Pabna was a district in East Bengal (now Bangladesh) where the peasants organised an agrarian league in May 1873 to resist the demands of the zamindars. Pabna was a relatively prosperous district with a flourishing trade in jute where more than 50 percent cultivators had managed to win occupancy rights, thanks to the Bengal Tenancy Act, 1859. But the zamindari rents had increased seven-fold from 1793 to 1872 and landlords were also collecting a variety of abwabs (cesses). The zamindars also tried to prevent the tenants from acquiring occupancy rights and used force, with their hired lathials to evict the peasant from land, and to seize their crops and animals.
The Pabna rebellion was different from most peasant rebellions. The peasants of Yusuf Shahi in the Pabna district organised themselves, and then mobilised the peasants of other Parganas through meetings, appeals, and marches throughout villages. Villagers were called by the sounding of buffalo horns, drums, and night cries, passing from hamlet to hamlet. Villagers occasionally with-held rent. They also moved to the court and challenged the zamindars. To meet the cost of legal battle, the peasants even raised funds. Slowly and steadily, in other districts of East Bengal, like Mymensingh, Backerganj, Faridpur, Bogara, and Raj Shahi. Their main demands were—
- Change in the measurement standard;
- Abolition of illegal cesses;
- Some reduction in rents.
The ryots showed great restraint everywhere except at Pabna. It was a totally new experience for them as they developed more awareness of legalities as well as of their legal rights. They also learned to form associations, a feature more visible in the twentieth-century peasant movement.
Due to intense pressure from the peasants and legal litigations, the Government was forced to pass the Bengal Tenancy Act 1885, which provided some relief and protection to the ryots from the zamindars. An important reason for this concession was the nature and the aim of the peasant struggle. The peasants of Pabna and nearby districts were fighting a legal battle against immediate grievances and to implement existing legal rights. Their fight was not against the ‘system’ and certainly not against British rule. Their slogan was ‘to be the ryots of Her Majesty the Queen and Her only’. This is why only Indian Penal Code (IPC) was enforced on them instead of armed repression, as was normally used by the British against any peasants or tribal movement.
The Pabna peasants showed greater maturity through Hindu-Muslim unity, even though some zamindars’ associations portrayed the Pabna movement as a communal agitation of Muslim peasants against Hindu landlords. It was purely a class struggle. Ishan Chaudhary, Shambhu Pal, and Khoodi Mollah were important leaders of the Pabna League. The intellectuals of Bengal, mostly Hindus like S.N. Banerji, Anand Mohan Bose, and Dwarkanath Ganguli organised meetings of a few thousand peasants in the Pabna district in support of the Rent Bill. The Indian Association and some Nationalist newspapers de- manded permanent fixation of the tenant’s rent and occupancy rights for the actual cultivators.