Zamindar Rabindranath - 2
Continued from Zamindar - 1
In order to appreciate what Rabindranath did as a zamindar it is necessary to know who a zamindar was and what his functions were. It is now more than half a century that the zamindari and similar other land revenue systems have been abolished. What the present generation therefore knows about it is more or less bookish. And the memory of those few surviving people who might have seen it working must have also become dim. The subject is dry but interesting. This time we shall take some more space for its recapitulation. We hope that our readers will bear with us.
After their victory at Plassey in 1757 the English merchants of the East India Company became the virtual masters of the subahs of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. They retained the façade of the native rule through a puppet native nawab under a nominal emperor for the time being, but from the very outset they were dead on their target – earning of maximum profits and disbursement of maximum dividends to their shareholders. In 1765 the Mughal emperor granted them the dewani of these subahs which gave them the right to collect the land revenue, till that time traditionally the chief source of revenue in this country. As they were ignorant about our land revenue system instead of doing it themselves the Company engaged for this purpose two notorious native agents, whom they called Naib-Dewans - Muhammad Reza Khan for Bengal and Sitab Rai for Bihar. Their rapacity and ruthlessness knew no bounds. For example, Reza Khan collected a record amount in the very year when the great famine of 1770 that ravaged Bengal was raging most fiercely. This famine had occurred due to the failure of monsoon for two consecutive years and it carried away one-third of the population of Bengal. [Interested readers may read my essay The Annalist of the Silent Millions published in boloji long ago at https://www.boloji.com/society/0040.htm. For a first hand account one should read Appendices A and B to Sir W.W.Hunter’s Annals of Rural Bengal; the chief portions of Appendix A ‘are from Warren Hastings’ own pen’.]
In 1772 both Reza Khan and Sitab Rai were dismissed because they not only oppressed the tenants but also cheated the Company. [Reza Khan used to realize the rent due from dead and absconding tenants from their neighbours.] Direct collection through the Company’s own servants failed mainly because they could not obtain the assistance of the keepers of the records called kanungos.To save costs the Company had abolished these posts. New experiments which included Annual and Decennial Settlements through public auction also proved equally disastrous. Unprincipled speculators, bidding recklessly, obtained most of the zamindaries ousting many traditional zamindars of the nawabi regime. Many tenure holders under the Annual Settlement failed to meet their obligations and landed up in prison. To put a stop to this chaos and ensure a steady income the Company, after a lot of deliberation, decided to make the Decennial Settlement permanent. This was done by the promulgation of the Permanent Settlement Regulation of 1793. It declared the zamindars as the ‘actual proprietors’ of their estates. Their obligation was to pay the annual revenue assessed on their holdings which was fixed in perpetuity, their failure to deposit it punctually entailed sale of their estates through auction. Excepting the barring of collection of abwabs, a kind of undefined imposts in addition to rent, the relation between the zamindars and their tenants however remained largely unspecified. This gave a lot of freedom to the zamindars to deal with their tenants.
Under the Permanent Settlement the position of the zamindars vastly improved. During the nawabi regime the zamindaris were heritable no doubt but the zamindars were mere farmers of revenue and not the ‘actual proprietors’ of their estates. Their financial obligation was not fixed but was subject to enhancement. For example, during the Maratha raids in addition to revenue Nawab Alivardi Khan demanded additional imposts to pay the Chauth. They had to be loyal to the ruler and discharge some minor functions of governance. The new zamindars had no such obligations. They were given proprietary rights in their estates which they could inherit, sell, mortgage or lease out. The revenue payable by them to the government was fixed and not subject to enhancement. After paying their assessed amount their margins were quite handsome. These they could further increase by increasing the rent from time to time and through reclamation and settlement of waste and fallow lands. For arrears of revenue the person of the zamindar was no longer to be imprisoned nor his private goods and chattels to be taken; now at best his estates could be sold in auction. For the same offence the old zamindars had to suffer not only imprisonment but also inhuman persecutions. Nawab Murshidkuli Khan, the converted son of a Brahmin, savoured it, specially if the offender was a Hindu. [There is a reference to such persecutions in Bankim’s famous novel Debichaudhurani which has recently been translated by Professor J. Lipner of the University of Cambridge.]
Why did the Company put the zamindars in such an advantageous position? The political as well as financial prospects of the Company at the time were very precarious; they needed a lot of money. Good shopkeepers as they were, they wanted to make their Indian enterprise self-financing, an enterprise that would give them enormous profits without investment. The initial mismanagement and its disastrous results made the shareholders nervous. They were anxious to secure a steady income from land revenue as quickly as possible. Bengal was not as populous as it became later. The depopulation caused by the famine of 1770 made it the worst of times to make hard bargains. In utter helplessness they created this class of parasites who would feed them with the flesh of the land.
