The changes in forest laws had deep impact on tribal life. The forests were declared as state property. Forests which produced useful timber were declared as Reserved Forests. The tribal people were not allowed to move freely in the reserved forests. They could no longer practice jhum cultivation, collect fruits or hunt animals.
Many tribal had to move to other areas in search of work and livelihood. But this created the problem of labour shortage for the British.
The British officials came up with a solution. The jhum cultivation was allowed on the condition that those tribals would provide labour to the Forest Department and would look after the forest. Thus, forest villages were established in many regions.
Many tribal groups reacted against the colonial forest laws. They disobeyed the new rules. They continued with practices which were declared as illegal. At times, some of them also rose in rebellion. The revolt of Songram Sangma in 1906 in Assam, and the forest satyagraha of the 1930s in the Central Provinces are examples of such revolts.
The traders and moneylenders often came to the forests to buy forest produce. They also offered cash loans and asked the tribal people to work for wages. But they used to exploit the innocent people which increased the misery of the tribal people. The tribal people did all the hard work to collect forest produce but were paid meager amount. The middlemen, on the other hand, used to earn huge profit. This was the reason the traders and moneylenders were viewed as enemies by many tribal groups.
Tea plantations and mining became important industries from the late nineteenth century. Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work in the tea plantations of Assam and in the coal mines of Jharkhand. They were paid very low wages. They were not allowed to return home.
Birsa Munda was born in the mid 1870s. He grew up around the forests of Bohonda. His father had to move from place to place in search of work. During his adolescent years, Birsa had heard the tales of the Munda uprisings of the past. He had heard about the sirdars (leaders) of the community urging people to revolt. The sirdars talked of a golden age. This was an age when the Mundas had been free from the oppression of dikus (enemies). They visualized of a time when the ancestral right of the community would be restored.
Birsa went to the local missionary school. He was highly influenced by the sermons of missionaries. Birsa also spent some time in the company of a prominent Vaishnav preacher. During this phase, he learnt to value the importance of purity and piety.
He wanted to reform the tribal society. He wanted the Mundas to give up liquor, clean their village. He wanted them to stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. Birsa wanted his people to once again work on their land, settle down and cultivate their fields.
The Birsa movement wanted to drive out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords and the government. It wanted to set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head. The British officials were worried by the political aim of that movement.
Birsa was arrested in 1895 and was jailed for two years. He was released in 1897. After that, he started to spread his ideas. People were highly motivated by his call and began to attack anything associated with outsiders. Birsa died in 1900 and after that the movement fizzled out. However, the Birsa movement succeeded in forcing the colonial rulers to change the laws to suit the needs of tribals.
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