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Permanent Settlement, The


Permanent Settlement, The was a grand contract signed in 1793 between the government of the East India Company in Bengal and individual landholders of Bengal- zamindars and talukdars. Under the contract, the zamindars were admitted into the colonial state system as the absolute proprietors of landed property in Bengal. The government revenue payable to government was fixed permanently. The rules of the permanent settlement made every individual zamindar and talukdar the permanent and absolute proprietors of the land under their control. As absolute proprietors of land, zamindars and talukdars were required to pay revenue to government at a rate fixed permanently. But the cultivating raiyats were denied to such a privilege. The landholders were free to change the rent rate of their tenants. They even could evict their tenants if they wanted to. But if they defaulted, their lands proportionate to their default would be realised through public sale of their land. This strong law was called the Sun-set Law.

Furthermore, the zamindars were unhappy because all taluks who hitherto paid government revenue through zamindars were separated from their control and made independent landholders. This provision of the permanent settlement made many zamindars paupers because their estates were consisted of mostly taluks. The revenue sale law, what came to be known as sunset law, frightened the zamindars most. Under this law, land of the zamindars was liable to be sold if they failed to pay government revenue punctually. Under the operation of the Sun-set Law greater part of the zamindari lands of Bengal were sold through auction sales and their lands were transferred to new hands.

Hundreds of zamindaris were put to auction sales every month; government's revenue collection became uncertain; the administrative cost rose; revenue income declined; law and order in the country deteriorated. The dismembered zamindars, shorn of their zamindaris and princely image, more often than not put up quite effective resistance to new zamindars who came to take possession of their lots purchased at auctions. Wellesley resolved to conciliate the zamindar class by bringing some amendments to the basic rules of the permanent settlement. The result was the enactment of Regulation VII of 1799, commonly known as haftam or seventh, which armed the zamindars with despotic powers over their defaulting raiyats. The zamindars could now distraint their crops, cattle and other properties and sell them, in the name of recovering rents. Zamindars, as absolute proprietors, could summon the defaulting raiyats to their katcharis and keep them confined in fetters until the arrears were paid. They could impose community fines on the whole village if any of the defaulting raiyats ran away to safety with his family and property. They could enhance rent without any regard to pargana customs and usages. In short, the haftam had negated all customary rights that the raiyats had been enjoying traditionally and reduced them to mere tenants-at-will.

The next change in the original law of permanent settlement was the Regulation V of 1812 (popularly know as panjam or fifth) under which the zamindars got the right to lease out their land for any period. Originally, the lease period was kept limited to a maximum period of ten years. However, the amendment, which had fundamentally changed the character of permanent settlement was the Regulation VIII of 1819, which came down in the Bengal agrarian history as the pattani law. Under it, a zamindar could lease out his land permanently and at a permanent rent. It was, in fact, another permanent settlement between the zamindar and the pattanidar. The Raiyats were now required to maintain two classes upon them zamindar and pattanidar.

The conclusion of the permanent settlement with zamindars had some immediate objectives in view. These may be classified as: (a) placing revenue paying on a definite footing and making revenue collection sure and certain; (b) ensuring a minimum revenue; (c) relieving officials of revenue matter and engaging them to other spheres of administration; and finally, (d) forging an alliance between the zamindar class and the colonial rulers. Though not entirely but largely, government succeeded in achieving these short-term goals. The revenue paying agency was put on a definite footing in the person of zamindar. The government now knew how much was to be its annual inflow from land and the zamindars also knew for certain their contractual obligation to government. Formerly, neither the government nor the revenue payers knew exactly where did they stand as regards revenue collection and payment.

The revenue law worked as a successful mechanism for maintaining a minimum revenue collection which was hard to imagine in the earlier period. Forging an alliance with the zamindar for political purpose was not achieved immediately, because the original terms of the settlement did not satisfy them, but over time, when zamindari powers were made unlimited and when government revenue demand became lighter through rise in prices and inflation, the landlord class did cooperate with the government. Their solidarity with the government during the sepoy revolt and Swadeshi and militant nationalist movements in the early twentieth century vindicates it.

