Students of history may consider the Indigo Rebellion (1859-61) an appendix to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, which resulted in the nearly a century-old rule of the East India Company losing power to the British Crown. Compared with the Indigo Rebellion, the participation of Bengali peasants in the 1857 mutiny was not as significant. However, the Rebellion accelerated the process of resistance to the British not only in Bengal, but also in wider parts of India.
Ananda Bhattacharyya, an officer of West Bengal State Archives, in his continued research on the momentous events of history – with special reference to Bengal – has given us another insightful book on Indigo Rebellion. After his Bengal and 1857 , this book provides an understanding of the continuity of resistance to British rule.
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.
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. While the Europeans were encouraged to undertake indigo cultivation with help from local agency houses and banks, simultaneously, side by side, the native planters continued their operations but had to face stiff competition from the European planters.
The planters formed their own political association to establish their authority in the indigo districts. Thus, they emerged as a new element in the agrarian economy which eroded the powers and privileges enjoyed hitherto by the Zamindars. A growing confrontation became acute between landlords and planters on the one hand, and the planters and peasants on the other.
A ryot himself sowed and cultivated indigo and other crops in those lands and had tenancy rights. There were some planters who allowed for rotation of crops, alternating indigo with rice, tobacco and other crops. Once a peasant had grown rice on his plot he was reluctant to return the land to indigo. Heightened labour and unfavourable return from indigo was the main reason for such reluctance.
When such reluctance became widespread, the planters’ association in Calcutta persuaded the government to enact an infamous law — Act XI of 1860, which made breach of contract on the part of the ryots a criminal offence. The planters took full advantage of this law and their oppression became severe in Nadia and Jessore districts of Bengal. The district officials also joined the planters in this oppression. But the ryots were determined. They frankly told the officials that they are ready to obey the sahib but not to plough indigo.
The ryots received moral support from the Indian press in Calcutta as well as the aid of some Calcutta-trained lawyers. 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.
The Hindoo 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 under the initials “M.L.L.” 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.
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 fine was paid by a native on the spot. Seton-Karr who initiated the translation tendered his resignation and the Governor, J.P. Grant, was secure in his official position. After a month in prison, Rev. James Long vindicated his position by writing a pamphlet called Strike, But Hear which contained selections from the Parliamentary papers on the indigo system.
Ananda Bhattacharyya through his study on the writings of this momentous period also points out that the Indigo Rebellion not only forewarned agrarian uprisings, but also showed the shape of things to come. His quote from later research, “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,” proves a valid point.
Another issue he points out while discussing a Marxist viewpoint is that “the 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.”
In presenting such facts and records of a momentous period, Anand Bhattacharyya has given valuable material to the students of history and also to those who study the emergence of classes during the regin of the British in India.