The forest-dwelling and non-forest-dwelling communities in India have established a dynamic equilibrium which consist of cultural and socio-economic interactions, through millennia. It is actually hard to say where the forest-dwelling community ends and a village-dwelling agrarian community starts.
Naturally, Hindu traditions are integral with the tribal elements and the whole can be considered as a family of tribal-spiritual traditions.
Colonial anthropologists, either out of their conceptual inability, or their proselytizing-civilizing agenda, failed to understand this organic relationship.
Later, post-independent colonised anthropologists, along with Evangelist interests, have worked for almost seven decades building on the ‘caste-Hindu versus aborigine’ binary – which is not only fabricated but also involves destruction of a considerable part of the heritage of tribal communities.
So, whenever the forest-dwelling communities have been robbed off their freedom and have suffered oppression from invaders, they have taken to fierce resistance movements that have very naturally been energised by Hindu elements in their core.
Bhagwan Birsa Munda represents such a high manifestation of this inalienable movement of Indian national life.
To understand this, let us look into the progenitors of some of the fierce anti-colonial and anti-proselytizing movements.
After the Santhal uprising in 1855 which prefigured the 1857 rebellion, the Santhal movement was taken up by Kanhu and his brothers Sidhu, Chand and Bhairab. They received divine messages from ‘Thakur’, a Divinity. While those sections of Indian society who benefitted from collaboration with the British opposed the Santhal rebellion, many Hindu jaatis, according to British reports, helped the Santhals. Kanhu and Sidhu made a sacred image of Thakur in their ashram and spread the message through the traditional symbol of Sal tree branches. Thakur is also called Chando. In fact, a hymn on Chando says:
… He is Three Chando and One Chando
He is Ram Chando of the kings
He is the Wheel Chando of mankind…
When the East India company sent a force armed with modern weapons on 16 July 1855 to crush the Santhals, the Santhals, armed only with traditional bow-arrows and battle axe won an impressive victory at Pirpainti. The British lost six officers and 25 soldiers. Soon, the British East India Company launched a brutal attack on every Santhal village.
The organic relation between Santhals and other Hindus can be seen in the following note Commissioner C.F.Brown wrote on 29 July 1855 to the Governor of Bengal, Frederick Halliday:
… the Santhals are led on and incited to acts of oppression by the gowallahs (milkmen), telis (oilmen), and other castes, who supply them with intelligence, beat their drums, direct their proceedings, and act as their spies. These people, as well as the lohars (blacksmiths) who make their arrows and axes, ought to meet with condign punishment, and be speedily included in any proclamation which government may see fit to issue against the rebels.
Ultimately, the Santhals, who were mostly peasants with not even proper weapons, had to face a strong, heavily-armed 14,000 strong Company army. After months, the rebellion was brutally crushed. It was then that the British decided to unleash the missionaries upon the Santhals. The purpose here was a deeper and complete subjugation, compelete with ‘favourable and special treatment’ to the converted.
Around 20 years laters, by 1874, there emerged the Kherwar movement, though both 1860 and 1871 saw brief outbursts of rebellion.
The British-engineered famines, along with proselytizing activities by the missionaries made the Santhals angry.
Then came Bhagirath – a hermit, a ‘Babaji’. He spoke of not abandoning the Gods and in turn he promised prosperity, protection, and above all, freedom. Soon, he was arrested and sent to prison and the movement collapsed.
Or so the government believed.
After his release in 1877, Bhagirath worked silently, without attracting much attention. Later, it was discovered that the Kherwar movement was actually getting strengthened in a discrete manner. In 1879, Bhagirath attained samadhi.
In 1880, there was another demonstration of Santhal unrest. There was a new Bhagirath – Baba Dubia Gossain. This saint toured through all the Santhal regions and preached against the British, the Zamindars and the Christian missionaries. He warned that the census of 1881 would be actually a ploy to convert the Santhals to Christianity. While he might have been wrong in an explicit way, he seemed to have grasped the essential spirit of the British census strategy which always wanted to fragment the Hindus and facilitate conversion.
Anticipating trouble, the British marched a well-armed cavalry numbering 4,500 into the Santhal provinces. Soon Dubia Gossain was arrested and sent to far away Lucknow.