But the permanent settlement had nobler long-term objects, which were made plain in the various council minutes and correspondence on the eve of its enactment. Its authors anticipated that the operation of the new system, which was thought to have been devised with some in-built mechanism for social and economic transformation, would first bring about capitalist changes in agriculture and agrarian relations, and eventually trigger off an industrial revolution in the country. It was expected that the proprietary right in land and fixity of government revenue demand for all time to come would induce zamindars to turn themselves into progressive landlords like their counterparts in Britain. The profit motive would drive them to invest their surplus capital in various sectors of agriculture, such as abad or reclamation of land under forest, irrigation, drainage, communication, agricultural credit, improved seed, hats and bazaars, fisheries, livestock, and so on. The expectation was that changes in agriculture would, in turn, lead to transformation in trade, commerce and industries and the cumulative changes would lead to ever increasing income for the government in the form of tariff and taxes. Such a development, it was thought, would well compensate for the loss that the government had deliberately incurred in the long term by fixing the government revenue on zamindars in perpetuity.

Unfortunately, the long-term vision behind the permanent settlement did not materialise. The zamindars, old or new, never turned themselves into landlords like their British counterparts. There is no difference of opinion among scholars as to zamindars' failure in changing the country, but they differ drastically as to why the zamindars behaved the way they did. Instead of improving land by means of capital and organisational input, their strategy was to increase income by other more profitable means such as mahajani investment, grain trade, purchase of new estates, bonds, urban properties, and enhancing rent and imposing abwabs or illegal cesses on raiyats. Viewed economically, such behaviour on the part of zamindars was justified on the ground that the sectors where they invested their surpluses had been yielding much higher returns than land management on capitalist line. If investment in land was less profitable and more risky, then why should the zamindars sink capital in landFoodgrain In England, there was a strong industrial sector to stimulate agriculture, and there were government moves to stabilise prices and safeguard the interests of the landed classes; but under the colonial situation in Bengal, zamindars were deprived of such benefits and hence they never cared to improve land to enhance their income.

A certain amount of industrialisation is a prerequisite for agricultural growth. Bengal agricultural economy lost that advantage under the company rule when the great manufacturing tradition of Bengal collapsed. The agricultural sector under British rule was never free from adverse factors such as recurring famines and scarcities, fluctuating prices, colonial deindustrialisation and drainage of wealth. Such an environment was not congenial to the growth of capitalist outlook but to the consumptive feudal mind, which the zamindar class had truly demonstrated.

The most remarkable trail of feudal values that the zamindars had acquired from the permanent settlement was living on unearned income. They transferred the zamindari management and control to a permanent intermediate class in exchange for an annuity. In other words, as the absolute proprietors of land they made, tenurially a second permanent settlement with the lease-holders under more or less the same terms and conditions as their own settlement with the government. They received the annuity from the perpetual tenureholders by virtue of their right in land, not by any claim to capital investment in it. Their rights and liabilities in relation to zamindars were practically the same as the zamindari rights and liabilities in relation to government. Consequently, the tenureholders also created, in turn, sub-tenures, and the process of gradation sometimes went down several steps, in Bakerganj for example, to as many as fifteen steps.

The problem of the rise of hierarchic intermediate classes in land control had, indeed, deep economic and social implications. The revenue survey records (1860-1870) and records of survey and settlement operations (1886 onwards) reveal that the zamindars who had created intermediate tenures in the wake of the permanent settlement were mostly saved from the operation of the 'sunset law' and that the rent burden on raiyats was the heaviest in those estates where the chain of intermediate tenures was the highest. In other words, there is a correlation between the stability of zamindari rights and intermediate tenures on the one hand, and the high rate of rent and intermediate tenures, on the other. There is another important aspect of intermediate tenures. It is the role of the tenureholders in the extension of agriculture into hitherto jungle land. The clearing of extensive tracts of land in various parts of Bengal, particularly the coastal zones, in the nineteenth century was the feat of mainly the intermediate classes. It is they who led the reclamation with their capital, organisation and manpower. The productive role of the intermediate classes, however, stopped in the beginning of the 20th century when no more vacant land was left for clearing, and with that the tenureholders, excepting the tier just above the raiyats, were left with no role to play in the land management and thus were turned into parasites living on peasant production.

