Indigo Revolt 1856-57

For thousands of years, Indigo plant {Indigofera spp.} has been an important source of blue dye. This plan grows in tropics. The Indigo is a natural dye, compatible with most fibres such wool, cotton, silk, linen etc. Prior to Indigo, a plant of mustard family {Woad, Isatis tinctoria} was used to dying purpose in Europe. However, the dye obtained from this plant was inferior to Indigo.

The qualitative superiority of Indigo led to its huge demand in Europe at a time when the textile industry was booming due to Industrial revolution, and it was called “blue gold”.

The British established commercial cultivation and production of Indigo in India as early as 1777. By 1788, most of the production of Indigo originated in Bengal. The system became highly exploitative when the planters were accorded permission to own the land.

At that time, there were two systems of cultivation of Indigo viz. Nij system and Ryoti System. Under the Nij system, the European planters produced indigo directly on land which they directly controlled. They either owned the land or took it on hire to cultivate indigo with hired peasants. Under Ryoti system, the planters forced the ryots or peasants to sign an agreement, so that they could get loans / advances {called Dadon} from planters to grow Indigo. However, one term of this agreement was that the Ryot would cultivate Indigo on at least 25% of the land. The loan made the people indebted and resulted in a rebellion in 1859-60 in Eastern Parts of Bengal.

Leaders and Revolt

The exploitation of the farmers made them understand that the planters had slowly got them into debt traps.  They started losing land holdings due to poor output.

The revolt began as the peasants stopped paying rents. In March 1859, the revolt became more organized when thousands of Ryots in Bengal refused to grow indigo. They attacked the Indigo factories with whatever weapons they had. Women joined the revolt and fought with pots, pans etc. The resistance was met with pressure from planters but farmers took pledge that they would not take advance and would not be bullied by the lathiyals of planters.

The key leaders of this revolt were Biswas Brothers of Nadia {Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas}, Kader Molla of Pabna, Rafique Mondal of Maida etc.

Major Events

The revolt began from Govindpur village in Nadia district of Bengal where Biswas brothers gave up indigo cultivation. This was followed by a struggle with the Lathiyals and revolt spread in many parts of Bengal. Strikes, legal actions, violence, social boycott of planters etc. were some of the tools used in the revolt. Peasant organization to some extent, Hindu Muslim Unity, support from Bengal intelligentsia made the revolt more effective. Finally, Indigo commission was appointed which held the planters guilty, and criticized them for the coercive methods they used with indigo cultivators. The company asked ryots to fulfill their existing contracts but also told them that they could refuse to produce indigo in future. This was a big relief for the peasants and gradually the plantations of Indigo came to an end in Bengal.

Violence in Indigo Revolt

The quantum of violence in Indigo Revolt has been a subject of debate. Some historians consider that the Indigo Revolt was largely non-violent and was carried out on path of satyagrah which was later adopted by Gandhi. However, there was violence in ruthless suppression of the revolt by police, Zamindars and planters.  Through their armed Lathiyals, force was used by the planters in the form of kidnapping, illegal confinement, attacks on women and children, looting, demolition of house and destruction of crops.

Legacy of Indigo Revolt

This indigo revolt gave birth to political movement and aroused national sentiment against the alien British rulers among Indian masses. The Neel Darpan of Din Bandhu Mitra portrayed the oppressed peasants.