INDIGO: DYE AND REVOLT

In the summer of 1859 in Bengal, thousands of ryots (peasants) refused to grow indigo for the European planters (owners of land and indigo factories). It became one of the most remarkable anti-colonial movements of Indian history and came to be called the Neel Bidroha or the Indigo Revolt.

Loading a vat with the indigo crop. Photo by French photographer Oscar Mallitte. Image source: Old Indian Photos

The ryots were coerced by the planters to grow indigo on their fertile lands. This was to meet the growing demands of indigo dye for industrial Britain. The peasants sowed indigo under an exploitative contract system in which the planters advanced them a meagre loan of two rupees per beegah to meet the expenses of the cultivation. Since the peasants lacked monetary means to carry out agriculture, they agreed to sow indigo on their lands.

As per the contract, the land had to be sown with indigo, weeded and delivered at the indigo factories owned by the European planters where the plant was processed into a dye.

At the close of the manufacturing season in August or September, the accounts used to be drawn out. The debit included the cost of advance (two rupees per beegah), the cost of the stamp paper on which the contract was signed (two annas), and the cost of four to five seers of seeds charged at four annas per beegah. The credit included the value of indigo plant bundles delivered by the ryot to the factories at 4 to 8 bundles per rupee. The average return of a beegah was about 10 to 12 bundles.

Between the debit and credit amount, a balance was struck and payment was made accordingly. If he had a ‘fazil’ or excess then he was paid. If not, then a debt was set against him. Despite the debt, a fresh advance was given to him for the next season. However, the debt was deducted from the full advance amount and the ryot received only the remaining sum for the next agricultural season. In some cases, if the debt was too high, the ryot did not receive any fresh advance and was trapped into sowing indigo without it!

Moreover, the planters chose which part of the peasants’ land had to be sown with indigo and if they refused, physical and verbal indignities were inflicted upon them. They were also beaten with 50 or 60 latthials (lathi wielding men employed by planters to terrorize ryots)

Exasperated by this exploitative system, the peasants revolted against the Europeans. The peasants attacked indigo factories with spears and swords and the planters were beaten. In the light of this unrest, the Indigo commission was set up in 1860 to enquire into the ills of the system. It found it to be inherently oppressive, essentially because of the system of advances that trapped the peasants in an unending cycle of debt. The Commission suggested reforms for the system which were later accepted.

Beating the indigo dye vat. Photo by French photographer Oscar Mallitte. Image source: Old Indian Photos

Nil Bidroha was a non-violent revolution and one of the reasons it was successful. It is seen as a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Mahatma Gandhi.

The Nil Bidroh inspired many of our National leaders in the 20th century.

Wearing ‘Swadeshi’

In the summer of 1859 in Bengal, thousands of ryots (peasants) refused to grow indigo for the European planters (owners of land and indigo factories). It became one of the most remarkable anti-colonial movements of Indian history and came to be called the Neel Bidroha or the Indigo Revolt.

Loading a vat with the indigo crop. Photo by French photographer Oscar Mallitte. Image source: Old Indian Photos

The ryots were coerced by the planters to grow indigo on their fertile lands. This was to meet the growing demands of indigo dye for industrial Britain. The peasants sowed indigo under an exploitative contract system in which the planters advanced them a meagre loan of two rupees per beegah to meet the expenses of the cultivation. Since the peasants lacked monetary means to carry out agriculture, they agreed to sow indigo on their lands.

As per the contract, the land had to be sown with indigo, weeded and delivered at the indigo factories owned by the European planters where the plant was processed into a dye.

At the close of the manufacturing season in August or September, the accounts used to be drawn out. The debit included the cost of advance (two rupees per beegah), the cost of the stamp paper on which the contract was signed (two annas), and the cost of four to five seers of seeds charged at four annas per beegah. The credit included the value of indigo plant bundles delivered by the ryot to the factories at 4 to 8 bundles per rupee. The average return of a beegah was about 10 to 12 bundles.

Between the debit and credit amount, a balance was struck and payment was made accordingly. If he had a ‘fazil’ or excess then he was paid. If not, then a debt was set against him. Despite the debt, a fresh advance was given to him for the next season. However, the debt was deducted from the full advance amount and the ryot received only the remaining sum for the next agricultural season. In some cases, if the debt was too high, the ryot did not receive any fresh advance and was trapped into sowing indigo without it!

Moreover, the planters chose which part of the peasants’ land had to be sown with indigo and if they refused, physical and verbal indignities were inflicted upon them. They were also beaten with 50 or 60 latthials (lathi wielding men employed by planters to terrorize ryots)

Exasperated by this exploitative system, the peasants revolted against the Europeans. The peasants attacked indigo factories with spears and swords and the planters were beaten. In the light of this unrest, the Indigo commission was set up in 1860 to enquire into the ills of the system. It found it to be inherently oppressive, essentially because of the system of advances that trapped the peasants in an unending cycle of debt. The Commission suggested reforms for the system which were later accepted.

Beating the indigo dye vat. Photo by French photographer Oscar Mallitte. Image source: Old Indian Photos

Nil Bidroha was a non-violent revolution and one of the reasons it was successful. It is seen as a forerunner of the non-violent passive resistance later successfully adopted by Mahatma Gandhi.

The Nil Bidroh inspired many of our National leaders in the 20th century.

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