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Social Scientist

Bengali Intelligentsia and the Politics of Rent, 1873-1885 Author(s): Kalyan Kumar Sen Gupta Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Sep., 1974), pp. 27-34 Published by: Social Scientist Stable URL: . Accessed: 01/03/2011 12:00
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and the Politics ofRent, Bengali Intelligentsia 1873- 885

IN 1873, the occupancy ryots of the district of Pabna, now in Bangladesh, struggled against their landlords to defend the right ofoccupancy granted to them and to other Bengal cultivators by the Rent Act X of 1859. This agrarian unrest which gradually spread to other districts of eastern and central Bengal in the decade preceding the enactment of the Bengal Tenancy Act of 18852 had also an impact on the politics of the westernized urban elite of Calcutta, the capital of India and the seat of the nineteenth century Bengali bhadralok culture. The Bengali intelligentsia of the time, though aware of the socio-economic implications of the problem posed by the strained agrarian relations, saw the problem at the same time from divergent angles and attempted to solve it on their separate premises and interests. This pointed to the existence of a conflict of ideology among the westernized elite. It was perhaps natural since the Bengali intelligentsia in the late nineteenth century did not have a common social base. Unfortunately very little research has so far been done on the ideology and the interests of the westernized intelligentsia of Bengal vis-a-vis the land question. Historians who have enquired into the social role of the Bengali intelligentsia in the period under review have not so far worked out in detail their social origins.3 Unless this is done one cannot



have a clearer perception of the role of the iiitelligeiitsia in the politics of the rent question in Bengal in the late nineteenth century. Apart from making an attempt to fill this gap in our historical knowledge of the Bengali intelligentsia, I have tried to analyse in this paper the nature of liberal intelligentsia's support to the telantry.

Elites Old and New

Bv the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new urban elite whiicl Calcutta grew out of the compradore elite of the late-eighteenth-century Mlost of gradually stabilized its social position in the new metropolis. the men who acquired a higher status in the growing metropolis of Calcutta were high-caste Hindus. They were the beneficiaries of the Permanent Settlement, men who took advantage of the agricultural boom of the early nineteenth century to put their surplus resources in land an-d became, in course of time, prosperous absentee landlords residing more or less perlianentlv in the new metropolis.5 Their wealth enabled them to assume the leadership of the first (generation of thle Bengali literati in tlle early decades of the century.\ From the 1820s, however, a change in the social composition of the The spread of western education leadintelligentsia became perceptible. ing to the Ioundation of the University of Calcutta in 1857 brightened the prospect of gainful employment in government services and easier access to new professions like law, medicine and engineering. Quite naturally Bengali youths belonging to ordinary middle-class families not exclusively dependent on rentier income started to crowd the new English schools with a view to exploriing new avenues of employment.7 This trend proved, at least indirectly, that a sizable section of the English-educated Bengalis of the mid-nineteenth century did not or could not depend exclusively on rentier income. These educated Bengalis formed the nucleus of a new literati vwhich had a loxver social standing as compared with that of the earlier generation.

Broadly speaking, this new intelligentsia held relatively progressive In or liberal views on various political, social and economic problems. particular, they were the enthusiastic propagators of tenant right in Bengal and wrote essays and newspaper editorials, fiction and plays to mould the pro-tenant public opinion. Belonging to a lower social group, they were fast acquiring a position of eminence in the "achievement-oriented" metropolitan society.8 Quite naturally, they were not prepared to accept unhesitatingly the social leadership of the higher social group represented by the landlords.9 Precisely for this reason, the liberals made organized attempts in the 1870s to take over the British Indian Association, the only political organization of the English-educated Bengalis of the time, which was dominated by the landed magnates. 1 The failure of these efforts forced an influential group of salaried and professional people




led by men like Ananda Mohan Bose, a leading member of the Calcutta Bar and Sishir Kumar Ghlose, a journalist of repute, to break away from the British Indian Association to form the rival Indian League in 1875.'' Sishir Kumar who represented 'entrepreneurial interests" of the Bengali middle class could not establish anll upper rapport with professional people like Surendranath Banerjee a former civil servant, Dwarkanath Ganguly a teacher, Krishna Kumar Mitra a young rising journalist, Ananda Mohan Bose and others.l The latter broke with Sishir Kumar and founded in 1876 the Indian Association which was the first political organization of the salaried and professional gentlemen of Bengal.'1

