Various land settlements had adverse effects on the Indian peasantry. The Permanent Settlement had made the zamindar the owner of the land. But this land could be sold off if he failed to pay the revenue on time. This forced the zamindars and the landlords to extract money from the peasants even if their crops failed.
These peasants often borrowed money from the moneylenders, who were also called mahajans. The impoverished peasants could never pay back this borrowed money. This led to many hardships like extreme poverty and being forced to work as bonded labourers. Hence, the lower and exploited classes often attacked their exploiters.
Failure to pay by the zamindars also meant that the land would be taken away by the British. The British then would auction this land to the highest bidder, who often came from the urban areas. The new zamindars from the city had little or no interest in the land. They did not invest money in seeds or fertilizers to improve the fertility of the land but only cared to collect as much revenue as they could. This proved destructive for the peasants who remained backward and stagnant.
To get out of this situation, the peasants now started producing commercial crops like indigo, sugarcane, jute, cotton, opium and so on. This was the beginning of commercialisation of agriculture. The peasants now depended on merchants, traders and middlemen to sell their produce during harvest time.
As they shifted to commercial crops, food grain production went down. Less food stocks led to famines. Therefore, the hungry peasants revolted.
1. The Faqir and Sanyasi Rebellions (1770 - 1820s)
The establishment of British control over Bengal after 1757 led to increase in land revenue and the exploitation of the peasants. The Bengal famine of 1770 led peasants whose lands were confiscated, displaced zamindars, disbanded soldiers and poor to come together in a rebellion. They were joined by the Sanyasis and Fakirs.
The Faqirs were a group of wandering Muslim religious mendicants in Bengal. Two famous Hindu leaders who supported them were Bhawani Pathak and a woman, Devi Choudhurani. They attacked English factories and seized their goods, cash, arms and ammunition. Maznoom Shah was one of their prominent leaders. They were finally brought under control by the British at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Sanyasi Uprisings took place in Bengal between the periods of 1770-1820s. The Sanyasis rose in rebellion after the great famine of 1770 in Bengal which caused acute chaos and misery. However, the immediate cause of the rebellion was the restrictions imposed by the British upon pilgrims visiting holy places among both Hindus and Muslims.
2. The Indigo Rebellion (1859-1862)
The British adopted many ways through which they could increase their profits. They also started interfering with the basic means of livelihood of the people. Not only did they introduce new crops, they also brought new techniques of farming. Heavy pressure was put on the zamindars and peasants to pay high taxes and grow commercial crops. One such commercial crop was Indigo.
The cultivation of indigo was determined by the needs of the English cloth markets. The discontent of the farmers growing indigo was mainly for three reasons:
- They were paid very low prices for growing indigo.
- Indigo was not lucrative as it was planted at the same time as food crops.
- Loss of fertility of the soil because of planting indigo.
As a result, food stocks declined. The peasants suffered at the hands of the traders and the middleman on whom they depended to sell their goods, sometimes at very low prices. They supported the zamindars to maintain their dominance and deal with their problems in administering those areas.
The peasants launched a movement for non cultivation of indigo in Bengal. Hindu and Muslim peasants together went on strike and filed cases against the planters. They were supported by the press and the missionaries. The government passed orders in November 1860, notifying that it was illegal to force the raiyats to cultivate indigo. This marked the victory for the rebels.
3. Farazi Movement (1838-1848)
This was the first ever no-tax campaign against the British Government led by Shariatullah Khan and Dadu Mian. Their band of volunteers fought heroically with the armed group of Indigo planters and zamindars. It brought together all the cultivators of Bengal against the tyranny and illegal extractions by the landlords.
4. Wahabi Movement (1830’s-1860’s)
The leader of the movement was Syed Ahmed Barelvi of Rae Bareilly who was greatly influenced by the teachings of Abdul Wahab of Arabia and Shah Waliullah, a Delhi saint. The movement was primarily religious in its origin. It soon assumed the character of a class struggle in some places, especially in Bengal. Irrespective of communal distinctions, peasants united against their landlords.
Significance of Peasant Revolt
The aggressive economic policies of the British shattered the traditional agrarian system of India and worsened the condition of peasants. The peasant revolts taking place in various parts of the country were mainly directed at these policies. Though these revolts were not aimed at uprooting the British rule from India, they created awareness among the Indians.
They now felt a need to organise and fight against exploitation and oppression. In short, these rebellions prepared the ground for various other uprisings such as Sikh Wars in Punjab and finally the Revolt of 1857.