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.
(more content follows the advertisement below) A D V E R T I S E M E N T
An auction in Burdwan
In 1797 there was an auction in Burdwan (presentday
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 were 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?
The Production of Chronicles
Chronicles commissioned by the Mughal emperors
are an important source for studying the empire and
its court. They were written in order to project a
vision of an enlightened kingdom to all those who
came under its umbrella. At the same time they were
meant to convey to those who resisted the rule of
the Mughals that all resistance was destined to fail.
Also, the rulers wanted to ensure that there was an
account of their rule for posterity.
The authors of Mughal chronicles were invariably
courtiers. The histories they wrote focused on events
centred on the ruler, his family, the court and nobles,
wars and administrative arrangements. Their titles,
such as the Akbar Nama, Shahjahan Nama, Alamgir
Nama, that is, the story of Akbar, Shah Jahan and
Alamgir (a title of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb),
suggest that in the eyes of their authors the history
of the empire and the court was synonymous with
that of the emperor.
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 problem, 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.