Indigo revolt, also known as ‘Neel Bidroha‘, was a subsequent uprising of farmers against the indigo planters. This peasant movement arose in Bengal in 1859 and continued for over a year. The indigo planters, almost all of whom were Europeans, forced the local peasants to grow the indigo under terms that were unfavourable to the farmers. Digambar Biswas and Bishnu Biswas of the Nadia district were the prominent leaders of the indigo rebellion.
Indigo cultivation in Bengal began in 1777, when Louis Bonnaud, a Frenchman, introduced it to the Indian subcontinent. He became the first indigo planter in Bengal, starting to cultivate the crop at Goalpara and Taldanga near Hoogly.
During the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, the British cotton-textile industry expanded dramatically. As this industry grew, there was high demand for indigo to make blue cloth in Britain. Due to the increased demand for blue dye in Europe, indigo planting became more and more commercially profitable. As a result, the British East India Company encouraged the growth of a thriving indigo industry in Bengal and Bihar.
With the Nawabs of Bengal under the Company rule, European planters enjoyed a monopoly over the indigo. These indigo planters gained land rights in several ways. They took waste or unoccupied lands on temporary or permanent leases from the Zamindars. They also acquired the Zamindari and Taluqdari rights.
‘Ryoti‘ was a predominant form of indigo cultivation in Bengal. In the Ryoti cultivation, the farmers (or ryots) cultivated indigo on their lands as a part of a contract with the planters.
The European planters persuaded or compelled farmers (or ryots) to sign a contract to grow indigo on their land. They made an advance payment to the ryots to meet the expenses of cultivation. In return, the ryots agreed to cultivate indigo on their lands.
However, the indigo planters forced the farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops by signing fraudulent deals with them. They gave the farmers loans, called dadon, at very high-interest rates. Once the peasants took such loans, they remained in debt for their whole life before passing it to their successors. The farmers could make no profit growing indigo, as the European planters paid very-low prices to them for the indigo.
If the peasants refused to grow indigo, the indigo planters resorted to illegal means such as threatening them with mortgages, kidnapping, burning crops, or property destruction. The Government rules also favoured the indigo planters. The zamindars, who also stood to benefit from Indigo cultivation, sided with the indigo planters. Under these conditions, the farmers resorted to rebellion.
The indigo revolt began in the villages in Champaran and Chaugacha in Krishnanagar, Nadia district, where Digambar Biswas and Bishnucharan Biswas first led the rebellion against the planters in Bengal in 1859. The uprising spread rapidly in Birbhum, Burdwan, Murshidabad, Pabna, Khulna, and Jessore.
The rebels burned down the indigo depots. Some indigo planters were given a public trial and executed. They attacked the police personnel, who intervened. The zamindars were also targets of the rebellious peasants. Even women participated by fighting with pots and pans.
In response, the European planters employed groups of mercenaries and engaged in continual clashes with the rebels. They enhanced the rents and evicted the farmers, which led to more agitation. The farmers began refusing to pay any rent at all.
The rebellion was especially powerfully in the Pabna district in 1860. All the farmers in the Barasat division of the Nadia and Pabna districts went on a strike and vehemently refused to grow indigo. The strike spread to other parts of Bengal. The farmers rose under the leadership of the Biswas brothers of Nadia, Rafiq Mondal of Malda and Kader Molla of Pabna.
The rebellion was eventually suppressed by the mercenary forces of the indigo planters, though not before it put a temporary halt to large areas of indigo production along the Bengal and Kathgara regions. The indigo planters sued hundreds of peasants for breaking their indigo contracts.
The indigo revolt had a powerful impact on the British government, which led to the immediate appointment of the “Indigo Commission” in 1860.
In March 1860, the British government passed legislation to enforce the fulfilment of the indigo contracts for one season. At the same time, the Government appointed an Indigo Commission to inquire into the problem of indigo cultivation. The commission submitted its report in August 1860, which was highly critical of indigo planters’ practices.
Based on the recommendations of the Indigo Commission, the Government issued a notification in November 1860 that the ryots (or farmers) could not be forced to grow indigo and that it would ensure that all disputes were resolved by legal means. However, the indigo planters were already closing down the factories, and indigo cultivation was virtually wiped out from Bengal by the end of 1860.
The play ‘Nil Darpan‘, also known as ‘Mirror of Indigo‘, was written by Dinabandhu Mitra in 1858-59 and published in 1860 in Dhaka. The play, based on indigo revolt, portrayed the suffering and struggle of farmers. It showed how the planters coerced the farmers into planting indigo without adequate payment. It urged the Bengali intelligentsia to lend support to the indigo revolt.
The Bengali intelligentsia played a significant role by supporting the farmer’s cause through newspaper campaigns, organising mass meetings, preparing memoranda on farmers’ grievances and supporting them in legal battles.
The play was translated into English by poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta and published by Anglican priest James Long. For publishing it, James Long was put on trial by the colonial authorities and sentenced to a period of imprisonment with a fine of 1000 rupees.
‘Nil Darpan’ proved to be essential to the development of theatre in Bengal and influenced ‘Girish Chandra Ghosh‘ who in 1872 would go on to establish the National Theatre in Kolkata, where the first play ever commercially staged there was Nil Darpan.