Early encounters of the colony and the peasantry: Resistances and Reforms
September 11th, 2020 at 3:37 am
Early encounters of the colony and the peasantry: Resistances and Reforms

(The book Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Bangladesh: The Quest for a State 1937-1971)  by Afsan Chowdhury as being serialized by newsnextbd.com as fourth episode)

[Chapter 2]

The economic regime set up by the colonial powers in the 18th century had urban trade streams as a mercantilist power in Bengal. As a colonial trading company, English East India company, it was more familiar with trade issues and their practitioners. The growing and strong local mercantilist powers of India were also from outside Bengal. After the British obtained the Diwani of Bengal in 1765 they ventured more into the agro business (Islam, Diwani). One example of their lack of capacity in this sector was reflected in the Famine of 1770 which was largely caused by the policies of the Company in grain trading and hoarding (Rahman, Famine). This famine resulted in millions of death. The British never properly understood the patterns of the Bengal rural economy or society and tried to implement British models which never worked including the Permanent Settlement in 1793, which was a massive failure and ignited peasant resistance, both going against British rule.

Venturing into the lucrative rural economy was however inevitable. The military victory of 1757 gave taxation rights to the British. These taxes were previously claimed by peasant level rent collectors as religious taxes. The British opposed this claim of the religious groups. The Fakir- Sannyasi resistance happened as a result of this denial of their tax collecting rights (Khan, Fakir- Sannyasi Resistance). The peasantry joined their erstwhile tax collectors in an alliance to fight for their own rights.

Later, the British changed the taxation system gradually and began to experiment with various settlement systems. They altered two revenue taxation systems; one was the Diwani (Finance) system which was separate from the Nizamat (administration). The British changed it by promising money to the impoverished Mughal Emperor Shah Alam to issue a firman merging both offices (Islam, Diwani). The Company hired their own person and gained control in return for a tribute to the Mughal emperor. This allowed the Company to control the finances completely, including agro-taxation.

Between 1760 and 1793, the taxation regime was causing hardship to the peasants and displacing the previous landlords. The British not only brought a new taxation system to the colony but also introduced new agricultural products as agricultural cash crops. For example, they started cultivating opium, indigo instead of  grain in Bengal which apparently became one of the causes of the Great Bengal Famine of 1770. The period after the colonial take over saw more peasant resistance than what Bengal had seen before. A series of disaffected rural upper class also joined this wave.

Hence, the Fakir-Sannyasi, Faraizi and later resistances saw a multi-class alliance taking shape. Various rural upper and upper middle class groups who felt denied under colonialism attached themselves to the peasant population power to restore privileges. It was based on the hope for mutual gain and not a principled statement/position of any kind by any group. The peasantry also required mobilization and the non-peasantry class provided this to construct the Margin alliance. A select list of peasant resistance has been given below:

1.        Fakir-Sannyasi Resistance (1760): After the British took over in 1757 and the taxation demands increased by as much as 300% in some cases. The Company also wanted to monopolize tax collection which brought them into conflict with religious mendicant fakirs and sannyasis who used to collect taxes from peasant communities. Thus, a livelihood issue for the mendicants led to armed resistance. It began in 1760 and continued for decades but weakened later (Khan, Fakir- Sannyasi Resistance). Peasants also joined the fight for cultural reasons since traditional alms giving by villagers were considered a religious duty.

2.        Rangpur revolt (1783): Rangpur peasant rebellion of 1783 was against the revenue farmer, Devi Singh. The peasants of Rangpur district rebelled under the leadership of a small landholder, Dhiraj Narayan. They stormed the headquarters of Devi Singh in Kazirhat and declared Narayan as ‘Nawab’ (Islam, Peasantry). The government first suppressed the rebellion and also cancelled the landlord contract of Devi Singh. Later they reduced the rent to pacify the peasants.

