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Indian Farmers

After the Battle of Plassey (1757), the rural landscape was radically transformed and the British levied tax which was the major source of income for the government. During the colonial period, rural India also came to produce a range of crops for the world market. In the early nineteenth century, indigo and opium were two of the major commercial crops. The other crops were sugarcane, cotton, jute, wheat and several other crops for export, to feed the population of urban Europe and to supply the mills of Lancashire and Manchester in England.

Tea became a popular English drink and England imported tea. England depended on China for the supply of tea. The Manchu rulers were suspicious of all foreign merchants. They feared that the merchants would meddle in local politics and disrupt their authority so the Manchus were unwilling to allow the entry of foreign goods.

Merchants looked for ways to buy tea from China. The British smuggled opium into China because the Emperor had forbidden its production and sale as it is dangerous. The western merchants began to illegally trade in opium. It was unloaded in a number of sea ports of south eastern China and carried by local agents to the interiors.

The Britishers encouraged production of opium in India to export it to China in return for its addiction to tea. The farmers were reluctant to grow opium in their fields. The Indians refused to do so because opium and other crops cannot be grown in one field. The cultivators did not own land and the rent charged on good lands by the landlords was very high. The cultivation of opium was a difficult process. The plant was delicate, and cultivators had to spend long hours nurturing it. This meant that they did not have enough time to care for other crops. The price the government paid to the cultivators for the opium was very low. It was unprofitable for cultivators to grow opium at that price.

In the rural areas of Bengal and Bihar, there were large numbers of poor peasants. They never had enough to survive. It was difficult for them to pay rent to the landlord or to buy food and clothing. From the 1780s, such peasants found their village headmen (mahato) giving them money advances to produce opium. The loan taken from the headman made the cultivators to be under his control. The headman was a British agent who advanced the money for farmers. The farmers were forced to cultivate the opium crops and they accepted the low price offered for the produce.

The prices paid to the peasants were so low that, by the early eighteenth century, angry peasants began agitating for higher prices and refused to take advances. In regions around Banaras, cultivators began giving up opium cultivation. They produced sugarcane and potatoes instead. Many cultivators sold off their crop to travelling traders (pykars) who offered higher prices.

The British territories witnessed low production of opium and traders of India were trading opium with China. This affected the British monopoly of trade. To the British, this trade was illegal and they took steps to stop the smuggling of opium into China in order to retain monopoly over trade. Agents were appointed to confiscate all opium and destroy the crops in the princely states of India.

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