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Peasant Movements—1857-1947 (I)


Peasant movement is a social movement associated with the agricultural policy. The history of peasant movements can be traced to the economic policies of the Britishers, which have brought about many changes in the Indian agrarian system. The consequences of the British colonial expansion affected the Indian peasantry to a great extent and it rose in revolt from time to time. India is basically an agrarian economy with the bulk of rural population following the occupation of agriculture. Peasants formed the backbone of the civil rebellions, which were often led by zamindars and petty chieftains. In this article I would like to discuss peasantry under colonialism and various peasant movements briefly.

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PEASANTRY UNDER COLONIALISM

  • 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 lead to land overcrowding, the new land revenue system, colonial administrative and judicial system.
  • The peasants burdened with high rents, illegal levies, arbitrary evictions and unpaid labour in zamindari areas.
  • Government itself levied heavy land revenue in Ryotwari areas.
  • The fear of losing only source of earning, the overburdened farmers were forced to approach the local moneylender who used to make full use of the former’s difficulties by extracting high rates of interests on the money lent.
  • Many a times the farmer had to mortgage his land and cattle which was seized by the money lenders when money was not returned on time.
  • Gradually, over large areas, the actual cultivators were reduced to the status of tenants-at-will, share croppers and landless labourers.
  • The peasants often resisted the exploitation, and soon they realised that their real enemy was the colonial state which led some of the desperate peasants to take criminal path in order to come out of intolerable conditions.
  • These crimes included robbery, dacoity and what has been called social banditry.

A SURVEY OF EARLY PEASANT MOVEMENTS

Indigo Revolt (1859-60)

  • 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.
  • Peasants were forced by the planters to take advance money and enter into fraudulent contracts which were then used against the peasants.
  • 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.
  • 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 (retainers) backed by police and the courts. It was the first time that the anger of peasants exploded.
  • They also organised a counter force against the planter’s attacks who even tried methods like evictions and enhanced rents.
  • The ryots replied by going on a rent strike by refusing to pay the enhanced rents and by physically resisting the attempts to evict them.
  • 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.
  • 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 ryots could not be compelled to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were settled by legal means.
  • But, the planters were already closing down factories and indigo cultivation was virtually wiped out from Bengal by the end of 1860.

Tabna Agrarian Leagues

  • During the 1870s and 1880s, large parts of Eastern Bengal witnessed agrarian unrest caused by oppressive practices of the zamindars.
  • The zamindars resorted to enhanced rents beyond legal limits and prevented the tenants from acquiring occupancy rights under the Act of 1859.
  • To achieve their ends, the zamindars resorted to forcible evictions, seizure of cattle and crops and prolonged, costly litigation in courts where the poor peasant found himself at a disadvantage.
  • The peasants of Yusufshahi Pargana in Patna district formed an agrarian league after having enough of oppressive regime to resist the demands of the zamindars.
  • The league organised a rent strike in which the ryots challenged the zamindars in the courts by refusing them to pay the enhanced rents.
  • Funds were raised by ryots to fight the court cases.
  • The struggles spread throughout Patna and to other districts of East Bengal.
  • The main form of struggle was that of legal resistance. There was very little violence.
  • 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 zamindar’s fears.
  • Many peasants were able to acquire occupancy rights and resist enhanced rents.
  • The Government also promised to undertake legislation to protect the tenants from the worst aspects of zamindari oppression.
  • In 1885, the Bengal Tenancy Act was passed.
  • Again, a number of young Indian intellectuals supported the peasants’ cause.
  • These included Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C. Dutt and the Indian Association under Surendranath Banerjee.

Deccan Riots

  • 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 and the main beneficiary.
  • These moneylenders were mostly outsiders including Marwaris or Gujaratis.
  • 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 movement 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.
  • The Government succeeded in repressing the movement.
  • The Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act was passed in 1879 in order to maintain peace and harmony.
  • This time also, the modern nationalist scholars of Maharashtra supported the peasants’ cause.

CHANGED NATURE OF PEASANT MOVEMENTS AFTER 1857

  • Peasants emerged as the main force in agrarian movements, fighting directly for their own demands.
  • The demands were almost completely focused on economic issues.
  • The movements were directed against the immediate enemies of the peasant which included foreign planters, indigenous zamindars and moneylenders.
  • The struggles were directed towards specific and limited objectives and redressal of particular grievances.
  • These movements did not targeted colonialism neither their objective was to end the system of subordination or exploitation of the peasants.
  • Territorial reach was limited.
  • There was no continuity of struggle or long-term organisation.
  • The peasants developed a strong awareness of their legal rights and asserted them in and outside the courts.

WEAKNESSES

  • There was a lack of adequate understanding of colonialism.
  • The 19th century peasants did not possess a new ideology and a new social, economic and political programme.
  • These struggles, however militant, occurred within the framework of the old societal order lacking a positive conception of an alternative society.
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2 responses to “Peasant Movements—1857-1947 (I)”

  1. soumyaranjan says :

    Can anybody suggest how to save the document…..

    Like

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