The Blue blooded peasants


indigo

 

By 1777, the Industrial Revolution had picked up enough steam in Great Britain that the demand for colored dye to color cotton textiles was at its highest. Sensing a huge business opportunity from this, Louis Bonard, an entrepreneurial businessman from London set sail for the exotic Eastern shores of India.

When he reached India after a particularly tortuous sea journey of around 5 months, his first order of action was to tap into his bureaucratic contacts at The East India Company at Calcutta on the eastern side of India. Louis had read reports in British newspapers that the Nawab of Bengal was especially favorable to the British and had granted them lots of concessions in the form of reduced taxes, access to land and the peasants tilling the land, etc. His idea was to convince a significant proportion of the peasants to cultivate indigo which was the primary raw material for blue dye for cotton textiles, purchase it from them and then export the same to Britain and other European countries for a profit.

If conducted properly, this business venture had the potential to convert Louis into a millionaire business in a short span of time and he could then retire in luxury, go back to London, settle down and join one of those ‘red nosed’ high society gentlemen’s’ clubs which were so fashionable in those days.

The Indigo Plantation Act passed by the British Government recently gave British citizens the permission to grow indigo in any tracts of land owned by them or The East India Company. Using this Act, Louis was probably the first indigo planter in India, by virtue of having convinced quite a few landowners in the villages near Nadia, Maimansinga, Jessore, Khulna and others. What was especially beneficial for the indigo planters like Louis was the fact that they only had to pay 2.5% of the market price of indigo to the farmers. This meant that apart from the cost of transportation of the indigo from India to Europe which would anyway be covered by the remaining 97.5%, the profits made from this venture would be nothing short of a fortune.

Haricharan Biswas was one such peasant whose landowner forced him to cultivate indigo in the place of rice. It was not the landowner’s fault as he was strong armed by representatives of the indigo planters known as lathiyals. These lathiyals were nothing but paid strong arm men and goons hired by these indigo planters for a monthly wage, and this category of people had loyalty to only one person, the one who paid the highest wages for their activities. One fine day, the lathiyals had barged into the landowner’s house and had informed him that from the next crop onwards, he had to plant indigo and that was how it would be going forward. The landowner had no other option but to agree and he therefore ordered Haricharan to cultivate indigo going forward.

What was worse than the price paid by the planters was the fact that they would also double up as money lenders to the farmers and give them money at exorbitant rates of interest. Given that the farmers were uneducated and that an organized financial system did not exist in the region in those days meant that the farmers had no option but to take these loans and cultivate the land. After all, they had families and children to feed and bring up and expensive loans were better than begging for the same.

As time went by Haricharan’s loans kept multiplying in interest and principal and as was the norm in those days, his son Bishnucharan inherited these from his father at a young age of 17 yrs, when Haricharan died after a long, hard and arduous life of indigo cultivation.

Then, in 1857, the Sepoy Mutiny (the credit of starting which went to Mangal Pandey according to some sources) worried the British Government sitting in London. The bad publicity that the Mutiny received all over the world, and more importantly in India itself ensured that the Govt. went into damage control mode and all attempts were made to ensure that nothing of this sort ever happened again.

However, youngsters such as Bishnucharan were so enthused by the news that Indian sepoys had managed to bring down the mighty British Govt. down to its knees simply by ensuring effective collective action. This was probably the first time in recent times that Indians had gotten together to fight the mighty British Empire and its exploitative rules, and this ignited popular imagination all over the country. There was a new found air of confidence in the youngsters of the day.

Bishnu had spent all his life watching his father struggle to make ends meet with the meager income earned by cultivating indigo, and what was worse was the fact that his landowner despite knowing of these struggles could do nothing about it. After all, he was also under the mighty yoke of the indigo planters who in any case, had a reputation for seeing nothing but profits and more profits in any of their dealings, either with the landowners or the farmers in the form of loans lent out to them. As if this weren’t enough, Bishnu also had to bear the burden of all the earlier loans that his father had taken to ensure that his mother, his brothers and he received at least one square meal a day. A lifetime of anger lay simmering within Bishnu and he wasn’t quite sure as to when it would all come out.

