“Nil” Cultivation Revives in Bihar Flashing Our Memory Back On A Colour


BIHAR: Way back in 1859 when 200 copies of “The Indigo Planting Mirror”, translated from “Bengali by a Native” and published by a Gora Firangi James Long, reached London, the British Parliamentarians were shocked.

How could mankind be so cruel as to force peasants in India to cultivate indigo in sub-human ways? They thought! But their fellow brethren in power in the Colony India running the British Raj thought otherwise.

They slapped a fine of Sicca Rupee 1,000 on the Gora Firangi or white man Long and one month’s prison for publishing the book translated by the “Native” who was none other than the famous Bengal’s renaissance writer Michael Madhusudhan Dutta. Michael had translated Nil Darpan, a play composed by Dinabandhu Mitra, from Bengali to English.

Nil Darpan, a book compared with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, portrayed the extreme torture of peasants who were forced to cultivate the cash crop indigo by the British planters many of whom had even sailed all the way from Great Britain to Bihar and different other parts of undivided Bengal.

Nil Darpan portrayed the most brutal suppression of Nil Bidroho or indigo revolution of 1859 of Bengal that had also seen massive bloodshed of peasantry by the East India Company in 1777 when they refused to cultivate indigo.

The revolt of 1859 was crushed so ruthlessly that even a Gora Firangi E W L Tower, then the Indigo Commissioner, had said in his report to London: “Not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood……and such a system carrying on indigo, I consider to be a system of bloodshed.”

No wonder, when Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi came to Motihari of Champaran district of Bihar 57 years later of filing of Gora Firangi Tower’s report, he vowed to put an end to ensure that the “chests of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”

Bihar Again See the Colour of Neel

Neel, the colour, catapulted Bihar in the British media in 1859. After 160 years, Neel is again occupying inches in the Indian newspapers as indigo cultivation, though in a small way, has begun in Bihar. After 1955, it was virtually stopped.

In fact, India’s history is integrally associated with Bihar’s Nil cultivation as it was indigo that paved the way of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to become a Mahatma by helping him take a plunge in the the freedom movement.

In fact, the Champaran Satyagraha acted as a plank for him to jump into the Indian politics. Interestingly, Champaran Satyagraha also offered a major ground for our first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad to come into political lime light in those days.

Way back in 1779, Bihar made a traumatic tryst with indigo cultivation with Nil Sahibs, British planters, launching the exploitative Tinkathia system in the state. Under this system, farmers could take only one-third of indigo produce. The Nil Sahibs tortured them to cultivate indigo if they refused.  

Though Nil cultivation continued in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh after the British left India, it was suddenly stopped in Bihar despite the fact that a single kilogram of naturally produced indigo fetches a hefty Rs. 800. Nobody knows why peasantry left it?

Nil, the Bloody Chapter of Bihar’s History 

Though it were Portuguese, terming the dye "Indigo" meaning "from the Indies (India)," first wanted to cash upon this agri-produce some 300 years ago, it were the British ultimately monopolized over its trade. Way back in 1661, the Portuguese appointed a “Keeper of the Blue Warehouse” in Bombay to oversee the indigo trade.

Though Bombay was their main “Kothi” or storehouse of indigo, they sourced it from various parts of India primary among them being Bihar, Bengal, Orissa and Assam. Bihar, however, was their prime indigo procurement area.

The Portuguese might have been at war with the British in India but they took the services of Englishmen in indigo trade. Very interestingly, the Portuguese appointed the British dyers for their trade commanded from Bombay.

Just imagine, in 1666, they appointed a master dyer from London in Bombay paying him a whooping 60 British Starling Pound a year. Indigo was so valuable a commodity that the Portuguese even exonerated a master dyer, again from England, who had killed a weaver in Mumbai the punishment of which was death. Master dyers were an extremely rare commodity in those days in Bombay. Hence, the rule was violated.

For business and profit, the Europeans really can go to any extent.  

In 1677, another hotheaded Gora Firangi Anthony Smith in Bombay threw a big pot of boiling hot liquid Nil on Michael Lovenay, a fellow Gora Firangi during a quarrel. But Anthony Smith was saved and the top bosses of the British East India Company reported that Michael Lovenay died accidentally.

The grueling exploitation of Bihari peasantry began when totally corrupt and unscrupulous Warren Hastings, the Governor General, started grabbing land for the cultivation of Nil, opium and jute in Bihar. All these natural produces were in excessively high demand in China and Europe in those days.

The Bihari peasants were compelled to cultivate Nil, opium and jute instead of paddy, wheat, pulses and oilseed. A large number of Bihari peasants even committed suicide just like the way the present day peasantry are doing in India.

Go Organic Movement Revives Nil Cultivation in Bihar

The tide of history is really very interesting to watch. Sometimes it offers us puzzles. The same thing is happening in the case of revival of indigo cultivation in Bihar. Does not it sound interesting?

The discovery of synthetic indigo dye in 1897 by the German chemist Adolf Von Bayer caused the doom of natural Nil trade worldwide. The people greatly supported it. Now the same very people globally, who once greatly supported everything synthetic, are crying foul against “everything synthetic.”

The ongoing “sustainable lifestyle” is making people go for natural dyes even if it irrigates their pockets. This again bloomed the prospect of naturally produced Nil prompting the Bihari peasantry to again take up the wonder plants cultivation. One of the primary reasons of it is high demand of natural indigo in various parts of India particularly Tamil Nadu where weavers are getting large orders from the country and overseas for naturally died cotton cloths.

Back to the basics! Is not it? Truly, the colour Nil does not fade.

Image credit: Indigo Factory Painting: Science Museum, London 


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