3.        Chakma revolt (1787): Chakma peasants of the Chittagong Hill Tracts opposed the Company policy to levy cash rent on the Jhum peasants of the Hill Tracts. The Chakma king rejected British rule and declared independence and waged guerrilla warfare against the Company forces. The guerrilla resistance continued until a peace accord recognizing the     autonomous status of the hill society was signed in 1787 (Islam, Peasantry).

4.        Bakerganj revolt (1792):  In 1792, the peasants of Bakerganj (present Barisal) declared independence as they felt oppressed by the ever rising revenue demands and oppressive mode of tax collection. They drove away the oppressive zamindars from their parganas and asked others to collect rent according to pargana nirikh (Islam, Peasantry). The peasants followed Balaki Shah who was a fakir and resisted the Company rule in Bakerganj. He declared one Shah Jeon the king of the parganas. Even though Balaki was initially successful in his venture as the ruler and reduced the rate of the rent to the minimum, later he was captured and convicted for political crimes with a life imprisonment (Hussain, Balaki Shah).

6.        Sylhet revolt (1799): Syed Aga Muhammad Reza Beg of Sylhet, a religious leader and aristocrat of the old order, waged a regular war in 1799 against the Company government with the support of the peasants and other anti-British landed classes (Islam, Peasantry). He was captured and sentenced to life imprisonment.

6.        Wahabi movement (1820-1870): Wahabi movement was one of the many Islamic reform movements in 19th century. Wahhabism of Arabia appears to have arisen under the impact of Ottoman imperialism. Mughal and British imperialism produced the movement of Shah Waliullahi and the Teriqah-i-Muhammadiyah (Khan, Muslim Religious Movements). There were other Islamic reform movements rising during that time and these religious   reform movements were associatively known as Wahhabism. These movements were mainly caused by the Company taxation and its impact on the Muslim leaders. The Muslim peasant supported these movements as they shared the common enemy. Therefore, there existed considerable mutual sympathy and a good deal of unity of purpose and identity of sentiments between them.

7.        Pagal Panthi Movement (1825-33): Karim Shah was the founder of the Pagal Panthi sect. He is said to have been a disciple of Musa Shah, a companion of Fakir Majnu Shah. Probably a Pathan by origin, Karim Shah started living in a village named Letarkanda in the Sushang pargana of northern Mymensingh apparently from 1775 and interpreted Islam in a popular way keeping in mind the local customs and traditions (Hussain, Pagal Panthi Movement). His teachings attracted people irrespective of race and religion. Hindus and nature worshippers were among his disciples. The teachings of Karim Shah were easy and simple. The ideas were mostly formed incorporating the traditional faiths of the peasantry. Therefore, they already had peasants as their ally. After Karim Shah, his son Tipu Shah became the leader and it turned into a peasant movement as severe taxation was imposed for the costs of the Burma-Bengal war. People stopped paying taxes as Tipu Shah ordered. Although Tipu Shah and his aides were arrested in 1833 and tried (Hussain, Pagal Panthi Movement). The government subsequently met many of the peasant demands, including lowering the rent rate and other taxes. Compromises and agreements       between the landlords, the Company and the peasants helped restore peace and order in the northern Mymensingh region.

8.        Faraizi Movement (1812- 1840s): Haji Shariutullah was a religious leader who learned about Wahabism in Mokkah in 19th century. He regarded British rule in Bengal as anti-Islamic. The Faraizi movement spread with extraordinary rapidity in the districts of Dhaka, Faridpur, Bakerganj (Barisal), Mymensingh, Tippera (Comilla), Chittagong and Noakhali as well as to the province of Assam. The enemies of the movement were Hindu zamindars and European indigo planters. In 1837, British accused Shariatullah of attempting to set up a kingdom of his own and brought numerous lawsuits against the Faraizis (Khan, Faraizi Movement). After the death of Shariatullah, his son Muhsinuddin Ahmad (Dudu Miyan) took over and organized the peasantry against the oppressive landlords. The landlords and indigo planters tried to contain Dudu Miyan by filing false cases against him but few witnesses were willing to accuse him. As it grew, some peasants from Hindus and local Christians also sought Dudu Miyan’s protection against the zamindars as they had no one else to seek help from. After he died in 1862, the movements weakened as the Muslim middle class began to emerge with less interest in peasant issues and keen to collaborate for jobs and other colonial services.

