Women, Caste and Reform Fig. 1 – Sati, painted by Balthazar Solvyn, 1813 This was one of the many pictures of sati painted by the European artists who came to India. The practice of sati was seen as evidence of the barbarism of the East. Have you ever thought of how children lived about two hundred years ago? Nowadays most girls from middle-class families go to school, and often study with boys. On growing up, many of them go to colleges and universities, and take up jobs after that. They have to be adults before they are legally married, and according to law, they can marry anyone they like, from any caste and community, and widows can remarry too. All women, like all men, can vote and stand for elections. Of course, these rights are not actually enjoyed by all. Poor people have little or no access to education, and in many families, women cannot choose their husbands. Two hundred years ago things were very different. Most children were married off at an early age. Both Hindu and Muslim men could marry more than one wife. In some parts of the country, widows were praised if they chose death by burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands. Women who died in this manner, whether willingly or otherwise, were called “sati”, meaning virtuous women. Women’s rights to property were also restricted. Besides, most women had virtually no access to education. In many parts of the country people believed that if a woman was educated, she would become a widow. – Differences between men and women were not the only ones in society. In most regions, people were divided along lines of caste. Brahmans and Kshatriyas considered themselves as “upper castes”. Others, such as traders and moneylenders (often referred to as Vaishyas) were placed after them. Then came peasants, and artisans such as weavers and potters (referred to as Shudras). At the lowest rung were those who laboured to keep cities and villages clean or worked at jobs that upper castes considered “polluting”, that is, it could lead to the loss of caste status. The upper castes also treated many of these groups at the bottom as “untouchable”. They were not allowed to enter temples, draw water from the wells used by the upper castes, or bathe in ponds where upper castes bathed. They were seen as inferior human beings. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of these norms and perceptions slowly changed. Let us see how this happened. Working Towards Change From the early nineteenth century, we find debates and discussions about social customs and practices taking on a new character. One important reason for this was the development of new forms of communication. For the first time, books, newspapers, magazines, leaflets and pamphlets were printed. These were far cheaper and far more accessible than the manuscripts that you have read about in Class VII. Therefore ordinary people could read these, and many of them could also write and express their ideas in their own languages. All kinds of issues – social, political, economic and religious – could now be debated and discussed by men (and sometimes by women as well) in the new cities. The discussions could reach out to a wider public, and could become linked to movements for social change. These debates were often initiated by Indian reformers and reform groups. One such reformer was Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833). He founded a reform association known as the Brahmo Sabha (later known as the Brahmo Samaj) in Calcutta. People such as Rammohun Roy are described as reformers because they felt that changes were necessary in society, and unjust practices needed to be done away with. They thought that the best way to ensure such changes was by persuading people to give up old practices and adopt a new way of life. Activity• Can you think of the ways in which social customs and practices were discussed in the pre-printing age when books, newspapers and pamphlets were not readily available? Rammohun Roy was keen to spread the knowledge of Western education in the country and bring about greater freedom and equality for women. He wrote about the way women were forced to bear the burden of domestic work, confined to the home and the kitchen, and not allowed to move out and become educated. Changing the lives of widows Rammohun Roy was particularly moved by the problems widows faced in their lives. He began a campaign against the practice of sati. Rammohun Roy was well versed in Sanskrit, Persian and several other Indian and Europeon languages. He tried to show through his writings that the practice of widow burning had no sanction in ancient texts. By the early nineteenth century, as you have read in Chapter 7, many British officials had also begun to criticise Indian traditions and customs. They were therefore more than willing to listen to Rammohun who was reputed to be a learned man. In 1829, sati was banned. The strategy adopted by Rammohun was used by later reformers as well. Whenever they wished to challenge a practice that seemed harmful, they tried to find a verse or sentence in the ancient sacred texts that supported their point of view. They then suggested that the practice as it existed at present was against early tradition. Fig. 3 – Hook swinging festival In this popular festival, devotees underwent a peculiar form of suffering as part of ritual worship. With hooks pierced through their skin they swung themselves on a wheel. In the early nineteenth century, when European officials began criticising Indian customs and rituals as barbaric, this was one of the rituals that came under attack. Activity• This argument was taking place more than 175 years ago. Write down the different arguments you may have heard around you on the worth of women. In what ways have the views changed? For instance, one of the most famous reformers, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, used the ancient texts to suggest that widows could remarry. His suggestion was adopted by British officials, and a law was passed in 1856 permitting widow remarriage. Those who were against the remarriage of widows opposed Vidyasagar, and even boycotted him. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the movement in favour of widow remarriage spread to other parts of the country. In the Telugu-speaking areas of the Madras Presidency, Veerasalingam Pantulu formed an association for widow remarriage. Around the same time young intellectuals and reformers in Bombay pledged themselves to working for the same cause. In the north, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who founded the reform association called Arya Samaj, also supported widow remarriage. Yet, the number of widows who actually remarried remained low. Those who married were not easily accepted in society and conservative groups continued to oppose the new law. Fig. 5 Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar Fig. 6 – Students of Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, 1875 When girls’ schools were first set up in the nineteenth century, it was generally believed that the curriculum for girls ought to be less taxing than that for boys. The Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya was one of the first institutions to provide girls with the kind of learning that was usual for boys at the time. Girls begin going to school Many of the reformers felt that education for girls was necessary in order to improve the condition of women. Vidyasagar in Calcutta and many other reformers in Bombay set up schools for girls. When the first schools were opened in the mid-nineteenth century, many people were afraid of them. They feared that schools would take girls away from home, prevent them from doing their domestic duties. Moreover, girls had to travel through public places in order to reach school. Many people felt that this would have a corrupting influence on them. They felt that girls should stay away from public spaces. Therefore, throughout the nineteenth century, most educated women were taught at home by liberal fathers or husbands. Sometimes women taught themselves. Do you remember what you read about Rashsundari Debi in your book Social and Political Life last year? She was one of those who secretly learned to read and write in the flickering light of candles at night. In the latter part of the century, schools for girls were established by the Arya Samaj in Punjab, and Jyotirao Phule in Maharashtra. In aristocratic Muslim households in North India, women learnt to read the Koran in Arabic. They were taught by women who came home to teach. Some reformers such as Mumtaz Ali reinterpreted verses from the Koran to argue for women’s education. The first Urdu novels began to be written from the late nineteenth century. Amongst other things, these were meant to encourage women to read about religion and domestic management in a language they could understand. Women write about women From the early twentieth century, Muslim women like the Begums of Bhopal played a notable role in promoting education among women. They founded a primary school for girls at Aligarh. Another remarkable woman, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain started schools for Muslim girls in Patna and Calcutta. She was a fearless critic of conservative ideas, arguing that religious leaders of every faith accorded an inferior place to women. By the 1880s, Indian women began to enter universities. Some of them trained to be doctors, some became teachers. Many women began to write and publish their critical views on the place of women in society. Tarabai Shinde, a woman educated at home at Poona, published a book, Stripurushtulna, (A Comparison between Women and Men), criticising the social differences between men and women. Pandita Ramabai, a great scholar of Sanskrit, felt that Hinduism was oppressive towards women, and wrote a book about the miserable lives of upper-caste Hindu women. She founded a widows’ home at Poona to provide shelter to widows who had been treated badly by their husbands’ relatives. Here women were trained so that they could support themselves economically. Needless to say, all this more than alarmed the orthodox. For instance, many Hindu nationalists felt that Hindu women were adopting Western ways and that this would corrupt Hindu culture and erode family values. Orthodox Muslims were also worried about the impact of these changes. As you can see, by the end of the nineteenth century, women themselves were actively working for reform. They wrote books, edited magazines, founded schools and training centres, and set up women’s associations. From the early twentieth century, they formed political pressure groups to push through laws for female suffrage (the right to vote) and better health care and education for women. Some of them joined various kinds of nationalist and socialist movements from the 1920s. In the twentieth century, leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose lent their support to demands for greater equality and freedom for women. Nationalist leaders promised that there would be full suffrage for all men and women after Independence. However, till then they asked women to concentrate on the anti-British struggles. Source 2 Once a woman’s husband has died... In her book, Stripurushtulna, Tarabai Shinde wrote: Isn’t a woman’s life as dear to her as yours is to you? It’s as if women are meant to be made of something different from men altogether, made from dust from earth or rock or rusted iron whereas you and your lives are made from the purest gold. … You’re asking me what I mean. I mean once a woman’s husband has died, … what’s in store for her? The barber comes to shave all the curls and hair off her head, just to cool your eyes. … She is shut out from going to weddings, receptions and other auspicious occasions that married women go to. And why all these restrictions? Because her husband has died. She is unlucky: ill fate is written on her forehead. Her face is not to be seen, it’s a bad omen. Tarabai Shinde, Stripurushtulna Caste and Social Reform Some of the