Unfortunately, the prosperity of the zamindar class did not lead to a corresponding prosperity of the peasantry (raiyats). The peasant surpluses were systematically extracted by the zamindars and intermediate interests in the form of enhanced rent and myriad impositions, such as, abwabs, tuhuri, dasturi, chandas, bhet, nazrana, begar, selami, etc. Peasants continued to produce subsistence plus rent only. With the integration of the country with the global capitalist economy from the early nineteenth century, the subsistence economy in the rural society came under severe strains. A series of peasant uprisings in most parts of Bengal, especially in eastern Bengal, from the late 1850s was the most direct manifestation of the estranged relationship between the zamindars and raiyats. The crisis was triggered off by the peasant disturbances in the Santal Pargana first (1855) and then in the indigo districts (1859-61). The indigo resistance movement continued from 1858 to 1860.

The peasant resistance movements took an alarming turn in the 1870s and early 1880s when the peasants in several parts of eastern Bengal made jotes (alliances) among themselves to assert their rights in land and minimise extraction of surpluses by zamindars. The most remarkable of the peasant uprisings in this period were the Tushkhali (in Bakerganj) peasant movement (1872-75), pabna peasant uprising (1873), chhagalnaiya (Noakhali) peasant movement (1874), mymensingh tribal peasant movement (1874-1882), munshiganj (Dhaka) peasant movement (1880-81) and mehendiganj (Bakerganj) uprising (1880-81). The Faraizis (a Muslim reformist sect) took up the peasants' cause and the faraizi movement established extensive network across the country, particularly in south Bengal, against the zamindari control. A common demand of all these peasant jotes was the restoration of raiyati rights in land.

These uprisings indicate for certain the gradual erosion of the permanent settlement. The proprietary classes had lost their grips on the raiyats who were now asserting their rights in land. Zamindars, being unable to contain the rebellious raiyats, asked for government help to discipline the recalcitrant raiyats and government did send police, and even armed forces where necessary, to quell the disturbances. Most government reports on the peasant movements pointed to the weakening state of the zamindar class, particularly to its impoverished conditions. The operation of the law of inheritance and consequent partition and re-partition of estates, family feuds, litigation, absenteeism, creation of intermediate tenures, untimely death of proprietors, extravagance, and many other associated factors had eroded the zamindar class structurally. On the other side, an affluent and assertive agrarian middle class in the persons of madhyasvatvas or intermediate tenureholders, jotedars, hawladars and other rich peasants was emerging steadily since the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

No longer the government, as the events developed, could ignore the peasantry, particularly its rich section, as an interest in land. The Sepoy Revolt and the closely followed indigo disturbances awakened the government to the dangers of further ignoring the rural cause. Saving the loyal zamindar class was an imperial need and saving the protesting peasantry was at the same time a political dictate.

An outcome of this perception was the enactment of Rent Act in 1859, which tried to recognise the rights of some categories of raiyats. Instead of traditional classification of raiyats into khudkast and paikast, the peasant society was now categorised into three legal groups under the Rent Act. These are: (a) raiyats holding land at a fixed rate of rent from the time of the permanent settlement; (b) raiyats having a right of occupancy, ie raiyats holding continuously land for twelve years; and (c) raiyats not having a right of occupancy, ie raiyats holding land for less than twelve years. To secure the rights of raiyats and to regulate the payment of their rent patta system was reintroduced. From now on, the payment of rent was to be regulated by the terms of the patta which specified the amount of annual rent (cash or kind), and beyond which zamindars would have no right to impose any abwab which was now made a punishable offense (section 2).

The zamindars lost the power vested in them by haftam (Reg. VII 1799) of compelling any category of raiyats to report to kachari and adjust arrears or undergo physical torture in default (section 11). The Rent Act had barred the zamindars from enhancing the first category of raiyats (kayemi) whose rent was fixed permanently and they also lost power to enhance the rent of occupancy raiyats without showing reasons like zamindari investment, rise in prices, etc. The rent of non-occupancy raiyats could not be enhanced too frequently.