This flesh was provided by the actual tillers of the soil. Till the coming of the industrial revolution in the latter half of the 18th century agriculture remained the main economic activity. The cultivators were therefore the chief prey of all succeeding predators. Rulers have changed but the peasants’ systematic exploitation has continued unabated throughout the ages. They were left with so much of the fruits of their labour as was absolutely necessary to keep their body and soul together. The rate of the ruler’s customary share was rarely prescribed very high but in actual practice it was always high; by the end of the 17th century it became as high as 50% of the gross produce. The underlying principle was to take as much as possible without ‘driving the tenant to abscond into the jungle’. The zamindars were not the creations of the British, as an apparatus of exploitation they already existed – the Permanent Settlement only strengthened their hands. It was against the socio-economic forces of the time. The depopulation of 1770 famine had improved the bargaining position of the peasants. It was the most opportune moment for the improvement of their status. The chief cause of the failure of the Annual and Decennial settlements was the short supply of tenants to cultivate thousands of villages that had become fallow. A similar situation arose in medieval England. The depopulation following the Black Death caused shortage of labour which put the villeins in a position where they could sell their labour to the highest bidder. Their wages rose and the Statute of Labourers enacted by the English Parliament in 1351 sought but failed to stop the law of supply and demand. But in Bengal after the great famine of 1770 just the opposite happened. The Permanent Settlement succeeded where the English law had failed.
Under the Permanent Settlement the position of the peasant became worse. He did not own the plot he ploughed. The labour and capital were his but the lion’s share of his harvest was taken away by others whose contribution in the cultivation was nil. He could not plant or cut down a tree, build a pucca house, nor could he transfer the tenanted land or raise a loan. Divided into various categories, excepting a few most tenants were insecure in their occupation of the land; they were liable to eviction not only for arrears of rent but also on various other grounds. The so-called ‘pargana rates’ of rent were high and widely varied from place to place, from plot to plot. Rates were often different for the same class of land, growing the same kind of crop and situated in the same village. The abwabs were abolished only on paper, but in practice they were very much in vogue. The zamindar imposed them at will—to pay for his daughter's wedding, his mother’s funeral, his son's birth. The status of the cultivator became akin to that of a bonded labour.
And his bondage became complete when he got into the trap of the money lender called the Mahajan. Literally meaning a great man this personage was his never failing friend in times of his needs which were unending. There were arrears of rent, floods and droughts, famines and epidemics, daughters of marriageable age and last rites of his dead parents. If a precious little surplus his hard labour could ever yield it was eaten up by the parasites and he had no savings to fall back on in times of adversities. The mahajan’s compound rate of interest was unmentionably high. Hence once contracted the bondage of his friendship became hereditary. More often than not these mahajans were wholesale businessmen of the locality dealing in agricultural produces like rice, jute, oil seeds and grams. At the harvest the debtors repaid their loans and interests with their crops when their ample supply in the market brought down the prices to the lowest level. Some of these loan sharks were big farmers, called jotedars, who were always on the lookout to gobble up the holdings of the small farmers by hook or by crook. [One may read Tagore’s famous poem Dui bigha jami, filmed in Hindi as Do bigha zamin.] If the debtor was illiterate and ignorant the same loan could be realized from him twice or even thrice over. The new land revenue system gave birth to another class of parasites – those petty zamindars who were not less rapacious. Their large margin allowed the zamindars the luxury to sublet portions of their estates to a whole lot of smaller intermediaries called pattanidars, talukdars etc. We can meet one of these petty tyrants in the famous short story Mahesh by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, already published in boloji in my translation . There were the employees of the zamindars too. They were a corrupt lot. They had a field day if their employer was an absentee landlord. These minions and their armed paiks and barkandazes were hated and feared like the Reeve of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales - ‘They (the tenants) were in dread of hym as of death’. Against the incessant torments of the naibs and gomostas they were unable to seek justice from the zamindar because he was unreachable. If any tenant had the temerity to go to the court another sucker – the lawyer – got him into his grip.
Permanent Settlement was a desperate measure taken in a desperate time. The people who came forward to fish in the troubled waters were also desperate men. According to no less a person than Bankimchandra many of the initial zamindars were dacoits. By the time Rabindranath came to look after his ancestral zamindari more than a century later things had undergone changes. Many zamindaris had changed hands – for example all the mahals of the Tagores were bought from earlier zamindars, even from Indigo planters who had added another dimension to the socio-economic scene of Bengal. Next time we shall talk about some of those changes which will help us in our understanding of the role of Rabindranath as a zamindar.
Continued to Zamindar Rabindranath - 3
Read Also: Zamindar Rabindranath -1
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