Why freedom fighter Birsa Munda’s village in Jharkhand is still in fetters

Why freedom fighter Birsa Munda's village in Jharkhand is still in fetters thumbnail
In early June, the Jharkhand government decided to ‘free’ Birsa Munda by replacing busts and statues of the tribal freedom fighter in handcuffs across the state with ones without fetters. The move to unchain Munda, who fought the Britishers and the landed aristocracy to protect the tribal land, should have evoked widespread adulation among the tribals. However, the tribals in Munda’s village of birth, who worship him as Birsa Bhagwan, are unimpressed.

“It’s a symbolic gesture. His statue might be free, but his tribal land is still under threat,” says Soma Munda, a local Munda chieftain in Ulihatu, some 65 km from the state capital of Ranchi. “Abhi bhi zameen ki ladai hai (Still, it’s a fight for land).” While earlier the exploiters were Britishers, he says, now it’s the state and the fight is to protect jal, jangal and zameen (water, forest and land).

Situated deep inside the Naxal district of Khunti, Ulihatu retains its rustic charm, but by default and neglect. Most of the houses are made of stone and are in dire need of repair; electric poles are present but electricity is conspicuously absent; a medical dispensary can be located but not the doctor; a government residential school runs out of a dilapidated building but classes are mostly empty; a Central Bank of India signboard can be seen in the village, but the branch functions from a dingy grocery shop that remains closed most of the time; solar water pumps are installed across the village but they don’t work when it rains. And it does rain heavily during the three monsoon months.

Birsa Munda’s statue, which is worshipped by tribals as Birsa Bhagwan in Jharkhand

Undercurrent of Unrest
Most of the villagers are farmers and are tied to their land. The promise of developing fish and chicken farms on a large scale remains elusive. The only redeeming feature about the village is a smooth concrete road under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana that connects the decrepit hamlet with the state capital.

“This is what freedom means to tribals after 70 years of Independence,” says an anguished Soma, who runs a school for the tribal kids in Khunti, 40 minutes from Ulihatu. Soma says the village is still in the stone age, with big tribal leaders of the state coming once in a year to garland the stone bust of Birsa Munda on his birth anniversary on November 15.

A government residential school runs out of a dilapidated building but classes are mostly empty.

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