Peasantry Under Colonialism

Indian peasantry lived under impoverished conditions during the colonial rule. This was considered to be a direct consequence of the transformation of the agrarian structure due to:

  • economic policies of the colonial government.
  • overcrowding of land in rural areas due to the ruining of handicrafts. The artisans and craftsmen found that their products could not compete with the machine made goods imported from England, in terms of prices, quality, and variety. They were forced to abandon their traditional handicrafts and fall back on agriculture for survival.
  • the new land revenue systems viz., Zamindari system in Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa; Ryotwari system in Madras and Bombay Presidencies; Mahalwari system in the North and North-west Provinces.
  • the administrative and judicial systems under the colonial set up

The above measures had devastating consequences on the peasants. They were subjected to exorbitant rents, illegal exactions, arbitrary evictions, and forced (unpaid) labour in zamindari areas. In ryotwari areas, heavy land revenue was levied by the government which subjected the peasants to excess burden. Unable to pay the rents and revenue, the overburdened peasant often approached the local moneylender for loans. The moneylenders made full use of the peasants' troubles and extracted very high rates of interests on the money lent. Under a fear of losing their only known source of livelihood, the peasants used to mortgage their land and cattle to obtain loans. In many cases, the moneylenders seized the peasants' belongings, reducing the actual cultivators to the status of tenants-at-will, sharecroppers, and even landless labourers. Sometimes, the peasants realized that the real culprit behind their troubles was the colonial state and resorted to various movements seeking redressal of their grievances. However, some of the desperate peasants also took to crime to survive such intolerable conditions, and mainly targeted the zamindars and moneylenders. They committed crimes such as robbery, dacoity etc. which came to be categorized as social banditry.

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