Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries: Indigo Rebellion (1859-60)

Peasant movements and tribal uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries:  Indigo Rebellion (1859-60)

  • After 1858, the face off between the British India Government and the farmers increased in magnitude and changed its character. Now farmers started agitating directly against the Government, foreign owners of tea gardens and Indian landlords-moneylenders.
  • The Indigo revolt (Nilbidraha) that arose in Bengal, was directed against British planters who forced peasants to take advances and sign fraudulent contracts which forced the peasants to grow Indigo under terms which were the least profitable to them.

Causes of Indigo Revolt:

  • Indigo was identified as a major cash crop for the East India Company’s investments in the 18th Century. Indigo had worldwide demand similar to cotton piece-goods, opium and salt. Indigo planting in Bengal dated back to 1777. With expansion of British power in Bengal, indigo planting became more and more commercially profitable due to the demand for blue dye in Europe. It was introduced in large parts of Burdwan, Bankura, Birbhum, Murshidabad, etc.
  • European Indigo planters had a monopoly over Indigo farming. The foreigners used to force Indian farmers to harvest Neel and to achieve their means they used to brutally suppress the farmer.
  • The European indigo planters left no stones unturned to make money. They mercilessly pursued the peasants to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans, called dadon at a very high interest. Once a farmer took such loans he remained in debt for whole of his life before passing it to his successors. The farmers were totally unprotected from the brutal indigo planters, who resorted to mortgages or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them.
  • Farmers were illegally beaten up, detained in order to force them to sell Neel at non-profitable rates.
  • If any farmer refused to grow Indigo and started growing rice, he was kidnapped, women and children were attacked, and crop was looted, burnt and destroyed.
  • If farmer approached court, the European judge would rule in favour of the European planter.
  • The privileges and immunities enjoyed by the British planters placed them above the law and beyond all judicial control.
  • Government rules favoured the planters. By an act in 1833, the planters were granted a free hand in oppression. Sometimes even the zamindars, money lenders and other influential persons sided with the planters.
  • Finally Indigo peasants launched revolt in Nadia district of Bengal presidency. Refused to grow Indigo. If police tried to intervene, they were attacked. European Planters responded by increasing the rent and evicting farmers. Led to more agitations and confrontations.

Revolt and Suppression:

  • In April 1860 all the cultivators of the Barasat sub­division and in the districts of Pabna and Nadia resorted to strike. They refused to sow any indigo. The strike spread to other places in Bengal.
  • The Biswas brothers of Nadia, Kader Molla of Pabna, Rafique Mondal of Malda were popular leaders. Even some of the zamindars supported the revolt, the most important of whom was Ramratan Mullick of Narail.
  • The revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. Large forces of police and military, backed by the British Government and some of the zamindars, mercilessly slaughtered a number of peasants. In spite of this, the revolt was fairly popular, involving almost the whole of Bengal.

Support for Revolt

  • The revolt enjoyed the support of all categories of the rural population, missionaries, the Bengal intelligentsia and Muslims.
  • The Bengal intelligentsia played an important role by organizing a powerful campaign in support by using Press as the tool. It had a deep impact on the emerging nationalist intellectuals.
  • Harish Chandra Mukherjee thoroughly described the plight of the poor peasants in his newspaper The Hindu Patriot. The Hindu Patriot, first published as a weekly in January 1853, from the very beginning took a hostile tone toward the indigo planters. Sisir Kumar Ghosh, who later found Amrita Bazar Patrika, was one of the important muffasal correspondents of the Patriot. He reported from Nadia and Jessore. His brave fight for justice for the ryots became invaluable in a situation where there was no political organisation to support the people’s cause.
  • Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Nil Darpan (The Mirror of Indigo) reflected the peasants’ feelings toward the indigo planters. It effectively brought out the fact that indigo planters forced the ryots to cultivate without remuneration, confined, beat and compelled the villagers as well as corrupted their own servants. With such powerful expression Nil Darpan became an example of an awakening of intelligentsia, to gain their sympathy towards the peasantry.

Nature and Impact of the Revolt:

  • The revolt as a non-violent revolution (except in few instances) and gives this as a reason why the indigo revolt was a success compared to the Sepoy Revolt.
  • Historically, the Indigo Rebellion can be termed the first form resistance of the countryside against the British in economic and social terms. Unlike the spontaneous revolt of the soldiers in the Sepoy Mutiny, this countryside revolt evolved over the years and, in the process, rallied different strata of society against the British – a thread of dissent that lasted many decades thereafter.
  • Many consider this revolt as a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Gandhi.
  • Indigo Rebellion not only forewarned agrarian uprisings, but also showed the shape of things to come.
  • One historian says: “Although the hard pressed ryots and minor landholders looked upon the great Zamindars for their initial encouragement, not frequently, the Zamindars lost control of the movement… and initiative devolved to the lower classes.”
  • Indigo Rebellion was not a class struggle in anyway as there was no struggle between the Zamindars and the peasantry; rather the real objective of the Zamindars was to oppose the encroachment of Europeans on principle and to fight for their own vested interests, though they espoused the cause of peasantry and cultivators against the planters.”
  • The revolt had a strong effect on the government, which immediately appoint the “Indigo Commission” in 1860. In the commission report, E. W. L. Tower noted that “not a chest of Indigo reached England without being stained with human blood“.
  • Government issued a notification that the Indian farmers cannot be compelled to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were settled by legal means. By the end of 1860, Indigo planters shut down their factories and cultivation of indigo was virtually wiped out from Bengal.
  • Evidently it was a major triumph of the peasants to incite such emotion in the European’s minds. Thus the revolt was a success

Cultural Impact:

  • Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1859 Bengali play Nildarpan was based on Indigo revolt. It was also essential to the development of theater in Bengal and influenced Girish Chandra Ghosh, who, in 1872, would establish The National Theatre in Calcutta where the first ever play commercially staged was Nildarpan.
  • In order to feel the pulse of the local people, following the popularity of this play, W.S. Seton-Karr, Secretary to the Governor of Bengal, assigned Rev. James to translate the work into English and circulate it among like-minded Britons. The planters, depicted as villains in the drama, instead of taking on the Government, fell upon the unfortunate translator. In the ensuing libel case, the jury found Rev. James Long guilty. The sentence was a fine of Rs. 1,000 and a month’s imprisonment.
  • The indigo rebellion has been portrayed in drama, poetry and popular history in Bengal, thereby drawing the attention of the intelligentsia. Thus it entered the political awareness and had a far reaching consequence in the later movements of Bengal.

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