social reformers we have been discussing also criticised caste inequalities. Rammohun Roy translated an old Buddhist text that was critical of caste. The Prarthana Samaj adhered to the tradition of Bhakti that believed in spiritual equality of all castes. In Bombay, the Paramhans Mandali was founded in 1840 to work for the abolition of caste. Many of these reformers and members of reform associations were people of upper castes. Often, in secret meetings, these reformers would violate caste taboos on food and touch, in an effort to get rid of the hold of caste prejudice in their lives. There were also others who questioned the injustices of the caste social order. During the course of the nineteenth century, Christian missionaries began setting up schools for tribal groups and “lower”-caste children. These children were thus equipped with some resources to make their way into a changing world. At the same time, the poor began leaving their villages to look for jobs that were opening up in the cities. There was work in the factories that were coming up, and jobs in municipalities. You have read about the expansion of cities in Chapter 6. Think of the new demands of labour this created. Drains had to be dug, roads laid, buildings constructed, and cities cleaned. This required coolies, diggers, carriers, bricklayers, sewage cleaners, sweepers, palanquin bearers, rickshaw pullers. Where did this labour come from? The poor from the villages and small towns, many of them from low castes, began moving to the cities where there was a new demand for labour. Some also went to work in plantations in Assam, Mauritius, Trinidad and Indonesia. Work in the new locations was often very hard. But the poor, the people from low castes, saw this as an opportunity to get away from the oppressive hold that upper-caste landowners exercised over their lives and the daily humiliation they suffered. There were other jobs too. The army, for instance, offered opportunities. A number of Mahar people, who were regarded as untouchable, found jobs in the Mahar Regiment. The father of B.R. Ambedkar, the leader of the Dalit movement, taught at an army school. Fig. 9 – A coolie ship, nineteenth century This coolie ship – named John Allen – carried many Indian labourers to Mauritius where they did a variety of forms of hard labour. Most of these labourers were from low castes. Fig. 12 – Shri Narayana Guru Dublas laboured for upper-caste landowners, cultivating their fields, and working at a variety of odd jobs at the landlord’s house. Demands for equality and justice Gradually, by the second half of the nineteenth century, people from within the Non-Brahman castes began organising movements against caste discrimination, and demanded social equality and justice. The Satnami movement in Central India was founded by Ghasidas who worked among the leatherworkers and organised a movement to improve their social status. In eastern Bengal, Haridas Thakur’s Matua sect worked among Chandala cultivators. Haridas questioned Brahmanical texts that supported the caste system. In what is present-day Kerala, a guru from Ezhava caste, Shri Narayana Guru, proclaimed the ideals of unity for his people. He argued against treating people unequally on the basis of caste differences. According to him, all humankind belonged to the same caste. One of his famous statements was: “oru jati, oru matam, oru daivam manushyanu” (one caste, one religion, one god for humankind). All these sects were founded by leaders who came from Non-Brahman castes and worked amongst them. They tried to change those habits and practices which provoked the contempt of dominant castes. They tried to create a sense of self-esteem among the subordinate castes. Gulamgiri One of the most vocal amongst the “low-caste” leaders was Jyotirao Phule. Born in 1827, he studied in schools set up by Christian missionaries. On growing up he developed his own ideas about the injustices of caste society. He set out to attack the Brahmans’ claim that they were superior to others, since they were Aryans. Phule argued that the Aryans were foreigners, who came from outside the subcontinent, and defeated and subjugated the true children of the country – those who had lived here from before the coming of the Aryans. As the Aryans established their dominance, they began looking at the defeated population as inferior, as low-caste people. According to Phule, the “upper” castes had no right to their land and power: in reality, the land belonged to indigenous people, the so-called low castes. Phule claimed that before Aryan rule there existed a golden age when warrior-peasants tilled the land and ruled the Maratha countryside in just and fair ways. He proposed that Shudras (labouring castes) and Ati Shudras (untouchables) should unite to challenge caste discrimination. The Satyashodhak Samaj, an association Phule founded, propagated caste equality. Activity• Carefully read Source 3. What do you think Jyotirao Phule meant by “me here and you over there again”? In 1873, Phule wrote a book named Gulamgiri, meaning slavery. Some ten years before this, the American Civil War had been fought, leading to the end of slavery in America. Phule dedicated his book to all Source 4 “We are also human beings” In 1927, Ambedkar said: We now want to go to the Tank only to prove that like others, we are also human beings … Hindu society should be reorganised on two main principles – equality and absence of casteism. Fig. 14 – The gateway to the Madurai temple, drawn by Thomas Daniell, 1792 “Untouchables” were not allowed anywhere near such gateways until the temple entry movement began. those Americans who had fought to free slaves, thus establishing a link between the conditions of the “lower” castes in India and the black slaves in America. As this example shows, Phule extended his criticism of the caste system to argue against all forms of inequality. He was concerned about the plight of “upper”-caste women, the miseries of the labourer, and the humiliation of the “low” castes. This movement for