People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 09

March 04, 2007



Centres of early revolts


Archana Prasad


THE 1857 rebellion was preceded by a wave of agrarian uprising in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. The thrust of these uprisings was to contest the nature of changes that were being brought about by the East India Company which was leading the colonial campaign in several parts of the country. The Company’s administration tried to re-order an existing feudal order in the first century of colonial rule in order to ensure the political and economic stability of the Empire. This process led to a severe discontent amongst the traditional landholders and the peasantry comprising of cultivators and tenant farmers; as well as other groups like pastoralists, tribals and landless labourers who were intrinsically depended on agriculture and its allied sectors for their survival.


Broadly speaking, there were at least three or four distinct processes that led to the agrarian uprisings between 1757 and 1857. The most important one was the land settlement process which structured all British policies through out this period. The conquest of Bengal led to the permanent settlement, while ryotwari tenures were regularised in Madras, mahalwari tenures in the North and malguzari tenures introduced in several parts of Central India. These land tenures were also accompanied by basic reforms in the process of collection of revenue where the fixing of rents was done by Company officials and not the traditional mirasidars, poligars, zamindars or taluqdars. The British promulgated rules where the lands of revenue defaulters could be auctioned to a new class of land holders especially in the permanent settlement areas. This meant that traditional landholders were converted from people who could govern and administer their own estates to mere revenue collectors and farmers. This created a disgruntled class of displaced zamindars who provided leadership to many protests of the period either themselves or through their militia. Perhaps the most representative rebellion of traditional chiefs and revenue collectors who lost their powers because of colonial measures was the rebellion of the poligars of North Arcot (1803-05). The revolt of the Paiks in Orissa under Jagbandhu, the commander of the Raja of Khurda, in 1817; the rising of the Gujars under Bijai Singh talukdar (1824) in Kumaun and Garhwal and the revolt of the Gumsur zamindars in Ganjam district of Orissa (1835-37) reflected the general dispossession amongst the traditional feudal elite of the period.




Sanyasi Rebels


Though the traditional elites may have lost their power and privileges because of early colonial penetration, these measures had a far more devastating impact on the peasantry. The peasants were forced to pay higher and higher taxes without any remission because of direct colonial control over fixation of revenue. In fact those landholders who complied with and became agents of the colonial regime were forced to enforce a strict time line in the collection of revenue. In addition they also extracted additional labour and revenue for their own profit, thus subjecting the peasants to double exploitation. Further the peasants were unable to invoke their customary feudal relationships with the landholders to default payments. This accentuated the contradictions between the peasantry and the landholders including the traditional rulers granted tenures by the British. At another level, the increasing indebtedness of the peasantry and its exploitation by a new class of landholders and moneylenders was clearly reflected in the agrarian uprisings. The Sannyasi rebellions (1763-1800) in East Bengal, the Kol revolts (1831-32) in Chhottanagpur, and the Santhal insurrection (1855-56) were conducted against the exploitation of the landlords and the mahajans. Similarly the Mappilla revolts in early nineteenth century Malabar were against the zamindars. Many of these revolts followed the strategy of raiding the properties of zamindars and mahajans and extracting taxes from them. In this sense these classes were firmly identified by these people and institutions as implementers of oppressive colonial policies. This anti-colonial tendency of the peasant movements was evident most clearly in the Khasi resistance in Sylhet (1829-31), resistance by Lallaji Patel, a village headman, in the Satmahals (Malwa, 1831) and the Khond insurrection (1846) in Ganjam.


While the settlement of property rights provided the basic context of the pre-1857 revolts, the commercialisation of agriculture through the introduction of cash crops and the establishment of European plantations for this purpose was seen in the case of the indigo growing areas. The cultivation of indigo was determined by the needs of the English cloth markets as well as those of remittance trade. The Indigo Commission also highlighted the importance of trade to the tune of two million pounds sterling a year and political importance of having a large body of European planters. Thus for 22 years (1780-1802) the Company directly promoted indigo factories and placed India amongst the foremost indigo producing nations of the world. Though the plantation of indigo was a private enterprise the East India Company not only encouraged the planters in various ways but also gave them legal and administrative protection against the peasants who worked on their plantations who were forced to grow indigo in place of food crops. Several economic and non-economic oppressive practices including torture were routinely practiced by the planters many of whom colluded with the zamindars to maintain their dominance and deal with their problems in administering those areas. The discontent of the raiyats was because of three reasons: lack of remunerative prices for indigo – indigo was not lucrative as it was planted at the same time as food crops – and loss of fertility of the soil because of indigo. 




