Peasant, Women, Tribal and Workers Movements
Peasant movements or agrarian struggles have taken place from pre-colonial days. The movements in the period between 1858 and 1914 tended to remain localised, disjointed and confined to particular grievances. Well-known are the Bengal revolt of 1859-62 against the indigo plantation system and the ‘Deccan riots’ of 1857 against moneylenders. Some of these issues continued into the following period, and under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi became partially linked to the Independence movement. For instance, the Bardoli Satyagraha (1928, Surat District) a ‘non-tax’ campaign as part of the nationwide noncooperative movement, a campaign of refusal to pay land revenue and the Champaran Satyagraha (1917-18) directed against indigo plantations. In the 1920s, protest movements against the forest policies of the British government and local rulers arose in certain regions.
Between 1920 and 1940 peasant organisations arose. The first organisation to be founded was the Bihar Provincial Kisan Sabha (1929) and in 1936 the All India Kisan Sabha. The peasants organised by the Sabhas demanded freedom from economic exploitation for peasants, workers and all other exploited classes. At the time of Independence we had the two most classical cases of peasant movements, namely the Tebhaga movement (1946-7) and the Telangana movement (1946-51). The first was a struggle of sharecroppers in Bengal in North Bihar for two thirds share of their produce instead of the customary half. It had the support of the Kisan Sabha and the Communist Party of India (CPI). The second, directed against the feudal conditions in the princely state of Hyderabad and was led by the CPI.
Certain issues which had dominated colonial times changed after independence. For land reforms, zamindari abolition, declining importance of land revenue and public credit system began to alter rural areas. The period after 1947 was characterised by two major social movements. The Naxalite struggle and the ‘new farmer’s movements.’ The Naxalite movement started from the region of Naxalbari (1967) in Bengal. The central problem for peasants was land.
Many of the agrarian problems persist in contemporary India. The Naxal movement is a growing force even today. The so called ‘new farmer’s movements began in the 1970s in Punjab and Tamil Nadu. These movements were regionally oganised, were non-party, and involved farmers rather than peasants. (farmers are said to be market-involved as both commodity producers and purchasers) The basic ideology of the movement was strongly anti-state and anti-urban. The focus of demand were ‘price and related issues’ (for example price procurement, remunerative prices, prices for agricultural inputs, taxation, non-repayment of loans). Novel methods of agitation were used: blocking of roads and railways, refusing politicians and bureaucrats entry to villages, and so on. It has been argued that the farmers’ movements have broadened their agenda and ideology and include environment and women’s issues. Therefore, they can be seen as a part of the worldwide ‘new social movements’.
Indigo Revolt (1859-60):
The Indigo revolt of Bengal was directed against British planters who forced peasants to take advances and sign fraudulent contracts which forced the peasants to grow Indigo under terms which were the least profitable to them.
The revolt began in Govindpur village in Nadia district, Bengal and was led by Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas who organised the peasants into a counter force to deal with the planters lathiyals (armed retainers).
In April 1860 all the cultivators of the Barasat subdivision and in the districts of Pabna and Nadia resorted to strike. They refused to sow any indigo. The strike spread to other places in Bengal. The revolt enjoyed the support of all categories of the rural population, missionaries and the Bengal intelligentsia.
This was vividly portrayed by Din Bandhu Mitra in his play, Neel Darpan enacted in 1869. It led to the appointment of an Indigo Commission in 1860 by the government by which some of the abuses of Indigo cultivation was removed.
Pabna Movement (1872-76):
In East Bengal the peasantry was oppressed by zamindars through frequent recourse to ejection, harassment, arbitrary enhancement of rent through ceases (abwabs) and use of force. The zamindars also tried to prevent them from acquiring the occupancy rights under the Act of 1859.
In May 1873 an Agrarian League was formed in the Yusufzahi Pargana of Pabna district (East Bengal). Payments of enhanced rents were refused and the peasants fought the zamindars in the courts. Similar leagues were formed in the adjoining districts of Bengal. The main leaders of the Agrarian League were Ishan Chandra Roy, Shambu Pal and Khoodi Mullah. The discontent continued till 1885 when the Government by the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 enhanced the occupancy rights.
The Deccan Peasants’ Uprising, 1875:
The Deccan peasants uprising was directed mainly against the excesses of the Marwari and Gujarati money lenders. Social boycott of moneylenders by the peasants was later transformed into armed peasant revolt in the Poona and Ahmadnagar districts of Maharashtra. The peasants attacked the moneylender’s houses, shops and burnt them down.