The colonial authorities dealt with the ‘problem’ of Santhals by adapting a two-pronged strategy – one was to alienate the tribal community from the influence of the rest of the Hindu society and the second was to intensify Christian proselytizing activity. They rationalized the former by stating that they would have added one and a half million (Santhals) 'to the dregs of Hinduism’ and that they would become a lower caste in Hindu society and that they would lose their language. So, till 1893, the police were put to guard the Santhal provinces from any outside mingling. While this was explicitly stated to preserve the Santhals from getting absorbed (into Hindu society, according to the colonialists), in reality it was to prevent any trouble to the colonialists. Ironically the same mindset is seen in today’s dominant academics and media in independent India.
It is quite interesting to note that while in post-independent India the intellectual heirs to colonial worldview fabricate a narrative where the Kherwar movement of Santals is seen as non-Hindu, the evangelical missionaries saw the movement as Hindu:
Satan (probably Matadin) tried his utmost six years ago to overthrow our work, when a Hindu, who was an ex-convict, converted a Santal to Hinduism and instigated him to do his utmost to influence his people. ... This led us to open work among the Paharias.
What is even more surprising is that the Christian missionaries employed exactly the terminology of modern day ‘progressives’ in describing the Santhal uprising as being ‘instigated by the Brahmanical faction of the Hindus, as a countermove to the endeavours of Christian Missionaries to win over Santals to Christianity.’ (S.P.Sinha, Conflict and Tension in Tribal Society, Concept Publishing, 1993, p.214)
Lars Olsen Skrefsrud, who was in charge of the Lutheran mission for Santhals, wrote to to then Assistant Deputy Commissioner to deal strictly with the Kherwars. With characteristic Christian love he suggested 'a sound public flogging' with 'the more Santal spectators the better and have have soldiers near if necessary.' This was for 'absurd and indecent rumours' against the government. He told the authorities that Kherwar was no socio-religious movement. In a statement that echoes those who today distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva, he wrote of the Kherwar uprising as 'a rapid socialistic political agitation, the religion being only a means towards an end.’
It is in this line of tribal uprising that one should see Birsa Munda.
Though he was a convert to Christianity, he soon renounced the religion. Instead, he started looking for Indic alternatives. In this, he was guided by Guru Anand Panre who belonged to the Vaishnava tradition. The monk also gave the tribal youth the sacred thread. Soon, Birsa and his followers came back to the Vaishnava fold. With the Vaishnavaite mark on his forehead, worship of domestic basil plant platforms and explicit prohibition of cow slaughter, they clearly announced the resistance to both colonialism and evangelical theo-colonialism. Birsa Munda combined socio-political criticism with Puranic imagery. Thus, the rule of Queen Victoria was the rule of Mandotari – the chief wife of Ravana and they needed to restore the rule of Niranjan – another name of Vishnu.
His followers saw in Birsa himself the aspects of Avatarhood – earning him the title ‘Bhagwan Birsa.’
After his tragic capture and death, it was a nationalist leader Surendra Nath Bannerjee who openly supported the cause of Birsa Munda in the leading magazines of Calcutta.
Even after the Munda rebellion, there have been other tribal movements which have contributed to the building of national movement and consciousness.
One such movement was the Tana Bhakt movement of Jatra Oraon. The movement contributed significantly to the national movement of Gandhiji. The bhajans of the movement again show a strong Hindu spiritual core. The Supreme God of the movement was Dharmaesh. Where does this God exist? It is in one’s own self. This is in stark contrast to the extra-cosmic god of Christianity and is very much in synch with the spontaneous Hindu vision of seeing the Divine in one’s own self.
After the impressive and spontaneous emergence of such spiritual resistance movements from the forest-dwelling communities, the colonial narrative has been to suggest that these movements have elements of both Hinduism and Christianity. This is nothing but a false narrative.
This is similar to saying that the Bhakti movement contain Islamic and Hindu elements. This comes from the misconceived notion that belief in a supreme divinity is exclusively Christian or Islamic. In reality, Sri Vaishnavism has the concept of the supreme personality of Godhead who is more personal than the personal Christian god and unlike the extra-cosmic Christian deity, is both immanent and transcendental. This is exactly also the nature of the Divine that manifests in all the tribal resistance movements.
So, when we consider ‘Bhagwan Birsa Munda’ day as the day of the Janjati communities of Bharat, let us also remember the immense enrichment that these communities have made to the spiritual tradition that we live as Hindu Dharma.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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