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Tracing the History of the History: Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition by Dharampal

This series of articles aims at introducing and reviewing Dharampal’s seminal collected works. The first article discussed Volume I: Indian Science and Technology in Eighteenth Century. The present article discusses Volume-II- Civil Disobedience in Indian Tradition.


The 20th century Indian people’s protest against governmental injustice, callousness and tyranny (actual or supposed) has expressed itself in two forms: the protest and resistance with arms has by and large been limited to a few individuals or very small groups of a highly disciplined cadre. Aurobindo, Savarkar, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad (to name a few), in their time have been the spectacular symbols of such armed protest. Unarmed protest and resistance is better known under the names of non-cooperation, civil disobedience and satyagraha. This latter mode of protest owes its 20th century origin, organisation and practice to Mahatma Gandhi.

There mainly are two views about the origins of non-cooperation and civil disobedience initiated by Gandhi firstly in South Africa and later in India. According to one group of scholars, Gandhi learnt them from Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, etc. According to the other, non-cooperation and civil disobedience were Gandhi’s own unique discovery, born out of his own creative genius and heightened spirituality.

However, Dharampal during his perusal of British Official Materials located data about a boycott and consequent organisational steps of non-cooperation to by village communities during what was labelled as ‘Deccan Riots’ that took place in 1874 in Pune and Ahmednagar Districts. He was stunned, as he like most, assigned the idea of non-cooperation to Gandhiji. When he re-read Hind Swaraj, he located the following para. Elaborating on the idea of passive resistance, Gandhiji had stated: ‘The fact is that, in India, the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us.’

This serves to also negate the general notion that the ordinary people of India had been from time immemorial, subservient to whoever ruled over them; and that they had little or no regards for mundane petty things like politics or society. They have been rather, anything but docile, inert, and submissive to abuse and tyranny. It was indeed the historical tradition of non- cooperation in India, that made the application of civil disobedience on the vast scale possible under Gandhiji’s leadership.

Background of the protests:

Dharampal notes that the early civil disobedience campaigns against the British did not succeed due to lack of common value systems between the ruler and the ruled. He records that at least from 1784 onwards (till around 1858), the major decision making for India was a responsibility of the Board of Commissioners for the Affairs of India, set up by an Act of British Legislature and had members of the government.

The supreme head of British administration in the Bengal Presidency was the Governor-General-in-Council, who functioned through the several departments of Government like Secretariat, the Political, the Military, the Public, the Revenue, and the Judicial. Besides these departments, the instructions of 1785 had also established several Boards, the Military Board and the Board of Revenue being the two most important amongst these. (Corresponding arrangements had also been instituted in 1785 in the Madras and Bombay Presidencies.)

At this period, the job of the district ‘Collector’ (in Bengal, Behar, Benares, etc.,) was mainly concerned with matters relating to revenue assessment and collection while the superintendence of the police and the performance of law and order functions were exercised by a separate official termed the ‘Magistrate’ of the particular district. Ordinarily, the Collector corresponded with and received his instructions from the Board of Revenue. The Magistrate on the other hand corresponded with and received his instructions directly from the Governor-General-in-Council in the Judicial Department. Both the Collector and the Magistrate were independent and supreme in their respective spheres within their jurisdictions.

In 1810, on the instructions of the directing authorities in England, the Government of Bengal (Fort William) decided to levy a new series of taxes in the provinces of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, Benares and the Ceded and Conquered territories. One of these, recommended by its Committee of Finance, was a tax on houses and shops. This tax was enacted on October 6, 1810 by Regulation XV, 1810.

According to its preamble, the Regulation was enacted ‘with a view to the improvement of the public resources’ and to extend ‘to the several cities and principal towns in the provinces of Bengal, Behar, Orissa and Benares, the tax which for a considerable period, has been levied on houses, situated within the town of Calcutta.’ The Regulation provided for a levy of ‘five per cent on the annual rent’ on all dwelling houses.

The exempted categories included ‘houses, bungalows, or other buildings occupied by military personnel; houses and buildings admitted to be religious edifices, and any houses or shops which were altogether unoccupied. The tax was to be collected every three months and it was laid down that when it remained unpaid ‘the personal effects of the occupant shall in the first instance be alone liable to be sold for the recovery of the arrear of tax.’ Further, if some arrear still remained ‘the residue shall be recovered by the distress and sale of the goods, and chattels of the proprietor.’