The zamindars, by now too dependent on government support, did not have the guts to oppose the Rent Act. Instead they just tried to ignore it. They knew it well that enacting a law was something and implementing it was something else. They kept on enhancing rent as before. The defaulting raiyats were still called to kachari and tortured for adjustment of arrears. Occupancy right was usually denied. As a result, the landlord-tenant relations deteriorated progressively the extent of which can be measured from the large scale peasant discontents in the 1870s and early 1880s.

The mounting peasant unrest in the 1870s was alarming enough for the government both economically and politically. The seething masses, according to reports of some district collectors, might someday storm the zamindari kacharis and finally the collectorate kacharis unless some positive measures were taken to soothe their rebellious mood. A rent commission was set up in 1879 to investigate the tense landlord-tenant relations and make remedial recommendations to government. From the report of the rent commission originated the bengal tenancy act of 1885 (Act VIII). The act for the first time tried to define the rights of various interests in land from the highest proprietor to the lowest cultivating raiyat. Indeed, the act considerably curtailed zamindari power and privileges.

No doubt, the Bengal Tenancy Act very considerably changed the original framework of the permanent settlement. A zamindar was now just one of the interests in land, a superior one, of course. What is more important, this time government did mean to implement the act. The operation of the Bengal Tenancy Act was closely monitored and it was found that law had very successfully established peace in the countryside.

But peasant agitation began again in the 1920s. One effect of the electoral politics under the constitution of 1919 was the need for mass contact for success in polls. Necessity had impelled all major political parties to establish peasant wings of their respective parties, which tried to raise awareness about the agrarian problems besetting them. Prajas or raiyats, now made militantly conscious by the left activists, could feel that they were still deprived of the privileges of cutting trees, mortgaging land beyond a certain time, transferring lands without permission of landholders, building pucca structures and digging tanks and ponds. For all these zamindari sanctions were required and no sanction was accorded without a selami. Most of these limitations were removed by the Amendment Act of 1928. Under this act the raiyats got the rights to transfer lands without permission of landholders but they were still subject to pay salami and landlord's had still the right to preemption. They also got the right to cut trees and dig tanks and ponds and construct pucca structures without taking zamindari permission.

With the enactment and implementation of the India Act of 1935 the peasant politics had received a fresh stimulus. Peasant grievances were articulated by the political parties. A new political organisation, krishak praja party (KPP), was formed in Bengal with the avowed objects of serving the interests of the praja class mainly and its leader Sher-e-Bangla ak fazlul huq, who politically committed himself to abolishing the permanent settlement if voted to power, had actually formed the government in 1937. Soon after, the Huq ministry formed a committee called Land Revenue Commission (generally known as floud commission after the name of its chairman Francis Floud) with specific terms of reference concerning the end of the permanent settlement. However, instead of waiting for the recommendations from the Land Revenue Commission the Huq ministry, in order to provide minimum satisfaction to his constituency, brought another amendment to the Bengal Tenancy Act in 1938 (Act VI) under which salami system and zamindar's right to preemption in the transfer of raiyati land were abolished and some rights of bargadars (sharecroppers) were recognised. Act VI of 1938 made the prajas virtual proprietors of land.

The Floud Commission, which submitted its report in 1940, found the zamindari system untenable under the changed circumstances and recommended for its immediate abolition including all intermediate rent receiving interests. But by then Huq, the advocate of praja cause, had become politically too effete to accomplish the task and thus the Floud Commission report remained unimplemented.

The incidents of the Tebhaga agitation in north Bengal (1946-47) served as a reminder to the government that the depressed peasantry was more for land reforms than for nationalist or communal politics. In response to the widespread tebhaga movement, the Bengal government headed by huseyn shaheed suhrawardy brought two bills for enactment - the State Acquisition and Tenancy Bill and the Bengal Bargadar (Provisional) Bill in early 1947. The intention was to abolish the permanent settlement and to improve the status of the sharecropping tenants. In view of the politics of partition, the two bills could not be finally enacted into law. However, after partition the bills were placed in the East Bengal Legislative Assembly in the form of a new bill called the East Bengal State Acquisition and Tenancy Bill, 1950. On 16 December 1950, the bill became on act entitled east bengal state acquisition and tenancy act 1950. Under the act the permanent settlement was at last abolished. The raiyats, now called maliks or proprietors of land, became direct tenants under the government. [Sirajul Islam]