caste reform was continued in the twentieth century by other great dalit leaders like Dr B.R. Ambedkar in western India and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker in the south. Who could enter temples? Ambedkar was born into a Mahar family. As a child he experienced what caste prejudice meant in everyday life. In school he was forced to sit outside the classroom on the ground, and was not allowed to drink water from taps that upper-caste children used. After finishing school, he got a fellowship to go to the US for higher studies. On his return to India in 1919, he wrote extensively about “upper”-caste power in contemporary society. In 1927, Ambedkar started a temple entry movement, in which his Mahar caste followers participated. Brahman priests were outraged when the Dalits used water from the temple tank. Ambedkar led three such movements for temple entry between 1927 and 1935. His aim was to make everyone see the power of caste prejudices within society. The Non-Brahman movement In the early twentieth century, the non-Brahman movement started. The initiative came from those non-Brahman castes that had acquired access to education, wealth and influence. They argued that Brahmans were heirs of Aryan invaders from the north who had conquered southern lands from the original inhabitants of the region – the indigenous Dravidian races. They also challenged Brahmanical claims to power. E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, or Periyar, as he was called, came from a middle-class family. Interestingly, he had been an ascetic in his early life and had studied Sanskrit scriptures carefully. Later, he became a member of the Congress, only to Source 5 leave it in disgust when he found that at a feast organised by nationalists, seating arrangements followed caste distinctions – that is, the lower castes were made to sit at a distance from the upper castes. Convinced that untouchables had to fight for their dignity, Periyar founded the Self Respect Movement. He argued that untouchables were the true upholders of an original Tamil and Dravidian culture which had been subjugated by Brahmans. He felt that all religious authorities saw social divisions and inequality as God-given. Untouchables had to free themselves, therefore, from all religions in order to achieve social equality. Periyar was an outspoken critic of Hindu scriptures, especially the Codes of Manu, the ancient lawgiver, and the Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. He said that these texts had been used to establish the authority of Brahmans over lower castes and the domination of men over women. These assertions did not go unchallenged. The forceful speeches, writings and movements of lower-caste leaders did lead to rethinking and some self-criticism among upper-caste nationalist leaders. But orthodox Hindu society also reacted by founding Sanatan Dharma Sabhas and the Bharat Dharma Mahamandal in the north, and associations like the Brahman Sabha in Bengal. The object of these associations was to uphold caste distinctions as a cornerstone of Hinduism, and show how this was sanctified by scriptures. Debates and struggles over caste continued beyond the colonial period and are still going on in our own times. Activity• Why does caste remain such a controversial issue today? What do you think was the most important movement against caste in colonial times? Black slaves and white planters You have read about how Jyotirao Phule established a connection in his book Gulamgiri between caste oppression and the practice of slavery in America. What was this system of slavery? From the time that European explorers and traders landed in Africa in the seventeenth century, a trade in slaves began. Black people were captured and brought from Africa to America, sold to white planters, and made to work on cotton and other plantations – most of them in the southern United States. In the plantations they had to work long hours, typically from dawn to dusk, punished for “inefficient work”, and whipped and tortured. Many people, white and black, opposed slavery through organised protest. In doing so, they invoked the spirit of the American Revolution of 1776, exhorting: “See your Declaration, Americans! Do you understand your own language?” In his moving Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln held that those who had fought slavery had done so for the cause of democracy. He urged the people to strive for racial equality so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”. Here you see potential buyers examining African slaves at an auction. 1. What social ideas did the following people support. Rammohun Roy Dayanand Saraswati Veerasalingam Pantulu Jyotirao Phule Pandita Ramabai Periyar Mumtaz Ali Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar 2. State whether true or false: (a) When the British captured Bengal they framed many new laws to regulate the rules regarding marriage, adoption, inheritance of property, etc. (b) Social reformers had to discard the ancient texts in order to argue for reform in social practices. (c) Reformers got full support from all sections of the people of the country. (d) The Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed in1829. 3. How did the knowledge of ancient texts help the reformers promote new laws?4. What were the different reasons people had for not sending girls to school?5. Why were Christian missionaries attacked by many people in the country? Would some people have supported them too? If so, for what reasons?6. In the British period, what new opportunities opened up for people who came from castes that were regarded as “low”?7. How did Jyotirao the reformers justify their criticism of caste inequality in society?8. Why did Phule dedicate his book Gulamgiri to the American movement to free slaves?9. What did Ambedkar want to achieve through the temple entry movement? 10. Why were Jyotirao Phule and Ramaswamy Naicker critical of the national movement? Did their criticism help the national struggle in any way?