Though appeals were admissible against unjust levy, etc., to discourage litigious appeals, the judges were ‘authorised to impose a fine’, the amount depending on the circumstances, etc., of the applicant, on all those whose appeals ‘may prove on investigation to be evidently groundless and litigious’.

The Collector of the district was allowed ‘a commission of five per cent’ on the net receipts. Incidentally, such a commission accorded to the Collectors was not unusual at this time. The Collectors received similar commissions on net collections of land revenue.

Events at Benares: 

The protests against these taxes began at Benares. As Benares was then the largest city in northern India and possibly the best preserved in terms of traditional organisation and functioning, this was most natural. The authorities of Benares appear to have been the first in implementing the house tax regulation.

The following were the main arguments against the levy of the tax, as they emerge from the documented correspondence, and from the petition of the inhabitants of Benares-

  1. Extension of the rights of Government (commonly called malgoozaree) to the habitations of their subjects acquired by them by descent or transfer than former sultans.
  2. In Benares the police expenses are defrayed from the land revenue (malgoozaree). Then on what grounds is this tax instituted?
  3. If the Shastra be consulted it will be found that Benares to within five kos round is a place of worship and by Regulation XV 1810 places of worship are exempted from the tax.
  4. The institution of a tax which is calculated to vex and distress a number of people is not proper or consistent with the benevolence of Government.
  5. Inability of householders to pay, who are not able to repair or rebuild their house.
  6. It is difficult to find means of subsistence and the stamp duties, court fees, transit and town duties which have increased tenfold, afflict and affect everyone rich and poor and is a cause of pain and depression to everyone.

On November 26, the Acting Magistrate was informed of the steps he was to take to determine the assessment on each house and requested him to place copies of the regulation in the several thanas for general information. The assessment started, and met with instant opposition. The acting Magistrate thus wrote to the Government at Calcutta/ Kolkata on December 25 about a very serious situation excited among all ranks and descriptions of the inhabitants of the city. Three days later, on the 28th, he sent another report stating that an oath was administered throughout the city both among the Hindus and the Mohammedans, enjoining all classes to neglect their respective occupations until he, the Acting Magistrate  should consent to direct the Collector to remove the assessors and give a positive assurance that the tax should be abolished. He reports, “It was expected that the outcry and distress occasioned by this general conspiracy would extort from me the concession they required.  The Lohars, the Mistrees, the Hujams, the Durzees, the Kahars, Bearers, every class of workmen engaged unanimously in conspiracy”.

On December 31, the Acting Magistrate further reported: Several thousands of people gather at a particular spot in the vicinity of the city, where, divided according to their respective classes, they inflict penalties upon those who hesitate to join in the combination. Such appears to be the general repugnance to the operation of the Regulation, that the slightest disposition evinced by any individual to withdraw from the conspiracy, is marked not only by general opprobrium but even ejectment from his caste.

The ‘conspiracy’ continued despite all efforts of the authorities. The Acting Magistrate submitted: “The combination formed against the introduction of the house tax becomes daily more extended, and has assumed a very serious appearance. I am given to understand that considerably above 20,000 persons are sitting (it may be called Dhurna) declaring that they will not separate till the tax shall be abolished. Their numbers are increasing daily as each caste has summoned its brethren and adjured them to unite in the cause… At present open violence does not seem their aim, they seem rather to vaunt their security in being unarmed in that a military force would not use deadly weapons against such inoffensive foes. And in this confidence they collect and increase knowing that the civil power cannot disperse them, and thinking that the military will not.”

Referring to the links which the protest had with other towns he stated: “I have learnt from good authority that the inhabitants of Patna have written to Benares to the effect that they shall be guided by these.”

On the receipt of the report of January 2, which pointed out the seriousness of the situation, the Government sent further instructions on the 7th about the manner of the use of the military force. However, owing to the pressure of people, religious edifices and ‘dwellings of the lowest orders of the people’ whose ‘produce from the very inconsiderable value of the buildings could not be an object to Government’ were exempted. However, the governent did not abolish the tax.

