Indigo and revolt in Bangladesh

OK, so I’m back from Bangladesh but I still have a couple of short blog entries to do since I have been so lax and my laptop broke while I was out there.

I was staying just outside of a town called Nilphamari and across the road from the guesthouse was this rather excellent old building.

I was staying in the guesthouse belonging to the Danish Bangladesh Leprosy Mission.   And, while understandably basic, was peaceful and friendly and everything worked.  If, for some bizarre reason you need to stay in Nilphamari, I recommend this place.  Actually, it might be the only place to stay but still…

It turns out that during the colonial times, the British established a large indigo farm here.  Nilphamari actually means Blue Farm in Bangla.  The cultivation of indigo in Bengal [much of which is now Bangladesh] began in the late 1700s and Bengal became the world’s biggest producer of the crop.  As European demand grew the indigo planters and businesses became more aggressive and bullying.  The Bengali peasants were forced to grow indigo instead of the traditional food crops through the threat of increased land rents and they were encouraged to take loans at exorbitant rates which they could rarely manage to pay off.   On top of that, the peasants received a pitifully low portion of the market price and so could not actually make a return.  If the peasants tried to resist the planters, who had state backing, their land was either taken from them or their property was destroyed.  With everyone seemingly on the side of the planters and with the peasants forced into a no-win situation, the peasants began what is called the Indigo Revolt.

In some instances the planters were put on trial and then executed but by and large this was a coordinated campaign of passive resistance in which the peasants actively collaborated and simply refused to plant indigo.  The colonial government’s fear of widespread agrarian revolt encouraged them to form an Indigo Commission which recognised the widespread brutality of the planters and the collaboration of the police and magistrates.  The well-supported revolt, coupled with the Commission’s report and the development of chemical dyes, saw the decline of the indigo farming industry in Bengal.

In the last couple of years NGOs like CARE, NCVI and MCC have again encouraged the cultivation of indigo and there are around 1,000 farmers involved.  Not only is indigo used for dyeing fabrics and is attractive because of its environmentally friendly aspect, its cultivation also increases soil fertility.

Picture modified from Gilg, Ernst; Schumann, Karl – Das Pflanzenreich Hausschatz des Wissens (1900)

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