AgrarianIssue, UrbanDissension
The establishment of this organization had coincided with widespread agrarian unrest in eastern and central Bengal which had put the landlords' organization, the British Indian Association in a tight corner. Naturally, the Indian Association used the rent question to contain politically the rival British Indian Association. Logically enough the Indian Association took its stand on the concept of tenant right. It organized mammoth meetings of the ryots in different parts of Bengal. 4 It wholeheartedly supported the recommendations of the Rent Law Commission, 1879. It stated that the Government possessed the right to enact laws for the benefit of the tenantry and suggested a number of pro-tenant measures. 5 The pro-tenant activities of the Association thus marked the beginning of a new and distinct phase in the history of mass political agitations in Bengal. Paradoxically enough, a rural problem thus became the subject of urban politics. In this interesting urban political struggle over a basically rural socio-economic issue, the pro-ryot liberal intelligentsia came face to face led by men like Joywith the pro-landlord conservative intelligentsia the of zamindar Krishnadas Pal, Digamkrislhna Mukherjee Uttarpara, bar Mitra, Narendra Krishna Deb and Jotindra Mohan Tagore. ' These men were also the products of new education in Bengal. 7. But they saw the problem of agrarian relations from the narrow angle of the landlord class since most of them were in control of rural landed property. Thus, before the new Tenancy Act was put on the books, the Bengali intelligentsia stood divided. Broadly speaking the salaried and the professional people who had little or no rentier income championed tenant right while a section of the intelligentsia which possessed considerable landed property and enjoyed in consequence a higher social status exerted pressure on the government to stabilize the position of the landlords.

liberal intelligentsia could view the problem from an angle different from the landlord perspective and tenant point of materially view. They could grasp the fact that the existing rent law had failed to The



define correctly the landlord-tenant relationship in Bengal. Quite naturally, almost all the leading representatives of the liberal intelligentsia advocated a change in the existing rent law. 1 Some of them like Dwarkanath Vidyabhushan, the editor of the Bengali journal Som Prokashand R C Dutt, then a young civilian who later became a noted economic historian, called upon the government to make a permanent settlement of the rents payable by the tenants to the landlords.2 The liberal Bengali press also wanted changes in the existing rent law and pointed out its chief defects from time to time.2 1 In contemporary literature too, we notice not only a reflection of the problem but also an awareness of the depressed conditions of the tenantry. MhirMusharaff Hussain, a village playwright published in 1873 a play JamindarDarpan(a Mirror for the Zamindar).2 2In the same year, a novel by an anonymous writer, entitled Asha Marichikacame out from Pabna.28 A year later Rev. Lal Behari Dey, Professor of English, Hugli
College, wrote the fiction Bengal Peasant Life or Govinda Samanta.2' It is

interesting that this novel von a prize donated by Joykrishna Mukherjee of Uttarpara, a noted landed magnate and politician of the British Indian Association, who was staunchly pro-zamindar in his stand against the first draft of the Bengal Tenancy Act. This is a genuine contradiction: it merely emphasizes the complexity of the feelings regarding the peasantry of even the landed magnates, a "nexus between man and man" which was the hallmark of feudalism to Marx and Engels in the Gernman Ideology
and the Communist Alanifesto.

