Nationalism and the peasant movements Part-1


  • The impoverishment of the Indian peasantry was a direct result of the transformation of the agrarian structure due to:
    • Colonial economic policies:
    • Ruin of the handicrafts leading to overcrowding of land,
    • The new land revenue system,
    • Colonial administrative and judicial system.
  • The peasants suffered from high rents, illegal levies, arbitrary evictions and unpaid labour in Zamindari areas. In Ryotwari areas, the Government itself levied heavy land revenue.
  • The overburdened farmer, fearing loss of his only source of livelihood, often approached the local moneylender who made full use of the former’s difficulties by extracting high rates of interests on the money lent.
  • Often, the farmer had to mortgage his hand and cattle. Sometimes, the money­lender seized the mortgaged belongings. Gradually, over large areas, the actual cultivators were reduced to the status of tenants-at-will, share croppers and landless labourers.
  • The peasants often resisted the exploitation, and soon they realised that their real enemy was the colonial state. Sometimes, the desperate peasants took to crime to come out of intolerable conditions. These crimes included robbery, dacoity and what has been called social banditry.
  • Peasant discontent against established authority was a familiar feature of the nineteenth century. But in the twentieth century, the movements that emerged out of this discontent were marked by a new feature: they were deeply influenced by and in their turn had a marked impact on the ongoing struggle for national freedom.


  • Peasants emerged as the main force in agrarian movements, fighting directly for their own demands.
  • The demands were centred almost wholly on economic issues.
  • The movements were directed against the immediate enemies of the peasant—foreign planters and indigenous zamindars and moneylenders.
  • The struggles were directed towards specific and limited objectives and redressal of particular grievances.
  • Colonialism was not the target of these movements.
  • It was not the objective of these movements to end the system of subordination or exploitation of the peasants.
  • Territorial reach was limited.
  • There was no continuity of struggle or long-term organisation.
  • The peasants developed a strong awareness of their legal rights and asserted them in and outside the courts.

A) Weaknesses:

  • There was a lack of an adequate understanding of colonialism.
  • The 19th-century peasants did not possess a new ideology and a new social, economic and political programme.
  • These struggles, however militant, occurred within the framework of the old societal order lacking a positive conception of an alternative society.


A) Indigo Revolt (1859-60) (or Nilbidroha):

  • Indigo planting in Bengal dated back to 1777. The indigo planters, nearly all Europeans, exploited the local peasants by forcing them to grow indigo on their lands instead of the more paying crops like rice. The planters forced the peasants to take advance sums and enter into fraudulent contracts which were then used against the peasants.
  • The planters intimidated the peasants through kidnappings, illegal confinements, flogging, attacks on women and children, seizure of cattle, burning and demolition of houses and destruction of crops.
  • The anger of the peasants exploded in 1859 when, led by Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of Nadia district, they decided not to grow indigo and resisted the physical pressure of the planters and their lathiyals (retainers) backed by police and the courts.
  • They also organised a counter force against the planters’ attacks.
    • The planters also tried methods like evictions and enhanced rents.
    • The ryots replied by going on a rent strike by refusing to pay the enhanced rents and by physically resisting the attempts to evict them. Gradually, they learned to use the legal machinery and initiated legal action supported by fund collection.
  • The Bengali intelligentsia played a significant role by supporting the peasants’ cause through newspaper campaigns, organisation of mass meetings, preparing memoranda on peasants’ grievances and supporting them in legal battles.
    • Harish Chandra Mukhopadhyay thoroughly described the plight of the poor peasants in his newspaper The Hindu Patriot. Dinabandhu Mitra’s 1859 play Nil Darpan is based on the revolution.
    • It was translated into English by Michael Madhusudan Dutta. and published by Rev. James Long. It attracted much attention in England, where the people were stunned at the savagery of their countrymen. The British Government sent Rev. Long to a mock trial and punished him with imprisonment and fine.
  • The revolt is considered as a non-violent revolution and that is why the indigo revolt was a success compared to the Sepoy Revolt. Many call it a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Gandhi.
    • The revolt had a strong effect on the government.
    • The Government appointed an indigo commission to inquire into the problem of indigo cultivation.
    • Based on its recommendations, the Government issued a notification in November 1860 that the ryots could not be compelled to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were settled by legal means.
    • But, the planters were already closing down factories and indigo cultivation was virtually wiped out from Bengal by the end of 1860.

