Agrarian struggles in the 20th century – 2


The impoverishment of the Indian peasantry was a direct result of transformation of the agrarian structure due to

  • Colonial economic policies,
  • Ruin of the handicrafts leading to overcrowding of land,
  • The new land revenue system,
  • Colonial administrative and judicial system.

The peasants suffered from high rents, illegal levies, arbitrary evictions and unpaid labour in zamindari areas. In Ryotwari areas, the government itself levied heavy land revenue. The overburdened farmer, fearing loss of his only source of livelihood, often approached the local moneylender who made full use of the former’s difficulties by extracting high rate of interests on money lent. Often, the farmer had to mortgage his land and cattle. Sometimes, the moneylender seized the mortgaged belonging. Gradually, over large area, the actual cultivators were reduced to status of tenants-at-will, share croppers and landless laborers.

The peasants often resisted the exploitation, and soon they realized that their real enemy was the colonial state. Sometimes, the desperate peasants took to crime to come out of intolerable conditions. These crimes included robbery, dacoity and what has been called social banditry.


Indigo Revolt (1859-60) in Bengal, the indigo planters , nearly all Europeans , exploited the local peasants by forcing them to grow indigo on their lands instead of the more paying crops like rice. The planters forced the peasants to take advance sums and enter into fraudulent contracts which were then used against the peasants. The planters intimated the peasants through kidnappings, illegal confinements , flogging , attacks on women and children , seizure of cattle, burning

The anger of the peasants exploded in 1859 when, led by Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of Nadia district  , they decided not to grow indigo under duress and resisted the physical pressure of the planters and their lathiyals (retainers) backed by police and the courts. Thet also organized a counter force against the planters’ attacks. The planters also tried methods like evections and enchanced 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. Gradually, they learned to use the legal machinery and initiated legal action supported by fund collection.

The Bengal intelligentsia played a significant role by supporting thr peasants’ cause through newspaper campaigns, organization of mass meetings, preparing memoranda on peasants, grievances and supporting them  in legal battles.

The government appointed an indigo commission to inquire into the problem of indigo cultivation. Based on its recommendations, the governments issued a notification in November 1860 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 wasa virtually wiped out from bengl by end of 1860.

Pabna Agrarian Leagues During the 1870s and 1880s, large parts of Eastern Bengal witnessed agrarian unrest caused by oppressive practices of the zamindars. The zamindars the tenants from acquiring occupancy right under Act X of 1859. To achieve their ends, the zamindars resorted to forcible evictions , seizure of cattle and crops and prolonged , costaly litigation in courts where the poor peasant found himself at a disadvantage.

Having had enough of the oppressive regime , the peasants of yusufshahi  Pargana district formed an agrarian league or combination to resist the demands of the zamindars. The league organized  a  rent strike–the ryots refused to pay the enhanced rents, challenging the zamindars in the courts.  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 zamindars’ fears. Many peasant 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.  The included Bankim Chandra Chatterjee ,R.C  Dutt and the Indian Association under  Surendranath Banerjea.

Deccan Riots The ryots of Deccan region of western  India suffered heavy taxation under the Ryotwari system.  Here again the peasant found themselves trapped in a vicious network with the moneylenders were mostly outsiders—Marwaris or Gujaratis.  The conditions had  worsened due to a 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.

In 1874, the growing tension between the moneylenders and the peasants resulted in a social boycott movement organized by the ryots against the “outsider” moneylenders.  The ryots refused to buy from their shops.  No peasant would cultivate their fields.  The barbers, washermen, shoemakers would not 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 moneylenders’ house and shops. The debt bonds and deeds were seized and publicly burnt. The Government succeeded in repressing  the movement.

As a conciliatory measure, the Deccan Agriculturalist Relief Act was passed in 1879. This time also, the modern nationalist inteligensia of Maharashtra supported the peasants’ cause.