Indigo Planters forced raiyats (cultivators) to produce indigo for the world market. India produced and exported indigo from time immemorial. Western India was the centre of the indigo cultivation. Subsequently, in the 17th and 18th centuries, West Indies and America produced superior quality of indigo. When the indigo planters of these areas switched to more profitable crops in the later part of the 18th century, the growing cloth industry in England had to look for an alternative source for indigo. The stabilisation of the east india company's political power in Bengal combined with appropriate climate and cheap labour, made some Bengal districts highly suitable for indigo production.
Settled in Chandernagar, Frenchman Louis Bonnard was the first European planter to enter Bengal in 1777. Carel Blume, another early planter, had erected his factory in 1779, twenty-five miles from Calcutta, somewhere in hughli. In a letter to the Governor-General-in-Council on 12 July 1787, Blume mentioned that he had tried as early as 1778 to cultivate indigo in order to improve agriculture and create a new commodity for commerce. That was exactly what the company's government wanted. Due to massive destruction of manufacturing industry and agriculture, following the company's occupation of Bengal, the economy of the country was in ruin.
Thus, an extensive cultivation of cash crops was considered essential for reviving Bengal's economy. Moreover, to enable the company's servants and private traders to transfer their personal funds from India to England, export commodities were needed for sale in Europe. The company decided to encourage the cultivation of indigo in Bengal. It would be produced by the subsistence rayats under conditions of the merchants. The East India Company had earlier entered into contracts with a number of private traders who, instead of setting up factories, supplied the company with indigo from Agra and Oudh at an exorbitant price. In 1788, the company terminated the contracts and decided to support the European planters who were attempting to cultivate indigo in Bengal.
At the earlier stages of the indigo cultivation, the European indigo planters were not allowed to own land. The planters also did not have sufficient capital required for the cultivation. The zamindars leased out lands for indigo cultivation to the agents of the planters, while the agency houses of Calcutta advanced money to the planters at a high rate of interest. The zamindar's demand for high rate for their land often had been the bone of contention between these two parties. The relationship deteriorated further after 1837, when the government passed laws permitting the planters to own land.
Like the Bengali zamindars, the European indigo planters also obtained new powers and concessions with regard to the land. With the acquisition of zamindari powers, the planters also had full authority over their raiyats. Thus, the Bangali zamindars could see the emergence of a rival group backed by the government. The raiyats also felt the adverse effect of the acquisition of new rights by the planters. The latter used the right to force the raiyats to cultivate indigo, and threatened to enhance rent unless the raiyats increased the production of indigo the planters also deprived the raiyats of the due price for their crop. Thus, right from the beginning, indigo cultivation became synonymous with coercion and oppression.
When the planters were undertaking torturous means to compel the raiyats for the cultivation of indigo, the latter had no choice but to resist the planters. The raiyats refused to cultivate indigo and concurrently lodged complaints with the administration against the planters. On most occasions, the complaints produced no favourable result, as most of the local magistrates were friends of the planters and, sometimes, the planters themselves were appointed honorary magistrates.
In 1859, the raiyats of Bengal started an all-out movement against the indigo cultivation and indigo planters. In the face of this movement, the government appointed the indigo commission in 1860 to probe into the indigo cultivation system. Following the publication of the report of the commission, which revealed the nature of the indigo cultivation many of the European indigo planters left Bengal and went to Bihar. [Nurul Hossain Choudhury]