B) Pabna Agrarian Leagues:

  • During the 1870s and 1880s, large parts of Eastern Bengal witnessed agrarian unrest caused by oppressive practices of the Zamindars. The Zamindars resorted to enhanced rents beyond legal limits and prevented the tenants from acquiring occupancy rights under Act X of 1859.
  • To achieve their ends, the Zamindars resorted to forcible evictions, seizure of cattle and crops and prolonged, costly litigation in courts where the poor peasant found himself at a disadvantage.
  • Having had enough of the oppressive regime, the peasants of Yusufshahi Pargana in Pabna district formed an agrarian league or combination to resist the demands of the Zamindars. The league organised a rent strike—the ryots refused to pay the enhanced rents, challenging the Zamindars in the courts.
  • Funds were raised by ryots to fight the court cases. The struggles spread throughout Pabna and to other districts of East Bengal. The main form of struggle was that of legal resistance; there was very little violence.
  • Though the peasant discontent continued to linger on till 1885, most of the cases had been solved, partially through official persuasion and partially because of Zamindars’ fears. Many peasants were able to acquire occupancy rights and resist enhanced rents.
  • The Government also promised to undertake legislation to protect the tenants from the worst aspects of Zamindari oppression. In 1885, the Bengal Tenancy Act was passed.
  • Those intelligentsia who had supported peasants in indigo rebellion did not support Pabna rebellion as it was against Indian zamindar and not against European planters. But still a number of young Indian intellectuals supported the peasants’ cause. These included Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, R.C. Dutt and the Indian Association under Surendranath Banerjee.

C) Deccan Riots:

  • The ryots of Deccan region of western India suffered heavy taxation under the Ryotwari system. Here again the peasants found themselves trapped in a vicious network with the moneylender as the exploiter and the main beneficiary.
  • These moneylenders were mostly outsiders— Marwaris or Gujaratis. The conditions had worsened due to a crash in cotton prices after the end of the American civil war in 1864, the Government’s decision to raise the land revenue by 50% in 1867, and a succession of bad harvests.
  • In 1874, the growing tension between the moneylenders and the peasants resulted in a social boycott movement organised by the ryots against the “outsider” moneylenders. The ryots refused to buy from their shops. No peasant would cultivate their fields.
  • The barbers, washermen, shoemakers would not serve them. This social boycott spread rapidly to the villages of Poona, Ahmednagar, Sholapur and Satara. Soon the social boycott was transformed into agrarian riots with systematic attacks on the moneylenders’ houses and shops. The debt bonds and deeds were seized and publicly burnt.
  • The Government succeeded in repressing the movement. As a conciliatory measure, the Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act was passed in 1879.
  • This time also, some of the modern nationalist intelligentsia of Maharashtra supported the peasants’ cause.


A) The Kisan Sabha Movement:

