The present unrest in the tribal region in the heartland of India is a significant departure from the past uprisings by them. While earlier revolts were generally led by spiritual-cum-social leaders, the latest upheaval in the plateau and forests of India is being inspired by the godless philosophy of Maoism.
How much Maoists, or godless, they actually are is a debatable issue yet it can be said that they are certainly not the admirers of Gandhiji as Alluri Sitaram Raju was. This tribal leader of the Gudem Hills of Andhra Pradesh resorted to the guerrilla tactic, ironically during the Non-Cooperation Movement days because he strongly believed that the British can be thrown out only by violent method. The tribals of Andhra Pradesh rose up in arms under him when the government tried to compel them to undertake begari (forced labour) for road construction. Though the Congress never approved the modus operandi adopted by him yet Raju talked about the greatness of Gandhiji whose Non-Cooperation Movement inspired him. He even persuaded people to wear khadi and give up drinking.
Alluri Sitaram Raju claimed that he had spiritual powers and that he could make astrological predictions and would survive even bullet shots. The tribals proclaimed him as the incarnation of God. However, Raju was captured and executed by the British in 1924 and thus became a folk hero.
Birsa Munda was another such spiritual figure of Chotanagpur, now in Jharkhand, who struggled against the British in the last few years of the 19th century. Once again agrarian discontent against the imposition of begari and illegal enhancement of rent by the intermediaries resulted in the Sardari agitation, so called due to the leadership provided by the Sardars. By 1887 the movement had grown and many Munda and Oraon cultivators refused to pay rent to the landlords. In 1895 Birsa Munda took over the leadership. Soon he came to be known as Birsa Bhagwan.
Not surprisingly, the movement led by him was both agrarian and religious. Though Birsa was an apostate from Christianity yet his movement was influenced by the Christian ideas. His teaching was partly spiritual, partly revolutionary. He proclaimed that the land belonged to the people who had reclaimed it from forests, and therefore, no rent should be paid for it. Somewhat like Raju, he asserted that he was the Messiah and claimed divine powers of healing. However, his movement was suppressed and Birsa died in jail in 1900.
Though the Tana Bhagat movement of Chotanagpur had its genesis in agrarian unrest yet it too was a sort of religious movement of the Oraons, a prominent tribe. It was initiated by Jatra Oraon in 1914. Yet, unlike several other tribal movements, it remained non-violent. Tana Bhagats were the great followers of Gandhiji and took part in the Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience Movement and Quit India Movement.
Two names were quite prominent in independent India, but they were not like their counterparts in the early part of the 19th century. Oxford-educated Jaipal Singh Munda, ICS, was the representative of the tribals of the entire country in the Constituent Assembly. He was the captain of the gold winning Indian hockey team of 1928 Olympic in Amsterdam. He was the first to raise the demand of separate tribal state and founded Adivasi Mahasabha in 1938. Though a Christian, his second wife was a Muslim. His first wife was Tara Wienfried Majumdar, the granddaughter of Woomesh Chandra Banerjee, the first and the third president of the Indian National Congress. He was called Marang Gomke or Great Leader by his followers and continued his struggle for the uplift of tribals almost till his death in March 1970.
Like Jaipal, Shibu Soren, founder of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, never talked about the spiritual power as Birsa and Raju claimed to have. But he is still called Guruji by his followers. Soren tried to rope in tribals, Dalits, Mahtos and even indigenous Muslims of Jharkhand in his movement.
There is no religious-cum-social leader like Birsa and Raju championing the cause of tribals now. There is no religious symbol and nobody now claims super-natural power. While most of the former tribal revolts were against the foreign power and classically indigenous in nature, the present upsurge is against independent India and fuelled by somewhat outlandish ideology – Maoism, which faded in the land of its origin.