Ruling the Countryside

Our Past-3

The Company Becomes the Diwan

Fig. 1 – Robert Clive accepting the Diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from the Mughal ruler in 1765

On 12 August 1765, the Mughal emperor appointed the East India Company as the Diwan of Bengal. The actual event most probably took place in Robert Clive’s tent, with a few Englishmen and Indians as witnesses. But in the painting above, the event is shown as a majestic occasion, taking place in a grand setting. The painter was commissioned by Clive to record the memorable events in Clive’s life. The grant of Diwani clearly was one such event in British imagination.

As Diwan, the Company became the chief financial administrator of the territory under its control. Now it had to think of administering the land and organising its revenue resources. This had to be done in a way that could yield enough revenue to meet the growing expenses of the company. A trading company had also to ensure that it could buy the products it needed and sell what it wanted.

Over the years the Company also learnt that it had to move with some caution. Being an alien power, it needed to pacify those who in the past had ruled the countryside, and enjoyed authority and prestige. Those who had held local power had to be controlled but they could not be entirely eliminated.

How was this to be done? In this chapter we will see how the Company came to colonise the countryside, organise revenue resources, redefine the rights of people, and produce the crops it wanted.

Revenue for the Company

The Company had become the Diwan, but it still saw itself primarily as a trader. It wanted a large revenue income but was unwilling to set up any regular system of assessment and collection. The effort was to increase the revenue as much as it could and buy fine cotton and silk cloth as cheaply as possible. Within five years the value of goods bought by the Company in Bengal doubled. Before 1865, the Company had purchased goods in India by importing gold and silver from Britain. Now the revenue collected in Bengal could finance the purchase of goods for export.

Soon it was clear that the Bengal economy was facing a deep crisis. Artisans were deserting villages since they were being forced to sell their goods to the Company at low prices. Peasants were unable to pay the dues that were being demanded from them. Artisanal production was in decline, and agricultural cultivation showed signs of collapse. Then in 1770 a terrible famine killed ten million people in Bengal. About one-third of the population was wiped out.

Fig. 2 – A weekly market in Murshidabad in Bengal

Peasants and artisans from rural areas regularly came to these weekly markets (haats) to sell their goods and buy what they needed. These markets were badly affected during times of economic crisis.

The need to improve agriculture

If the economy was in ruins, could the Company be certain of its revenue income? Most Company officials began to feel that investment in land had to be encouraged and agriculture had to be improved.

Fig. 3 – Charles Cornwallis

How was this to be done? After two decades of debate on the question, the Company finally introduced the Permanent Settlement in 1793. By the terms of the settlement, the rajas and taluqdars were recognised as zamindars. They were asked to collect rent from the peasants and pay revenue to the Company. The amount to be paid was fixed permanently, that is, it was not to be increased ever in future. It was felt that this would ensure a regular flow of revenue into the Company’s coffers and at the same time encourage the zamindars to invest in improving the land. Since the revenue demand of the state would not be increased, the zamindar would benefit from increased production from the land.

Cornwallis was the Governor-General of India when the Permanent Settlement was introduced.

The problem

The Permanent Settlement, however, created problems. Company officials soon discovered that the zamindars were in fact not investing in the improvement of land. The revenue that had been fixed was so high that the zamindars found it difficult to pay. Anyone who failed to pay the revenue lost his zamindari. Numerous zamindaris were sold off at auctions organised by the Company.

By the first decade of the nineteenth century the situation changed. The prices in the market rose and cultivation slowly expanded. This meant an increase in the income of the zamindars but no gain for the Company since it could not increase a revenue demand that had been fixed permanently

Source 1

Colebrook on Bengal ryots

In many villages of Bengal, some of the powerful ryots did not cultivate, but insteadgave out their lands to others (the under-tenants), taking from them very high rents. In 1806, H. T. Colebrook described the conditions of these under-tenants in Bengal:

The under-tenants, depressed by an excessive rent in kind, and by usurious returns for the cattle, seed, and subsistence, advanced to them, can never extricate themselves from debt. In so abject a state, they cannot labour in spirit, while they earn a scanty subsistence without hope of bettering their situation.

Even then the zamindars did not have an interest in improving the land. Some had lost their lands in the earlier years of the settlement; others now saw the possibility of earning without the trouble and risk of investment. As long as the zamindars could give out the land to tenants and get rent, they were not interested in improving the land.

On the other hand, in the villages, the cultivator found the system extremely oppressive. The rent he paid to the zamindar was high and his right on the land was insecure. To pay the rent he had to often take a loan from the moneylender, and when he failed to pay the rent he was evicted from the land he had cultivated for generations.

A new system is devised

By the early nineteenth century many of the Company officials were convinced that the system of revenue had to be changed again. How could revenues be fixed permanently at a time when the Company needed more money to meet its expenses of administration and trade?


Why do you think Colebrook is concerned with the conditions of the under-ryots in Bengal? Read the preceding pages and suggest possible reasons.

Mahal – In British revenue records mahal is a revenue estate which may be a village or a group of villages.

In the North Western Provinces of the Bengal Presidency (most of this area is now in Uttar Pradesh), an Englishman called Holt Mackenzie devised the new system which came into effect in 1822. He felt that the village was an important social institution in north Indian society and needed to be preserved. Under his directions, collectors went from village to village, inspecting the land, measuring the fields, and recording the customs and rights of different groups. The estimated revenue of each plot within a village was added up to calculate the revenue that each village (mahal) had to pay. This demand was to be revised periodically, not permanently fixed. The charge of collecting the revenue and paying it to the Company was given to the village headman, rather than the zamindar. This system came to be known as the mahalwarisettlement.

The Munro system

In the British territories in the south there was a similar move away from the idea of Permanent Settlement. The new system that was devised came to be known as theryotwar (or ryotwari). It was tried on a small scale by Captain Alexander Read in some of the areas that were taken over by the Company after the wars with Tipu Sultan. Subsequently developed by Thomas Munro, this system was gradually extended all over south India.

