Chapter 1: The peasant and the quest for a state: The first phase (1757- 1947)
August 11th, 2020 at 6:08 pm
Chapter 1: The peasant and the quest for a state: The first phase (1757- 1947)

Peasantry: From resistance to state making

The peasantry in Bengal is rarely visible but often a critical catalyst of its history.  From a relatively passive force before the colonial take over in 1757, it became the most significant resisting force as colonial policies impacted adversely on its socio-economic life. As colonial economics enriched a few and impoverished many, the political equations were fundamentally drawn around such historical experiences and reaction to these colonial policies. The beneficiaries and the denied became foes.

Similar experiences of denial, enrichment and aspiration created the circumstances for creating alliances among the various socio-economic classes ranging from the peasantry at the bottom to the ousted landlords or the new colonial elite at the top. Peasant alliance with the aspirant elite contesting the established elite was a new equation in this process. Such class alliances with the peasants in Bengal were complex in nature. These alliances were formed based on taxation relations, which were established by the Central-Asian before the British came in and set up colonialism. 

Continuously denied and the Central-Asians, who lost their footing to the British, formed an odd alliance against a common enemy; the British colonizers and its agents. The British colonizers are those who replaced the Central-Asian as tax collectors. The old zamindars that were mostly of Central-Asian origin were forming an alliance with the peasants. In the meantime, a class of new landlords (pro- British) was also rising. Most of the new landlords came from a particular socio-economic cluster located in the colonial capital in Kolkata. These new landlords were classified as bhadralaks (middleclass professional gentlemen) and they were mostly Hindu-Bengalis elite of Kolkata.

Changing of land ownership pattern, this photo was taken from Environment and Society portal

The main identity markers of such group were class, community and territory which later became clustered into one category; the Centre based elite. The land-based colonial elite of Bengal and Kolkata-based professional elite were linked to the colonial system through several socio-economic activities including the legal profession and other colonial services. The cultural and class identity of the landlords and contingent economics that constituted the Kolkata elite was based on colonial collaboration. As the beneficiaries of colonialism and founder of the new Bengali cultural idioms they become the ruling elite of Bengal; the Centre over the large swatch of people, land and practices which became the Margin. This bhadralak class was dominant in the region until the Margin, which was constituted of agro-hinterland- East Bengal, impoverished, aspirant and Muslims emerged to challenge it by the mid-19th century. Once Bengal was taken over by mid-18th century, a new taxation regime was established and resistance began almost immediately.

It showed the huge negative impact of the new taxation policy on the marginalized or denied groups. This process had several stages. The foundational period was until the end of the 18th century when Permanent Settlement was introduced in 1793. Permanent Settlement was a tax collection contract between the East India Company and the landlords in Bengal (Islam, Permanent Settlement). The company fixed a revenue amount for the land holders and they were given the chance to change the rent into any amount they wanted. This led to the ultimate misery for the peasants. The Permanent Settlement was followed by various pro-landlord decisions including the introduction of haftam law in 1799 (Islam, Permanent Settlement). Haftam law gave the zamindars total control over the economic life of the peasants which was not given before to any landlords. As it turned out to be a system that failed to take off, pattanai/panjam (intermediary system of rent collection/ tenure holdings) was introduced in 1812 (Islam, Permanent Settlement).

Almost immediately after the new taxation system was introduced peasants started to resist in different parts of Bengal. The Fakir-Sannyasi resistance was one of the first to be followed by many. A list of peasant resistance against the British taxation system has been provided in the following chapter. The introduction of pattani also saw the beginning of the Faraizi movement (1820s-1850s), which was a large scale peasant resistance which spread with extraordinary rapidity in Bengal (Hashmi, Peasant Movements). It was led by middle class descendants of earlier Turko-Afghan elites but the muscle was provided by the peasantry. It had significant impact on British rule and policies directly.

Peasant movement the photograph was taken from Aspirant Forum

Peasant resistance and challenge to colonialism 

The following features are to be noted regarding the formation of peasant resistance:   

– The land settlement and taxation policy that was established after 1757 and 1793 in particular, defined the economic reality as well as the politics of resistance for the peasants.

– The gap between the colonial elite and peasantry constituted the fundamental structural conflict that was expressed in various socio-economic conflicts and resistances at various levels and layers including inter-elite conflicts.

– The faith-based divide within the peasant community was a historical fact but was never a producer of conflict before British rule. The faith identity of the colonial landlords in most cases appears to be one of the more critical factors. The counter faith identity of the ousted pre-colonial landlords and majority of the rural elite opposed the new landlords (Kolkata-based elite) for mobilizing and creating conflict generating situations in Bengal history till the partition of Bengal in 1947. 

– A section of the rural middle class who became politically involved in the 20th century and mostly drawn from the middle peasantry also found it convenient to use faith community markers to mobilize the peasantry against the landlords. Economic repression and the landlord was easily demonized using cultural markers.  

– Given the cultural identity of the victim and the colonial victimizer, peasant response against the dominant faith identity marker of the landlords/colonial elites was inevitable. In almost no peasant movement cultural, community or faith based conflicts were ideological. It was rather a matter of convenience. Even the Faraizi movement, which was Muslim exclusivist in nature, was an economic movement against the landlords and its supporters.