  • Following the annexation of Avadh in 1856 and after the 1857 revolt, the Awadh Talukdars had got back their lands.
    • The second half of the nineteenth century had seen the strengthening of the hold of the taluqdars or big landlords over the agrarian society of the province.
    • The majority of the cultivators were subjected to high rents, summary evictions (bedakhali), illegal levies, renewal fees or nazrana. The high price of food and other necessities that accompanied and followed World War I made the oppression all the more difficult to bear, and the tenants of Avadh were ripe for a message of resistance.
  • Mainly due to the efforts of the Home Rule activists, kisansabhas were organised in UP. The UP Kisan Sabha was set up in February 1918 by Gauri Shankar Mishra and Indra Narayan Dwivedi. Madan Mohan Malaviya supported their efforts.
  • Towards the end of 1919, the first sign of grass root peasant activity were evident in the reports of nai-dhobi band (a form of social boycott) on an etate in Pratapgarh district. Led by Baba Ramchandra – a sanyasi who had earlier been to Fiji as an indentured labourer, peasants started Nai dhobi bandhs in various places. These bandhs were organized by Panchayats to deprive landlords of the services of even barbers and washermen.
  • By June 1919, the UP Kisan Sabha had 450 branches. Other prominent leaders included Jhinguri Singh, Durgapal Singh and Baba Ramchandra. In June 1920, Baba Ramchandra urged Nehru to visit these villages. During these visits, Nehru developed close contacts with the villagers.
  • Meanwhile, the kisans found sympathy in Mehta, the Deputy Commissioner of Pratapgarh, who promised to investigate complaints forwarded to him.
    • The Kisan Sabha at village Roor in Pratapgarh district became the centre of activity and about one lakh tenants were reported to have registered their complaints with this Sabha on the payment of one anna each.
    • Gauri Shankar was also very active in Pratapgarh during this period, and was in the process of working out an agreement with Mehta over some of the crucial tenant complaints such as bedakhli and nazrana.
    • Mehta withdrew the case of theft and attempted to bring pressure on the landlords to change their ways This easy victory, however, gave a new confidence to the movement and it burgeoned forth.
  • In October 1920, the Awadh Kisan Sabha came into existence in Pratapgarh because of differences in nationalist ranks.
    • Congress at Calcutta had chosen path of non-cooperation and many nationalists of UP had committed themselves to it. But there were others like Malviya who preferred constitutional agitation. These differences wre reflected in UP Kisan Sabha as well and soon Non-cooperators formed Awadh Kishan Sabha.
    • This new body succeeded in integrating under its banner all the grass roots kishansabhas that has emerged in Awadh.
  • The Awadh Kisan Sabha asked the kisans to refuse to till bedakhali land, not to offer hali and begar (forms of unpaid labour), to boycott those who did not accept these conditions and to solve their disputes through Panchayats.
  • From the earlier forms of mass meetings and mobilisation, the patterns of activity changed rapidly in January 1921 to the looting of bazaars, houses, granaries and clashes with the police. The centres of activity were primarily the districts of Rai Bareilly, Faizabad and Sultanpur.
  • In Awadh in the early months of 1921 when peasant activity was at its peak, it was difficult to distinguish between a Non-cooperation meeting and a peasant rally.
  • The movement declined soon, partly due to government repression and partly because of the passing of the Awadh Rent (Amendment) Act.

B) Eka Movement:

  • Towards the end of 1921, peasant discontent resurfaced in some northern districts of the United Provinces—Hardoi, Bahraich, Sitapur.
  • The issues involved were:
    • High rents—50 per cent higher than the recorded rates;
    • Oppression of thikedars in charge of revenue collection; and
    • Practice of share-rents.
  • The meetings of the Eka or the Unity Movement involved a symbolic religious ritual in which the assembled peasants vowed that they would:
    • Pay only the recorded rent but would pay it on time;
    • Not leave when evicted;
    • Refuse to do forced labour;
    • Give no help to criminals;
    • Abide by Panchayat decisions.
  • The grassroot leadership of the Eka Movement came from MadariPasi and other low-caste leaders, and many small Zamindars.
  • By March 1922, severe repression by authorities brought the movement to an end.

C) Mappila Revolt:

