Zamindar Rabindranath - 3 by Kumud Biswas SignUp

Zamindar Rabindranath - 3
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Continued from Zamindar Rabingranth - 2

Come rain or shine, according to the imperial sanad which granted them the Dewani, the East India Company was pledged to pay annually rupees 26 lakhs to the emperor at Delhi and rupees 53 lakhs (later reduced to 32 lakhs) to the Nawab at Murshidabad. Likewise the zamindars were committed to pay their respective annual assessments punctually and the dreaded Sunset Law hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles. It was therefore the Company’s first priority to see that their revenues and the interests of their revenue agents were safeguarded so that they could fulfill their financial obligations. And they did this to the total neglect of the rights of the raiyats. This summarizes the history of land revenue administration of Bengal from 1793 till 1858 when the British Crown took over the direct administration of this country.
The Company thought that by introducing the Permanent Settlement they would achieve their goal quickly and easily. Unfortunately it was not to be. Armed with their windfall proprietary rights the zamindars fell upon their tenants like hungry wolves. As long as they fulfilled their fixed financial commitments to the government they were completely free to squeeze out of their tenants as much as they wanted. Left to the tender mercies of their landlords the tenants in their turn could not revolt as in 1381 the villeins of medieval England did. Centuries of autocratic rule seems to have sapped their manhood. They accommodated the relentless pressure as long as they could, but when it went beyond endurance they absconded either into the jungle or into the domain of another zamindar, where they were welcome because the famine of 1770 had heavily depopulated the land and large areas were uncultivated. In some remote and inaccessible areas the tenants in desperation sometimes resisted the paiks and barkandazes. In such cases the company came to the rescue of the zamindars reinforcing them with their soldiers and police. As if that was not enough, it further strengthened the hands of the zamindars with another draconian measure – the notorious Regulation VII of 1799, popularly called haptam, by which zamindars were vested with wide and arbitrary powers of distraint. Regulation V of 1812, called panjam, to some extent mitigated the harshness of haptam’s provisions of distraint but failed to remove the main defect of the haptam which had left the rights of the raiyats undefined. The failure of the patta regulation by which pattas were to be given to the tenants indicating the area cultivated by them and the rent to be paid had added to the chaos. Both the zamindars and the tenants would not abide by it because both feared that it would be against their interests. To make matters worse, to save costs the Company had abolished the office of the kanungo who kept village land records. Thus nobody knew exactly how much land a tenant cultivated or how much rent he had to pay. The net result of all these was that by the time the celebrated Fifth Report submitted in 1812 by the Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons, which exclusively dealt with land revenue administration, most of the original zamindars were reduced to poverty, more than half of them sold their estates for arrears and many large zamindaries were dismembered.
After the Fifth Report a regulation of 1822 proposed fixation of fair rents to which the Company never agreed because the Court of Directors obstinately held the laissez faire view that rent should get itself determined through free bargaining between the tenant and the landlord. The second Select Committee appointed by the House of Commons in 1830 came to the conclusion that the benevolent intentions of Lord Cornwallis had not been carried into practice, ‘in permanently settled districts nothing is settled, and little is known but the government assessment’ and no measure had been taken to limit or define the demand of zamindars on raiyats. It also recommended re-establishment of the office of the kanungo because with its abolition the village land records had ceased to exist. These recommendations were never carried into effect. On the contrary the Company brought a bill in 1857 to codify a more effective method of recovery of rent. Before this could be done in 1858 the British Crown assumed the direct charge of administration and that bill ultimately became the Rent Act of 1859. This was the law which contained for the first time a definition of the right of the raiyats and laid down the law between landlord and tenant. It removed the distinction between the tenants on grounds of residence in the village where the land was situated, a twelve years’ continued possession of the land gave them the occupancy right, they could not be evicted for arrears otherwise than through the court and rent must be fair and equitable. It recognized the zamindar’s right to enhancements of rent on the grounds that he had made improvements to the land, that there had been an increase in area, that the value of the produce had increased or that the rent of a particular holding was below the prevailing rate. Reduction of rent could be claimed on the ground of a decrease in area or a decrease in the value of the produce.
This law however suffered from numerous defects – in absence of records it was very difficult, if not impossible, for the tenant to prove continuous possession of 12 years which could enable him to acquire the occupancy rights; to prevent him from the acquisition of this right the zamindar usually allotted a different field to the tenant before the completion of 12 years or got him to execute leases for less than 12 years. It did not define what rent was fair and equitable and what was improvement. In absence of an official price list for enhancement or reduction of rent the zamindars and tenants could not prove that there had been an increase or decrease in the value of the produce. It did not lay down what period should expire before a claim for enhancement of rent could be entertained. Thus this law proved to be unworkable and instead of helping neither the tenant nor the zamindar it gave birth to a huge number of law suits. By the middle of the 19th century a feeling of revulsion against the working of the regulations had developed and agrarian discontents grew among the peasantry. For instance in 1873 riots took place in the district of Pabna when the Natore estate was broken up and purchased by five zamindars who attempted to enhance the rents. The government was now compelled to act and a comprehensive legislation – the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885 - came into being. This was the year when the first political party – the Indian National Congress – was born. Within 5 or 6 years of this Rabindranath went to supervise the zamindari. All that can be said about this law is that it consolidated the land laws already in force, removing only their ambiguities. It did very little, if anything at all, to improve the lot of the peasants. In essence it kept alive an anachronistic system, the feudalism, right up to the middle of the twentieth century.
These hundred odd years of British rule had also brought about many changes in the Indian society. The first census taken in 1872 showed that the loss of population in Bengal as a result of the great famine of 1770 had more than recovered in these one hundred years. The land-man ratio had turned almost upside down, pushing the demand for and the price of land up many times. Earlier, land was abundant but men to cultivate it were scarce. Now the situation had become just the opposite and it encouraged large scale sub-infudation and sub-letting. Earlier there was no middle class as such in our society. To the Europeans this country was a colony pure and simple which was meant to be only exploited and never to be permanently settled in like those so-called ‘settlement colonies’ - Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. They needed a vast army of officials to rule this vast country. During the British rule in a rural Indian district on an average there were barely 10 to 15 Europeans who carried on their arbitrary rule over millions with the help of their Indian minions. They introduced English education in this country with a purpose. The supply of this huge manpower came from amongst the English educated babus who preferred white collar jobs and earned, by Indian standards, handsome salaries which many augmented with ill-gotten incomes too. They also manned all the learned professions – medicine, teaching, law etc. Political stability encouraged trade and commerce and the traditional traders flourished. All these people formed the newly emerging middle class, and along with other non-agriculturists of means, they invested a sizeable part of their income in land which was very lucrative and secure with assured good return. They got their lands cultivated either by landless labourers or by share-croppers mostly on usurious terms. Thus a new class of parasites was born who fed on the flesh of a new class of under-raiyats whose conditions were the most miserable. The status of these labourers and small farmers was no better than slaves and bonded labour and they received a sub-human treatment from others in the society. Many of them were skilled craftsmen and small artisans whose occupations had gone as a result of the utter ruin of the small scale village industries which the European industrial revolution had spelled. [Gofur, the landless cultivator in the story Mahesh, was originally a zola or weaver.] The law did not take any cognizance of these most unfortunate people. Nor did the new political party do anything of the sort at that time.

Continued to: Zamindar Rabindranath - 4

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