– The Hindu peasantry, as a result of such social equations became the relative left outs of the peasant movement till the Indigo uprisings in the 1860s. But they were not the front benchers of resistance.  They became more dependent on the political decisions of the Kolkata elite as none stood to lead them or include them in the peasant struggles of the Margin. Thus, the Margin became inevitably and largely a mono-faith community based until 1947. After that the Centre in Kolkata was gone and they became part of the Margin after 1947 in East Pakistan until Bangladesh was born in 1971.

– After the Permanent Settlement in 1793, the chances of the Hindu peasant community participation lessened as the landlords belonged to the collaborating Kolkata cluster that was largely from their faith community. It was not until 1867-69, during Indigo disturbances, that they asserted significantly but largely remained as marginalized members in the Kolkata led socio-economic cluster.  


– The upper class Hindu community/Kolkata leadership were beneficiaries of colonialism. This elite formation process impacted heavily on the Hindu peasantry and reduced their capacity as a political force. Up until 1793, they were part of joint peasantry based resistance movements such as the Fakir-Sannyasi resistance, Rangpur resistance (1783) and so on. Later, it declined after the institutionalization of zamindari through Permanent Settlement. The Faraizi movement was built around exclusive faith community identity basis and negated inter-community based common peasant movements. This pattern set the tone of later participation as well which was enhanced by the objective political conditions of the majority peasantry.

– The resisting peasantry and the non-resisting peasantry thus became attached to different political clusters in conflict. They had mostly the same markers but different types of elite leadership. It was not before 1947 that both participated in common movements in East Pakistan.

– Peasantry itself went through two broad phases. One stretched from the post 1757 scenario and another after the 1857 Sepoy mutiny in the 19th century. During the Sepoy mutiny, peasantry was significantly present but not recognized by many who describe it as a resistance by the aristocracy and soldiers (Kumar, 2017).

– The Fakir-Sannyasi movement in 1760 marks the first resistance when the peasantry was active as militants. After the Sepoy revolt of 1857, the colonizers began a policy that was more concessional as far as peasantry and the aspirant elite communities were concerned. They did so to ensure their own survival by diminishing resistance but peasant resistances continued in a diminished form till the very end of 1947.  

– The colonizers were forced to recognize the rising power of the peasantry in stages. As early as 1783, during the Rangpur resistance, they gave in to the demand for rent relief by the peasant and pre-colonial village elite. Similar incidents are noted elsewhere. As these resistances grew in scale- beginning with the Faraizi/Wahabi movement and onwards stretching until the 20th century, the colonizers became savvier at managing conflicts with the peasantry (Islam, Peasantry). 

The rise of peasant power

–  By the time of the Faraizi movement, British colonizers realized that the zamindari system had not worked as an economic project like they had planned and hoped. Even though the landlord-based elite class remained steadfastly loyal, they were no longer or never were the rural force which could manage the countryside as agents of colonialism. Hence, reforms began to be introduced aiming to benefit the peasantry to ensure a more peaceful management of the rural world (a list of peasant reformations has been provided in the later chapter). This, in turn, increased the political clout of the peasants.

–  The failure of the landlords as estate managers led to the rise of the intermediaries or middle class peasants who became a major factor in rural political sociology. They became the interpreter of causes and grievances to both parties and mobilizers of the poor while seeking advantages from the rulers.

–  Around the 19th century, the peasant phase of national politics began to mature.  It also herald the beginning of the multi-class based Margin as a political identity based on a shared history of negative impacts of colonialism and its Kolkata-based established collaborators.

image of united Bengal – wikipedia

– Once vote reached the peasantry in 1909, they became more powerful. They could influence not just the politics of the Margin, but that of the elite as well. These aspirant elite were emerging as their spokesperson with the colonizers and the Kolkata-based Centre elite. The Margin of Bengal, in particular, was largely driven by the aspirations of the peasantry as they had the majority vote.

– With voting based on separate electorate,- community based voting in reserved seats-  the Bengali Muslim                 peasantry which was largely based in eastern Bengal became a force capable of state making as an objective of the Margin based alliance (Islam, Separate Electorate).

– The action of the Kolkata elite against its contesting aspirant elite was perceived by the majority peasantry as negative due to their common perception of denial by the Kolkata elite, as landlords to the peasants and excluders to the aspirants elite. In this, they were together as peasants or as the rising middle class forming the Margin and mostly in erstwhile East Bengal. 

– Thus, the peasantry reacted violently to the annulment of the partition of Bengal in 1911. The rejection of the Bengal Pact 1924 or even the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan and other moves before 1947 also led to peasant agitation.  The Bengal Pact was an agreement proposed by Chitta Ranjan Das aimed at resolving the question of Hindu-Muslim economic differences by sharing political power between two communities. The Cabinet Mission Plan proposed a two-tiered federal plan for post-colonial India which was expected to maintain national unity while conceding the largest measure of regional autonomy. During 1947 to 1971, the peasantry remained aggressive and in 1971, took up arms. The peasantry is not a passive or docile force but often violent if they feel threatened as their history suggests.

