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Agrarian Unrest: The Deccan Riots of 1875

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Agrarian Unrest: The Deccan Riots of 1875
Vinay Lal

Though the surrender of Delhi to British forces, in less than a year after the rebels had first captured it, and the containment of the rebellion in the Punjab pointed to the reassertion of British authority, it was not until 1859-60 that the last pockets of resistance to British rule were destroyed. In the meantime, the East India Company had been dissolved, and the administration of India passed directly into the hands of the Crown. The ensuring years were, in a manner of speaking, to be devoted to reconstruction; and the memory of the harsh measures adopted by the British to repress the disturbances had instilled some quiet in the countryside. However, agrarian unrest has a rather long history, and there is always just cause for Indian peasants, laboring under difficult conditions – uncertain weather, the mendacity of moneylenders, oppressive taxation or revenue assessments, fluctuating prices of crops, poor or negligible government subsidies, the support of large families, among many others – to join a rebellion or to instigate one. The peace of the countryside was to be shattered before too long.

In 1875, owing to disturbances over large parts of Western India, a committee was appointed by the Government of Bombay to report on the “riots in Poona and Ahmednagar.” [note 1] On May 12th of that year, in the village of Supa in Bhimthari taluka of Poona, there was an outbreak of violence, “singular in the wholesale plunder of property”, while in a nearby village the violence took the form of a “murderous assault upon the money-lenders.” The Deccan Riots Commission, as it came to be called, noted that the outbreak could just as easily have happened at any other place in the “affected area”: “The combustible elements were everywhere ready; design, or mistake or accident would have surely supplied the spark to ignite them.” A “remarkable feature” of the disorders was the “small amount of physical crime”, the objective of the rioters being “in every case to obtain and destroy the bonds, decrees, & c., in the possession of their creditors. . .” [note 2]

The riots of 1875 in Poona and Ahmednagar were, in short, rooted in acute agrarian distress. Between 1819 and 1821 the area fell into the possession of the British, who formed “an exaggerated estimate” of the financial capabilities of the ryots [peasants], thus burdening them with an “over-assessment for 20 years” with “ruinous” consequences. One senior British official frankly admitted that over-assessment “drained the country of its agricultural capital”, accounting “in great measure” for the poverty into which the cultivating classes had been plunged. The introduction of the Revenue Survey and Assessment in 1832 contributed substantially towards improving the lot of the ryots, but the problem of indebtedness, which according to the British had been common among the ryots long before they gained possession of the area, remained unsolved. The ryots were placed in a position of ignominy and bondage in relation to the moneylender. But if indebtedness was scarcely a new element, and over-assessment likewise had plagued the cultivators in the past, why had the riots broken out in 1875 and not at some later or earlier point? Though there was a fall in prices, the assessment was enhanced by the government in 1875. This may well have been the catalyst in pushing the cultivators to rioting. Noting that, as in the Santhal Rebellion of 1855, the ryots appear to have been influenced by a rumor that the government would release the cultivators from their debts to the sowkars (moneylenders), the committee described this as “a circumstance which perhaps more than any other precipitated the outbreak . . .” [note 3]

Although the committee’s own interpretation of the riots became widely accepted, modern scholarship has called it into question. Neil Charlesworth has argued that indebtedness could not have caused the riots. To the Kunbis, the main agricultural caste of Poona and Ahmednagar, borrowing was a habit of life, and indebtedness not a novel situation into which they had been precipitously thrown; secondly, as riot-stricken villages suffered comparatively smaller increases in taxation, re-assessment could not have motivated the villagers to riot; thirdly, repossession of debtor’s lands was not an idea to which money-lenders were receptive, for they stood to gain more by “controlling the ryot’s agricultural production and directing the tight-knit web of local commerce.” [note 4] The riots were aimed at moneylenders, agrees Charlesworth, but this was not a homogeneous group. Money-lenders of the Brahmin caste, and other sowkars indigenous to the area, were spared; and the Marwari and Gujar sowkars, immigrants to the area, were alone victimized. The “‘foreignness’ of the Marwari money-lender . . . was the clear occasion of the riots.” [note 5] It was only against them that violence was directed, Charlesworth maintains, but the committee of inquiry was inclined to think of this as a feeble gesture, and had itself pointed to the example of a Marwari who, his leg having been broken, was even rescued from his burning house by rioters. Charlesworth stresses “the essential insignificance of the disturbances”, and states candidly that “the central problem of the Deccan Riots is really not what caused them but why so momentous a non-event has been considered so important.” [note 6] Could the appointment of a committee conceivably have led to the purportedly exaggerated prominence ascribed to the riots?

