Indigo Resistance Movement

Indigo Resistance Movement (1859-62) peasant agitation against indigo planters who forced raiyats (cultivators) to produce indigo for the world market. Indigo production and its export was a booming business in the early part of the nineteenth century. But it depressed in the 1840s and '50s and as a result the profit from indigo production became uneconomic at raiyat or peasant level. Hence the peasants refused to grow indigo, but the planters, who had already sunk huge capital in its production processes and were not able to withdraw their capital so quickly, put pressure on the indigo-producing raiyats to continue its production. The consequent conflict between the raiyats and the planters led to open resistance by raiyats. The movement began in Jessore and Nadia in 1859. It quickly spread in other indigo districts and continued through 1862, when government interfered in favour of the raiyats.

Historical records suggest that indigo was produced in Bengal for use as a dye even in ancient times. But then it was cultivated more for catering to domestic and ritual needs than to serve as a commercial commodity. Its cultivation for commercial purpose appears to have begun in the eighteenth century. From the early nineteenth century indigo cultivation attracted raiyats because of its immense cash value. Raiyats were required to pay land-rent in cash and hence a cash crop was a welcome addition to the existing cropping pattern. Indigo was almost entirely export oriented and the European planters mainly developed this export sector. But for political reasons they were not allowed to hold agricultural landed property until 1837. Under the changed political and economic circumstances European planters were permitted to purchase and hold landed estates under Act IV of 1837. Before the enactment of this Act, indigo cultivation was carried on under raiyati system under which raiyats owned the means of production including their tenancy rights in land. In the new indigo estates of the planters, the raiyats turned into a kind of bonded labour.

The golden period of the new economy, in terms of profit and harmony between the raiyats and indigo manufactures, was the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Then came the continued slump. The agency houses and the Union Bank of Calcutta, the major suppliers of capital to the planters, went bankrupt in 1847. This coupled with worldwide inflation caused by the discovery of new gold mines in the American continent and the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853, lowered profits for the planters. It led to the consequential decrease of profit at peasant level. The matter came to a head in the late 1850s when the cultivation of cereals, oil-seeds, and jute paid the raiyats better dividend than indigo. This was exacerbated by the construction of railway lines through the indigo districts, which led to a sudden rise in regional wages, a rise unmatched by the planters' wages to their indigo labourers. Though indigo cultivation was non-remunerative to the raiyats, the planters coerced them to grow indigo. Under the circumstances, the raiyats combined to free themselves from the clutches of the indigo planters. Nadia and Jessore, the two major indigo producing districts, were in the forefront of the movement.

The modus operandi of indigo resistance varied from district to district. The resistance ranged from general reluctance and non-cooperation to armed uprising. Sometimes the raiyats imposed a strict social ostracism against the European planters and their local agents by cutting off the supply of daily necessities. Towards the end of the 1850s and the beginning of the 1860s, the Indigo movement became more violent and spread in almost all the indigo-growing districts. The resisting raiyats received sympathetic support from the christian missionaries who, from humanitarian and proselytizing motives, exposed the forms of oppressions and exploitations of the indigo planters. Encouraged by the Missionaries, the native press also made detailed reports on the oppressive indigo production system. rev james long of the Church Missionary Society was the most articulate critic of the planters. nawab abdool luteef, a Deputy Magistrate in Jessore district, gave a number of legal verdicts against the planters. A drama called Nildarpan (1860, mirror of indigo) by dinabandhu mitra and some newspaper comments of kishori chand mitra and harishchandra mukherjee had helped mould public opinion in favour of the resisting raiyats. All these factors persuaded the government to set up a commission in 1860 to look into the problem. With the publication of the indigo commission Report an Act was passed prohibiting coercion of raiyats for indigo cultivation and the measure led to the end of the movement. [Nurul Hossain Choudhury]