Salt Papers

The Untold Story of Malangis

Arup Kumar Sen

Writing history of industrialisation in India is mainly concerned with dominant industrial centres in colonial India. However, regional and district records opened up the possibility of documenting relatively unexplored aspects of industrialisation/de-industrialisation under British colonial rule.

N K Sinha, the eminent historian of his time, examined Midnapore Salt Papers with his associates and wrote about the salt production, salt trade and labouring people engaged in them in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (See Introduction, Midnapore Salt Papers: Hijli and Tamluk, 1781-1807, Calcutta, 1954; reprinted in N K Sinha, The Historian as an Archivist, ed. by Pradip Sinha, Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, 1999). The following is a summary of N K Sinha’s observations on salt industry in Midnapore, particularly on the labouring people engaged in it.

The Southern and South-Eastern parts of Midnapore – Hijli and Tamluk – were the two most important areas of Bengal, producing salt for consumption in Bengal. As late as 1851, Tamluk and Hijli supplied half the demand for salt in Bengal. The British policy of unrestricted importation of cheap foreign salt and the British monopoly in salt ultimately led to the destruction and disappearance of salt manufacture in Bengal in the 19th century.

The salt workers were known as Malangis and they belonged to two categories – Ajoorah and Thika. Besides Malangis, there were coolies, boat people, bullock drivers, weigh men and others connected with salt manufacture and salt trade. According to an estimate, 13, 680 persons were daily employed in the salt manufacturing season in Hijli and 20, 325 men were employed in Tamluk in 1852. The labouring people engaged in salt manufacture in Midnapore were mostly non-migratory in character. The manufacturing season generally commenced in the middle of December and ended with the setting of rains. The incomes from the engagement in salt manufacture were not sufficient for most of these people. So, they cultivated paddy either for themselves or for their Zamindars/landlords.

In the Tamluk-Mahishadal area, thika salt production was about one-fourth of Ajoorah salt production. In the Hijli area, the proportion was slightly higher.

Under the Ajoorah system, a Malangi was permitted by the Zamindar to cultivate a certain portion of his land on the condition that the Malangi agreed to manufacture a certain quantity of salt at a specified rate. If he supplied more salt than was necessary for the payment of his rent, he received the difference in money from the Zamindar. Initially, the system was voluntary. However, gradually coercive methods were applied and some were perhaps compelled to take more land to manufacture salt. In case a Malangi absconded or died, the family had to find a substitute. The tenure became hereditary and “it was impossible for the Ajoorah Malangis to shake off their indebtedness”. In 1794, the Ajoorah system was declared to be abolished by the British government, and it was directed that the Malangis who worked under the system were to be engaged in the same manner as the Malangis who provided salt by thika or contract. The Zamindars of Hijli and Tamluk were paid compensation for the loss they suffered by being deprived of the profits they earned from salt manufacture, and the government reserved to themselves the exclusive manufacture of salt in their estates.

The Thika system was also not free from oppression. The Thika Malangis mostly worked on daily wages under the Etmamdars. N K Sinha also documented the contract system of salt production: “It is to be presumed that the Etmamdars were oppressive towards the poor Malangis engaged in the manufacture of salt. They merely intercepted some of the profits either of the government or of the Malangis and they had nothing to give to the industry in return… In some cases, Malangis put themselves under one Etmamdar in order to secure protection against dishonest Kayals or weigh men who were salt department servants. The Etmamdars claimed a heavy price for the protection offered”. The surnames of the Etmamdars testified that they were all local people. The Etmamdars “disappeared very fast with the appearance of settled conditions in British supervision of the manufacture of salt” by the first decade of the 19th century.

It may be mentioned in this connection that the destruction of salt manufacture in Bengal was not a closed chapter in history. The British monopoly in the manufacture and sale of salt (granted in the 1882 Salt Act) was challenged by the Salt Satyagraha initiated by Gandhi in 1930, and the right of Indians to manufacture salt emerged as a symbol of nationalist resistance in India.

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Vol 54, No. 44, May 1 - 7, 2022