eve 1899, Munda and his followers carried out a series of arson and arrow attacks on police stations and churches in Singhbhum and Ranchi districts.

Right-wing groups present Munda’s conflicts at school and these attacks as key pieces of evidence that he harboured anti-Christian sentiments.

In fact, as Bara wrote in his paper, even Christian missionaries were antagonistic towards Munda, portraying him as an “immature fanatic” and a “young monkey”.

But the scholars Prabal Saran Agarwal and Harsh Vardhan Tripathy have argued that while Munda did carry out such attacks, they “had nothing to do with safeguarding or protecting Hinduism”. Rather, the attacks, which were both verbal and physical, “signified the emergence of a distinct identity consciousness among the Mundas of Chhotanagpur plateau and other tribal communities who were facing continuous attacks from outsiders, including the Christian missionaries”.

Meanwhile, the German Jesuit missionary John Hoffman wrote in 1900 that initially these attacks were meant to “terrorise” Christian Mundas into “accepting the Birsaite religion and raj”. But, according to Hoffman, days after this attack, Munda’s followers began to spread word from him that the “real enemies were the saheb log and the government, and that a person of Munda origin, whether Christian or not, would go unharmed”.

Apart from seeking to portray Munda as anti-Christian, right-wing groups have also sought to argue that he embraced Hinduism through his life.

Bara noted that Hindu right-wing commentators have sought to project him as “pro-Hindu and anti-Christian – instead of someone who led diverse Adivasi masses”.

Perhaps the most high-profile such recent effort to appropriate Munda’s memory was a book titled The Legend of Birsa Munda by Tuhin Sinha and Ankita Verma, which the Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari released in 2022. Sinha has been a spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party since 2016, and previously wrote thrillers and romance novels. The book set out to “dispel ‘woke liberal’ claims about the tribal leader’s life”. But its description leaves its genre somewhat unclear – its summary describes it as being “based on true events”.

In an OpIndia article, as evidence of Munda’s affinity for Hinduism, Sinha and Verma pointed to the years that Munda spent in tutelage under the Vaishnavite preacher, who used the Bhagwad Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharata in his teachings. They further claimed that this period of a few years “led to a spiritual transformation in Birsa” and that “at no point in Bhagwan Birsa Munda’s life is there any definitive antipathy towards Hinduism”.

But Singh’s book offered a slightly different summation of Munda’s stint with Hinduism. The book, for which Singh relied on a manuscript written by Munda’s follower Bharmi Munda and oral accounts by locals in Khunti, confirmed that Munda spent three years under the preacher and adopted Hindu practices, such as wearing the sacred thread and “the sandal mark”. But, it noted, Munda wasn’t unquestioningly loyal to the preacher – in fact, the preacher was concerned about Munda’s involvement with the Sardar agitation. Singh wrote that he advised Birsa to “not let his emotion overpower him, but that Birsa couldn’t turn a deaf ear to his inner voice.” Accordingly, his apprenticeship came to an end after a few years.

Munda's bust at his birth memorial in Ulihatu. Though some have suggested Munda embraced Hinduism in his life, others have argued that he only dabbled in it, while remaining committed to other ideas and causes. Photo: Nolina Minj

While Sinha’s book did not state that Adivasis are Hindus, it called them “worshippers of the Sun” who were “not immune to the Vaishnavite and Shaivite influences”.

It also claimed that Adivasis were forced to convert to Christianity in Munda’s time, and implied that Christian Adivasis are not Adivasi. In an effort to link these historical claims with contemporary politics, it further argued that the Adivasi community in Jharkhand remain “as vulnerable to forced and incentivised conversion to Christianity as it was a hundred years ago”.

Sinha’s book is not alone in presenting a selective narrative about Munda. In August 2022, the Indian Ministry of Culture released a comic book titled Tribal Leaders of the Freedom Struggle, published by Amar Chitra Katha. The five pages that briefly covered Birsa Munda’s story laid heavy emphasis on the missionaries’ conversion of Munda Adivasis to Christianity and Munda’s rejection of the religion.

Agarwal and Tripathy noted that “The Hindutva narrative paints Birsa Munda as a saviour of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Hindu culture’ against attack from the Christian missionaries.” But this, they argued is “a deliberate misreading of history” as well as a “wilful deception on the part of Hindutva politics”.

By oversimplifying Munda’s life story and the significance of his religious explorations, they noted, such arguments deny tribal communities “their distinct identity” and also attack “the right to choose religion”.