Class Interestsand Attitudes

These publications brought into focus the oppressive character of landlordism in Bengal. Mir Musharaff's play in particular was staged in the rural areas and served as popular propaganda against the landlords. "It so moved the peasants that they broke into tears and solemnly vowed never to fogive the zamindars." R C Dutt published in 1874 his famous book Bengal Peasantry which, among other things, analysed the causes of the agrarian movement in Pabna and suggested measures for the solution of the problems caused by strained agrarian relations. Parbati Churn Ray's documented work, the Rent Questionin Bengalpublished in 1883 defended tenant right and tried to counter the landlords' arguments in favour of enhancement of rent. The pro-tenant stance of the liberal elite however did not really cut deep. While they were quite vocal in favour of tenant right, the representatatives of the liberal intelligentsia were not prepared, as yet, to disturb the superstructure of the Permanent Settlement26. Not unnaturally they condemned peasant violence. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the foremost Bengali novelist, understood the oppressed conditions of the tenantry. But he unequivocally deprecated peasant violence and advised Mir Musharaff Hussain to stop the sale and distribution of his play Jamindar Darpan, because he apprehended that the staging of the play



would help to create a climate of peasant violence.2

This demonostrates

the extent to which the influence of social environment and class interest could determine the social attitudes of even a literary critic. The liberal inewspapers like Bengalee, Sorl Prokash and Sulabh Samlachar were also duped by persistent landlord propaganda and asked the government to take stringent measures to suppress violent peasant movements.2 7 its apparent sympaOne can therefore see that notwithstanding thies for the tenantry, the liberal intelligentsia dreaded the spectre of a social revolution. Precisely for this reason it mistook the legalistic and non-violent agrarian protest of the tenantry in eastern Bengal for armed peasant insurrection and became in consequence as much panicky as the landlords. Ironically enough it was this interpretation which was to lead recent historians to identify the Pabna disturbances witli armed peasant revolt "8- an ironic comment on the liberal origins of this new intelligentsia and its patronizing stance to the peasantry. In fact, the nineteeenth-century liberals sought to restrain, in their own interest, both the landlords and the tenants, extended support only to the occupancy ryots and hardly ever came forward with any scheme of radical agrarian reform for the protection of the economic interests of the lower peasant groups such as non-occupancy ryots, the share-croppers and the agricultural labourers. Consequently no real link could be establisledl between the liberal urban intelligentsia and the actual cultivators.

Double Tragedy
The salaried and the professional gentlemen of the city of Calcutta thus took advantage of the agrarian crisis in Bengal in the late nineteenth century and sought to win a political battle against the absentee landIn this politilords and their supporters, the conservative intelligentsia. cal struggle of the urban elite, tlle grievances of the ryots were used by the liberal elite to embarrass the landlords. Yet the liberals deliberately refiained from giving the discontent of the tenantry the shape of an organized peasant movement, since they feared tliat any such movement would disturb the existing property relations and the emerging bhadralok It is also significant that the Indian balance of social equilibrium. Association perhaps deliberately did not organize any peasant meetings in the eastern Bengal districts where agrarian tensions were particuilarly acute. The movement of the tenantry in eastern Bengal was therefore a spontaneous movement which did not receive any material help from outside. A section of the Bengali intelligentsia merely took advantage of the unrest to emerge as the self-appointed guardians of the Bengal tena. ntry. Rent politics in Bengal was therefore a bipartite response of the liberal intelligentsia and the conservative elite to the challenge of the In this politics of the elite the occupancy ryots and their combinations. role of the ryots was that a deus ex manchiaa,sensed as a danger, though not but not associational, yet articulate in a composite way, combinational



