Indigo Revolt of 1859 and Farmer protests in 2020

DD Mishra

DD Mishra

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The Indigo revolt reflects what is going to come next again in India after the Farm Bills are executed on the ground.

If we do not learn from history, we pay the price in the present and future. One such forgotten or ignored history is the Indigo farmer’s revolt which wiped out India’s economy, resulted in the death of Ten million people in India, and scripted the downfall of the British Empire in India.

Indigo farmerUsually, Red is associated with revolution, but Indigo was a blue revolution. Indigo planting in Bengal dated to 1777 when Louis Bonnaud, a Frenchman, introduced it to the Indians. He was the first indigo planter of Bengal under British India. With the Nawabs of Bengal under British power, indigo planting became commercially profitable for businesses because of the demand for blue dye in Europe.

The indigo planters persuaded the peasants to plant Indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans, called “Dadon”, at very high interest. Once a farmer took such loans, he remained in debt for his whole life before passing it to his successors. The price paid by the planters was meager, only 2.5% of the market price. The farmers could make no profit growing Indigo.


The farmers were totally unprotected from the indigo planters, who resorted to mortgages or destruction of their property if they were unwilling to obey them. Government rules favored the planters. By Charter act in 1833, the growers were granted a free hand in oppression. Even the zamindars sided with the planters. Under this severe oppression, the farmers resorted to revolt.

When the farmers revolted, British Empire brought the army in and ruthlessly massacred the farmers. Zamindars (landlords) joined the British and killed the farmers. Not only was traditional farming wiped out, but the revolt also created unending miseries for farmers who refused to cultivate Indigo.

Do you see any similarity to farm bills now?

The above narrative around the Indigo revolt reflects what is going to come next again in India after the Farm Bills are executed on the ground. The similarities between the two are not a coincidence.

In the existing farm bills passed by Modi, the price of the product has been left to the farmer to negotiate. So, on one side, a businessman coming in a BMW, wearing a suit the cost of which may exceed farmer’s lifetime income, is sitting on a table against a farmer on the other side, who has not been able to feed his kids yesterday.

Now think about the negotiation, with officials with clear guidelines from their bosses on extracting the most from the farmer during negotiations.

This matter is not all. Current farm bills make lower courts irrelevant. The district officials have been given the right akin to civil courts. Whom will district officials listen to – Businesses with a battery of lawyers or a poor Farmer who does not have any outreach? Do we think Justice will be done to the Farmers under this situation?

The current Farm bills are only a broader policy, and much has been left to the corporates, farmers, and Government officials to deal with it. Unless one believes that government officials have become social servants, the business has become socialists; the politicians have become pro-poor and poor farmers are suddenly educated enough to fight for their rights, I fail to imagine what might happen to this unequal relationship. The whole premise revolves around imagining everything is perfect in this world.

farmEven if a state government in some corner of India tries to help farmers by amending some rules, they cannot do so. With this act, Farming is no longer a state subject.

This act requires the intervention of parliament for any modification. This Bill makes state governments only helpless spectators, and they only have an obligation to execute with some superficial inputs (eg. mode or manner of payments to farmers etc.).

The same thing the British did with Indigo farming. Contract farming was introduced. British created and amended laws to protect the interest of businesses. They created an infrastructure to prevent the farmers from getting Justice, empowered district administration to deal with them, and the outcome is known.

In addition, the way the government has reacted to farmer protests by issuing orders of “break the head” publicly is not different from what British Empire did during Indigo revolt. Neither the law, nor the protest and nor the reaction is different.

And here if people think it will only devastate farmers alone and it will not impact them, it will be incorrect. The first victim will be farmer and then the next will be common people. Generations will suffer when food security is removed and handed over to vested interests. Please read my other article Beneficiaries of Farm Bills – A case of 22,000% Return on Investment? The telltale signs of the impact are now visible looking at apple farmers plight in Himachal.

UPIt took India generations to get rid of the British once the revolt started, not without paying an expensive price. A loss of one crore lives and unprecedented poverty.

If you want to know more about Indigo Revolt, you can see the details here. This time it may be much bigger impact with current farm bills.

The agriculture sectors need reforms, but what kind of reform? There have been many promising studies conducted on the Farm sector, from Swaminathan committee recommendations to many other experts who have suggested from time to time what is the best.

Rather than boiling the ocean and disrupting many, an incremental change with the right intent is always advantageous. Both intent and content need to be noble with transparency and checks and balances to gain Trust. At present, generations will suffer if these bills are allowed to be executed.

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DD Mishra

DD Mishra

The writer is a researcher, blogger, social worker, activist, and change agent who strives to create social equilibrium and harmony for sustainable development. The content represents personal views of the author and does not represent the organisation or any group with which he may be associated with.

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