Their chief targets were the bond documents, deeds and decrees that the money lenders held against them. By June 1875 nearly a thousand peasants were arrested and the uprising completely suppressed. The Government appointed the Deccan Riots Commission to investigate into the causes of the uprising. The ameliorative measure passed was the Agriculturists Relief Act of 1879 which put restrictions on the operations of the peasants land and prohibited imprisonment of the peasants of the Deccan for failure to repay debts to the moneylenders.
Punjab Peasants Discontent (1890-1900):
Rural indebtedness and the large scale alienation of agricultural land to non-cultivating classes led to the peasant discontent in Punjab. The communal complexion of the Punjab rural situation and the martial character of the Sikhs called for an early effective action by the government. The Punjab Land Alienation Act, 1900 was passed which prohibited the sale and mortgage of lands from peasants to moneylenders. The Punjab peasants were also given partial relief against oppressive incidence of land revenue demand by the Government and it was not to exceed 50% of the annual rental value of land.
Champaran Satyagraha (1917):
The peasantry on the indigo plantations in the Champaran district of Bihar was excessively oppressed by the European planters. They were compelled to grow indigo on at least 3/20th of their land (tinkathia system) and to sell it at prices fixed by the planters.
Accompanied by Babu Rajendra Prasad, Mazhar -ul-Huq, J.B. Kripalani, Narhari Parekhand Mahadev Desai, Gandhiji reached Champaran in 1917 and began to conduct a detailed inquiry into the condition of the peasantry.
The infuriated district officials ordered him to leave Champaran, but he defied the order and was willing to face trial and imprisonment. Later the Government developed cold feet and appointed an Enquiry Committee (June 1917) with Gandhiji as one of the members. The ameliorative enactment, the Champaran Agrarian Act freed the tenants from the special imposts levied by the indigo planters.
Kaira Satyagraha (1918):
The Kaira (Kheda) campaign was chiefly directed against the Government. In 1918, crops failed in the Kheda districts in Gujarat but the government refused to remit land revenue and insisted on its full collection. Gandhiji along with Vallabhai Patel supported the peasants and advised them to withhold payment of revenues till their demand for its remission was met. The satyagraha lasted till June 1918. The Government had to concede the just demands of the peasants.
Moplah Rebellion (1921):
In August 1921, peasant discontent erupted in the Malabar district of Kerala. Here Moplah (Muslim) tenants rebelled. Their grievances related to lack of any security of tenure, renewal fees, high rents, and other oppressive landlord exactions.
In 1920, the Khilafat Movement took over the tenant rights agitation (which had been going on in the Malabar region since 1916) after the Congress Conference held at Manjeri in April 1920. The arrest of established leaders of the Congress and the Khilafat movement left the field clear for radical leaders.
In the first stage of the rebellion, the targets of attack were the unpopular jenmies (landlords), mostly Hindu, the symbols of Government authority such as courts, police stations, treasuries and offices, and British planters.
But once the British declared martial law and repression began in earnest, the character of the rebellion underwent a definite change. It took communal tones because the class divide approximated the communal divide. The movement was severely depressed by December 1921
Bardoli Satyagraha (1928):
Enhancement of land revenue by 22% in the Bardoli district of Gujarat by the British government led to the organisation of a ‘No-Revenue Campaign’ by the Bardoli peasants under the leadership of Vallabhai Patel. Unsuccessful attempts of the British to suppress the movement by large scale attachment of cattle and land resulted in the appointment of an enquiry committee. The enquiry conducted by Broomfield and Maxwell come to the conclusion that the increase had been unjustified and reduced the enhancement to 6.03%.
Factory production began in India in the early part of the 1860s. The general pattern of trade set up by the colonial regime was one under which raw materials were procured from India and goods manufactured in the United Kingdom were marketed in the colony. These factories were, thus established in the port towns of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Bombay (Mumbai). Later factories were also set up in Madras (Chennai). Tea plantations in Assam were established as early as 1839.
In the early stages of colonialism, labour was very cheap as the colonial government did not regulate either wages or working conditions. Though trade unions emerged later, workers did protest. Their actions then were, however, more spontaneous than sustained. Some of the nationalist leaders also drew in the workers into the anti colonial movement. The war led to the expansion of industries in the country but it also brought a great deal of misery to the poor. There were food shortage and sharp increase in prices. There were waves of strikes in the textile mills in Bombay. In September and October 1917 there were around 30 recorded strikes. Jute workers in Calcutta struck work. In Madras, the workers of Buchingham and Carnatic Mills (Binny’s) struck work for increased wages. Textile workers in Ahmedabad struck work for increase in wages by 50 per cent.