Further, narratives that seek to set Munda up as a committed Hindu omit key details of local lore that suggest otherwise. In 1893, Munda visited a famous temple at Chutia, associated, wrote Singh, with his ancestors of the clan of Chutia Purti. A song sung by Munda’s followers, cited in Bara’s paper, suggests that in an act of resistance against the takeover of ancestral land and the imposition of Hinduism, Munda showed disrespect to idols at the Chutia temple. The song states, “The Ranchi law court, Birsa, you shook it up; the Duranda assembly, Birsa, you made it move. The temple at Chutia, Birsa, you kicked at it; the images of Ram and Sita, Birsa, you knocked them down.”

After leaving the preacher, Munda gained fame as a healer who cured people from illnesses. Through this work, wrote anthropologist SC Roy in his book The Mundas and their Country, Munda’s name spread to “the remotest corner of the Munda country” and he came to be known as a “miracle-worker”. Soon after, Munda began to claim that he was a god, and started “preaching his own religion”. Singh wrote that Munda laid out a strict “code of conduct”, under which “theft, lying and murder were anathema and begging was prohibited”.

On November 19, I met with a Birsaite guru named Mangru Munda in Anigara village of Khunti. He noted that more than a century after the crackdown against Munda and his followers, the number of Birsaites had risen to around 10,000.

After some years under the tutelage of a Hindu preacher, Munda began preaching his own religion. Mangru Munda, a Birsaite guru claimed that today, the faith has 10,000 followers. Photo: Nolina Minj

Mangru rejected the idea that Adivasis could be considered Hindus. “There is a difference between Hindus and Adivasis because Adivasis follow their own faith,” he said. Asked about Munda’s tryst with Christianity, he said, “During the colonial era, many Adivasis were taken away from their traditional faith and converted to Christianity.” He suggested that Munda’s move to set up his own religion was an attempt to offer Adivasis an alternative to the dominant religions. “Bhagwan Birsa laid out a code of conduct for us that we follow,” he said. “To live simply, dress simply and eat simply.”

Singh wrote that the chief objectives of Munda’s ulgulan, which he launched in 1899, were to, “rise, drive out or slay all foreigners and establish Munda raj. No rent was to be paid, and all land was to be held rent-free.” The popular slogan from the ulgulan, which remains in use even today, was “Abua Disom, Abua Raj”, or our country, our rule.

Bara noted that the revolution was launched in opposition to exploitative outsiders in general, known as the diku, and that these included “Rajas, Hakims, Zemindars and Christians”. The prime motivation was to end all forms of colonialism by outsiders.

“The ulgulan was the climax of a trail of Adivasi protests for over a century against injustice under British colonial rule,” Bara wrote.

From 1772, when the British administration took rein in Chhotanagpur, he explained, it introduced “different forms of revenue demands and shades of landlords as frontline agents. As a proxy of the colonial government, the landlords and their subordinates practised various kinds of excesses upon the Adivasi cultivators.”

By 1895 Birsa’s revolutionary preachings and claims of being a god had caught the attention of the colonial authorities. On August 22, 1895 he was captured by the colonial police, tried at court, and imprisoned for two years. When he was released in 1897, he resumed his rebellious activities with the goal of establishing the Birsaite religion and raj.

On January 9, 1899, the British army and Birsaites fought a battle at Dombari Buru, a hill near the village of Sail Rakab. The British army fought with rifles, the Birsaites fought with axes and arrows. The army did not suffer any casualties, while estimates of the number of Birsaite casualties ranged from the official figure of 10 to several hundreds, according to Munda sources. Munda women too participated in the uprisings and were among those who were killed. “The Munda offensive or resistance was not an armed feat, hardly a pitched battle, their outdated weapons were no match for their enemies’ sophisticated weapons,” wrote Singh.

The battle lost at Dombari was the beginning of the end. A “reign of terror” was unleashed on Birsaites to reveal Munda’s whereabouts, and a hunt for him ensued. On February 3, he was captured. Singh wrote that he had a premonition of his coming death and told his followers, “Do not think that I left you in the lurch. I have given you all weapons, all instruments. You will save yourselves with them.”

On June 9, after a prolonged illness Birsa passed away in a Ranchi jail. His followers believe that he was poisoned to death. The battle at Dombari Buru is memorialised in Mundari songs, and people gather annually at a memorial on the hill, where a stone slab has been installed, to commemorate the martyrs.

Munda’s historical legacy has been kept alive in Jharkhand’s oral culture, especially by groups involved in social movements.

“All movements in Jharkhand – be it on human rights, land rights, workers’ rights – consider Birsa to be their idol,” said Aloka Kujur, an activist from the Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha. “His name brings people together and we all walk the path that he laid out for us.”