– The peasantry of East Bengal after 1905 had also developed an alliance-based wider identity (Bengal Partition) outside the peasant identity forming the political Margin.

– Peasantry in Bengal was not a cultural marker but a composite one dominated by economics and the village habitat and its culture. The peasant was also the strongest section of the Margin as a political force by acting       together with the middle and other classes in both pre and post 1947 politics. Hence, its loyalty to urban sourced culture based identity markers was limited.

The Margin: The peasantry-middle class alliance

– Peasant in history is not an independent player but acts in alliance with the middle class closest to it. That class is not of the cosmopolitan variety though and is somewhat distant from the Centre.

– The peasant identity markers are socio-economic and territorial which are centered on the village as the producer of experiences; largely historical. However, the collective politics that emerges out of all the villages including the impact of politics made by the Centre makes it a massive state-making force. It happened so in Bengal in 1947 and in the Liberation War of 1971. It also can decide which politics serves it best.

– The peasants of East Bengal in particular voted overwhelmingly for the Krishak Praja Party (KPP), a rural based party, led by Fazlul Haq in 1937 but dropped it completely in 1946 (Islam, Bengal legislative Assembly).  

– The reason for its decline was peasant reasoning. KPP fell out with the Muslim League (ML) and formed an alliance with the Hindu Mahasabha and other parties after 1941 which was not considered pro- peasants by the Margin anymore. Hence they were completely rejected by the peasantr. (Islam, Krishak praja Party). In 1946, the Margin voted for Bengal Muslim League (BML) which had by then become a party of the Margin since its allies in Bengal were not part of any Kolkata elite.

– It was a multi-class rural urban cluster mixed party which was loyal to the perceptions of the peasantry. The peasant had no permanent political friend as 1937 and 1946 elections showed. Peasants do not retain long term loyalties to any parties, and this flexibility helps them survive and take decision and exert control on any particular elite formation.

–  Peasants always look at its interest, their ideas and beliefs including what they see as their identity. A concept like an All Indian Identity had little value in a village since the village identity was central to the Self rather than some distant geography. The villagers also had established multiple identities built over time unlike the Centre, which invented them to suit their own politics. Peasantry votes for those parties which have strong roots in the Margin and are usually led by the aspirants rather than the established elite while in the state making mode.   

– The idea in the 1946 election in Bengal which Bengal Muslim League (BML) swept was a vote for a state construct even though the nature and scope of that state was unclear. It meant different realities to different clusters of voters. Thus, different people voted for different versions of the same state and the highest segment of that winning vote came from the peasantry.

– The failure of a United Bengal in 1947 jointly made by both Bengal Muslim League and Bengal Congress clarified the fact that the political history of Bengal was not a result of joint “Bengali” politics as it lacked a common or shared history. This included the inability of the Kolkata elite to form a new alliance with the aspirant contestants clustered in the Margin of Bengal. The old Kolkata elite chose India rather than Bengal out of its own sense of survival.

– The future of old Kolkata elite in a new post-colonial state with leadership run by the aspirants who were seen by them as hostile made the proposal of United Bengal Movement (UBM) less appealing. However, they were willing up to a point but caved in as pressure from central Congress mounted which was based more on the conflict between Congress Delhi and Muslim League Delhi (Misra, United Independent Bengal Movement).

The post 1947 peasantry as a cohesive force

– After the emergence of Pakistan in 1947, the peasantry became a more cohesive force in East Pakistan due to the addition of Hindu peasantry as members of the new Margin who could play a decisive historic role particularly in voting. The struggle for a state was from that point of an unfinished “state” of 1947 to that of a “complete” one in 1971.

– Peasant vote of 1954 for the United Front and the vote of 1970 election influenced the most during the post 1947 state making process. It confirmed the Margin as the single and most cohesive political force and led to its final confrontation with the central Pakistan elite which failed to sustain the centrist rule in 1971.

– Bangladesh is therefore, a product of a long history of resistance that began by the peasantry in the late 18th century in order to protect its livelihood under colonial rule. It ended with the widest resistance movement in the region to protect both its life and livelihood in 1971. The continuity of the struggle moved from peasant resistance to state making.

– In this struggle, the alliance with the middle class closest to it made state-making eventually possible. From that perspective, Bangladesh was the product of a dominant resisting and later, dominant aspirant force of the peasantry to achieve statehood through a multi-class alliance led by the middle.

– This alliance as the structure of the Margin was based on the peasant at the core. Political leadership throughout was therefore of peasant cause mixed with urban middle class ones.

– The Margin is an amalgamated identity of many economics, faith, language, location and other markers held together by the shared experience of a common history as its main marker. History was therefore created by a class alliance that was politically led by a party which represented in 1971, all the forces of state-making aspirations.  

– In 1971, this process was led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as the leader of the political Margin. From that perspective, he was also the leader of the largest peasant mobilization for state making leading to its conclusion. This struggle began when the peasantry resisted colonialism. (to be continued)