Fig. 4 – Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras (1819-26)

Read and Munro felt that in the south there were no traditional zamindars. The settlement, they argued, had to be made directly with the cultivators (ryots) who had tilled the land for generations. Their fields had to be carefully and separately surveyed before the revenue assessment was made. Munro thought that the British should act as paternal father figures protecting the ryots under their charge.

All was not well

Within a few years after the new systems were imposed it was clear that all was not well with them. Driven by the desire to increase the income from land, revenue officials fixed too high a revenue demand. Peasants were unable to pay, ryots fled the countryside, and villages became deserted in many regions. Optimistic officials had imagined that the new systems would transform the peasants into rich enterprising farmers. But this did not happen.

Crops for Europe

The British also realised that the countryside could not only yield revenue, it could also grow the crops that Europe required. By the late eighteenth century the Company was trying its best to expand the cultivation of opium and indigo. In the century and a half that followed, the British persuaded or forced cultivators in various parts of India to produce other crops: jute in Bengal, tea in Assam, sugarcane in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh), wheat in Punjab, cotton in Maharashtra and Punjab, rice in Madras.

How was this done? The British used a variety of methods to expand the cultivation of crops that they needed. Let us take a closer look at the story of one such crop, one such method of production.


Imagine that you are a Company representative sending a report back to England about the conditions in rural areas under Company rule. What would you write?

Does colour have a history?


Figs. 5 and 6 are two images of cotton prints. The image on the left (Fig. 5) shows akalamkari print created by weavers of Andhra Pradesh in India. On the right is a floral cotton print designed and produced by William Morris, a famous poet and artist of nineteenth-century Britain. There is one thing common in the two prints: both use a rich blue colour – commonly called indigo. Do you know how this colour was produced?

The blue that you see in these prints was produced from a plant called indigo. It is likely that the blue dye used in the Morris prints in nineteenth-century Britain was manufactured from indigo plants cultivated in India. For India was the biggest supplier of indigo in the world at that time.

Why the demand for Indian indigo?

The indigo plant grows primarily in the tropics. By the thirteenth century Indian indigo was being used by cloth manufacturers in Italy, France and Britain to dye cloth.

However, only small amounts of Indian indigo reached the European market and its price was very high. European cloth manufacturers therefore had to depend on another plant called woad to make violet and blue dyes. Being a plant of the temperate zones, woad was more easily available in Europe. It was grown in northern Italy, southern France and in parts of Germany and Britain. Worried by the competition from indigo, woad producers in Europe pressurised their governments to ban the import of indigo.

Plantation  A large farm operated by a planter employing various forms of forced labour. Plantations are associated with the production of coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, tea and cotton.

Cloth dyers, however, preferred indigo as a dye. Indigo produced a rich blue colour, whereas the dye from woad was pale and dull. By the seventeenth century, European cloth producers persuaded their governments to relax the ban on indigo import. The French began cultivating indigo in St Domingue in the Caribbean islands, the Portuguese in Brazil, the English in Jamaica, and the Spanish in Venezuela. Indigoplantations also came up in many parts of North America.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the demand for Indian indigo grew further. Britain began to industrialise, and its cotton production expanded dramatically, creating an enormous new demand for cloth dyes. While the demand for indigo increased, its existing supplies from the West Indies and America collapsed for a variety of reasons. Between 1783 and 1789 the production of indigo in the world fell by half. Cloth dyers in Britain now desperately looked for new sources of indigo supply.

From where could this indigo be procured?

Britain turns to India

Faced with the rising demand for indigo in Europe, the Company in India looked for ways to expand the area under indigo cultivation.

From the last decades of the eighteenth century indigo cultivation in Bengal expanded rapidly and Bengal indigo came to dominate the world market. In 1788 only about 30 per cent of the indigo imported into Britain was from India. By 1810, the proportion had gone up to 95 per cent.

Fig. 7 – The Slave Revolt in St Domingue, August 1791, painting by January Scuhodolski

In the eighteenth century, French planters produced indigo and sugar in the French colony of St Domingue in the Caribbean islands. The African slaves who worked on the plantations rose in rebellion in 1791, burning the plantations and killing their rich planters. In 1792 France abolished slavery in the French colonies. These events led to the collapse of the indigo plantations on the Caribbean islands.

As the indigo trade grew, commercial agents and officials of the Company began investing in indigo production. Over the years many Company officials left their jobs to look after their indigo business. Attracted by the prospect of high profits, numerous Scotsmen and Englishmen came to India and became planters. Those who had no money to produce indigo could get loans from the Company and the banks that were coming up at the time.

How was indigo cultivated?

There were two main systems of indigo cultivation – nij and ryoti. Within the system ofnij cultivation, the planter produced indigo in lands that he directly controlled. He either bought the land or rented it from other zamindars and produced indigo by directly employing hired labourers.