Titu Mir


It is significant that many uprisings of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century opposed the planter raj by either refusing to grow indigo in the lands where they were originally growing food, and also by refusing to pay their taxes. The first phase of revolts in Eastern India started in the early part of the nineteenth century under Biswanath Sardar who looted the Neelkunthis (or the estates of Indigo planters). Two decades later the first signs of trouble again emerged when the cultivators of Saran, Tirhut, Munger, Bhagalpur and Purnia refused to plant indigo. In Madhubani subdivision they formed a body and refused to plant indigo. Another major revolt against the indigo planters and their zamindars was that led by the Wahabi peasant leader Titu Mir in 24 Parganas of Bengal (1831) who provided leadership to both Muslim and Hindu lower caste peasantry.


The third instrument of colonial oppression over the peasantry was monopoly merchant capital through a series of unfair measures that were in evidence throughout the country. The East India Company appointed its agents for indigo and opium trade and passed regulations that made indigenous trade illegal. In other areas like Khurda they put a tax on the production of salt and ensured that salt could only brought from agents who had been given leases by the Company. Thus ordinary peasants were forced to buy salt from the agents at exorbitant rates. In Chhittagong the British started the method of revenue collection from cotton and gave over the collection rights to speculators through the establishment of karpas mahals. This affected the Chakmas (who were essentially shifting cultivators) adversely as they cultivated cotton on their sterile lands and exchanged it for rice, salt and other necessities. They reacted under the leadership of Janbox Khan in 1782 and gathered the people to stop payment of cotton. They also destroyed the storehouses of the lease holders who protected their stocks with the help of the British. A similar pattern was also seen in the case of the Kurda revolts where peasants made salt in violation of the Company’s orders and attacked and looted the stores of the salt agents. This clearly showed that it was not only the land tenure and tax policies but also the trading practices in commodities of daily use that had impacted the peasantry and spurred it into rebellion. 




Velu Thambi, Diwan of Travencore


Scholars from the 1960s onwards have classified these movements as restorative (Katheleen Gough, ‘Indian Peasant Uprisings’, Economic and Political Weekly 1974) and messianic movements which used religious symbols and relying on revivalist, nativist and syncretic leadership (Stephen Fuchs, in his book Rebellious Prophets, Asia Publishing House, 1965). Thus Titu Mir’s movement, the Sannyassi and the Mappilah rebellion, amongst others, are seen as movements that have communal overtones and religious base. This characterisation however comes out of the lack of understanding of the nature of agrarian discontent and the political philosophy that guided these movements.


The first point to remember is that these agrarian uprisings from the mid eighteenth century till the 1857 rebellion spanned the entire length and breadth of the country and often followed the trajectory of colonial expansion. Their existence also showed that the penetration of colonialism was a contested process and the colonists met resistance wherever they tried to establish their authority. Six major uprisings were identified in Bengal, five in Bihar, three in Assam and fifteen in Central and South India. This meant that the pre-colonial society of the time was providing an important challenge to colonial annexation which was bringing about a realignment of classes through its interventions. And this realignment of forces only sometimes and not always articulated a restorative agenda. In other words, though anti-colonialism was a more general characteristic of these movements, the restorative agenda depended more on the local co-relation of forces in these movements.


At a second level however, many of these movements can also be seen as ones that had incipient anti-feudal characteristics which also used religion for political mobilisation and articulation of their goals. For example sannyasis and fakirs rebellions of the late eighteenth century were led by settler sanyasis from the Giri and fakirs from the Madari sects who had settled in Mymensigh as peasants. Many of them had turned to agriculture and were regular peasants who were a victim of British merchants. Similarly Titu Mir’s Wahabi protests found a mass base in lower caste Hindu and Muslim peasantry because of its agrarian programme. In both cases the leaders of the movements belonged to religious traditions that were outside the pale of organised mainstream religion that formed the basis of most feudal authority. Similarly K N Pannikar (‘Peasant Revolts in the Malabar’, in A R Desai eds., Peasant Struggles in India) has effectively shown how the class conflict between the Muslim peasantry and Hindu landlords structured the contours of the nineteenth century protests where religion gave them both moral strength and a potent language to articulate their demands. 


Thus, more than anything else, the use of religion as also the restorative agenda of some of these movements revealed the inability of the peasantry to articulate their own politics especially where the peasants were led by the traditional elites. In other cases it reflected the ‘tunnelled’ vision of the peasant leadership and the lack of a vocabulary to articulate the agrarian agenda in the first century of colonialism. In this sense the agrarian uprisings preceding the 1857 rebellion were both structured and limited by the imposition of colonial measures on a feudal system. This ensured that they remained pre-modern in character and consciousness.



