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‘RRR’ protagonist, ‘Bhagat movement’ pioneer — tribal leaders celebrated by Modi in I-Day speech

In his speech, the prime minister hailed several tribal leaders who participated in India's freedom struggle, even as the BJP persists in its efforts to woo tribal voters.

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New Delhi: The protagonist of Telugu blockbuster RRR, Alluri Sitarama Raju, a tribal hero from Andhra Pradesh celebrated in S.S. Rajamouli’s film, found mention in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day address this year.

Raju, whose 30-feet statue was unveiled by Modi in July in Andhra Pradesh’s Bhimavaram, is often referred to as “Manyam Veerudu“, or “hero of the jungles”.

Modi mentioned Raju and the names of other tribal leaders alongside those of much-celebrated freedom fighters, such as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

“When we speak of the freedom struggle, we can’t forget the tribal community,” said Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15 August. “Bhagwan Birsa Munda, Sidhu-Kanhu, Alluri Sitharama Raju, Govind Guru — there are innumerable names who became the voice of India’s freedom struggle and inspired the tribal community to live and die for the motherland.”

This declaration by PM Modi comes at a time of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) aggressive tribal outreach. The party had nominated Droupadi Murmu, a tribal woman, as its Presidential candidate and on 25 July, she took oath as the 15th President of India — the first tribal and only the second woman to occupy the country’s highest office.

Her nomination was seen as part of the BJP’s effort to woo tribal voters in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan — states with a significant tribal population.

The four states have a total of 128 seats reserved for the Scheduled Tribes (ST) — 27 in Gujarat, 25 in Rajasthan, 29 in Chhattisgarh and 47 in Madhya Pradesh. The BJP has managed to win only 35 of these seats in the previous Assembly elections.

During its national executive meeting in Hyderabad last month, PM Modi had asked party functionaries to hold meetings in tribal villages across the country and reach out to the tribal communities to drum up support for Murmu.

Moreover, with Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) facing corruption allegations, the BJP is also eyeing lost ground in the state.

ThePrint takes a look at the legacy of the various tribal leaders named by Modi in his speech and their relevance in today’s politics.


Also read: OBC votebank, counter to Baghel — Why BJP replaced its tribal Chhattisgarh unit chief


Remembering the heroes

Alluri Sitarama Raju was a freedom fighter in the 19th century who led a guerilla resistance movement against the British. In June, Home Minister Amit Shah had named Raju, along with Ramji Gaur and Kumaram Bhim, as prominent leaders who stood against the Nizams in Andhra Pradesh.

Raju had led the ‘Rampa’ or ‘Manyam’ rebellion, a tribal uprising against the British in 1922, which continued until May 1924 when Raju was finally captured and executed.

Raju is one of two real-life heroes that became the subject of Rajamouli’s action-drama film RRR (2022).

The Sidhu-Kanhu brothers belonged to the same Murmu tribe as President Murmu. The heroes of the Santhal rebellion, the Murmu brothers had mobilised over 10,000 Santhals, armed with bows and arrows, to revolt against the British in 1855-56, even before the Sepoy mutiny of 1857.

Even though the Santhal heroes have been recognised in the past by several governments — a stamp was issued in their name in 2002, and a park and university in Ranchi has been built in their memory — this is the first time they have found mention in the PM’s speech.

Several other politicians over the years, including West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi, have hailed the revolutionaries.

The Murmu brothers also figured in Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha president and MP Tejasvi Surya’s Twitter thread commemorating the contribution of unsung heroes from Jharkhand Sunday.

Bhagwan Birsa Munda, a much-hailed tribal leader, was another Jharkhand hero mentioned by Modi in his speech. In 2021, a museum in his honour was inaugurated in Ranchi by the PM. The BJP government also declared 15 November, Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary, as ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Divas” in November last year to remember the contributions of tribal freedom fighters as part of its tribal outreach programme.

PM Modi had also named Birsa Munda in his 2016 Independence Day speech — “…in our freedom struggle, the contribution of our tribals living in the forests was incomparable. They lived in jungles. We may have heard about Birsa Munda, but there is hardly any tribal district which did not make sacrifices from 1857 till we got freedom,” he said.

Munda, as an anti-missionary and anti-imperialist, mobilised the tribal people against the British and started his own faith ‘Birsait’, targeting Christian missionaries’ conversion activities. In 1900, he was arrested by the British force and died in jail.

Govind Guru was a Bhil leader of great significance among the tribal communities of Gujarat and Rajasthan. He was the pioneer of the Bhagat Movement — a social religious movement which inspired the Bhil community to revolt against the British.

The Bhil leader had a significant impact on the socio-cultural life of tribals. Influenced by spiritual leaders like Dayanand Saraswati, his Bhagat movement asked Bhils to adhere to vegetarianism, avoid animal sacrifices, liquor and all types of intoxicants. The movement later took on a political hue and turned into an uprising against the British.

The epicenter of this agitation was Dungarpur and Banswara, densely populated by Bhils. His main grievance was against the bonded labour system of the British Raj being implemented by the princely states at the time.

According to oral historians, in 1913, Govind Guru, along with 1,500 of his followers, had arrived in Mangadh and was killed in a massacre by the British.

In 2012, Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, had dedicated a ‘smriti van’ in his memory.

Rani Gaidinliu, along with Birsa Munda, is another leader to have figured twice in Modi’s Independence Day speeches. The Manipur-born Naga leader from the Rongmei tribe, who sparked a serious revolt against the British, was imprisoned for life and was released after 14 years in 1947.

At the age of 13, she had become associated with freedom fighter and religious leader, Haipou Jadonang, who envisioned an independent Naga kingdom and launched the Heraka religious movement to achieve it. After Jadonang’s execution, Gaidinliu took over the leadership of the movement.

In 2021, Amit Shah laid the foundation stone for a ‘Rani Gaidinliu Tribal Freedom Fighters Museum’ in Manipur’s Tamenglong district, calling her “the epitome of valour and courage”.

(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)


Also read: Droupadi Murmu is the pivot as BJP plans big tribal outreach in 4 poll-bound states


 

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