Conquest of India
BRITISH ADMINISTRATION
Early Resistance to British Rule
Nationalism in India
Indian Freedom Struggle Under Gandhiji
Social Reforms in British India
Partition of India
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10. Early Peasant Movements in India | 1859 – 1861

PEASANTRY MOVEMENTS UNDER COLONIALISM

The Indian Peasant Movements suffered a massive blow with the onset of British rule. Impoverishment and deterioration in all phases of their life was a common phenomenon as they were increasingly burdened with the menace of

  1. –Illegal & high taxes,
  2. –Exorbitant extraction of rents,
  3. –Arbitrary evictions from their land coupled with
  4. — Exploitation by Zamindars and landlords.

All of these eventually gave rise to organized and united resistance against such unreasonable practices. These activities grew into movements or uprisings and thus came to be known as Peasant Movements.

The depletion of the Indian peasantry was a direct consequence of the transformation of the agrarian structure due to colonial economic policies, destruction of the handicrafts which led to land overcrowding, the new land revenue system, colonial administrative and judicial system.

The Peasant Movements can be Studied under 2 phases :

Pre Gandhian Era ( Upto 1920) and Post Gandhian Era (Post 1920).

A SURVEY OF EARLY PEASANT MOVEMENTS (1859-61)

  1. INDIGO REVOLT (1859-60): Led by Digambar & Bishnu Bishwas.

This was a Peasant uprising that arose in Chaugacha village of Nadia in West Bengal against the forceful cultivation of indigo for the profitable business it offered to the Europeans. Blue dye was in great demand worldwide and thus European planters entered into fraudulent contracts for its cultivation. This movement is also known as “Nil Bidroha.”

  • In Bengal, the Indigo planters, almost all the Europeans, exploited the local peasants by forcing them to grow indigo on their lands instead of the more paying crops like rice.
  • For this, they provided loans at very high-interest rates. These loans were known as ‘Dadon.’
  • The planters used to frighten the peasants through kidnappings, illegal confinements, flogging, attacks on women and children, seizure of cattle, burning and breaking their houses and destruction of crops.
  • An act in 1833 made situations worse and granted a free hand for oppression to these indigo planters.
  • Under this severe exploitation, the farmers had no option but to revolt and they were wholeheartedly supported by the Bengali middle class.
  • This is when in 1859, Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of Nadia district denied to grow indigo under duress and resisted the physical pressure of the planters and their lathiyals backed by police and the courts. It was the first time that the anger of peasants exploded.
  • They also organised a counterforce and executed some indigo planters. Indigo depots were burned to the ground.
  • Zamindars were also targeted by these peasants.
  • They learned to use the legal machinery and initiated legal action supported by fund collection.
  • The Bengali intelligentsia played a vital role by supporting the peasant’s cause through newspaper campaigns, organizing mass meetings, preparing memoranda on peasants.
  • This revolt was mainly non-violent and was a result of several years of suffering.

Also read:- The Revolt of 1857

Outcome of the Revolt

In the first instance, the revolt was brutally suppressed and many farmers were slaughtered to death. However, the positives that followed include-

  • An Indigo Commission was appointed by the government to inquire into the problems of indigo cultivation.
  • In November 1860, on the basis of recommendations given by the Indigo Commission, the government issued a notification that the peasants could not be compelled to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were settled by legal means.
  • By 1860 end, indigo cultivation ceased to exist in Bengal as indigo planters left the areas, closing down all factories.
  • Important Fact- The play “NIL DARPAN”, meaning The Mirror of Indigo by Dinabandhu Mitra is based on this historical incident!

2. PABNA AGRARIAN LEAGUES

Pabna, now in Bangladesh was a prosperous centre owing to its jute production and trading. However, the zamindars here increased the rent manifold and stopped the peasants from getting occupancy rights. This led to rise of a revolt now known as the Pabna Uprising.

  • During the 1870s and 1880s, large parts of Eastern Bengal witnessed agrarian unrest caused by oppressive practices of the zamindars.
  • To achieve their ends, the zamindars resorted to forceful evictions, seizure of cattle and crops etc.
  • The peasants of Yusufshahi Pargana formed an agrarian league named PABNA RAIYATS LEAGUE and declared their paraganas as being independent of zamindari control.
  • A rebel army was also set up to fight the oppressors.
  • The league organised a rent strike in which the ryots challenged the zamindars in the courts by refusing to pay enhanced rents.
  • The main form of struggle was that of legal resistance. There was very little violence.

Outcome of the Revolt

  • Though the peasant discontent continued to linger on till 1885, most of the cases had been solved, partially through official persuasion and partially because of the fear that was instilled amongst the zamindars .
  • Many peasants were able to acquire occupancy rights as well.
  • The Government also promised to undertake legislation to protect the tenants.
  • The Bengal Tenancy Act was also passed in 1885.
  • A number of young Indian intellectuals supported this cause which include Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C. Dutt and the Indian Association under Surendranath Banerjee.

3. DECCAN RIOTS

The uprising started at Supa village in Poona district. These riots at Ahmednagar and Poona were mostly rooted in acute agrarian distress. In 1875, a large marketplace of moneylenders came under the attack of these discontent farmers and gave rise to this revolt.

  • The ryots of Deccan region of western India suffered heavy taxation under the Ryotwari system.
  • Here again the peasants found themselves trapped in an endless network with the moneylender as the exploiter.
  • Crash in cotton prices after the end of the American civil war in 1864, the Government’s decision to raise the land revenue by 50% in 1867, and a succession of bad harvests even worsened their miserable condition.
  • In 1874, the growing tension between the moneylenders, and the peasants resulted in a social boycott movement organised by the ryots against the “outsider” moneylenders.
  • The main aim of the farmers was to destroy the account books maintained by the moeylenders.
  • The movement also included refusal to buy from their shops and to cultivate their fields. The barbers, washermen, shoemakers denied to serve them.
  • This social boycott spread rapidly to the villages of Poona, Ahmednagar, Sholapur and Satara. Soon the social boycott was transformed into agrarian riots with systematic attacks on the moneylender’s houses and shops.
  • The debt bonds and deeds were seized and publicly burnt.

Outcome of the Riots

  • The Government succeeded in repressing the movement.
  • The Deccan Riots Commission was set up in 1878.
  • The Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act was passed in 1879 which assured that farmers could not be arrested on the failure of the debt payment.
  • This time again, the modern nationalist scholars of Maharashtra supported the peasants cause, one of them being Poona Sarvajanik Sabha co-founded by M G Ranade.

Conclusion to the Peasant Movements

While the British were consolidating their rule in India, the worst sufferers were the peasants and the agrarian class. Hence, there was rise in such movements which were directed towards specific and limited objectives. Colonialism was never their target; they only tried to seek freedom from exploitation meted out directly onto them.

Practice Questions

  1. How did the early peasant rebellions differ from the later peasant rebellions in India’s struggle for freedom?
  2. Analyse the nature of peasant movements during the nationalist phase and bring out their shortcomings. (2015 UPSC CSE).

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