Ruling the Countryside
High Demand of Indigo
The tropical climate is good for indigo plantation. By the thirteenth century, Indian indigo was being used in Italy, France and Britain. But the price of indigo was very high and hence a small amount of Indian indigo could reach the European market.
Woad is another plant which is used for making violet and blue dyes. Wood is a plant of temperate zones and hence was easily available in Europe. Woad was grown in northern Italy, southern France and in parts of Germany and Britain. The woad producers in Europe were worried by the competition from indigo and hence pressurized their governments to ban the import of indigo.
But indigo was preferred by the cloth dyers. While indigo produced a rich blue colour, woad produced pale and dull blue. By the seventeenth century, European cloth producers pressurized their governments to relax the ban on indigo import.
Indigo cultivation was started by the French in St Dominique in the Caribbean islands. Similarly, the Portuguese began indigo cultivation in Brazil, the British in Jamaica and the Spanish in Venezuela. Indigo plantations were also started in many parts of North America.
By the end of the eighteenth century, industrialization began in Britain and cotton production expanded manifold. This created an enormous demand for cloth dyes. The existing supplies of indigo from the West Indies and America collapsed due to various reasons. The indigo production in the world fell by half between 1783 and 1789. This meant that there was increasing demand for Indian indigo.
India: A Major Source of Indigo
The Company looked for ways to expand the area under indigo cultivation in India. From the last decades of the eighteenth century, indigo cultivation in Bengal rapidly expanded. Only about 30% of indigo imported to Britain in 1788 was from India. This figure went up to 95% by 1810.
Commercial agents and officials of the Company began investing in indigo production to increase their profit. Many Company officials even left their jobs to look after their indigo business. Many people from Scotland and England came to India and became planters; to grab the opportunity. The Company and banks were giving loans for indigo cultivation at that time.
Systems of Indigo Cultivation
In this system, the planter produced indigo on those lands which were under his direct control. The planter either bought the land or rented it from other zamindars. He directly employed labourers to produce indigo.
The problem with nij cultivation
- Indigo could only be cultivated on fertile lands. But these areas were densely populated and hence, only small plots could be acquired. This made it difficult to expand the area under nij cultivation.
- They attempted to lease in the land around the indigo factory. While doing so, they evicted the peasants from the area. Peasants’ eviction always created conflict and tension.
- A large plantation required a large number of workers. Work at indigo plantation coincided with the time when peasants were busy with rice cultivation. Hence, mobilizing the labour for indigo cultivation was a difficult task.
- Large scale nij cultivation also required many ploughs and bullocks. It was a big problem to bur and maintain the ploughs. Since the ploughs and bullocks of the peasants were busy in rice cultivation hence it was not possible to hire from them.
- Till the late nineteenth century, planters were not willing to expand the area under nij cultivation; because of above mentioned problems. Less than 25% of the indigo cultivation was done under nij system.
Under the ryoti system, indigo cultivation was done by the ryots. The planters made the ryots to sign a contract or an agreement (satta). Sometimes, they pressurized the village headmen to sign the contract on behalf of the ryots. After signing the contract, the ryots got cash advances from the planters. But after taking the loan, the ryot was committed to grow indigo on at least 25% of his land holding. Seeds and drills were provided by the planter. The cultivators prepared the soil, sowed the seed and looked after the crop.
But the planters bought indigo at low prices and hence the ryots were always in debt trap.
- Thousands of ryots in Bengal refused to grow indigo in March 1859. The ryots refused to pay rents to the planters. They attacked indigo factories. They used to be armed with swords and spears, bows and arrows. Women also fought with pots, panda and kitchen implements. Those who worked for the planters were socially boycotted. The gomasthas were beaten up when they came to collect rent. The gomasthas were the agents of indigo planters.
- In many villages, headmen mobilized the indigo peasants against the lathiyals. The headmen were angry because they had been forced to sign indigo contract. Some zamindars were angry with the increasing power of the planters and at being forced to give them land on long leases. So, some zamindars also supported the villagers in their revolt against the indigo planters.
- After the Revolt of 1857, the British government was worried about the possibility of another popular rebellion. When the news of indigo revolt spread, the Lieutenant Governor toured the region in the winter of 1859. This was seen as a sign of sympathy by the ryots. They began to believe that the British government would support them in their struggle.
- When the rebellion spread, intellectuals from Calcutta rushed to the indigo districts. They began writing about the misery of the ryots and the horrors of the indigo system.
- The government called in the military to protect the planters. The Indigo Commission was set up to enquire into the system of indigo production. The Commission held the planters guilty. It asked the ryots to fulfill their existing obligations and then they were free to cultivate whatever they wished.
After the Revolt
The indigo production collapsed in Bengal, after the revolt. The planters now shifted their operation to Bihar. Discovery of synthetic dyes in the late nineteenth century severely affected the business. But the planters managed to expand production. When Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa, the plight of indigo farmers in Champaran was brought to his notice. Mahatma Gandhi visted Champaran in 1917 and began the movement against the indigo planters.