1. Bengal and the Zamindars

As you know, colonial rule was first established in Bengal. It is here that the earliest attempts were made to reorder rural society and establish a new regime of land rights and a new revenue system.

Let us see what happened in Bengal in the early years of Company (E.I.C.) rule.

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1.1 An auction in Burdwan

In 1797 there was an auction in Burdwan (present- day Bardhaman). It was a big public event. A number of mahals (estates) held by the Raja of Burdwan were being sold. The Permanent Settlement had come into operation in 1793. The East India Company had fixed the revenue that each zamindar had to pay. The estates of those who failed to pay were to be auctioned to recover the revenue.

Since the raja had accumulated huge arrears, his estates had been put up for auction. Numerous purchasers came to the auction and the estates wer e sold to the highest bidder . But the Collector soon discovered a strange twist to the tale. Many of the purchasers turned out to be servants and agents of the raja who had bought the lands on behalf of their master.

Over 95 per cent of the sale at the auction was fictitious. The raja’s estates had been publicly sold, but he remained in control of his zamindari. Why had the raja failed to pay the revenue? Who were the purchasers at the auction? What does the story tell us about what was happening in the rural areas of eastern India at that time?

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1.2 The problem of unpaid revenue

The estates of the Burdwan raj were not the only ones sold during the closing years of the eighteenth century. Over 75 per cent of the zamindaris changed hands after the Permanent Settlement.

In introducing the Permanent Settlement, British officials hoped to resolve the problems they had been facing since the conquest of Bengal. By the 1770s, the rural economy in Bengal was in crisis, with recurrent famines and declining agricultural output. Officials felt that agriculture, trade and the revenue resources of the state could all be developed by encouraging investment in agriculture. This could be done by securing rights of property and permanently fixing the rates of revenue demand.

If the revenue demand of the state was permanently fixed, then the Company could look forward to a regular flow of revenue, while entrepreneurs could feel sure of earning a profit from their investment, since the state would not siphon it off by increasing its claim. The process, officials hoped, would lead to the emergence of a class of yeomen farmers and rich landowners who would have the capital and enterprise to improve agriculture.

Nurtured by the British, this class would also be loyal to the Company. The pr oblem, however , lay in identifying individuals who could both improve agriculture and contract to pay the fixed revenue to the state. After a prolonged debate amongst Company officials, the Permanent Settlement was made with the rajas and taluqdars of Bengal. They were now classified as zamindars, and they had to pay the revenue demand that was fixed in perpetuity.

In terms of this definition, the zamindar was not a landowner in the village, but a revenue Collector of the state. Zamindars had several (sometimes as many as 400) villages under them. In Company calculations the villages within one zamindari formed one revenue estate. The Company fixed the total demand over the entire estate whose revenue the zamindar contracted to pay.

The zamindar collected rent from the different villages, paid the revenue to the Company, and retained the difference as his income. He was expected to pay the Company regularly, failing which his estate could be auctioned.

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1.3 Why zamindars defaulted on payments  

Company officials felt that a fixed revenue demand would give zamindars a sense of security and, assured of returns on their investment, encourage them to improve their estates. In the early decades after the Per manent Settlement, however , zamindars regularly failed to pay the revenue demand and unpaid balances accumulated. The reasons for this failure were various.

First: the initial demands were very high. This was because it was felt that if the demand was fixed for all time to come, the Company would never be able to claim a share of increased income from land when prices rose and cultivation expanded. To minimise this anticipated loss, the Company pegged the revenue demand high, arguing that the burden on zamindars would gradually decline as agricultural production expanded and prices rose.

Second: this high demand was imposed in the 1790s, a time when the prices of agricultural produce were depressed, making it difficult for the ryots to pay their dues to the zamindar . If the zamindar could not collect the rent, how could he pay the Company? Third: the revenue was invariable, regardless of the harvest, and had to be paid punctually.

In fact, according to the Sunset Law, if payment did not come in by sunset of the specified date, the zamindari was liable to be auctioned. Fourth: the Permanent Settlement initially limited the power of the zamindar to collect rent from the ryot and manage his zamindari. The Company had recognised the zamindars as important, but it wanted to control and regulate them, subdue their authority and restrict their autonomy.

The zamindars’ troops were disbanded, customs duties abolished, and their “ cutcheries” (courts) brought under the supervision of a Collector appointed by the Company. Zamindars lost their power to organise local justice and the local police. Over time the collectorate emerged as an alternative centre of authority, severely restricting what the zamindar could do.

In one case, when a raja failed to pay the revenue, a Company official was speedily dispatched to his zamindari with explicit instructions “to take charge of the District and to use the most effectual means to destroy all the influence and the authority of the raja and his officers”.

At the time of rent collection, an officer of the zamindar, usually the amlah, came ar ound to the village. But rent collection was a perennial problem. Sometimes bad harvests and low prices made payment of dues difficult for the ryots. At other times ryots deliberately delayed payment. Rich ryots and village headmen – jotedars and mandals – were only too happy to see the zamindar in trouble.

The zamindar could therefore not easily assert his power over them. Zamindars could prosecute defaulters, but the judicial process was long drawn. In Burdwan alone there were over 30,000 pending suits for arrears of rent payment in 1798.

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1.4 The rise of the jotedars

While many zamindars were facing a crisis at the end of the eighteenth century, a group of rich peasants were consolidating their position in the villages. In Francis Buchanan’s survey of the Dinajpur district in North Bengal we have a vivid description of this class of rich peasants known as jotedars. By the early nineteenth century, jotedars had acquired vast areas of land – sometimes as much as several thousand acres.

They controlled local trade as well as moneylending, exercising immense power over the poorer cultivators of the region. A large part of their land was cultivated through sharecroppers (adhiyars or bargadars) who brought their own ploughs, laboured in the field, and handed over half the produce to the jotedars after the harvest. Within the villages, the power of jotedars was more effective than that of zamindars.

Unlike zamindars who often lived in urban areas, jotedars were located in the villages and exercised direct control over a considerable section of poor villagers. They fiercely resisted efforts by zamindars to increase the jama of the village, prevented zamindari officials from executing their duties, mobilised ryots who were dependent on them, and deliberately delayed payments of r evenue to the zamindar .

In fact, when the estates of the zamindars were auctioned for failure to make revenue payment, jotedars were often amongst the purchasers. The jotedars were most powerful in North Bengal, although rich peasants and village headmen were emerging as commanding figures in the countryside in other parts of Bengal as well. In some places they were called haoladars, elsewhere they were known as gantidars or mandals. Their rise inevitably weakened zamindari authority

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