A Survey of Early Peasant Movements

The prominent among the early peasant movements are the Indigo Revolt, Pabna Agrarian Leagues, and Deccan Riots.

Indigo Revolt:

It took place during 1859-60 in Bengal. Most of the indigo planters in the region were Europeans who used to exploit the hapless peasantry by forcing them to cultivate indigo on their lands instead of allowing them to cultivate more paying crops such as rice. This was done by forcing the peasants to take advance sums and made to sign fraudulent contracts. These were used to arm-twist the peasants into cultivating indigo. Various indignities were committed by the planters to coerce the peasants, including kidnappings, seizure of cattle, burning and demolition of houses, illegal confinements, flogging, attacks on women and children, and destruction of crops.

The revolt broke out in 1859 when the angry peasants, under the leadership of Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of Nadia district, decided not to cultivate indigo on their lands and also not to succumb to the pressure put upon by the planters and their retainers, who were known as lathiyals, who were backed by the police and the courts.The planters began to use force such as physical eviction and also enhanced the rents to bring the peasants under control.The peasants had organized a counter force to resist the planters' attacks. They also went on a rent strike and refused to pay the enhanced rents. They tried to physically resist attempts to evict them from their lands.

Soon, the methods of struggle by the peasantry changed. They learned to use the legal machinery and, supported by the funds they had collected, initiated legal action against the planters. They received immense support from the Bengali intelligentsia, which played a significant role in supporting the peasants' cause through newspaper campaigns, preparing memoranda on peasants' grievances, organization of mass meetings, and supporting them in legal battles.

The protests paid off and the government appointed a commission to look into the grievances of indigo cultivating peasantry. Based on the recommendations of the Indigo Commission, a notification was issued by the government in 1860 which stated that the peasants could not be forced to grow indigo on their lands and that the government would ensure that all the disputes would be settled by legal means. However, the relief from the government came a little late since by then most of the indigo factories were closed down by the planters and indigo cultivation came to an end by 1860.

Pabna Agrarian Leagues:

During the 1870s and 1880s, agrarian unrest began to build up in many parts of Easter Bengal as a result of the oppressive practices of the zamindars. Certain illegal steps were taken by the zamindars such as enhanced rent collections beyond the permissible limits and the tenants were prevented from acquiring occupancy rights under Act X of 1859. The zamindars resorted to coercive measures such as forcible evictions, seizure of cattle and crops etc., and also prolonged and costly litigation in courts to achieve their ends. All of these had placed the poor peasant at a disadvantage.

The peasants of Yusufshahi Pargana had formed an agrarian league in order to resist the demands of the zamindars. A rent strike was organized by the league where the peasants had refused to pay the enhanced rents and also challenged the zamindars in courts. The league also collected funds to fight the court cases. Legal resistance was the main mode of their struggle and there was very little violence. Soon, similar activities were seen in other districts of East Bengal.

An important consequence of these agrarian leagues was that most of the cases had been solved by 1885, partly because of the fears of zamindars, and partly because of official persuasion. However, peasant discontent continued to linger on. A large number of peasants were able to resist enhanced rents and also acquire occupancy rights. They also extracted an assurance from the government that legislation would be brought in to protect the tenants from the worst aspects of zamindari oppression. In this regard, the government enacted the Bengal Tenancy Act in 1885.

The peasantry got support from the intelligentsia, including the prominent intellectuals of the time such as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C.Dutt, Surendranath Banerjee and his Indian Association.

Deccan Riots:

The Deccan region was under the ryotwari land revenue system and the peasants suffered under the burden of heavy taxation. The peasants were exploited by the moneylenders too who had taken advantage of the former's desperate conditions to extract very high interest rates, or seize their mortgaged lands in case of defaults. Most of the moneylenders were either Marwaris or Gujaratis. After the end of the American Civil War in 1865, there was a crash in cotton prices. The situation was worsened by the government's decision to increase the land revenue by 50 percent in 1867, despite successive bad harvests.

In 1874, the tensions between the moneylenders and the peasants culminated in a social boycott movement against the moneylenders who were seen as outsiders. This took the form of peasants refusing to buy from their shops, refusing to cultivate their fields, barbers, washermen, shoemakers etc. refusing to serve them. The social boycott movement began spreading rapidly to other regions such as Poona, Ahmednagar, Sholapur, and Satara. The boycott movement got transformed into agrarian riots with attacks on the moneylenders' houses and shops. The debt papers of the peasants, held by the moneylenders, were seized and burnt in public.

However, the riots were suppressed by the government. In order to pacify the peasants, the Deccan Agriculturalists Relief Act was passed in 1879. The modern nationalist intelligentsia of Maharashtra extended their support for these movements.

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