Jaipal Singh was born on 3 January 1903 into a Munda tribal family in the Khunti subdivision of Ranchi district in the then Bihar Province (located in present-day Jharkhand). His family had converted to Christianity and Singh grew up Christian. From a young age, Singh stood out for his sporting talent and exceptional character, inviting the interest of the S.P.G Missionaries of the Church of England. Soon, he joined the missionary-run St Paul’s School in Ranchi. In 1918, after completing his schooling here, Singh accompanied the principal of St. Paul’s to England to prepare for Priesthood at St Augustine’s College in Canterbury. But in 1922, following an initial period of training, he was sent to St John’s College, Oxford for higher studies.
At Oxford, Singh flourished in multiple fields, excelling as a hockey player, a sports writer, and a member of both the Essay and the Debating Societies. He quickly established himself as an irreplaceable member of the University hockey team and would eventually become the first Indian student to be awarded an Oxford Blue in hockey. He began a sports society exclusively for Asians in Oxford called Oxford Hermits. He also served as the President of the College Debating Society. In 1926, he graduated from St John’s with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Adding to his already impressive list of achievements, Singh qualified for the prestigious Indian Civil Services, topping the interview. In 1928, while receiving training in England as a probationary ICS officer, he was called to captain the Indian hockey team for the Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. He was not given a leave of absence to attend the training. Undeterred, and without skipping a beat, Singh abandoned the civil service to pick up the hockey stick for India. He captained the Indian Hockey Team at the Amsterdam Olympics and won the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1928.
Role In India’s Independence Movement
On his return to England, Singh was allowed to rejoin the ICS training, but he chose to quit the services and joined Burmah-Shell – a multinational oil company – serving as its senior executive between 1928-32. It made him the first Indian to hold the position of a covenanted mercantile assistant in a Royal Dutch Shell Group.
This work brought Singh to Calcutta where he spent a few years before making a career shift toward teaching. Initially, he took up teaching at Achimoto College in Britain’s Gold Coast Colony in West Africa (1932-36). Then, for a year, he worked as the Vice-Principal of Rajkumar College in Raipur. But the discrimination he faced here as a Tribal person forced him to look for opportunities elsewhere. From 1937 to 1939, he was part of the Bikaner Princely State’s administration, working as its Revenue Commissioner, Colonisation Minister, and eventually its Foreign Secretary.
Singh’s political life was heavily influenced by the discrimination and exploitation he witnessed of the tribal communities, particularly in Bihar’s Chotanagpur region. In 1938, the Adivasi Mahasabha was formed with the aim of carving out a separate province for the Santhal Parganas and Chotanagpur region from the existing province of Bihar. Singh was elected the President of the Mahasabha in 1939.
His leadership turned out to be crucial to this cause. He went on to hold numerous meetings and gave spirited speeches that mobilized Adivasis against the existing Congress ministry for being anti-Adivasi. He was also behind the Adivasi Labour Union that was formed to safeguard the interests of Adivasis working in industrial regions of Jamshedpur. Soon, Singh was acknowledged as the leader and representative of the Adivasi struggles, earning himself the moniker of Marang Gomke or Supreme Leader among the Adivasis.
Contribution to Constitution Making
In 1946, Singh was elected to the Constituent Assembly from Bihar. He was one of the few independent candidates to have been elected to the Constituent Assembly, a platform that he would use to voice his concerns and promote the interests of tribal people across India. His interventions in the Assembly were mostly restricted to the interests of tribal persons.
Singh continued to work for tribal rights post-independence. The Adivasi Mahasabha returned as the Jharkhand Party and stood for the 1952 elections, winning 33 seats in the Bihar Legislative Assembly. Owing to the decline in the Party’s popularity, he merged it with Congress in 1963.
After retirement from active hockey, he served as Secretary of the Bengal Hockey Association and as a member of the Indian Sports Council.
Singh died on 20 March 1970 in Delhi. The Government of Jharkhand named the grand games complex and games village built in Ranchi ‘the Singh Munda Games Complex’. The Adivasi Mahasabha, of which he was previously President, attained its objective of carving out a separate state, Jharkhand, from Bihar in 2000, thirty years after his death.
Singh’s key writings and speeches are collected in Adivasidom. Edited by Ashwini Kumar Pankaj, this book accounts Singh’s views on several political issues and articulates the Adivasi community’s demands.
- Highlighting the troubled history of exploitation and dispossession of the adivasi people, Singh expressed hope that independent India would offer a new chapter for the people, an India “where there is equality of opportunity, where no one would be neglected.”
- Singh bemoaned the lack of tribal representation in the Constituent Assembly, particularly the lack of a single tribal woman member.
- He argued that legislative intervention is imperative to raise the Adivasi community’s social, economic, and education standards to that of the general population. Further, he wanted Adivasis to be given reservation in the legislature. and urged the Princely States to also take steps to ensure this.
- Adivasidom: Selected writings & speeches of Jaipal Singh Munda (Pyara Kerketta Foundation, 2017)
- The Life and Times of Jaipal Singh Munda by Santosh Kiro (Prabhat Prakashan, 2018)
- The Adivasi Mahasabha (1938-1949): Launching Pad of the Jharkhand Movement by L.N. Rana (Indian History Congress, 1992)
- Jaipal Singh Munda: Hockey champion and the voice of the voiceless by A.K. Biswas (Forward Press, 2018)
- Jaipal Singh (The Open University)
- This Unsung Hero Won an Olympic Gold, Took on the British & Fought for Adivasi Rights! By Rinchen Norbu Wangchuk (The Better India, 2018)
- A ‘Jungli’ In The Constituent Assembly: Jaipal Singh Munda by Radhika Bordia (NDTV, 2017).
- Jaipal Singh Munda by A.K. Biswas (Mainstream, 2012)
- Who’s Who 1950 (Parliament of India)