Writing on the “utter demoralization of two races” in India, “the race that borrows and the race that lends”, in a major English periodical just a few years after the riots, Florence Nightingale lamented that no one in England took any interest in the affairs of India. No one in Britain seemed much aware of the Deccan Riots Commission and the laborious report produced by its members: “No one Englishman in Parliament or press has asked the result. There is not a single Member of Parliament who has called for it. We do not care for the people of India.” [note 7] Nightingale did not indicate whether she would have been informed about the agrarian and debt crisis in the Deccan had not the report of the commission come to her attention. While she deplored the lack of interest in the commission’s findings, Nightingale herself quoted from the report copiously, adverting to the hold of the money-lender over the cultivator and the destitution of the peasantry as a consequence of British laws, which gave encouragement to usury, not to manufacture or trade. [note 8] But if there was nothing altogether exceptional about these riots, as Charlesworth has argued, why at all was a commission of inquiry appointed? Charlesworth has suggested that the politics of the riot committee merits analysis. One of the committee’s four members was an official from the United Provinces (U.P.), and he could be “expected to support reforms which acknowledged the shortcomings of the principles by which western India had been governed.” [note 9] The U.P. and Bombay governments were engaged in serious disagreements over the respective merits of their revenue and administrative systems, and disturbances in the Deccan may have given the U.P. government the very evidence it required of the purported inadequacies of the Bombay administration. Thus, despite the committee’s apparent interest in the riots, politics may have had a greater role to play in its deliberations.

In the event, the committee’s investigation bears far more similarity to the commission than to the committee of inquiry of later years. The Deccan Riots Commission can, quite reasonably, be considered as of a piece with commissions generally appointed to investigate agrarian distress, the condition of the peasantry, and land tenures and reforms. The commissioners’ attention was riveted less on the riots than on the agrarian conditions which had given rise to turbulence. Not for a moment did they imagine, nor was there any reason to do so, that the riots were invested with grave political import, or were somehow a harbinger of nationalist activity. The commissioners had no inclination, unlike the men who sat on official committees of inquiry in the first half of the twentieth century, to describe the riots as the handiwork of the educated and the urban population, and consequently as less than ‘real’ manifestations of native resentment -- the peasantry always being considered the ‘real’ population of India, content to live on without affectation or aspiration. Quite to the contrary, the commissioners were emphatic in their pronouncement that the ryots had not been “acted upon by persons of higher position and education.” [note 10] The Deccan Riots Commission’s affinity to the commissions of previous years becomes all the more evident when we consider that it was invested with the authority, which it exercised, to recommend legislation that, if accepted and implemented, would affect cultivators not only in the affected areas, but throughout India. [note 11]


Notes:
1. See Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (Commons), 1878, Vol. 58, “Report of the Deccan Riots Commission”, also printed as Report of the Committee on the Riots in Poona and Ahmednagar (Bombay: Government Central Press, 1876). References are to the Indian edition.
2. Ibid., pp. 5-6.
3. Ibid., pp. 18, 25, and 105.
4. Neil Charlesworth, “The Myth of the Deccan Riots of 1875”, Modern Asian Studies 6, no. 4 (1972):402-409.
5. Ibid., pp. 410-4..
6. Ibid., pp. 416-7.
7. Florence Nightingale, “The People of India”, The Nineteenth Century 18 (August 1878): 211-2.
8. Ibid., pp. 197-8, 201, 207, 208-17.
9. Charlesworth, “Myth of the Deccan Riots”, p. 420 and n. 98.
10. Report of the Committee on the Riots in Poona and Ahmednagar, pp. 105-6.
11. Ibid., Ch. 8. The commissioners recommended, among other things, the abolishment of imprisonment for debts and the exemption of the necessities of life from sale during collection of debts.

[This article is adapted from Chapter III of the author’s unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Committees of Inquiry and Discourses of ‘Law and Order’ in Twentieth-Century British India”, The University of Chicago, 1992.]

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