In March 1859 thousands of ryots in Bengal refused to grow indigo, they started a rebellion against indigo cultivation, which came to be known as the blue rebellion or the indigo revolt. As the blue rebellion spread, ryots refused to pay rents to the planters and attacked indigo factories armed with swords and spears, bows, and arrows.
Women turned up to fight with pots, pans, and kitchen implements. Those who worked for the planters were socially boycotted, and the gomasthas – agents of planters – who came to collect rent were beaten up. Ryots swore they would no longer take advances to sow indigo nor be bullied by the planters’ lathiyals – the lathi-wielding strongmen maintained by the planters.
But the question arises: Why did the indigo peasants decide that they would no longer remain silent? What gave them the power to rebel? Clearly, the indigo system was intensely oppressive. But those who are oppressed do not always rise up in rebellion.
They do so only at times. In 1859, the indigo ryots felt that they had the support of the local zamindars and village headmen in their rebellion against the planters. In many villages, headmen who had been forced to sign indigo contracts mobilized the indigo peasants and fought pitched battles with the lathiyals.
In other places, even the zamindars went around villages urging the ryots to resist the planters. These zamindars were unhappy with the increasing power of the planters and angry at being forced by the planters to give them land on long leases.
The indigo peasants also imagined that the British government would support them in their struggle against the planters. After the Revolt of 1857, the British government was particularly worried about the possibility of another popular rebellion.
When the news spread of a simmering revolt or the blue rebellion in the indigo districts, the Lieutenant Governor toured the region in the winter of 1859. The ryots saw the tour as a sign of government sympathy for their plight. When in Barasat, the magistrate Ashley Eden issued a notice stating that ryots would not be compelled to accept indigo contracts, word went around that Queen Victoria had declared that indigo need not be sown.
Eden was trying to placate the peasants and control an explosive situation, but his action was read as support for the rebellion. As the rebellion spread, intellectuals from Calcutta rushed to the indigo districts.
They wrote of the misery of the ryots, the tyranny of the planters, and the horrors of the indigo system. Worried by the rebellion, the government brought in the military to protect the planters from assault, and set up the Indigo Commission to enquire into the system of indigo production.
The Commission held the planters guilty and criticized them for the coercive methods they used with indigo cultivators. It declared that indigo production was not profitable for ryots. The Commission asked the ryots to fulfill their existing contracts but also told them that they could refuse to produce indigo in the future.