Government orders of January 5, wholly rejecting the petitions, were communicated to the people of Benares on the 13th. From the 14th ‘people began again to collect together.’ Hence, even though the orders of excusing religious edifices, etc., from the payment of the tax had reached the Benares authorities, the Acting Magistrate felt: ‘As long as the people persevere in these unjustifiable proceedings, they are totally undeserving of indulgence, and it is impossible to communicate to them the benevolent intentions of the Government.’

The massive measures taken by the authorities had, however, begun to erode the unity and confidence of the people and the despondency of the Magistrate was rather misplaced. Within a few days of the foregoing report, the impact of the various efforts of the Benares authorities became apparent. As the Magistrate reported later, the people had proposed ‘to proceed in a body to Calcutta, through all the cities subject in common with themselves’ to the house tax, and that, ‘they determined that the proprietor of every house in the city should either go himself, or send a person to represent him, or contribute, in proportion to his means, to defray the expenses of those who might be disposed to go.’

But he explained: ‘When it came to the point, few were found disposed to undertake a journey on which they were not likely to be obstructed, nor were they willing to contribute to promote a scheme, the object of which, they were fully convinced, would never be accomplished. Ultimately, the people, though involuntarily, gave in. The government did not grant pardon to all, and rather intended to file cases on the defaulters.

Similar cases are noted at Patna, Sarun, Moorshedabad, and Bhagalpur are noted by Dharampal in great details.

The main elements behind the organisation of civil disobedience in the exact words of Dharampal were:

  1. Closing of all shops and activity to the extent that even ‘the dead bodies were actually cast neglected into the Ganges, because the proper people could not be prevailed upon to administer the customary rites.’
  2. Continuous assemblage of people in thousands (one estimate puts the number at more than 200,000 for many days) sitting in dhurna, ‘declaring that they will not separate till the tax shall be abolished.’
  3. The close links made by the various artisans and craftsmen with the protest through their craft guilds and associations.
  4. The Lohars, at that time a strong and well-knit group, taking the lead.
  5. A total close-down by the Mullahs (boatmen).
  6. The assembled peopled who ‘bound themselves by oath never to disperse’ till they had achieved their object.
  7. The dispatch of emissaries ‘to convey a Dhurm Puttree to every village in the province, summoning one individual of each family to repair to the assembly at Benares.’
  8. ‘Individuals of every class contributed each in proportion to his means to enable them to persevere’, and ‘for the support of those, whose families depended for subsistence on their daily labour.’
  9. ‘The religious orders’ exerting all their influence to keep the people ‘unanimous.’
  10. The combination was so general, that’, according to the Magistrate ‘the police were scarcely able to protect the few who had courage to secede, from being plundered and insulted.’
  11. The displaying of protesting posters about the streets of Benares. The Magistrate called them ‘inflammatory papers of the most objectionable tendency’ and ‘offered a reward of Rs.500 for every man on whom such a paper may be found.’

Dharampal explains that the obvious meaning of the unarmed, peaceful disobedience was indicating that the people were against the tyranny and not the government at large. They had always had a relationship of give and take with their rulers. But, the mistake they made was misjudgment about the rulers. The new rulers, as stated before, did not share the same ideology and ideals. Their alien value systems ruined the morals of natives. In the 1920s, Gandhiji re-ignited the idea, and instilled better motivation and zeal amongst the followers. By now many Britishers were also, at least off the records, in opposition of the cruelties of the government. All this together lead to the subsequent success of civil disobedience and non- cooperation movements.

He also observes that the same ideas can be used to move governmental opinions and decisions. A realization of it in fact seems crucial in the sphere of people-government relationship, and its acceptance imperative for the health and smooth functioning of Indian polity even today.

Non-cooperation and civil disobedience are integral to the healthy functioning and even to the security of a free and democratic society. In a way, they are even more crucial than stratified courts of law; the present forms of periodic local, state-level or national elections, or the rather stilted and constrained debates and considerations within such elected bodies. Those who resort to non-cooperation and civil disobedience against callousness, authoritarianism and injustice are the protectors of their state and societies. Without them, a society will end up at best in some mechanical ritual; or, more often likely, in tyranny, provoking complete anarchy and armed insurrection.

Continued in the next part.

The complete collection can be accessed at-

To purchase the series:

Some of his Hindi works are available at- 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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