The first trade union was established in April 1918 in Madras by B.P. Wadia, a social worker and member of the Theosophical Society. During the same year, Mahatma Gandhi founded the Textile Labour Association (TLA). In 1920 the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was formed in Bombay. The AITUC was a broad-based organisation involving diverse ideologies. The main ideological groups were the communists led by S.A. Dange and M.N. Roy, the moderates led by M. Joshi and V.V. Giri and the nationalists which involved people like Lala Lajpat Rai and Jawaharlal Nehru.
The formation of the AITUC made the colonial government more cautious in dealing with labour. It attempted to grant workers some concessions in order to contain unrest. In 1922 the government passed the fourth Factories Act which reduced the working day to 10 hours. And in 1926, the Trade Unions Act was passed, which provided for registration of trade unions and proposed some regulations. By the mid 1920s, the AITUC had nearly 200 unions affiliated to it and its membership stood at around 250,000.
During the last few years of British rule the communists gained considerable control over the AITUC. The Indian National Congress chose to form another union called the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) in May 1947. The split in the AITUC in 1947 paved the way for further splits on the line of political parties. Apart from the working class movement being divided on the lines of political parties at the national level, regional parties too started to form their own unions from the late 1960s.
In 1966-67 the economy suffered a major recession which led to a decrease in production and consequently employment. There was a general unrest. In 1974 there was a major railway workers’ strike. The confrontation between the state and trade unions became acute. During the Emergency in 1975-77 the government curbed all trade union activities. This again was short lived. The workers’ movement was very much part of the wider struggle for civil liberties.
The chronological history of the working class movement in British India is discussed below:
- The early nationalist advocated the improvement of economic conditions of the working classes.
- In 1870, Sasipada Banerjee started a Working Man’s Club and newspaper ‘Bharat Shramjeevi’.
- In 1878, Sorabjee Shapoorji Bengalee drafted a bill for providing better working conditions to the labourers and tried to pass in the Bombay Legislative Council.
- In 1880, the Bombay Mill and Millhands Association was set up by Narain Meghajee Lokhanday. He also started newspaper ‘Deenbandhu’.
- In 1899, first strike took place in the Indian Peninsula Railways. Tilak’s newspaper i.e. Kesari and Maharatta supported the strike and launched the campaign for months.
- During Swadeshi Movement, Indian working classes came with wider political issues. Ashwini Coomar Banerjee, Prabhat Kumar Roy Chaudhari, Premtosh Bose and Apurba Kumar Ghosh organised mass level strikes in the government press, railways and the jute industries. The biggest strike was organised when Bal Gangadhar Tilak was arrested and faced trial.
- Formation of Trade Union: On October 31, 1920, All India Trade Union Congress was founded. Lala Lajpat Rai was then became the first president and Dewan Chaman Lal was the first general secretary. Lala Lajpat Rai was the first person who linked capitalism with imperialism and gave the statement, ‘Imperialism and militarism are the twin children of capitalism’. CR Das, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Chandra Bose, CF Andrews, JM Sengupta, Satyamurthy, VV Giri and Sarojini Naidu supported the formation of trade union.
- In 1918, the trade Union has emerged as a pressure group in a capitalist society because during this year Gandhi helped to organise the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Association and their demand in wage hike which was arbitrated 35 percent instead of 27.5 percent.
- In 1926, British government came with the trade union Act to formalize the trade union as a legal association. It also laid down eligibility criteria for registration and regulation of trade union activities. This act not only secured the immunity for both civil and criminal from prosecution for the legitimate activities of the trade union act but also imposed restrictions on their political activities.
- In 1928 during Bombay Textile Mills, strike led by Girni Kamgar Union changed the picture of Trade union politics due to the emergence of Communist. SA Dange, Muzaffar Ahmed, PC Joshi and Sohan Singh Joshi were the famous trade union leaders of that time. This strike was an alarming situation for the British government that laid the formation of the Public Safety Ordinance of 1929 and the Trade Disputes Act of 1929. These acts made compulsory to the appointment of courts of Inquiry and Consultation Boards for settling industrial disputes. It also made strike in public utility services like posts, railways, water and electricity as an illegal action unless working class union prior notified to the administration a month before.
- Meerut Conspiracy Case of 1929: The British arrested 31 labour leaders and trial of three and a half year resulted in the conviction of working class leaders like Muzaffar Ahmed, SA Dange, Joglekar, Philip Spratt, Ben Bradley and Shaukat Usmani. This case and trial received worldwide publicity, but weakened the working class movement in India.
