Raiyat a nomenclature used customarily and legally for the peasantry during the Mughal and British periods, but in its widest sense, also used for subjects of the state and of the ruling classes. The term seems to have been used first in the Todar Mal settlement (1582) and since then it was in currency until the term expired legally and practically on the enactment of the east bengal estate acquisition act of 1950 under which the raiyats got a new legal nomenclature, malik or owner of land. But the new term never received popular recognition. Jotedar (very rich peasant), Grhastha (quite rich peasant), Krisak (ordinary peasant), Chasi (marginal peasant), Bargadar (sharecropper), mazur (farm labourer) are the words which are now used for describing various types of peasants.
The term raiyat originates from an Arabic word raiyat (from ra'a) meaning etymologically, 'a herd at pasture' and 'subjects' in collective sense. Under the Mughal revenue system a raiyat was a cultivator, a revenue ijaradar. All people engaged in agricultural production and paying land tax to the state via landholders or otherwise were raiyats. The raiyats under the Mughal constitution had rights in land, which were protected by customs and usages of the pargana. Under the Mughal system of land control there were two types of raiyats - khudkasta and paikasta. The khudkasta raiyats were permanent resident cultivators of the village. Their rights in land were heritable according to Muslim and Hindu laws of successions. The other type of raiyats was called paikasta. The paikasta raiyat did not cultivate land on a permanent basis in any particular mauza (the lowest revenue plus village settlement unit). In search of cultivable land they moved from mauza to mauza and engaged themselves for a crop season with the local landholders and husbandmen at most advantageous terms. In terms of revenue the paikasta raiyats generally paid much lower rate of rent than the khudkashta raiyats. The dividend came from hard bargaining. But the social cost of paikasta raiyat was very high, because their rights were acquired for a season only and, therefore, not inheritable. Many khudkasta raiyats, to maximise their profit and at the same time conserve their khudkasta right, got their own lands cultivated by the paikasta raiyats, whereas they themselves moved to another village for cultivation at competitive rate of rent.
So long land-man relation was in favour of man, paikasta mode of cultivation had continued to function as an important economic factor in the agrarian relations. In view of the population growth in the nineteenth century the economic advantages of paikasta raiyats were fast eroding. The bengal tenancy act of 1885 had defined the rights of various categories of raiyats. Under the Act the raiyats were classified into three broad categories, such as, resident raiyats (former khudkasta), occupancy raiyats (those who had been in continuous possession of land for at least twelve years or more) and non-occupancy or subordinate raiyats (remnants of paikasta raiyats broadly). Under the Act, the two superior categories of raiyats got right to transfer their raiyati holdings on payment of salami a perquisite to zamindars. The rights of superior raiyats were further fortified under the Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Act of 1928 and 1938, which empowered the raiyats to transfer land without giving any salami to zamindars and without obtaining any prior permission from them. With the abolition of the permanent settlement in 1950, the raiyats became real proprietors of land and henceforth they came to be known legally recognised as maliks or proprietors.
It may be noted that raiyats, though legally declared to be tenants under the rules of the Permanent Settlement, had never reconciled themselves with the idea of becoming tenants having no rights in land. From the beginning of the Permanent Settlement the stronger section of peasants had been arguing that they had rights in land sanctioned by customs and usage and that the zamindars had no right to regulate their productive behaviour in their own terms. In asserting their rights the raiyats had often organised resistance movements against the proprietary claims of zamindars. It was against the backdrop of a series of peasant uprisings in the 1870s and early '80s that the government was persuaded to enact the bengal tenancy act of 1885 defining the rights and liabilities of all parties in land.
There is a sharp distinction between a raiyat and a praja. Like raiyat, praja means agricultural producer. Historically, the praja was not a tenant in ancient times. He was directly under the king and had definite rights in land, which the kings had always respected. But the term lost its respectability in the Mughal times when a praja was reduced to a hereditary worker in the zamindari nij-jote or demesne land. After the Permanent Settlement the zamindars had always called raiyats their prajas, whereas the latter had consistently demanded to be called as raiyats. Of course, the term praja became popular in the early twentieth century again and peasant organisations were named after Praja instead of Raiyat, for example, nikhil banga praja samiti, tripura praja samiti, krishak praja party etc. Thus the word raiyat which was a respectable appellation in the Mughal times and greater part of British times, began to get archaic in meaning and significance from the early twentieth century, and almost a forgotten word by the time when the term was erased as a legal jargon from the statute book in 1950. [Sirajul Islam]
Bibliography SC Chatterjee, Bengal Ryots: Their Rights and Liabilities (first published 1864), edited by Anil Chandra Banerjee and Bimal Kanti Ghose (Calcutta 1977); Chittabrata Palit, Tensions in Bengal Rural Society: Landholders, Planters and Clnial rule 1830-1860 (Calcutta 1975); Sirajul Islam, The Permanent Settlement in Bengal: A Study of its Operation 1790-1819; AA Khan, Some Aspects of Peasant Behaviour in Bengal: A Neo-Classical Analysis, (Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 1982).