The problem with nij cultivation

The planters found it difficult to expand the area under nij cultivation. Indigo could be cultivated only on fertile lands, and these were all already densely populated. Only small plots scattered over the landscape could be acquired. Planters needed large areas in compact blocks to cultivate indigo in plantations. Where could they get such land from? They attempted to lease in the land around the indigo factory, and evict the peasants from the area. But this always led to conflicts and tension.

Nor was labour easy to mobilise. A large plantation required a vast number of hands to operate. And labour was needed precisely at a time when peasants were usually busy with their rice cultivation.

Slave – A person who is owned by someone else – the slave owner. A slave has no freedom and is compelled to work for the master.

Nij cultivation on a large scale also required many ploughs and bullocks. One bigha of indigo cultivation required two ploughs. This meant that a planter with 1,000 bighaswould need 2,000 ploughs. Investing on purchase and maintenance of ploughs was a big problem. Nor could supplies be easily got from the peasants since their ploughs and bullocks were busy on their rice fields, again exactly at the time that the indigo planters needed them.

Till the late nineteenth century, planters were therefore reluctant to expand the area under nij cultivation. Less than 25 per cent of the land producing indigo was under this system. The rest was under an alternative mode of cultivation – the ryoti system.

Bigha – A unit of measurement of land. Before British rule, the size of this area varied. In Bengal the British standardised it to about one-third of an acre.

Indigo on the land of ryots

Under the ryoti system, the planters forced the ryots to sign a contract, an agreement (satta). At times they pressurised the village headmen to sign the contract on behalf of the ryots. Those who signed the contract got cash advances from the planters at low rates of interest to produce indigo. But the loan committed the ryot to cultivating indigo on at least 25 per cent of the area under his holding. The planter provided the seed and the drill, while the cultivators prepared the soil, sowed the seed and looked after the crop.

Fig. 8 – Workers harvesting indigo in early-nineteenth-century Bengal. From Colesworthy Grant, Rural Life in Bengal, 1860

In India the indigo plant was cut mostly by men.

As the rebellion spread, intellectuals from Calcutta rushed to the indigo districts. They wrote of the misery of the ryots, the tyranny of the planters, and the horrors of the indigo system.

Fig. 9 – The Indigo plant being brought from the fields to the factory

How was indigo produced

Fig. 10  An indigo factory located near indigo fields, painting by William Simpson, 1863

The indigo villages were usually around indigo factories owned by planters. After harvest, the indigo plant was taken to the vats in the indigo factory. Three or four vats were needed to manufacture the dye. Each vat had a separate function. The leaves stripped off the indigo plant were first soaked in warm water in a vat (known as the fermenting or steeper vat) for several hours. When the plants fermented, the liquid began to boil and bubble. Now the rotten leaves were taken out and the liquid drained into another vat that was placed just below the first vat.

In the second vat (known as the beater vat) the solution was continuously stirred and beaten with paddles. When the liquid gradually turned green and then blue, lime water was added to the vat. Gradually the indigo separated out in flakes, a muddy sediment settled at the bottom of the vat and a clear liquid rose to the surface. The liquid was drained off and the sediment – the indigo pulp – transferred to another vat (known as the settling vat), and then pressed and dried for sale.

Fig. 11 – Women usually carried the indigo plant to the vats.

Fig. 12 – The Vat-Beater

The indigo worker here is standing with the paddle that was used to stir the solution in the vat. These workers had to remain in waist-deep water for over eight hours to beat the indigo solution.
Vat – A fermenting or storage vessel

Fig. 13  The indigo is ready for sale

Here you can see the last stage of the production – workers stamping and cutting the indigo pulp that has been pressed and moulded. In the background you can see a worker carrying away the blocks for drying.

When the crop was delivered to the planter after the harvest, a new loan was given to the ryot, and the cycle started all over again. Peasants who were initially tempted by the loans soon realised how harsh the system was. The price they got for the indigo they produced was very low and the cycle of loans never ended.

There were other problems too. The planters usually insisted that indigo be cultivated on the best soils in which peasants preferred to cultivate rice. Indigo, moreover, had deep roots and it exhausted the soil rapidly. After an indigo harvest the land could not be sown with rice.

The “Blue Rebellion” and After

In March 1859 thousands of ryots in Bengal refused to grow indigo. As the rebellion spread, ryots refused to pay rents to the planters, and attacked indigo factories armed with swords and spears, bows and arrows. Women turned up to fight with pots, pans and kitchen implements. Those who worked for the planters were socially boycotted, and the gomasthas – agents of planters – who came to collect rent were beaten up.Ryots swore they would no longer take advances to sow indigo nor be bullied by the planters’ lathiyals – the lathi-wielding strongmen maintained by the planters.

Why did the indigo peasants decide that they would no longer remain silent? What gave them the power to rebel? Clearly, the indigo system was intensely oppressive. But those who are oppressed do not always rise up in rebellion. They do so only at times.