9.        Sepoy Mutiny (1857): Bengali Muslim and Hindu upper and middle class did not participate in Sepoy Mutiny. Muslim groups like the Anjumans supported the Company and congratulated them for suppressing               the movement. Resistance was noted in Jalpaiguri, Tripura, Dhaka and many other places in Bangladesh. Soon the British began to patronize the Muslim elite to balance its promotion of the Hindu elite only. Sir Syed Ahmed of Aligarh became the great collaborator of Muslim elite of India.

10.      Indigo Resistance Movement (1859-62): Indigo cultivation in Bengal was initially a profitable business. However, the market later dropped but the investors forced the raiyats (cultivators) to continue the work for the world market. As profit from indigo production became uneconomic at raiyat or peasant level, they refused to grow indigo and this added tension to the ongoing conflict between the peasants and the Company. The movement began in Jessore and Nadia in 1859 and quickly spread in other indigo districts and continued through 1862, when government interfered in favour of the raiyats (Choudhury, Indigo Resistance Movement).

11.      Pabna Peasant Uprising (1873): Pabna peasant Uprising was formed against the zamindari opression. It was originated in the Yusuf shahi pargana, which is now the Sirajganj district within greater Pabna in 1873 (Choudhury, Pabna Peasant Uprising). The zamindars routinely collected money from the peasants by the illegal means of forced levy, abwabs (cesses), enhanced rent and so on. The immediate background of the present rising in Pabna was a case filed by zamindars against 43 leading raiyatss of Urkandee village who refused to pay the enhanced rent, which they claimed to be illegal (Choudhury, Pabna Peasant Uprising). The movement initially started in a lawful and non-violent form though as it grew stronger, it became violent.

Subsequently, the scenario changed as the colonizer had to accept the power of the peasantry expressed through resistance with which other affected classes began to get involved with for mutual gain. The economic failure of the Permanent Settlement also informed the Company that exclusive dependence on the Kolkata-based elite and rural bhadralaks was not safe (Islam, Permanent Settlement). Not only was there lower peasant resistances to manage but also the middle peasantry had become increasingly strong particularly as the Pattani and sub-infeudation system took place (Islam, Permanent Settlement).

A series of peasants reforms are noticed which were usually resisted by the landlords but could not do much about it given their dependence on colonial power. For their own survival, the ruling class changed their strategy to introduce measures that would encourage peaceful and unhindered stream of resources from the rural areas. Following is a list of reformations that the British took to ensure taxation by the zamindars and after its failure to encourage peace in the peasant world.

1.        Haftam (1799): After the ratification of permanent settlement in 1793 a large number of zamindaris were put to auction sales every month. As a result of which government’s revenue collection became uncertain and the revenue income declined. This all caused deterioration of law and order in the country. Wellesley resolved to conciliate the zamindar class by bringing some amendments to the basic rules of the permanent settlement (Islam, Permanent Settlement, The). In 1799, the enactment of Regulation VII, commonly known as haftam or seventh, was introduced. As the reformation was intending to come to peace with the zamindars, it entitled the zamindars with autocratic powers over their defaulting raiyatss. They eventually became the absolute proprietors of the pesants. The haftam had negated all customary rights that the raiyatss had been enjoying traditionally and reduced them to mere tenants-at-will.

