ACT NO. XXXII OF I860 CAME INTO FORCE ON July 31, 1860. Consistent with the colonial British “legal” verbiage, it was innocuously titled Duties on Profits arising from Property, Professions, Trades, and Offices. In practice, it was simply another detailed user manual for further impoverishing Indians. In theory, it was supposed to be levied for only two years but was finally repealed in 1868 after the British realized that no money could be extracted from both the flowing and the dried up tears of the people.
Among other places, the extortionate tax scorched the people of Hubli-Dharwad sparing none: from wealthy merchants to wandering labourers, from song-teachers to farmers, and from the anguished depths of their suffering emerged a ballad set to song.
The song in six stanzas makes for gut-wrenching reading.
“This song was composed in Hubballi to the sound of a drum decorated with an elephant-goad and a nosegay of flowers; with the favour of Lord Gurusiddesha [Shiva], the poet Gurusiddha, the charitable one, the son of Hanumanta Rao, the teacher of singing, made and sang the words.
Sit and listen, O my brother! to the topic, the predicament that brought such ridicule!”
How shall I describe the distress of our lives? The oppression of the English has become very great! Poor people are weeping so that the tears stream down their cheeks, and are in great anxiety!
Listen to the matter from the beginning! There came the noble gentleman, Gordon, who sat down and contrived a scheme,—a device for extracting money. Gordon put forward the pretence of saying—“ I am going to put the roads and paths in good repair; what is your opinion about it? The matter is beneficial to your welfare.
All the members of the Panchayati consented; they knew not that it would turn out ruinous.
Listen! Then they imposed this grievous tax on us; it became difficult for poor people to fill their bellies; they had to sell their spinning wheels. The Government was greedy after money; there were searching inquiries day after day : straightway they put up to auction even the cow-dung that is used for fuel! They sold the firewood by weight. If the Pindaris and Lambanis now wish to support their children by selling wood, they cannot; they have fallen into a state of beggary.
Thus did Gordon’s sweet-talk turn out.
Another clever scheme occurred to the Government.
With all haste, they imposed the Income Tax, a device for extracting the money of the Raitas (farmers). The Government behaved with severity and strictness by giving an order—“Issue compulsory notices and fix the period for the payment; treat them with ruthlessness without fear if they fail to pay!”
Then the Collector came, and stayed at the travellers’ bungalow, and all the suffering people besieged him, as if (the God) Siva had come down on the earth. He passed a more brutal order:
“ If the farmers exceed the period for payment of tax, pile on the interest, and take their houses for sale by auction.”
Then many people paid the tax with lamentations and full of fear in their minds.
All the chief men of the different castes assembled, and, taking counsel together, presented a petition,— “O Sir, sit down and make inquiries; we have not the means with which to pay the tax.”
The English gentleman was unmoved. He said, heartlessly: “This matter rests not with me.”
The hands and feet of our people became weak, by going constantly to him. They all sat by, refusing their hardly-earned and pitiful food and water.
The rich men of our town said, “Laying aside our ornaments and other things, and putting on tattered waistcloths and jackets, let us go to the Englishman’s bungalow just like poor people, without any feeling of shame.”
The rich men braced up their courage, saying—“The tax will leave us soon. O my brothers! going constantly to the bungalow, great were the efforts that they made. The rich men, O brother! sat all together on the ground, just like labourers and village-watchmen; each of them heaved deep sighs, turning their faces downwards.
But the English officials levied the tax on the whole village; they came and sat down in the Kamari Bazaar. By force, they compelled the people to produce (their) goods, and took them under attachment for tax.
The weavers and sellers of silk spoke to the Subhedar, saying—“‘Thou are like the father that begot us: Have a little tenderness in your reins, take pity and let us go. Thou, O lord! art our mother and father; do thou remit the tax on us. Our very intestines have been cut and brought to you, weeping every day.”
The wooden planks, the web-beams of the looms, the skeins of silk, the earthen pots, the utensils we eat from; all these they sold by auction, putting reserve prices on them. The Government became very bad, O my brother ! Poor people had their eyes full of tears, saying, “ What a time of trouble thou hast brought, O Isvara! No man has any care of us. Say now, is it a group of weeping women that are sitting here? Whatever we may do, this tax will not cease.” Then, resigned to this sorry fate, they paid the tax and redeemed their utensils so that they could honourably eat whatever meagre morsel they could cook under these circumstances. Say now! Didn’t these poor people not display such fortitude, such honour in face of such degrading torture?
Rayappa of Harpanhalli wrote out a statement,— “Sir, they have each as good an income as may be wished for.” But the Subhedar fired up in wrath. This income was not enough. In the Kamari Bazar, house after house, he searched them all. Hear! how even small pieces of copper, and the brazier's anvils, and the stone-splitters’ tools, were carried away.
There came the noble gentleman, Mr. Elphinston; very full of affection for poor people was he; he sat himself down and made inquiries; listen now to this story!
All the people assembled together and acting in unison presented a petition, “ It is proper that thou, O lord, should listen to our petition; it is right that you should remit the tax levied upon us.” Standing there, he gazed upon the poor men, with compassion in his reins. He gazed upon the tattered garments worn by the women: this was all their wealth. While they were weeping, they said, “Our hands can find no millet in our houses and our infants have no milk.”
He inquired deeply into the matter and realized that things had gone too far. He knew that he was sitting on trouble and if the matter was resolved, there would be fire in his reins. Then this noble English gentleman sat with the principal rich men and said, “ Declare how much income they have.”
Then the brave Hittali Virabhadra shrewdly wrote it down putting the estimate at five hundred rupees. He told the representatives of the village not to put the amount any higher for that would attract tax and cause further misery to the people. This, Virabhadra said, was the duty of the Panchayati to their villagers.
All the people in concert were making up their accounts accordingly. First the merchant Makappasetti, a very virtuous man, himself sat down and made up the reckoning. Thus the minds of all were satisfied. Listen now again !
The poor people stood by in restless anxiety, and made supplication to the English gentleman; and then the virtuous gentleman refunded to them the tax that they had paid.
At last, the people said in one voice: “O Ishwara! It is a year since we have eaten wheat and rice; Siva alone knows our dire straits!”
In memory of the misery that they had endured, the people heartily cursed the British Government, the disposition of the officials and the Subhedar.
Thus ends the song, the topic, the predicament that brought such ridicule!
More than anything, such oppressive legislations hold profound lessons for the bureaucracy if it really regards its job as national service instead of as a career. Further comment is unnecessary.
As we never tire of saying, the all-encompassing destruction wrought by British rule was more insidious and corrosive than Muslim oppression in very intrinsic ways. Its full story still needs to be written and that story is the story of our people. Our heart goes out when we read the profound dignity embodied in the simple rustic line of this ballad: “Say now! Didn’t these poor people not display such fortitude, such honour in face of such degrading torture?”
Our freedom struggle is imbued with and was made possible by countless such simple acts of rebellion whose wellspring was the innate Sanatana spiritual strength.
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