  • In August 1921, peasant discontent erupted in the Malabar district of Kerala. Here Mappila (Muslim) tenants rebelled. Their grievances related to lack of any security of tenure, renewal fees, high rents, and other oppressive landlord exactions. In the nineteenth century as well, there had been cases of Mappila resistance to landlord oppression but what erupted in 1921 was on a different scale together.
  • The impetus for resistance had first come from the Malabar District Congress Conference held at Manjeri in April 1920.
    • This conference supported the tenants’ cause and demanded legislation to regulate landlord- tenant relations.
    • The change was significant because earlier the landlords had successfully prevented the Congress from committing itself to the tenants’ cause. The Manjeri conference was followed by the formation of tenants’ association at Kozhikode, and soon tenants’ associations were set up in other parts of the district.
  • Simultaneously, the Khilafat Movement was also extending its sweep. In fact, there was hardly any way one could distinguish between Khilafat and tenants’ meetings, the leaders and the audience were the same, and the two movements were inextricably merged into one.
    • The social base of the movement was primarily among the Mappila tenants, and Hindus were quite conspicuous by their absence, though the movement could count on a number of Hindu leaders.
  • The leaders of the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement like Gandhi, Shaukat Ali and Maulana Azad addressed Mappila meetings. After the arrest of national leaders, the leadership passed into the hands of local Mappila leaders.
  • Things took a turn for the worse in August 1921 when the arrest of a priest leader, Ali Musaliar, sparked off large-scale riots. Initially, the symbols of British authority— courts, police stations, treasuries and offices—and unpopular landlords (jenmies who were mostly Hindus) were the targets.
    • But once the British declared martial law and repression began in earnest, the character of the rebellion underwent a definite change. Many Hindus were seen by the Mappilas to be helping the authorities.
    • What began as an anti-government and anti- landlord affair acquired communal overtones. The communalisation of the rebellion completed the isolation of the Mappilas from the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation Movement. By December 1921, all resistance had come to a stop.
  • The militant Mappilas were completely rushed and dmoralized that till independence their participation in an form of politics was almost nill. The peasant movement that was to grow in Kerala in later years under Left leadership.


  • The peasant movements in U.P. and Malabar were thus closely linked with the politics at the national level. In UP., the impetus had come from the Home Rule Leagues and, later, from the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movement.
    • In Avadh, in the early months of 1921 when peasant activity was at its peak, it was difficult to distinguish between a Non cooperation meeting and a peasant rally. A similar situation arose in Malabar, where Khilafat and tenants’ meetings merged into one.
    • But in both places, the recourse to violence by the peasants created a distance between them and the national movement and led to appeals by the nationalist leaders to the peasants that they should not indulge in violence.
    • Often, the national leaders, especially Gandhiji, also asked the peasants to desist from taking extreme action like stopping the payment of rent to landlords.
  • The advice of the national leadership was prompted by the desire to protect the peasants from the consequences of violent revolt, consequences which did not remain hidden for long as both in U.P. and Malabar the Government launched heavy repression in order to crush the movements.
  • Their advice that peasants should not push things too far with the landlords by refusing to pay rent could stem from other considerations.
    • The peasants themselves were not demanding abolition of rent or landlordism, they only wanted an end to ejectments, illegal levies, and exorbitant rents — demands which the national leadership supported.
    • The recourse to extreme measures like refusal to pay rent was likely to push even the small landlords further into the lap of the government and destroy any chances of their maintaining a neutrality towards the on-going conflict between the government and the national movement.

D) Bardoli Satyagraha:

  • The Bardoli taluqa in Surat district had witnessed intense politicisation after the coming of Gandhi on the national political scene. The movement sparked off in January 1926 when the authorities decided to increase the land revenue by 30 per cent.
  • The Congress leaders were quick to protest and a Bardoli Inquiry Committee was set up to go into the issue. The committee found the revenue hike to be unjustified. In February 1926, Vallabhbhai Patel was called to lead the movement.
  • The women of Bardoli gave him the title of “Sardar”. Under Patel, the Bardoli peasants resolved to refuse payments of the revised assessment until the Government appointed an independent tribunal or accepted the current amount as full payment.
  • To organise the movement, Patel set up 13 chhavanis or workers’ camps in the taluqa. Bardoli Satyagraha Patrika was brought out to mobilise public opinion. An intelligence wing was set up to make sure all the tenants followed the movement’s resolutions.
  • Those who opposed the movement faced a social boycott. Special emphasis was placed on the mobilisation of women. K.M. Munshi and Lalji Naranji resigned from the Bombay Legislative Council in support of the movement.
  • By August 1928, massive tension had built up in the area. There were prospects of a railway strike in Bombay. Gandhi reached Bardoli to stand by in case of any emergency. The Government was looking for a graceful withdrawal now.
  • It set the condition that first the enhanced rent be paid by all the occupants. Then, a committee went into the whole affair and found the revenue hike to be unjustified and recommended a rise of 6.03 per cent only.


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