2.        Panjam (1812): In order to improve the situation caused by the enactment of haftam, new reformation came in and known as the Regulation V of 1812 (panjam or fifth), under which the zamindars got the right to lease out their land for any period (Islam, Permanent Settlement, The). Later in 1819 the amendment of the Regulation VIII, which is alo known as the pattani law came in where zamindar could lease out their land permanently at a permanent rent.

3.        Rent Act (1859):  The Rent Act of 1859 tried to recognise the rights of the peasants. It categorised the peasant society into three legal groups which were (a) raiyatss holding land at a fixed rate of rent from the time of the permanent settlement; (b) raiyatss having a right of occupancy, ie raiyatss holding continuously land for twelve years; and (c) raiyatss not having a right of occupancy (Choudhury, Act of 1859). The Rent Act barred the zamindars from enhancing the first category of raiyatss (kayemi) whose rent was fixed permanently and they also lost power to enhance the rent of occupancy raiyatss without showing reasons.

4.        Bengal Tenancy Act (1885): Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 defined the rights and liabilities of the zamindars and tenants in response to widespread peasant discontent threatening the stability of the colonial system of governance (Islam, Bengal Tenancy Act 1885). The enactment of permanent settlement let the zamindars enhance rents according to their will. This led to huge conflict between the zamindars and the tenants and the peasants remained the most vulnerable group as usual. As a result of this peasant resistance movements started to expand and the landlord-tenant relation also started to deteriorate. To contain the situation and to adopt necessary measures to improve relations between landlord and tenants, a Rent Commission was set up in 1880 (Islam, Bengal Tenancy Act 1885). In the light of the recommendations and observations of the Rent Commission, the Bengal Legislative Council enacted Act III of 1885. This Act is popularly known in legal circle as the Bengal Tenancy Act. The Act defined rights and obligations of intermediate tenancies and raiyatsi tenancies.

5.        Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Act, 1928: The amendment of the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 was enacted by the Bengal Legislative Council in 1928. As the Act of 1885 did not define the rights of under-raiyats clearly, it created uncertainty in the under-raiyatss class. With the introduction of electoral politics under the constitutional reforms Act of 1919, the elected representatives in the council became vocal about the rights of under-raiyatss (Islam, Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885). In response to demands from various peasant organisations and political parties, the Bengal government introduced    the Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Bill in the Council which proposed to give rights in land to those under-raiyatss who were in continuous possession of their land for more than twelve years.

6.        Bengal Tenancy Act in 1938 (Act VI): Under the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1938 (Act VI) salami system and zamindar’s right to steal and transfer the land of the rayats were abolished. At the same time, some rights of bargadars (sharecroppers) were recognised. Act VI of 1938 made the peasants virtual proprietors of land (Islam, Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885).

7.        Bengal Act VII of 1936: The Bengal Act VII of 1936 is also known as Bengal Agricultural Debtors Act which was proposed from the Debt Settlement Board (Islam, Debt Settlement Board). The Act was intended to improve the condition of the peasantry as their debt to the mahajans (creditors) was rising in an alarming way. The Act prescribed for the establishment of a series of debt settlement tribunals called ‘Boards’ consisting of local people of influence and nominated by both creditors and debtors (Islam, Debt Settlement Board). The Boards would try to hear both parties and give relief to the indebted agriculturists mainly by way of scaling down their outstanding debts to mahajans.

Meanwhile, other classes from outside the Kolkata elite cultural circles began to grow as well, which broadly could be termed as the aspirant elite. They sought the same benefits which the established elite were already enjoying as part of the collaboration process. Thus, loyalty to the Crown in return for jobs became the slogan for the aspirants too. It was a phase that began in earnest from the middle of the 19th century led by the Bengali Muslim middle class (Ahmed, Luteef, Nawab Abdool).

By the early 20th century of British colonial Bengal, much of the historical momentum was already set. The world which Bengal had known for the previous 175 years, much of it was in turmoil resulting from colonialism. It was politically ripe enough for state seeking by various groups. This transition was comparable to the takeover by the East India Company of Bengal in 1757 which produced the colonial state. The post-colonial state birthing process had begun from then on as later phases were built on these stages. 

