Types of Peasant Revolts in British India

In the 19th century and early 20th century, there were hundreds of peasants and tribal movements, revolts or uprisings in India. Most of these revolts were suppressed by ruthless use of power by the British yet; they played a very significant role in the freedom struggle of the country.

Historical Background

Information about peasant revolts in ancient and early medieval era is scant. In ancient India, society was divided into four Varnas and Peasants formed a part of Sudras. Since land tax was major source of revenue for any government, there must have been public revolts in ancient and medieval India. In this context, Kautilya’s use of term Janapada-Kopa is worth mention. Kautilya says that a King should do all which keeps his subjects contended. An oppression of the subjects may lead to Kopa of which most dangerous form is Janapada-kopa. The term Janapada-Kopa is linked to the oppression and subsequent revolt of the peasantry.

Whatever might be the earlier records, the peasant revolts began from later years of Mughal rule and early conquests of British (17th / 18th century). For more than 200 years, the peasants in almost all areas of India have repeatedly rose against government, landlords and other bureaucrats, money-lenders, police and military. The peasant revolts have continued to occur after the political freedom of India in 1947. Most uprisings in free India have shown a continuity of the tactics of the British era peasant revolts.

During the later part of Mughal era, revolts broke out with the Mughal bureaucracy and taxation becoming more oppressive and local rulers making incursions into the tribal territories. One of the earliest prominent revolts against Mughals during Aurangzeb regime were that of Jats of Ganga-Yamuna Doab in 1660s to 1690s; and the revolt of Satnami religious sect in Narnaul in 1672. In many revolts, the Peasants placed themselves under the local governor or land managers {Zamindar / Jagirdar} who rebelled against the imperial government.

Initial decades of the East India Company rule saw outright plunder of the wealth and ruinous taxation of the peasantry. In some areas, the taxation in British rule was up to twice of that imposed by Mughals. The oppressive tax contributed to the 1770 Bengal Famine which wiped out 1/3rd population. The permanent settlement of Bengal further deteriorated the condition of the peasantry.

In the later decades, the land revenue declined to a much small proportion of the crops, but by that time, the surplus was being removed from peasants by other kind of agents such as money-lenders, intermediary tenants, absentee landlords, merchants, lawyers etc.

The permanent land settlement made the land a private property of capitalist kind. The new landlords included not only the old Zamindars {who had previously been revenue collectors under the Mughals} but also a variety of village headmen, religious or secular functionaries, moneylenders etc. who purchased the land rights along with right to collect revenue in government auctions when old Zamindars proved unable to bring in the tax. While these persons gained landownership, the worst affected were the lower ranks of the cultivating tenants who lost their hereditary rights, who could be evicted if their landlords found them unnecessary, recalcitrant or unable to pay their rents.

Further, there was increased encroachment of the tribal hill territories and oppression of the tribal people by European and Indian planters; government usurpation of the forest areas; unequal terms of trade; usury; slave labour etc.

Types of Revolts

The peasants’ revolts of British India can be roughly classified into five types as discussed below. This is a rough classification by anthropologist Katherine Gough. There are no strict lines between these types and many rebellions can be categorised into more than one category. A further classification divides them into Ethnic movements, Agrarian movements and Political Movements.

Restorative Rebellions

These revolts aimed to drive out the British and restore earlier rulers and social relations. One early example is of Raja Chet Singh of Banaras. When Warren Hastings demanded money from Chet Singh and when the latter failed to give it, he was arrested. However, his subjects supported him and protested against the colonial rule. Similarly, the Bishenpur revolt of 1789 was led by the local ruler and supported by local people. Between 1799 and 1800 Poligars, who were deprived of their military power adopted Guerrilla warfare to thwart the authority of British rulers.

The Santhal rebellion was another revolt which was not focussed on driving the British out but on restoring their traditional rights.

Religious Movements

These revolts aimed for liberation of region or ethnic groups under new form of government or religious conflicts. Such revolts started as early as Aurangzeb’s puritan rule. Early example of such revolts was by Satnami religious sect in Narnaul in 1672. During British era, the revolts belonging to this category include Kuka Revolt; Moplah Rebellion etc.

Social Banditry

This included rebels by individuals living on the edges of rural societies by robbing and plundering. They were often seen by ordinary people as heroes or beacons of popular resistance. The examples of such revolts include Sanyasi Revolt by Sanyasis and Fakirs of Bengal in late 18th century. Another example was dispossessed military chief Narasimha Reddi and his followers in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, in 1846-47. The banditry by Lodhas of Midnapore and tribal Kallars of South India.

Terrorist Vengeance

This included killing for meting out collective justice. Examples include raids of Lushai Kukis into Sylhet and Cachar in the first half of the nineteenth century and killing of British by Moplah.

Mass insurrections

These included the spontaneous and abrupt uprisings commonly without any leader or organizational base. Most of them were temporary in nature and came to sudden end. Examples include revolt in Rangpur and Dinajpur of 1783 and the Deccan peasant uprising of 1875.

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