British power was established in India after prolonged conquests and consolidation. These were met by minor resistances by routed Nawabs, zamindars, landowners, and supported by tribals and peasants. The main cause of localized rebellions by civilians was the changes the British brought into agrarian society ruining it by imposing high land revenues. Not even a part of the revenue was spent on improving agriculture or the welfare of cultivators.
The zamindars and poligars were discontented since their lands were confiscated and they were replaced by government officials and moneylenders in the societal order.
The courts, police, and the officials were further increasing resentment of the people.
The artisans and craftsmen were ruined due to the free trade with Britain that flooded India with machine-made goods. They lost their markets abroad due to high tariffs on exports.
They also lost their domestic market of princes, chieftains, and zamindars.
British rule had affected scholarly and priestly classes as they lost their traditional patrons viz. princes, landowners, and the bureaucratic elite who were ruined by the British. Finally being under a foreign rule humiliated all sections of the society.
The rebellions were scattered; their effects were local. The leaders were mostly interested in restoring the traditional order rather than freedom from foreign rule. They were not capable of fighting the organized British rulers. The repression of these was the main reason why the revolt of 1857 didn’t spread to south India or eastern and western India. Even though these rebels failed they had historical importance and inspired future national movements.
TRIBAL REBELLIONS FROM 1757 TO 1857
Tribal’s rebelled as they were discontent due to British rule. The British had ended their isolation from the society and brought it into contact with colonialism. Tribal leaders became recognized as zamindars and were given the responsibility to collect land revenue.
This also led to an influx of missionaries increasing religious interference. A large number of moneylenders, traders, and revenue farmers came to exploit tribals and made them bankrupt, sharecroppers, or landless people. They were evicted from lands that they had brought into cultivation.
They could no longer access forest lands for shifting cultivation nor take forest produce due to British policies. The officials used to harass them and outsiders forced them to do unpaid labor. All this uprooted their traditional lives and created conditions for revolts.
However, the tribal’s resorted to armed rebellions but were no match for the organized British troops with the latest weapons. Lakhs of tribal’s died in these unequal wars.
Santhal and birsa uprisings were due to same reasons.
PEASANT MOVEMENTS AND UPRISING AFTER 1857
Indigo riots were due to the oppression of indigo planters, who were European, on the peasants. The planters forced the growers to produce indigo which would be processed in factories. The cultivators had to sow indigo on their best soil and put labor to sell the plant at a price below the market.
He had to accept an advance from the planter and since he couldn’t pay it back he had to keep planting indigo. The forced and fraudulent contracts couldn’t be discarded by courts as the process was time-consuming and costly. The planters also had armed goons who would force the cultivator with violence. The European judges that were in courts also sided with the planters.
The peasants had to rebel and they stopped growing indigo under duress. They were withstanding the assaults. The cultivators attacked planters, and their factories and organized themselves into groups to fight the police and goons of the planters. The planters then tried to increase the rent of cultivators. But the peasants refused to pay it. They organized themselves into groups and pooled money to fight cases.
Ultimately the planters surrendered and closed the factories. The Indian society of intelligentsia was united behind them and so were the Christian missionaries. The government vary after the 1857 revolts pacified the rioters with a notification favoring their stand. The unity amongst rioters irrespective of caste, and religion led to their victory.
The peasant riots during this period were based on legal tactics to solve cases and not armed rebellion. They were for immediate resolution of grievances. They were against the zamindar and not the British rule. Hence the tactics of the government were also soft, unlike the 1857 rioters. The peasants revolted only when no other remedy was available and the revolt was the only alternative. The government responded by pacifying rebels with legislation. Intelligentsia was in support of rioters here unlike in pre-1857.
Moplahs Rebellion – Expression of anti-landlord and anti-foreign discontent.
- A bitter anti-white temper had developed among sections of the Malabar Muslims ever since the Portuguese had come in 1498 to capture the spice trade and seek to extend Christianity by fire and sword—a spirit reflected in Zayn al-Din’s, Tuhfat al-Mujahidin of the 1580s and ballads like the Kothupali Mala, still popular today, honoring the martyrs or shahids of the holy war.
- British rule with its insistence on landlord rights had reestablished and vastly enhanced the position of the Hindu upper-caste Namboodri and Nair jenmis (many of whom had been driven out by Tipu Sultan), and correspondingly worsened the condition of the largely Muslim leaseholders (kanamdars) and cultivators (verumpattam-dars), locally known as Moplahs.