Source 2

A song from an indigo-producing village

In moments of struggle people often sing songs to inspire each other and to build a sense of collective unity. Such songs give us a glimpse of their feelings. During the indigo rebellion many such songs could be heard in the villages of lower Bengal. Here is one such song:

The long lathis wielded by the planter of Mollahati / now lie in a cluster

The babus of Kolkata have sailed down / to see the great fight

This time the raiyats are all ready, / they will no longer be beaten in silence

They will no longer give up their life / without fighting the lathiyals.

In 1859, the indigo ryots felt that they had the support of the local zamindars and village headmen in their rebellion against the planters. In many villages, headmen who had been forced to sign indigo contracts, mobilised the indigo peasants and fought pitched battles with the lathiyals. In other places even the zamindars went around villages urging the ryots to resist the planters. These zamindars were unhappy with the increasing power of the planters and angry at being forced by the planters to give them land on long leases.

The indigo peasants also imagined that the British government would support them in their struggle against the planters. After the Revolt of 1857 the British government was particularly worried about the possibility of another popular rebellion. When the news spread of a simmering revolt in the indigo districts, the Lieutenant Governor toured the region in the winter of 1859. The ryots saw the tour as a sign of government sympathy for their plight. When in Barasat, the magistrate Ashley Eden issued a notice stating that ryots would not be compelled to accept indigo contracts, word went around that Queen Victoria had declared that indigo need not be sown. Eden was trying to placate the peasants and control an explosive situation, but his action was read as support for the rebellion.

Worried by the rebellion, the government brought in the military to protect the planters from assault, and set up the Indigo Commission to enquire into the system of indigo production. The Commission held the planters guilty, and criticised them for the coercive methods they used with indigo cultivators. It declared that indigo production was not profitable for ryots. The Commission asked the ryots to fulfil their existing contracts but also told them that they could refuse to produce indigo in future.

source 3

“I would rather beg than sow indigo”

Hadji Mulla, an indigo cultivator of Chandpore, Thana Hardi, was interviewed by the members of the Indigo Commission on Tuesday, 5 June 1860. This is what he said in answer to some of the questions:

W.S. Seton Karr, President of the Indigo Commission: Are you now willing to sow indigo; and if not on what fresh terms would you be willing to do it?

Hadji Mulla: I am not willing to sow, and I don’t know that any fresh terms would satisfy me.

Mr Sale: Would you not be willing to sow at a rupee a bundle?

Hadji Mulla: No I would not; rather than sow indigo I will go to another country; I would rather beg than sow indigo.

Indigo Commission Report, Vol. II, Minutes of Evidence, p. 67

After the revolt, indigo production collapsed in Bengal. But the planters now shifted their operation to Bihar. With the discovery of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century their business was severely affected, but yet they managed to expand production. When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa, a peasant from Bihar persuaded him to visit Champaran and see the plight of the indigo cultivators there. Mahatma Gandhi’s visit in 1917 marked the beginning of the Champaran movement against the indigo planters.

H.T. Colebrook, Remarks on the Husbandry and Internal Commerce of Bengal, 1806


Imagine you are a witness giving evidence before the Indigo Commission. W.S. Seton Karr asks you “On what condition will ryots grow indigo?” What will your answer be?


Indigo making in the West Indies

In the early eighteenth century, a French missionary, Jean Baptiste Labat, travelled to the Caribbean islands, and wrote extensively about the region. Published in one of his books, this image shows all the stages of indigo production in the French slave plantations of the region.

You can see the slave workers putting the indigo plant into the settler vat on the left. Another worker is churning the liquid with a mechanical churner in a vat (second from right). 

Fig. 14 – Making indigo in a Caribbean slave plantation

Two workers are carrying the indigo pulp hung up in bags to be dried. In the foreground two others are mixing the indigo pulp to be put into moulds. The planter is at the centre of the picture standing on the high ground supervising the slave workers. 

Let’s recall

1. Match the following:

ryot ..........village

mahal ........peasant

nij .............cultivation on ryot’s lands

ryoti ............cultivation on planter’s own land

Let’s imagine

Imagine a conversation between a planter and a peasant who is being forced to grow indigo. What reasons would the planter give to persuade the peasant? What problems would the peasant point out? Enact their conversation.

2. Fill in the blanks:

(a) Growers of woad in Europe saw __________ as a crop which would provide competition to their earnings.

(b) The demand for indigo increased in late- eighteenth-century Britain because of __________.

(c) The international demand for indigo was affected by the discovery of __________.

(d) The Champaran movement was against __________.

Let’s discuss

3. Describe the main features of the Permanent Settlement.

4. How was the mahalwari system different from the Permanent Settlement?

5. Give two problems which arose with the new Munro system of fixing revenue.

6. Why were ryots reluctant to grow indigo?

7. What were the circumstances which led to the eventual collapse of indigo production in Bengal?

Let’s do

8. Find out more about the Champaran movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s role in it.

9. Look into the history of either tea or coffee plantations in India. See how the life of workers in these plantations was similar to or different from that of workers in indigo plantations.

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