The Deccan Riots of 1875

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It took just one change in the revenue model imposed by the colonial British to trigger a cycle of debt among farmers in Maharashtra, a phenomenon that is taking lives today. Although the colonial administration cannot be blamed for farmer suicides in the 21st century, it is interesting to examine the tragic consequences that can result when change is introduced while dismissing the social context in which it takes place.

To do this, we revisit one of the worst riots of 19th century India. These were the Deccan Riots of 1875, a peasant uprising that lasted four months when farmers from more than 30 villages in the Bombay Province revolted against the sahukars or money lenders. But the stage had been set around 40 years earlier, when the colonial administration changed land revenue rules.

Rural Maharahstra in the 19th Century

For hundreds of years, farmers in rural Maharashtra depended for micro-finance on the local village grocers or vanis (banias in North India). A vani, a local resident, was a shopkeeper as well as a small money lender. Since they were few and they were not financially dominant, the vanis posed no threat to the village community.

A Marwari couple in their traditional attire | Wikimedia Commons
A Marwari couple in their traditional attire | Wikimedia Commons

Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Gujarati and Marwari banias started migrating to Deccani villages and became money lenders here. Unlike the rural vanis, these sahukars were big businessmen, who offered loans to the village community as a whole, and thus often controlled the village’s surplus produce.

Given the scale of operations, a sahukar dealt with the Patil, or the village chief, and not with individual farmers. The rate of interest demanded by the sahukars was also high, to offset the risks posed by agriculture, which was largely at the mercy of the monsoon.

But despite the burden of debt, the lives of these farmers were not controlled by the money lenders due to their numerical dominance in the local panchayats. It was the only judicial institution that traders and money lenders could approach for arbitration of disputes.

Amazingly, the imbalance brought on by debt did not threaten the harmonious relationship that the vanis and sahukars shared with the village community at large. It was a symbiotic relationship, where the money lenders depended on the farmers for agricultural produce, and the latter depended on the vanis and sahukars for financial credit.

Change in the Social System

The winds of change began to sweep across the Deccan with the arrival of the colonial British in the early 19th century. After the Anglo-Maratha War of 1818, much of the Deccan came under British rule, and the new masters introduced modern infrastructure, such as factories, the railways and telegraph, to the hinterland. This triggered a cascading effect, and it wasn’t long before things began to take a turn for the cultivators.

In 1837, the British raised the land revenue they collected from the farmers, exponentially. They reasoned that the modern infrastructure they had introduced would increase yield for farmers, who would now have more produce to sell.

What the British couldn’t control was the weather. So regardless of the rainfall and its impact on the harvest, farmers had to fork out a fixed and exorbitant sum in land revenue every year. It was non-negotiable. This had a domino effect, setting in motion a chain of events that would upset the power balance in the villages and push farmers into the clutches of money lenders.

Map of Bombay Presidency Southern Section (Deccan) | Wikimedia Commons
Map of Bombay Presidency Southern Section (Deccan) | Wikimedia Commons

The first of these changes was the introduction of the Ryotwari System in the Bombay Presidency, in the 1850s. Under this system, the farmer was regarded as the owner of the land he cultivated and, unlike earlier, merchants could deal directly with individual farmers instead of the village community via the Patil. At the same time, courts of law were established in the Bombay Presidency, in 1827, where disputes were settled.

The Ryotwari System allowed the sahukars to deal directly with individual farmers but, instead of doing this, they worked through the vanis. Since the vanis from different villages became united under the sahukar, it made their position stronger vis-a-vis the cultivators and even the Patil. The power balance began to shift and the farmers were at the receiving end.

Moreover, the new courts of law replaced the farmer-dominated panchayats and enabled money lenders to appeal their cases through litigation.

As a result, the money lending sahukars became economically and socially dominant and the farmers were becoming more and more powerless. Also, since most sahukars belonged to the Gujarati and Marwari immigrant communities, this created a perception of ‘outsiders versus insiders’.

By now, things were looking really bleak for the farmers. The high land revenue demanded by the British government, the farmers’ inability to repay money lenders, and their inability to afford lawyers to fight their cases in court against the sahukars, eventually made the cultivators lose their land. The cultivators, originally the proprietors of the land they tilled, lost their land to money lenders and became landless, bonded labourers of these new masters.

Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War | Wikimedia Commons
Battle of Hampton Roads during the American Civil War | Wikimedia Commons

The Cotton Boom

The American Civil War of 1861 created a boom in the demand for cotton from India as the war disrupted the cotton trade from America to England. All of a sudden, there was a shift to cotton cultivation in the Deccan, on a massive scale, which led to a scarcity of food crops. As a result, staples such as jowar became exorbitant. The money brought in by the cotton boom further raised the revenue targets set by the British government.

Four years later, when the American Civil War ended, the demand for cotton plummeted and so did its price. While the tax burden had increased, farmers plunged into economic depression. This meant just one thing for them – increased borrowing from money lenders and more debt.

A group of Kunbis, the main farming community during the period | Wikimedia Commons
A group of Kunbis, the main farming community during the period | Wikimedia Commons

Boycott and Riot

Pushed to the brink, the farmers protested. Hiroshi Fukazawa, in his paper Maharashtrian Village Community in the Deccan Riots of 1875 (1976) divides the conflict between the farmers and money lenders into two stages – social boycott and riots.

The cultivators called for a social boycott of the money lenders. Accordingly, no one would till the land for these sahukar, or sell their produce to them. This boycott extended to every caste in the bullotedar system, which comprised castes like carpenters, potters, blacksmiths, barbers etc. These bullotedars were prohibited from providing their services to these Gujarati and Marwari money lenders.

The boycott didn’t last long. While the vanis found alternative service providers from neighbouring villages, the police compelled most of the villagers to abandon their social boycott.

While the boycott did not work, it triggered a riot. The first riot broke out in Supa village in Pune district on 12th May 1875, and spread to several other villages. The cultivators broke into the homes of the sahukars, vandalised the houses and burnt all their documents and accounts. Their goal was to destroy evidence of their debt.

Although violence was never the aim, some money lenders were attacked. The riots spread to villages in Pune, Satara and Ahmednagar districts. Other villages in the Deccan remained largely peaceful. In some cases, money lenders had to flee, fearing for their safety and that of their families. The riots lasted four months, till September 1875.

Aftermath

Eventually, the riot was crushed by the police but the social boycott continued in many villages. The British, who had still not forgotten the Revolt of 1857, were worried, and the Deccan Riot Commission was set up to find out what had triggered the riots.

As a result, the British government in India amended the Code of Civil Procedure in 1877, and enacted the Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act in 1879, on the recommendations of the Commission. This spared the farmers from being arrested on grounds of unpaid dues and provided them with financial relief.

Unreasonably high land revenue imposed by the British administration, high rates of interest demanded by money lenders, bad weather conditions, economic instability due to the American Civil War, and a major change in the judicial system had left the cultivators helpless. Their dependence on money lenders had caused them to lose their land.

In The Journal of Asian Studies’ research paper, The Deccan Riots of 1875 (1965), author Ravinder Kumar blames the British interference in Indian social ecology for the conflict, leading to the riot. British reforms broke down the social structure in rural society and turned interdependent communities like cultivators and money lenders into adversaries.

Sadly, even today, farmers in Maharashtra are trapped in a cycle of debt, and rely on the government for agricultural relief. Those who hold the reins of power have changed; little else has.

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