Birsa was born in the family of Mundas – a tribal group in Chottanagpur.
His movement was aimed at reforming tribal society. He urged the Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village, and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery.
In 1895 Birsa urged his followers to recover their glorious past. He talked of a golden age in the past – a satyug (the age of truth) – when Mundas lived a good life, constructed embankments, tapped natural springs, planted trees and orchards, practised cultivation to earn their living.
Birsa’s movement was significant in at least two ways. First – it forced the colonial government to introduce laws so that the land of the tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus. Second – it showed once again that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule.
By the nineteenth century, tribal groups earned their livelihood through various ways:
Some groups practiced shifting cultivation or jhum cultivation. They mostly lived in hilly and forested areas of northeast and central India. Their lives depended on the free movement within the forest and on being able to use the land and forests for growing crops.
Some earned livelihood by hunting animals and gathering forest produce. Eg: Khonds in Orissa regularly went on collective hunt and then divided the meat among themselves. They ate fruits and roots collected from the forest and cooked food with the oil they extracted from the seeds of the sal and mahua. They used many forest shrubs and herbs for medicinal purposes, and sold forest produce in the local markets.
Some of them did odd jobs in the villages, carrying loads or building roads, while others laboured in the fields of peasants and farmers.
Many tribal groups lived by herding and rearing animals. They were pastoralists who moved with their herds of cattle or sheep according to the seasons. Eg: The Van Gujjars of the Punjab hills and the Labadis of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders, the Gaddis of Kulu were shepherds, and the Bakarwals of Kashmir reared goats.
Even before nineteenth century, some tribal groups began to settle down at a place and cultivated their field year after year.
Mundas of Chottanagpur considered the land as the property of the whole clan. Every clan member had the right on that land.
Often some member acquired more power than other people in the clan, thus that member would become the chief and others would become followers.
Under British rule, the functions and powers of the tribal chiefs changed considerably. They were allowed to keep their land titles over a cluster of villages and rent out lands, but they lost much of their administrative power and were forced to follow laws made by British officials in India. They also had to pay tribute to the British, and discipline the tribal groups on behalf of the British.
British officers considered settled tribal groups as more civilised than the hunter-gatherers or shifting cultivators.
Settled groups were easier to control than the people who were always on move and British can earn revenue only from settled groups.
So they introduced land settlements – that is, they measured the land, defined the rights of each individual to that land, and fixed the revenue demand for the state. Some peasants were declared landowners, others tenants
However, the British effort to settle jhum cultivators didn’t go well. Jhum cultivators insisted on continuing their traditional practice and ultimately British had to allow them.
British changed forest laws by extending its control over forests. Some forests were declared as Reserved Forests.
The colonial officers gave some patches land of those forests to jhum cultivators for cultivation, in exchange of providing labour to Forest Department and looking after the forests.
Some tribal groups revolted against these new forest laws. Eg: Songram Sangma in 1906 at Assam, forest satygraha in 1930s in Central Provinces.
During the nineteenth century, traders and moneylenders were coming into the forests more often, wanting to buy forest produce, offering cash loans, and asking tribal people to work for wages.
From the late nineteenth century, tribals were recruited to work in tea plantations in Assam and mines in Jharkhand. They were paid miserably, and were prevented from running back home.
Some of the important revolts by tribals against British during nineteenth and twentieth centuries were: Kols revolted in 1831-32, Santhals revolted in 1855, Bastar rebellion in central India in 1910, Warli revolt in Maharashtra in 1940, etc.