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.
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.
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.
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.