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Peasantry


Peasantry From ancient times, Bengal had been a peasant society. Bengal manufactures, which once found a prominent place in the world market, were but a rural performance welded into agriculture. Even today Bangladesh is predominantly a peasant society in terms of production and human settlement but without its traditional manufactories. In ancient, and even in medieval times, there was no established middle class separating the peasantry from the ruling classes; there was no powerful urban sector to stratify the people into rural and urban, rich and poor. Then the people lived, according to historians and social scientists, in the self-subsistent and self-contained village, though they disagree about the existence of the autonomous village community in Bengal in the model found in north and northeast India at the time. The Bengal rural society is believed to have been scattered into tiny village settlements all over the plains of the vast delta. The self-subsistent village existence kept the people's physical and social mobility very limited.

Though Bengal people were economically unstratified, they were not so socially. They were divided into castes according to avocations of caste system, which undoubtedly strengthened social stability. The village society paid their dues to the king without any complaint because such dues deemed to be sanctioned by rules of religion. The Dharmasastra determined the rate of royal dues that were collected by royal agents. As there was no reason to have discontent among village people against state agencies, peasant movements were either non-existent or extremely rare in ancient and medieval times.

Bengal under colonial rule presents a different scene. From the very start of the rule the raiyats are seen to have been protesting the government measures affecting their interest. Due to rack-renting and manifold exaction by the revenue agents of the east india company the village economy was declining fast. Famines and scarcities became a chronic feature since the Great Famine of 1768-69. Under the circumstances, there was simmering unrest among the peasantry. The earliest peasant resistance to the Company rule was the fakir-sannyasi resistance. In the absence of any middle class and in view of the comprehensive defeat and discomfiture of the traditional ruling aristocracy, the religious leaders who formed an important element of the contemporary social structure felt the obligation to defend the peasants against the rack-renting policy of the new rulers. They perceived the alien rulers more as profiteering traders than benevolent rulers. Majnu Shah (d 1787) was the first religious leader to declare an open resistance against the Company. His peasant followers organised resistance movement in various parts of North Bengal, Mymensingh and Dhaka during the period from 1770s to 1780s.

The collapse of Fakir-Sannyasi resistance did not lead to absolute collapse of the peasant movements. Other religious leaders like Balaki Shah of Bakerganj, Syed Aga Muhammad Reza Beg of Sylhet and Kalu Shah of Comilla took up the cause of the peasantry. In 1792, the peasants of Bakarganj declared independence, drove away the oppressive zamindars from their parganas and asked others to collect rent according to pargana nirikh. Balaki Shah decreed that landholders, who hitherto collected rents from raiyats beyond the pargana nirikh, must reimburse the extra collections. He declared one Shah Jiwan the king of the parganas. Balaki Shah and Shah Jiwan were suppressed militarily in 1792. Syed Aga Muhammad Reza Beg of Sylhet, a religious leader and an aristocrat of the old order, waged a regular war in 1799 against the Company government with the support of the peasants and other anti-British landed classes. A military force was dispatched to suppress the Beg. After a series of battles, the challenger was captured and convicted for political crimes with a life imprisonment.

Although religious leaders led most of the peasant resistance movements in the eighteenth century, the secular leadership to guide the movements was not altogether lacking. A glaring example is the Rangpur Peasant Rebellion of 1783. Oppressed by the revenue farmer, Devi Singh, the peasants of Rangpur district rose into rebellion under the leadership of a small landholder, Dhiraj Narayan. The rebel peasants stormed the headquarters of Devi Singh at Kazirhat. The raiyats styled their leader as nawab. The government ruthlessly suppressed the rebellion first, and then took attempts to pacify the rebels by canceling the contract of Devi Singh and reducing rent level of all parganas under his control. Another very successful frontier resistance movement was organised by the Chakma peasants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Opposed to the policy of the Company government to levy cash rent on the Jhum peasants of the Hill Tracts, the Chakma raja rejected the British rule and declared independence and tried to sustain his declaration by waging a guerrilla warfare against the Company forces. The guerrilla resistance continued until a peace accord recognizing the autonomous status of the hill society was signed in 1787.

All authorities agree that Bengal peasantry in the later half of the 18th century suffered from repeated experiments in the land settlement and revenue collection system and government search for more and more revenue from land. Consequently, agrarian economy declined, famines and scarcities became endemic, population decreased. No wonder that, such a turn of events was marked by peasant unrest and disturbances on a large scale. The 19th century has also witnessed similar unrests but their nature, scale and organisation materially differed from those of the preceding century.

