How Birsa Munda led his people into organised rebellion against Church and British rule

Birsa Munda appealed to thousands of his followers to renounce Christianity and return to their original faith

Tuhin A Sinha January 16, 2022 14:21:02 IST
How Birsa Munda led his people into organised rebellion against Church and British rule

The Legend of Birsa Munda by Tuhin A Sinha and Ankita Verma

Ranchi 1895

They say he is the new Christ, the Black Christ!’ Father Hoffman scoffed. ‘Blasphemous! It’s blasphemous! These people should be hanged for even harbouring such a thought!’

Albert Wilkinson, the district collector, raised an eyebrow at the priest’s statement. While he was just as displeased with the turn of events, he was a man of politics who was mindful of the theatrics that religious people like the priest pacing in front of him were given to indulging in. He looked at the police commissioner, Ian Smith, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

The commissioner knew that things had already gone too far under his watch. From a puny, harmless-looking floating seed which the wind had blown into Chalkad, Birsa Munda had transformed into a solid and forceful idea that was slowly embedding itself deeper and deeper into the people’s souls and hearts. The fact that they had all been summoned to the district collector’s office for an emergency meeting to discuss the situation and chart out a plan of action was proof enough of just how grievous the circumstances were.

‘Well, it all started with the prayer meetings that the boy began conducting a month after his arrival in Chalkad,’ Tribhuvan Singh said defensively. He had been dragged to this meeting by Smith, and now, for some inexplicable reason, all the men in the room were looking at him as if he alone was responsible for everything that was happening in Chalkad.

They would make a scapegoat out of him if he didn’t play his cards right. ‘I wouldn’t worry too much though,’ he continued, trying to sound as reassuring as he could manage. ‘It’s not as if we can’t deal with a teenage boy who is masquerading as a miracle worker, a messiah. We just need to move swiftly, that’s all.’

‘I’ve heard that this teenage boy is leading his people into an organised rebellion against the Church and the Crown,’ Father Hoffman persisted.

‘Father Hoffman,’ Ian Smith spoke up, ‘I think you might be overreacting a little. That boy is no match against us. As for the villagers, they are just following the path of blind faith, as always. It will lead them nowhere. It’s impossible to organise these simpletons into a rebellion. Simply impossible!’

Father Hoffman bristled. ‘That boy is appealing to thousands of his followers to renounce Christianity and return to their pagan beliefs, and you say I am overreacting?’

‘No, no, Father,’ the district collector hastened to soothe the priest’s ruffled feathers. ‘It’s not that you are overreacting. You have every right to worry. But you must understand that if we are to take legal action against this boy, then we need proper grounds to proceed on. If you want to get rid of this boy and crush this seed of a rebellion, then give me something solid.’

‘Hah!’ Father Hoffman nodded smugly. ‘Something solid, is it?’ The next minute, without any warning, he marched right out of the room, only to return a few seconds later with a rather scared-looking villager trailing behind him.

‘This is Demka Munda,’ he announced, pushing the man to the centre of the room, where he stood with his hands folded and his gaze lowered. ‘According to Demka, Birsa Munda is planning to issue a code of conduct for his disciples to adopt. He has called a large gathering next week to release this code of conduct. We simply cannot let this happen!’

‘Is all this true?’ Albert Wilkinson asked the villager.

‘Y-y-yes, sahib,’ the man replied.

‘What else do you know about Birsa?’ Wilkinson demanded.

‘That next Thursday, after performing the puja, he plans to teach the villagers about how they can free themselves from poverty and slavery, from the angrez babus and from the Church.’ The man paused here, fidgeting with his hands. Then, very reluctantly, he added, ‘He also says that all gora log, all white people are the same.’

‘Hmm.’ Wilkinson sat back in his chair, appearing to be deep in thought. ‘You may go now,’ he said after a minute, dismissing the man.

‘Do what it takes, Tribhuvan Singh,’ Ian Smith said, breaking the silence following the man’s exit, ‘but this meeting should not happen. You will get all the support you need from the police department, but make sure you nip this in the bud.’

‘Wait, Commissioner Smith,’ the district collector interjected. ‘This entire matter needs to be handled tactfully. We can’t do anything rash, and definitely not without prosecutable grounds. I have superiors to answer to.’

‘The grounds for legal action are right in front of us!’ Father Hoffman exclaimed, sounding exasperated. ‘That boy is touting himself as a god. He’s putting himself on the same plane as Our Lord above. Do you really need anything more than that to proceed? These tribals are already beginning to believe that while it’s the sun that’s their God up in the sky, on earth it is Birsa Munda who can save them!’

‘That’s ridiculous indeed!’ Wilkinson nodded. ‘Thank you, Father. Inciting the people against Our Lord and making ungodly claims like this are surely a basis for legal action. Any person who proclaims himself as God is not only being impious, but also threatening to upset the law-and-order situation of the land. And we simply cannot let this happen. No, sir! Commissioner Smith, I think you know how to proceed now?’

‘I do,’ Ian Smith replied, sitting up, ready and alert. ‘I shall immediately draw up the orders for you to sign.’

‘And, Smith, be careful. When a man is as loved and revered by his people as this Birsa appears to be, his followers will be the biggest challenge you will face in your move against him,’ Wilkinson warned, getting up and signalling the end of the meeting.

The writer is an author and BJP spokesperson. Excerpts from the book, The Legend of Birsa Munda, by Tuhin Sinha.

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