- After 1930, the working class union of India fractioned as the communist approach of trade union and corporatist approach. NM Joshi set up All India Trade Union Federation in 1931. In 1935, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) was reaffirmed by communists, congress socialist and leftist nationalists like JL Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose.
- Impact of Second World War: Initially, working class opposed the war when Russia joined the war on the behalf of the allies supported by the working class. In 1945, dock workers of Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata) refused to load ships taking supplies to the warring troops in Indonesia.
Above historical timeline reflects the clear picture that the trade union emerged to fight against exploitation without getting polarised on the basis of political ideologies. Their main motive was to improve a low wage situation, long working hours, unhygienic and hazardous working conditions, child labour and improvement in basic amenities.
Tribal movements or rebellions or uprising in India were inspired by revolutionary tendencies. They wanted to make use of the situation to fight and eliminate evils and ill-tendencies that existed in the contemporary tribal society.
The Tribal population, being conservative, was interested in retaining the existing salient features of their society. Tribal movements were inspired by revolutionary tendencies. They wanted to make use of the situation to fight and eliminate evils and ill-tendencies that existed in the contemporary tribal society. A complete summary of the Tribal Rebellions during British rule in India is discussed below:
- Peasant Uprising of Rangpur, Bengal (1783 AD)
After 1757 AD, the British established their control over Bengal and they started extracting as much as possible from peasants through revenue contractors. When peasant’s grievances were not redressed by the company officials, they took the law in their hands. Under the leadership of Dirjinarain, they attacked the local cutcheries and storehouses of crops of local agents of the contractors and government officials. Both Hindus and Muslims fought side by side in the uprising. But the company’s armed forces took control of the situation and suppressed the revolt.
- The Uprising of the Bhills (1818-31 AD)
The Bhills were mostly concentrated in the hill ranges of Khandesh. The British occupation of Khandesh in 1818 AD enraged the Bhills because they were suspicious of the outsider’s incursion into their territory.
- The Rebellion at Mysore (1830-31 AD)
It was started after the final defeat of Tipu Sultan; the British imposed subsidiary alliance on the Mysore rulers in which they compelled the Mysore rulers to increase revenue. As a result, the Mysore rulers put financial pressure to increase revenue demands from the Zamindars which was ultimately increased the burden of revenue on the cultivators. The peasants broke out against the despotic tendencies of the Zamindars in the province of Nagar under the leadership of Sardar Malla (Son of a common ryot of Kremsi). The British force regained control of Nagar from the rebel peasants and suppressed the revolt.
- The Kol Uprising (1831-32 AD)
The Kols of Singhbhum enjoyed their sovereignty for long centuries under their chiefs. After the advent of the British East India Company, the sovereignty of Kol tribes penetrated by the British law and order which causes tensions among the tribal people. They got angry when British transfer tribal land to the outsiders like merchants and moneylenders which caused a great threat to the hereditary independent power of the tribal chiefs. They revolted the despotic law and order of the British East India Company. This uprising spread over Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Palamau and Manbhum. British East India Company ruthlessly suppressed the revolt and established their control over Kol tribal areas.
- The Mappila Uprising (1836-54 AD)
Among all the peasant uprisings, it occupies an important place because this revolt challenges the colonial rule. Mappillas were the descendants of Arab settlers and converted Hindus who were cultivating tenants, landless labourers, petty traders and fisherman. When British East India Company established their rule over Malabar Coast brought hardship in the life of the Mappilas especially through land revenue administration. They revolted against the state and landlords. The British armed forces swung into action to suppress the rebels but failed to subdue them for many years.
- The Santhal Rebellion (1855-56 AD)
This revolt occurred in the Rajmahal hills of the Santhal region under the leadership of Sidhu and Kanhu. It began as a reaction against the outsiders, particularly landlords, police and moneylenders.
- The Ramosi Uprisings (1822-29 AD)
It took place in two phases- Fist in 1822 AD under the leadership of Chittu Singh in 1822 AD against the new pattern of British administration. The second phase of revolt took place between 1825-26 and 1829 AD.
- The Munda Uprising (1899-1900 AD)
It took place in the Chhotanagpur region near Ranchi under the leadership of Birsa Munda. This revolt is also known as Ulgulan revolt which means ‘great commotion.
- Jatra Bhagat and Tana Bhagat Movement (1914 AD)
This movement was started by Jatra Bhagat in 1914 AD. It was a movement for monotheism, abstention from meat, liquor and tribal dance. The Jatra Bhagat and Tana Bhagat movements stressed both anti-colonialism and internal reforms.
The Tribal rebellion in India took place for social, cultural and political reasons, particularly against the acquisition of their land and exerted their rights over forest resources.
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