Anti-moneylender riots were also in Bengal (except in tribal pockets), for here too the mahajan was often the local rich peasant or jotedar whose credit in any case was quite indispensable for production. The zamindar in contrast had virtually no productive role, and claims to “high landlordism” led to wid-spread resistance by substantial raiytats in large parts of east Bengal in the 1870s and early 80s. The storm-centre was Pabna, a relatively prosperous district with a lot of double-cropping and a flourishing trade in jute, where more than 50% of the cultivators ad managed to win occupancy rights (giving immunity from eviction and some restraints on rent-enhancement) under Act X of 1859.
Yet zamindari rents had increased seven-fold since 1793 by 1872, and the landlords had launched a concerted drive in the 1860s and early 70s to enhance rent through a variety of abwabs (cesses), the use of arbitrarily short standards of measurement which automatically multiplied the cultivated area, and sheer physical coercion – moves which amounted to an attack on the new security won by the occupancy raiyats.
In 1873 peasants of Yusufshahi pargana of Pabna organized an agrarian league which raised funds to meet litigation expenses, held mass meetings to which villagers were called by the sounding of buffalo horns, drums and night cries passing from hamlet to hamlet, and also occasionally withheld rent. Similar movements were reported during the next decade from a number of neighbouring east Bengal districts (Dacca, Mymensingh, Tripura, Backergunj, Faridpur, Bogura and Rajshahi). Despite much panic-stricken talk, in Calcutta zamindar circles, of peasant violence and revolt, raiyat resistance was in fact eminently legalistic and peaceful apart from a few sporadic incidents in Pabna.
The aims of the movement were also quite limited, for the withholding of rents was no more than a method for winning specific demands like a change in the measurement standard, abolition of illegal cesses, and some reduction in rents. Nor was the Pabna agitation consciously anti-British : the most extreme demand raised in fact was that the raiyats wanted ” to be the ryots of Her Majesty the Queen land of Her only”. Such appeals to the distant overload as against the immediate oppressor are of course not uncommon in peasant movements, and the Pabna raiyats had been encouraged in fact by certain apparently pro-peasant moves by officials like Lt. Governor Campbell’s proclamation in July 1873 which accepted peasant combinations as lawful even while condemning violence.
Was Pabna a communal agitation?
The Pabna revolt and similar movements in other districts evoked sharply varied reactions among the Bengali intelligentsia. The zamindar-dominated British Indian Association was bitterly hostile, and its organ Hindu Patriot tried to portray the Pabna movement as a communal agitation of Muslim peasants against Hindu landlords.
Actually, though the bulk of the peasants in Pabna happened to be Muslim and their zamindars mostly Hindus, the communal element was as yet virtually absent (in sharp contrast to what was happen often in the twentieth century) the three principal leaders of the agrarian league being the petty landholder Ishan Chandra Roy, the village headman Shambhu Pal (both caste Hindus), and the Muslim jotedar Khoodi Mollah.
Incidentally, one of the zamindars principally affected was Dwijendranath Tagore, elder brother of the poet Rabindranath, who urged the government to take drastic action “for the restoration of order and tranquillity” in July 1873. Professional groups with less connections with big zamindari, however, took a more sympathetic attitude, as evidenced in R.C. Dutt’s Peasantry of Bengal (1874) and a little later in the Indian Association campaign in defence of tenant rights (which even involved the organisation of a number of raiyat meetings) on the eve of the Tenancy Act of 1885. Occupancy rights were preserved and somewhat extended by the latter Act, yet what is at least as significant is the total absence of concern whether in the Pabna movement, the later Indian Association agitation or in Government legislation, for peasants without occupancy claims, share croppers or agricultural labourers. Occupancy raiyats were in fact already often sub-letting their land to korfa raiyats were left completely unprotected, and no emphasis was ever placed on linking up occupancy rights with actual cultivation. The ultimate effect of this entire period of agrarian unrest and tenancy legislation in Bengal was to foster the growth of jotedar groups who have preserved as exploitative and parasitic as the zamindars, whom they were to gradually replace.
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