For the Hindutva movement, Birsa Munda is an icon only because he and his followers attacked missionaries and the church. But this is a deliberate misreading of history and a willful deception.
The Hindutva narrative paints Birsa Munda as a saviour of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Hindu culture’ against attack from the Christian missionaries. For the Hindutva movement, Birsa Munda is an icon only because he and his followers attacked missionaries and the church. But this is not only a deliberate misreading of history but also a willful deception on the part of Hindutva politics with a dual objective of denying the tribal communities of their distinct identity and also attacking the right to choose religion.
It is true that Birsa Munda attacked Christian missionaries. But these attacks had nothing to do with safeguarding or protecting Hinduism. On the contrary, the attacks – 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. Just like the ‘upper caste’ Hindu reformers of the 19th century responded to the evangelical attack upon Hindu religious beliefs and cultural practices through various socio-religious movements and reinterpreted Hindu religious beliefs in light of Western-Christian philosophical-theological precepts and ideas of rationality, Birsa Munda did the same for tribal communities of what is now Jharkhand. Moreover, in a period when the term ‘Hindu’ had a very limited meaning, known only to the elite upper caste reformers and had not found any wider currency, it would be preposterous to claim that the Mundas and other tribal communities who lived far away from the so-called mainstream society were fighting to defend it!
Remarkably, Birsa Munda took elements from Vaishnavism, Christianity and Mundari religion to propound his own ‘religion’, which at the same time was distinct from all the three. In this way, Birsa should be seen as an organic intellectual who initiated a social reform movement among the Adivasi communities.
But, Birsa Munda was more than a social reformer. He was also a revolutionary.