an element in the calculations but not a direct bargainer. Agrarian unrest in eastern Bengal brought the ryots as a backdrop to the bipartite bargain. But the bargain was conducted over the ryots' heads. The result was a deep tragedy: the tragedy of disappointed ryot hopes and greater tragedy of bhadralok hopes fulfilled. (This paper was originally presented uzder the title The Ideology and the Interest of the Bengali Intelligentsia in the Late 19th Century: the Politics of Rent 1873-1886 at the 29th International Congress of Orientalists held in Paris between J7ztlv16 and Jtly 22, 1973.)
1 For details see Kalyan Kumar Sen Gupta, "The Agrarian League of Pabna", Indian Economic and Social History Review,June 1970 pp 253-269. Also K K Sen Gupta, Pabna and the Politics of Rent, New Delhi 1974, pp 20-94. Disturbances 2 Kalyan Kumar SenGupta,"Agrarian Disturbances in Eastern and Central Bengal in the Late 19th Century,"Ibid.,June 1971,pp 192-212.Also KK Sen Gupta, op.cit., pp 95-116. and Collaboration in the Later Anil Seal, The Emergence 3 of IndianNationalism, Cotmpetition 19th Century, Cambridge 1968; Pradip Sinha, NineteenthCentlry Bengal, Calcutta 1965; "Social Change", N K Sinha (Ed.) History of Bengal, Calcutta 1967, T R Metcalfe, Aftermath of Revolt,India, 1857-1870, Princeton 1966; Benoy Ghosh, Banglar Samajik Itihaser Dhara (in Bengali), Calcutta 1970; "Changing Elite of Bengal" S Sinha (Ed.) Clltural Profileof Cacuitta, Calcutta 1972; E Komarov, "Social Thought in Bengal" Reisner and Goldberg (Eds.) Tilak and the Indian Freedom Movement, Delhi 1966; B B Majumdar, Historyof Indian Social and Political Ideas, Calcutta 1967; Bipan Chandra, The Rise and Growthof EconomicNationalism in India, New Delhi 1966. 4 Benoy Ghosh, op. cit., pp 200-236. 5 Ibid., 6 Anil Seal, op. cit., p 54. Seal, writes, "It was in part this unearned income from land which financed their incursions into literary and political pursuits". As a matter of fact, the membership list of one of the earliest forums of the 19th century Bengali elite the AtmiyaSabha (1814) of Ram Mohan Roy included a large number of aristocratic names: Gopirnohan Tagore, Ananda Prosad Banerjee of Telinipara, Kalinath Roy of Paki, Dwarkanath Tagore and Raja Kalishankar Ghoshal. See Benoy Ghosh, op. cit., pp 200-236. 7 Anil Seal, op. cit., p 46. The famous disciples of Derozio, the "Young Bengal" as they were commonly known, Tarachand Chakravorty, Krishna Mohan Banerjee, Radhanath Sikdar, Ram Gopal Ghose, Akshoy Kumar Datta among others ca,ne of relatively indigent families. See Nirmal Sinha (Ed.) Freedom Movement in Bengal, Who's Who, Calcutta 1968; Benoy Ghoslt op. cit., p 201. 8 Benoy Ghosh, op. cit., pp 199-201. 0 A contemporary observer had noted: "This section of the people have been taught, perhaps beyond the needs of their station and they fret at the want of an opening. They are clerks, writers, editors, pleaders, doctors... many of them maintain a constant agitation in favour of native right to further political power". See B Martin, New India, 1885. 1 The liberals at first tried to take over the Central Committee of the B I Association. They then attempted to form branch committees of the Association in the districts and sought to bring down the subscription rate of the Association from Rs. 50 to Rs. 5 per month to attract a larger number of salaried and professional men. See Seal, op. cit., p 210. 11 Seal, ibid. 2 B Martin, op. cit., p 33. Sishir Ghose who was an ardent champion of ryoti interests at the time of the indigo disturbances when the smaller landholders joined the ryots in



