Why I Believe Birsa Munda Remains Relevant For Indigenous Identity Around The World
Birsa Munda was an indigenous leader and a folk hero, belonging to the Munda tribe who was behind the Millenarian movement that arose in Jharkhand during the British Raj. This made him an important figure in the history of the Indian independence movement.
Birsa Munda is named with great respect as one of the freedom fighters in the Indian struggle for independence against British colonialism. His achievements in the freedom struggle became even greater considering he accomplished this before he turned 25. Birsa’s devotion to his people was such that he was almost revered as God by his followers.
By the time he was in his 20s, his activities in present-day Jharkhand had already begun to worry the British establishment to a considerable extent. He was finally caught by the British on February 3, 1900, when he was only 25 years old. He died soon afterwards under mysterious circumstances on June 9, 1900, at Ranchi Jail.
Indigenous people from the rest of Asia or Africa have been subject to different kinds of exploitation, but what remains common is that they were forced to move from their habitation, forests and similar areas being captured by colonial powers.
As far as the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj is concerned, I will highlight four issues.
One, where Adivasi communities have been historically discriminated against based on their identity and they have to still suffer in an unequal society.
Second, you can find numerous evidence from the 19th century, elaborating how brutally the British Raj treated indigenous people – most notably that they were deported to other British-occupied parts of the world as indentured labour.
Third, indigenous communities were taken from their place of habitation within India, mostly the Chhota Nagpur Plateau, for working in the tea plantations of Assam and Bengal.
Fourth, during the colonial period, the Adivasis of India confronted the British to demand their sovereignty, instead their forests were cut for wood required to construct railway tracks. Through imposing legislation or the law, the British Raj tried to cripple the people living in the forests repeatedly.
Whenever I visit rural areas, it is appalling to see the condition of indigenous people living in and around the forests. They are the ones who suffer due to bad planning on part of the government, NGOs and corporations. In 2006, the Forest Rights Act was introduced. This law provides immense legal support to tribal/indigenous people to retain their rights to reside within and around forest areas. But still, many hurdles for proper implementation of this law exist.
Recently, during my interaction with one such Adivasi person in Odisha, I discovered how fed up some are with the recent government policy called Paramparagat Krishi, promoting traditional agriculture. He shared with me, “Our agricultural practice was always organic. In the past, they were the ones who pushed us to use fertilisers/pesticides/hybrid seeds for cultivation.”
Indigenous people hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks. In the 21st century, indigenous people need a recognition of their expertise on these matters. They need their rights, which has been denied for long. They certainly need development, but that should be with dignity.