Centres Of Resistance (1763-1856)

1. Sanyasi,* 1763-1800, Dhaka, 1763, Rajshahi, 1763, 1764, Cooch Bihar, 1766, Patna, 1767, Jalpaiguri, Rangpur, etc., 1766-69, 1771, 1776, Purnea, 1770-71

Mymensingh, 1773

37. Gujars,* Kunja (near Roorki), 1824

38. Sindgi (near Bijapur), 1824

2. Midnapur, 1766-67

39. Bhiwani, Rewari, Hissar, Rohtak, 1824-26

3. Rajas of Dhalbhum, 1766-77

40. Kalpi, 1824

4. Peasants under Shamsher, Ghazi’s Leadership, Roshanabad, (Tripura), 1767-68

41. Kittur, Belgaum District., 1824-1829

42. Kolis,* Thanna District., 1828-30

5. Sandip, island south of Noakhali, 1769-70

43. Ramosis,* Poona, 1826-29

6. Moamarias, Jorhat and Rangpur, 1769-99

44. Garos,* also called Pagal Panthis’ revolt, Sherpur, Mymensingh District., 1825-27, 1832-34

7. Ckakmas,* Chittagong, 1776-89

45. Gadadhar Singh, Assam, 1828-30

8. Gorakhpur, Basti and Bahraich, 1781

46. Kumar Rupchand, Assam, 1830

9. Peasants, Rangpur, 1783

47. Khasis,* under Tirot Singh, 1829-33 

10. Birbhum and Bishnupur, 1788-89

48. Singhphos,* Assam-Burma border, 1830-31, 1843

11. Chuar* Peasants, Midnapur, 1799

49. Akas,* Assam, 1829, 1835-42

12. Peasants, Bakarganj District., 1792

50. Wahabis,* Bihar, Bengal, N. W. F. P., Punjab, etc., 1830-61

13. Vizianagaram 1794

51. Titu Mir, 24-Parganas, 1831

14. Bednur, 1799-1800

52. Peasants, Mysore, 1830-31

15. Kerala Varma Raja, Kottayam, 1797, 1800-05

53. Vishakhapatnam, 1830-33

16. Sylhet, 1787-99, Radharam, 1787, Khasis,* 1788
Agha Muhammas Reza, 1799

54. Bhumji,* Manbhum, 1832

55. Coorg, 1833-34

17. Vazir Ali, Awadh, 1799

56. Gonds,* Sambalpur, 1833

18. Ganjam and Gumsur, 1800, 1835-37

57. Naikda,* Rewa Kantha, 1838

19. Palamau, 1800-02

58. Farazis,* Faridpur, 1838-47

20. Poligars,* Tinnevelly, Ramnathapuram, Sivaganga, Sivagiri, Madurai, North Arcot, etc., 1795-1805

59. Khamtas,* Sadiyas, Asdsam, 1839

60. Surendra Sai, Sambalpur, 1839-62

21. Vellore Mutiny, 1806

61. Badami, 1840

22. Bhiwani, 1809

62. Bundelas,* Sagar, 1842

23. Naiks* of Bhograi, Midnapur District., 1810-09

63. Salt riots, Surat, 1844

24. Travancore under Velu Thambi, 1808-09

64. Gadkari,* Kolhapur, 1844

25. Chiefs of Bundekhand, 1808-12.

65. Savantavadi, North Konkan Coast, 1844-47

26. Abdul Rahman, Surat, 1810

66. Narshimhs Reddy, Kurnool, 1846-47

27. Hartal and agitation in Benares, 1810-11

67. Khonds,* Orissa, 1848

28. Parlakimedi, western border of Ganjam District., 1813-34

68. Nagpur, 1848

29. Cutch, 1815-32

69. Garos,* Garo Hills, 1848-66

30. Rohillas,* Bareilly, Pilibhit, Shahjahanpur, Rampur, 1816

70. Abors,* North-eastern India, 1848-1900

71. Lushais,* Lushai Hills, 1849-92

31. Hathras,* 1817

72. Nagas,* Naga Hills, 1849-78

32. Paiks,* Cuttack, Khurda, Pipli, Puri, etc., 1817-18

73. Umarzais,* Bannu, 1850-52

33. Bhils, Khandesh, Dhar, Malwa, 1817-31, 1846, 1852

74. Survey riots, Khandesh, 1852

34. Kols,* Singhbhum, Chota Nagpur, Sambalpur, Ranchi, Hazari Bagh, Palamau, Chaibasa, 1820-37

75. Saiyads of Hazara, 1852

35. Mers,* Merwara, 1819-21

76. Nadir Khan, Rawalpindi, 1853

36. Platoon of the Bengal Army, Barrackpore, 1824

77. Santhals,* Rajmahal, Bhagalpur, Birbhum, etc., 1855-56.

* Indicates a movement, a community, a tribe, or a group of people.