03 3

their battle against ihie plainters, took a positively aniti-tenaint stand in the 70s. Conites,timoney xshich xvas edlited b7 hilm hear ampl-]e tem-porary files of. Jut ita Bazaar Pat,iAak to this fact. 18Seal, oprcit., p) 210. Str-essinig the nieces-sity of a separate political organi/iat ion fo(r thie Biengali midIdleclass, one of the founidershiad rem-arked, -Since thie B I A is an org~aniclas;s canntot l)ecome its' zationi of' the richi, thie meni l)elonging to the middic(le members. Yet tlieir growsing nitmbiers and( infIlienice necessitate the formation of a separ-ate political organiizationi for thiem-". Quioted in Naraliari Kaviraji, SeadIhitzafar Bangla, Calcutta 1957. SYangraite On-januiary 15. 18811 some thiousand(s attd NNs of rvouts assembled at Kissiatgtgonje hole13, 1881). On Febrttary 6, hicartedlly supported the Renit Bill (Bengalee januLary 1881 aniother large meetinig of'thie t-yots wsas lield at Rohutta in 24-Par-ganias ibid.) Meetin,gs wverealso lheldl in Nadia, Birbhttm, Baidlyahati, Bnirduvan and Calctttta gaalee (Fourth. Aiintial Report of the Iindiati Association dlatedI M-ay 13, 1881, B)en these meetings, were, finiancedlhy theJuly 2 anid Auguist20, 188 1). It is significant thtat, landcown-ier, See 'Martin opl.cil.. p) '114. Mahiarajah-of Darbhianga, a wsell-know-in 1 Fouirth Atnnual Report of the Inidiani Association, -May 15, 1881. 16 B\Martlin, op.cit., p 286. 1 7 "'fhiough. most wsere edLocatedto the college level there were fewserttniver'sity'men than in the Inidian Association" (cf. B1 'Martin, op. cit., p 287). I*In fact the Act w,as onily a hialf-measuiresshich. (lid not serve the in-terestsof e-ither the or thie tenantry. Unider the Act, the new occupanicy ryot wsas requiried to lan-dlordIs lutrnislithe almiost impossible proiof'thiathie hiad hield every par-ticular field for tsselsve vcears. The landlordIscouild also evade thte law by shiflting hlis tenanit from otte field tP thiis. the laws allo\\-ed aniothierto p)revent thle accrual of occupancy right. Apart from-the rvots to conitract tlsensselves ouit of' occuipanicy rights. Co'stts41eletly~capric(ious often-sttccessfuillyforced the rvots to give uip hiisoccupanicy title. 'Moreover lanidlordIs incessatntenchiaiicenmenit tlie Act nelither gave the occttpanicy ryots any protectoion fromn of'renits n-or detertnined aniyrules for fixing, ani equitable rate of ren-t. Besides tlte Act did siotdefine the occuipanicy ryots' righit to improvemnentsnior did it specifically jee.' determine Isis righit in them in the evenit of h-iseviction. See Radhiatamian Miukher Qf Riglt,t, CalCuItta 1919, p 95. Also B H Baden-Powell, Thle Land SyVstemz QaCU1ang BsiiislhIndtia,Vol I, Oxf'ord M\DCC'XLI, p 647. See also K K Sen GuIpta, otp.cit.,pp 117-123. THarinathi Majunmdar 1Dwh)sarkanath Vidyabhitishan, the erudite editor of SamtProkcasit, editor of Gramnbaria Pr-akashika,Bankit-n Ch-andra Chatterjee the novelist, R C Dutt the cis ilan all spoke against the Rent Law. Bankim in particular felt thiat Act X hiad fail'ed to become the Magna Gartaof the ryots. It was hiis contenition that the nttmber of ryots Nsvlsose rents could not be raised was quite insignificant. He therefore pttt foralone areC the candid question:"WVhat kind of law is that by whiichithe wseak wvard puinishied anid which is not applicable to the powerful?" (Bankim Chand(ra Chatterjee, 'BaRachanavali,Sansad Edition, pp 257-314. Also R C I)utt, uigladesher Krisliak", Bankimi Pr-akashikca , NMarch 17, 1875 Bentgal Peasanztry,Calcutta 1874, pp 210-214, Grem7barta N P and BB op. cit. 1875) Majumdar, p 98). ~R 0 R C Dunt op. cit., pp 210-2-14, Majumdar, op. cit., p 98. This wvas hiowveverniot an original proposal. In 1864, Charles Trevelyan, the then Finan-ce. Member of thle Goveriinmentof India had put forwvardan identical proposal to the guvernmetnt. See T R Matcalfe op. cit., pp 180-183. 21 Salabh Sanmachar Feburary 16, 1874, (R N P), September 2, 1873 (RNP), S~ahachar Bengal Magazine, August, 1873. See also MlanjuChatterjee, "Pabniar Krishak Bidrahia," Pat ichaya, 1377 B. S., p 1307. The leading Brahmo newspaper of Dacca, Bangabandhtl clearly stated, "Thec indifference of the landlords for the welfare of the tenantry and theicrinsatiable lust for money have destroyed the ryots' peace of life. The government shiould come forsvard with a new,, measuire so that both parties cottild livre in