None of the states in waiting were fully visible but the footprints were already there though not in the same state of gestation. Of those born in 1947, one state, India, was more complete in terms of contiguity and development of state governance institutions. The second state, Pakistan, as it later emerged was largely cobbled together in a somewhat informal fashion. It was an alliance based state – intrinsically federal-military alliance based in nature- between various conflicting historical identities  and realities which  wanted to create a Central state, an opposite nature of the Margin state.

 The leadership of All India Muslim League was itself based on the contest of an All Indian Identity promoted by the Indian National Congress (INC). In essence, it was a conflict between two asymmetric hegemony (Islam, Two- Nation Theory). The third state, Bangladesh, was in process that was different from the two as it was not an elite-driven state-making project. It was rooted down in peasant power rather than other segments even when it was becoming a fully-fledged state. The peasantry sustained the war that birthed that state. The identity of this

third state grew and declined in phases both historical and  social in history until it culminated in 1971. Its timelines were linked to that of the other two elite state projects. Hence, the political leadership lacked the autonomy required to birth the state which could have happened in 1947 along with the other two, India and Pakistan.

Bangladesh in 1947 was thus a subsumed state, one that had all the parameters of becoming a “state” but could not be born due to external factors beyond its capacity to control. It was visible onwards from the 1937 elections of India and formally foot printed in 1940 by the Lahore Resolution. It lost its steam in 1946 by the Delhi Resolution of All India Muslim league changing from “states” to “state” but again revived itself in 1947 under the not so robust United Bengal state movement (Misra, United Bengal Movement).

This movement collapsed due to lack of confidence/interest of the Bengal Congress after initial enthusiasm under pressure from its Congress Centre who was opposed to both United Bengal or a third dominion state.  It seems that the cultural marker of being “Bengali” was not very strong given its history in Bengal, particularly of the Bengali peasantry. It emerged, however, as East Pakistan in 1947, which was a Margin state in waiting and proved to be a temporary home of the said “state” before maturing to birth.

It was an indicative situation of the submerged existence that this “state”- more or less went to battle with “Pakistan” almost immediately after 1947. It distanced itself from all the Centrist Pakistan state and its self-sustaining dogma and slogans of a “Muslim state” led by (West)  Pakistan. It began crafting its own reality rapidly. However, this process of a subsumed state becoming a fully emerged one took until 1971.

Each of these states was products of political alliances of different classes, communities and even territorial markers. The

political history of British India was built around alliances.

Even the establishment of colonialism was a product of alliances between the British East India Company and their local allies from commercial classes like Jagat Sheth and his kind in Bengal (Mohsin, Jagat Sheth). This collaboration between the colonial power and local allies also produced a new state; the colonial state. Later, resistance to that state in turn among pro and anti-colonial alliances and between major alliances of similar post-colonial aspirations helped produce the states in 1947.

The immediate period of pre-colonial Bengal/India was run by a weakened feudal aristocracy of Central Asian origin from Delhi. It was culturally alien and a foreign force. There were links with local people and society but it was not a new blended/ merged identity let alone assimilation. In the colony establishment phase, the indigenous elite benefited the most as they replaced the earlier foreigner ones. Not only did they gain economic power but socio-cultural space and later domination as well. This alliance between the colonizer and the colonized produced great cultural and linguistic products of the Bengali variety led by the newly urbanized Bengali elite who were loyal to colonialism.

These products, many sourced in the Bengal renaissance had certain exclusionary trends given the nature of the Kolkata elite but it was a new phase of indigenous creativity and innovation too. The process created a culturally sophisticated educated population loyal to colonialism and its by-products; centered mostly in Kolkata which became the foundation of what became known as the bhadralak Bengali culture (Copf, Bengal Renaissance).    (To be continued)