- An immediate consequence was a strengthening of communal solidarity, with the number of mosques in Malabar going up from 637 in 1831 to 1058 by 1851, and with the Tangals of Mambram near Tirurangadi (Sayyid Alawi followed by his son Sayyid Fadl who was exiled by the British in 1852) becoming increasingly prominent as the religious cum-political heads of Moplah society.
- Revolt became practically endemic in the Ernad and Walluvanad talukas of south Malabar. It took the form of attacks on jenmi property and desecration of temples, by small bands of Moplahs who then committed what was practically a kind of collective suicide in the face of police bullets, courting death in the firm belief that as shahids they would go straight to heaven.
- Collective mass resistance was difficult in south Malabar with its poor communications and scattered homesteads.
- Most Moplah martyrs were poor peasants or landless laborers, but they usually got the sympathy of the better-off kanamdars and petty traders.
- The roots of Moplah discontent were clearly agrarian—there was a 244% increase in rent suits and a 441% increase in eviction decrees between 1862 and 1880 in the talukas of the south Malabar. Hindu peasants also suffered, but the form of resistance differed.
- Large numbers of Hindu robber bands are reported to have been active in the Malabar villages in the 1860s and 1870s. In the absence of a millenarian ideology such as Islam could offer, Hindu peasant disaffection could not rise above the level of social banditry.
- The Maharashtra Deccan, for instance, the rich peasant development brought about by the cotton boom of the 1860s had been abruptly cut short by the fall in prices in the next decade—a fall which coincided with sharp upward hikes in inland revenue from 1867 onwards.
- The result was widespread indebtedness, and the immigrant Marwari moneylender became an obvious target of popular anger.
- The anti-sowkar Deccan riots of May September 1875 affected 33 places in 6 talukas of Poona and Ahmednagar districts and took the form of forcible seizure of debt bonds by enraged villagers led by their traditional headmen (patels).
- Riots were significantly uncommon in areas where the moneylenders were not outsiders but local petty-landholders or rich peasant elements turning to usury and trade (like the khots in Ratnagiri). Four years after the disturbances, the Deccan Agriculturists’ Relief Act of 1879 provided some limited protection to better-off peasants through strengthening judicial procedures and remedies.
- Deccan riots were different as so far we have been considering outbreaks aiming at something like a total change, often with strong religious and millenarian overtones (natural in the absence of any secular modern ideology of social transformation), and rooted in the lowest depths of Indian society—tribals and poor peasantry. But there was also a tradition of another type of rural protest, sparked off by particular grievances and with specific and limited objectives, and deriving its leadership and much of its support from relatively better-off sections of the peasantry.
Pabna – Protests against Landlordism
- Anti-moneylender riots were rare also in Bengal (except in tribal pockets), for here too the Mahajan was often the local rich peasant or jotedar whose credit, in any case, was quite indispensable for production.
- The landlords had launched a concerted drive in the 1860s and early ’70s to enhance rent through a variety of abwabs (cesses), the use of arbitrarily short standards of measurement which automatically multiplied the cultivated area, and sheer physical coercion
- In 1873 peasants of Yusufshahi pargana of Pabna organized an agrarian league that raised funds to meet litigation expenses, and held mass meetings to which villagers were called by the sounding of buffalo horns, drums and night cries passing from hamlet to hamlet, and also occasionally withheld rent.
- The aims of the movement were quite limited, for the withholding of rents was no more than a method for winning specific demands like a change in the measurement standard, abolition of illegal cesses, and some reduction in rents.
- The Pabna agitation wasn’t consciously anti-British: the most extreme demand raised in fact was that the raiyats wanted ‘to be the ryots of Her Majesty the Queen and of Her only’.
- The Pabna league and similar movements in other districts evoked sharply varied reactions among the Bengali intelligentsia. The zamindar-dominated British Indian Association was bitterly hostile, and its organ Hindoo Patriot tried to portray the Pabna movement as a communal agitation of Muslim peasants against Hindu landlords. Actually, though the bulk of the peasants in Pabna happened to be Muslim and their zamindars mostly Hindus, the communal element was as yet virtually absent.
In the aftermath of the Revolts
Post-1857 most princes, landlords, and zamindars were ruined and cultivators assumed an important role in an agrarian society. The feeling of humiliation of being under foreign rule wasn’t there. The peasant didn’t oppose the imposition of land revenue or zamindar but only was against high land revenue and the oppressive attitude of zamindars. The peasants didn’t understand the effect of colonialism at this stage.
However, this was changed in the 20th century when peasant discontent was merged with anti-imperial discontent and they became part of the wider anti-imperial struggle.