peace." (Quoted in Manju Chatterjee, op. cit., p 1307). The Sahachar was of the opinion that it was incorrect to assume that the zamindars were the sole proprietors of land and therefore they should not be allowved to appropriate all the ]profits which had resulted from the rise in land prices (Sahachar,February 16, 1877. RNP). 22 This was a play in three acts. It drew a vivid picture of the atrocities of a Muslim zamindar, Haiwan Ali of Hauwalpurwho ravished Nur-un-Neher, the wife of hiis defaulting tenant Abu Mollah. On the complaint of Abu Mollah, the lower court committed the zamindar to the sessions but the European judge accepted the verdict of a corrupt jury and dismissed the case against Haiwan All. For more details about the life and work of Mir Musharraff see Sujit K Sen Gupta,"Eksho Panchis Bacharer Aloye Mir Musharraff Hussain," Desh, July 14, 1973. a a This novel described the atrocities of the Sanyals, a leading zamindar family of Pabna which witnessed in 1873 widespread agrarian protest of the tenantry. Cf. Bengalee July 26, 1873. Apart from this reference no information pertaining to the novel is available to the author. See also K K Sen Gupta, op. cit., p 28. *4 It dealt with the acts of oppression on Govinda Samanta, a ryot of village Kanchanpur in the district of Burdvan by his landlord. 25 SoreProkash wrote on October 3, 1873: "We do not wish to see one class benefited at the cost of another. On the contrary, it is our prayer that impartial justice may be meted out...that the weak be protected from oppression, that the night of trouble of the ignorant and dumb ryots may for ever passasway". Sulabh Samachar noted on September 11, 1873: "The government should compel the zamindars to fulfil their The Dacca P-okash obiligationsto the ryots underihe PermanentSettlement (Italics added). stated on June 2, 1873:"Our zamindars ought to be careful, it is not desirablethat they the face of theearth". (Italics added).The RajshahiSamachar shoulddisappearaltogetherfroml pointed out on June 23, 1873: "'e are neither of those that seek to recover for the zamindars the rights lost to them by the passing of Act X nor of those that proposed to obtain an extension of the rights of thle tenantry." 26 Chatterjee wrote in Bongadarshan,Bhnadra,1280 B3, p237: "We have been pained and disgusted by the Pabna ryots. It is unnecessary to add fuel to the fire. We advise that the author should forthwith stop the sale and distribution of thleplay." 27 The Bengaleestated on July 5, 1873: "Though our sympathies are invariably in favour of the oppressed against the oppressor we have none to spare for the Pabna ryots. If they were oppressed by zamindars, they had the courts of justice open to them. Nothing can palliate, much less excuse the outrages swhich are committed by Prokash remarked on June 7, 1873: "Our request is that tle Lieutethem." Sorm nant Governor would enquire and find out the leaders of the present disturbances and visit them with severe punishments." Sulabh Samnachar commented on July 15, 1873: "The government will pay attention to the grievances of the ryots. They are no doubt guilty because of the affrays in which they were engaged after they had rebelled and the trouble and loss to which they halve put the peasantry at large." as Cf. Kalyan Kumar Sen Gupta, "Peasant Struggle in Pabna (1873): Its Legalistic Character" Nineteenth 1973. Centuiry Studies, Calcutta, No 3 July Abbreuiation:RNP-Report in Native Newsspapers (Bengal).