Bengal peasantry in the 19th century were tenants under the zamindars who, under the permanent settlement, were made absolute proprietors of land, and raiyats were turned into their tenants. Under the regulations of the permanent settlement the zamindars, as absolute proprietors, acquired the right to enhance rent, use their land as they wished, and evict tenants if found refractory or otherwise unsuitable. The raiyats, however, refused to recognize the reduction of their status into mere tenants. They asserted their rights in land and in doing so they reminded the authorities of their historical status. They argued that their rights in land were customary and natural and no authority could enact laws altering their natural rights, none could evict them from their land so long they paid jama (land revenue) and cultivated their land peacefully and that none could enhance rent beyond the pargana nirikh or established rate of the pargana.

The conflicts between the zamindars and the raiyats developed on these crucial issues. More often than not, the zamindars supported by government could establish their rights by force and the raiyats were coerced to pay rent and other abwabs. But they also faced resistance from the raiyats. Two of the most remarkable peasant resistance movements in the early 19th century were Sherpur Rebellion (1824-1833) and titu mir's rebellion (1833). The Sherpur peasant rebellion is popularly known as Pagal Vidroha, because its leadership came from the religious mendicants of Sherpur Khanka. Tipu Shah, the head of the Khanqa was the principal organiser. The local zamindars had increased rent level several times violating the pargana nirikh. In protest, the tribal and non-tribal peasants of Sherpur rose in rebellion and drove the zamindars from the parganas. The raiyats got hold of the parganas and sustained their unsettled position for nine years until a settlement was reached at the initiative of the government. Many skirmishes took place with loss of lives of many during the decade of resistance. Similarly, the raiyats of Barasat district revolted against the oppressive zamindars and indigo planters. The leadership once again came from Titu Mir, a religious leader.

Sherpur and Barasat rebellion saw the end of a phase of peasant protests led predominantly by religious leaders. The spread of western education, growth of press and public opinion, development of market forces including commercialization of agriculture, support of the Anglo-Indian liberals and missionaries to people's causes, and assumption of governance by the Crown considerably changed the public perception of authorities and civil rights. The oppressed peasantry now began to look upon themselves for organisation and leadership. TheIndigo Resestance Movement and santal rebellion of the late 1850s were organised and led by the affected people themselves. Many of the Calcutta newspapers and magazines had rendered support to the cause of the rebellious peasantry. The Faraizi peasant resistance was organised by the peasants themselves. dudu mIyan, the leader of the movement, was though a religious leader, his leadership was not of the genre of Majnu Shah, Balaki Shah, Tipu Shah and others. Dudu Miah used religious fervour to strengthen his secular fight against the oppressive zamindars.

The peasant resistance movements of the 1870s and afterwards demonstrated sophistication in their organisational structure and operation. In their struggle against zamindari exaction and in the assertion of their rights, the peasants of Pabna formed jotes and initiated 'no-rent' dharmaghat (strike) in 1873 which continued till the zamindars yielded to their demands. Similarly, the peasant movements of Tushkhali of Bakarganj (1872-75), Chagalnaiya of Feni (1874) and of Munshiganj (1880-81) showed similar tactics in organising resistance. The colonial government became concerned of these continuous peasant movements and changes in their organisational structure. The government came to realise that a general peasant upheaval challenging the government itself was imminent unless their grievances were mitigated. The outcome of this feeling was the bengal tenancy act of 1885 which reformed the code of the Permanent Settlement, and the rights of the raiyats were largely restored.

The course of the 19th century developments fundamentally changed the social, economic and political conditions of the Bengal peasantry. Peasant causes were now being taken up by the peasant wings of the urban-based political parties. In the electoral politics, peasants for their sheer number appeared as the determinant force in the power game. The peasant movements of the pre-partition days were invariably alloyed by communalism, as the Kishoreganj (1932) and other peasant uprisings suggest. The movements like tebhaga,Nankar and tonk on the eve of the Partition of Bengal were all inspired extraneously. The ideologies and movement strategies were provided by the left leadership. The character of peasant movements further changed after the partition of India (1947) and the abolition of the zamindari system in East Bengal (1951). The state policy of mitigating peasant grievances through land reforms and development projects and politicization of the rural society made the peasant movement in its classical forms a story of the past. '[Sirajul Islam]