At particular threat in Birsa’s time were the khuntkatti rights of the Mundas – the term refers to a customary practice that provided joint ownership of land to those who cleared forest land and made it cultivable. A report of the colonial Land Revenue Administration of the Lower Provinces in 1899, cited in SC Roy’s book, observed, “Disputes as to rights in jungle are becoming very common, and unless something in the way of a settlement of such rights can be made, either the old rights of the cultivators or else the jungles themselves will shortly disappear over a great part of the district.”

A memorial at Dombari Buru that commemorates the 1899 battle between the British and Birsaites, which the latter lost. Munda was captured soon after and died in jail after a prolonged illness. Photo: Nolina Minj

In a conversation, Bara noted that scholars often overlooked the importance of land to the community. “Scholars assume that Adivasis are mere peasants fighting for land,” he said. “But land is not simply a means of livelihood, it is the bedrock of Adivasi existence and carries their entire cultural existence.”

Fittingly, then, Munda’s revolution had far-reaching effects. In their paper on songs about Birsa in the Munda community, linguists Ram Dayal Munda and Norman Zide wrote, “In spite of its apparent defeat, the movement Birsa led was a triumph (however partial it was) after his death.” They noted that the colonisers “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.”

This led to significant changes in policy and law. “A series of agrarian measures began with Survey and Settlement Operations in 1902 ending in the provision for a Tenancy Act,” they wrote. Today, it is widely held that the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which prohibits the sale of tribal land and upholds restrictions on land transfer, came into being as a result of Munda’s revolution.

“It was his fight for jal, jangal, jameen that gave us the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and assured our rights over the land,” said Nelson Munda, a villager from Ulihatu.

Land and a cultural identity derived from it was also at the centre of the Jharkhand movement’s fight for a separate state. “Land is life in Jharkhandi cultural heritage,” wrote the leaders of the Jharkhand party in 1987 in a memorandum to the Central government.

They noted that land was also at the root of the problems that the people of the region faced under British colonialism and after. “The process of dispossession of Jharkhandis started when colonisation in search of resources began penetrating their area,” the memorandum stated. It added that “external colonialism in Jharkhand ended” with the departure of the British, but that a phase of “internal colonialism” followed, and that the “dispossession of Jharkhandis continues unabated”.

Even after the formation of a separate state, the question of land alienation of Adivasis in Jharkhand continues to be a crucial issue. In 2016, when the Bharatiya Janata Party government under Raghubar Das was in power in Jharkhand, it introduced amendments to the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santal Parganas Act that many Adivasis believed diluted their rights over land. They responded with massive protests, and the government withdrew the amendments in 2017.

Das was the first non-Adivasi chief minister that Jharkhand had had since its formation. Adivasi experts have argued that the amendments were a major reason that the BJP was ousted from power in 2019 the next state elections.

A hoarding welcoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Ulihatu on the occasion of Munda’s birth anniversary. In 2019, the BJP government lost the state election and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha came to power. Photo: Nolina Minj

In its place, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha a party that arose from the Jharkhandi movement of the 1970s, came to power. Today, the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha rejects the Hindutva framing of the Adivasi identity, and has pushed for the Sarna religion to be recognised by the Central government. The continued tussles over land and cultural identity make clear that Birsa Munda’s legacy isn’t just a historical or academic one, but continues to play out in Jharkhand politically and electorally.

But Adivasi scholars concede that the strategies adopted by right-wing groups have seen some success. For instance, right wing groups have sought to win Adivasis over by championing causes close to them that are otherwise ignored at the national level.

Writing about the Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas celebrations this year, Virginius Xaxa, who is a sociologist noted, “Tribal communities, no doubt, take great pride in their traditions, culture, and history, including historical icons. The BJP has aptly acknowledged this aspect of the tribal psyche and has translated it into an important agenda of politics.”

On Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas, Barla noted that there was a lot of emphasis on the event and the government’s welfare in the name of “Adivasi development” through new schemes. But on close analysis of the government’s work, Barla said, it was clear that major laws for the protection of Adivasi land, such as the Fifth Schedule, the Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, have been continually violated. “All these constitutional rights have been made half-dead,” she said. “New schemes like the land bank and Svamitva Yojana are diluting old laws.” This, she argued, was done to “distract from real issues”.

She added, “Birsa’s fight and all other Adivasi martyrs’ fight was to save one’s land, heritage and identity. The very same rights that he fought for are the ones we continue to fight for today.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.