All this while a silent rebellion was brewing in Bengal and in particular the regions of Nadia and Maimansinga. The indigo farmers, encouraged by the relative success of The Sepoy Mutiny slowly started grouping themselves in small groups and had decided to take effective collective action to improve their lot in life by rebelling against the indigo planters. In March 1859, led by Bishnucharan Biswas, his brother Digambar Biswas and a few others, the indigo farmers raided the closest police station and armed themselves with firearms. They then proceeded to the closest indigo planter’s house,  Thomas Saunders, threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t co-operate and took him to their village. At the village, they then held a trial for his crimes of paying an extremely low price for the indigo they cultivated, charging exorbitant rates of interest for loans lent by him, and declared him guilty of these crimes. They then pronounced the sentence, to be hung by death, and then proceeded to lynch him from the closest tree.

Thus, began what was popularly termed “The Blue Revolution” or “The Indigo Revolts” in India. The movement spread to almost all of Bengal (including Bangladesh in those days) and jolted the British Govt. to take aggressive and assertive action. The years 1859 and 1860 were especially violent with news of indigo planters being slaughtered and lynched becoming common place. Even the landowners sympathized with the farmers knowing their suffering; most of them mobilized the indigo farmers and actively fought the lathiyals and the indigo planters.

The revolt finally subsided after a lot of bloodshed on both sides. While the British Govt. had used their military might actively, the indigo farmers also extracted their pound of flesh by various clandestine means and their ability to quickly and aggressively attack their antagonists. In the face of the violence, the British Govt. was forced to set up the Indigo Commission in 1860 which clearly brought out the facts regarding the oppression faced by the indigo farmers out in the public domain. An Act was then passed, which made it optional for farmers to opt out of cultivating indigo which was the logical conclusion for which the revolts had originally started.

By 1860 Louis Bonard had been long dead, having made his money from indigo, and lived a luxurious retired life with an abundance of wealth, riches and gluttony which would have made even the Queen of England cringe with shame. Little did he realize that he would be unleashing almost 100 yrs of oppression on Bengali farmers when he obtained permission to cultivate indigo there.

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While the backdrop of this particular story is set in fact, the Indigo Revolts [Link to Wikipedia article], a lot of fiction has been added to the same to embellish the story. Consequently, it is not my intention to defame or hurt any characters, incidents or events by this post.

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Image courtesy: Google images search for “Indigo Revolt India 1860”

13 thoughts on “The Blue blooded peasants

  1. Read about it once upon a time. This was a jog down the same lane, albeit more interesting and better narrated compared to the historian who penned it in that book. Very nice, Jairam. You dabble in many different ink pots I see, and dazzle with all of them, equally! 🙂

    • @Sakshi, wow, your first comment on mahabore, quite an honor I must say. Such praise coming from you is a big deal indeed, given the variety of writing that you engage in, thank you so much 🙂

      Regarding the Indigo revolt itself, I happened to read about it when writing an earlier story and thought that it deserved a story for itself, don’t you think?

  2. Thanks for a peek in the history.The first time I had read about the revolt was in school and now it just seems so real, not just a chapter in history. Wonderfully done! thanks 🙂

    • @myriad rainbow hues, that is probably the beauty of story telling, a story well told remains in one’s memory for a longer time I guess

  3. This reminds me of the butterfly effect.. Something as innocuous as the flight of a butterfly can result into something unforeseen as a hurricane due to the reactions of the atmosphere to the wind displaced by the butterfly’s wings

    • @Santulan, in this case the butterfly knew exactly what kind of a hurricane it would cause when it fluttered its wings. The British clearly knew they were exploiting the peasants when they set the price of indigo at 2.5% of the prevailing market price

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