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Zamindar The term zamindar (from the Persian zamin or land, and dar which is an inflexion of the verb dashtan, denoting to have, hold or possess) has passed into the historical vocabulary of medieval India to signify the superior landed interest. Zamindars during the Mughal period came to denote all rent, receivers above the actual cultivators. They were merely possessors of proprietary right in the collection of rent but not in land. The holders of land on the other hand were the raiyats (peasants) in whose names jamabandis or rent-rolls were prepared. In this sense zamindars were mere farmers of revenue - intermediaries between the government and the inferior revenue farmers, excluding the huzuri (independent) talukdars who paid revenues straight to the khalsa (exchequer) and the peasants.

The appellation zamindar, a straightforward translation from the current native terms bhuiyan or bhupati, signifies hereditary landholder. The Mughals fashioned the existing land tenure into a new mechanism to serve their economic and political interests. However, the traditional power structure and modes of production were little affected. The zamindari institution as it developed under the Mughals lacked uniformity in its characteristics, even in the subah of Bengal, Bihar and orissa itself. In Bengal, unlike some parts of India, land was not directly controlled by the Crown. akbar's Land Regulation System (1582), that aimed at direct settlement with the individual cultivators, was not feasible in the distant province of Bengal for various reasons, including peculiar geographical and climatic conditions. In pre-modern Bengal land was not only a factor of production, but also a status symbol and a source of social and political influence. Hence land control offered manifold prospects to all aspirants.

With the Mughal conquest of Bengal zamindar became a generic title embracing people with different kinds of landholdings and rights that ranged from the autonomous or semi-independent chieftains to the peasant-proprietors. The independent or semi-independent chieftains, humbled or befriended, became peshkashi (tribute-paying) subordinate allies keeping their administrative autonomy virtually unimpaired. The rest were mostly mal-wajibi (land revenue paying) who collected revenue for the Mughals. Unlike the autonomous or frontier chiefs, the hereditary status of the rest of the zamindar class was circumscribed by the Mughal government, and the heir depended to a certain extent on the pleasure of the sovereign. They were removable for insurgency or failure to pay the stipulated revenue. In return for their services, they enjoyed perquisites, khilats (robes of honour), and titles depending upon their status, resources and some other factors.

In pre-modern India, civil administration mainly revolved round the management of revenue affairs. Hence the assignment of land carried with it a host of administrative responsibilities. Zamindars were required to prepare details of revenue assessment, collect rent from the peasants and remit it to the state authorities and were also obliged to assist the imperial officers in the peace-keeping of the locality and to supply troops whenever needed. The superior landed interests who derived their strength and authority partly from the share of the produce and partly from their traditional superior position in the locality were well-suited to perform the state functions reposed in them by the imperial sanads.

Though the basic rights and duties of zamindars remained the same until the introduction of the permanent settlement (1793), some changes were occasionally brought in the structure of land control system to suit the needs of the ruling elite. Thus, the Todarmal Settlement (1582) which had initiated the zamindari system in the far-flung subah of Bengal continued till 1658 when some vigour was put into it by the revenue settlement of Subahdar shah shuja (1657), followed by Subahdar Murshid Quli's mal-zamini (land revenue) system in 1722. To achieve the goal of maximisation of public revenue and its punctual remittance, Murshid Quli divided the province into 13 chaklahs (administrative divisions) instead of the previous 34 sarkars and placed the smaller zamindars under the jurisdiction of chaklahdars who were none other than the larger zamindars. Chaklahdars, installed as stewards over their juniors were officials, not owners, to ensure an efficient collection of revenues. But the policy of making the principal zamindars immediately responsible to the khalsa for the imperial share of the revenue added to their traditional power and position. In addition, various government assignments offered to the promising zamindars provided wider scope to enhance their standing in the court and furtherance of their own cause. The process of change from revenue-managers to landlords was complete by the middle of the 18th century.

The foremost duty of zamindars was the collection and punctual remittance of the revenue and in most cases, it is this pivotal role that determined their relationship with the government. The sanad conferring zamindari rights obliged zamindar to 'conciliate and encourage the raiyats and promote the advancement of cultivation, the improvement of the country, and the increase of its produce'. The revenues to be paid by zamindars were of three sorts: (1) the mal, made up of rents from arable land and uncultivated lands containing woods, groves, marshes and ponds; (2) the sair, the next important source of revenue that consisted of tolls and excise collected on river traffic and markets and of fees paid by the various service classes; and (3) baze-jama in the form of fines, forfeitures and marriage fees. The stipulated amount to be paid by zamindars was decided upon neither by a proper measurement of land nor by an assessment of the produce thereof, but by a sort of summary assessment known as nasaq. Zamindars paid a fixed sum which, however, was subject to arbitrary increase by the Nawab, though the power was seldom exercised. The revenue demand on the mal-wajibi zamindars was fixed on arable lands. Zamindars obliged to reclaim the wastelands and forests were empowered to dispose them of. The wastelands, extensively used as charity and religious endowments, created under-tenure holders of various denominations. The reclaimed land, often passed by the name of khamar; the produce of which was shared by the tillers and zamindars, formed a permanent source of additional income to zamindars. In large zamindaris the rentals were usually much lower than their real value. The government being aware of the fact levied occasional abwabs or cesses on zamindars.

While the revenue demand on zamindars was fixed by the rent-roll, the rental burden on an individual raiyat was assessed by zamindars. The scant information available renders it difficult to ascertain the exact rate of rent. As man-land ratio was always in favour of man, zamindars could not afford to be oppressive on their raiyats. To keep them on the estate, zamindars found it to their interests to protect the rights and traditional privileges of the raiyats.

All categories of zamindars under the Mughals were required to perform certain police, judicial and military duties. With elements of both fiscal and political power at their disposal, zamindars exercised enormous local influence that made them the most undisputed potentates within the bounds of their territories. However, a full-fledged police system did not develop in rural Bengal during the period and hence some revenue staff were simultaneously entrusted with police duties. For instance, the gram-saranjami paiks who were employed primarily to assist zamindars in the collection of rents and guard the crops on the fields, were also made responsible for apprehension of thieves and robbers and preservation of peace, law and order in public places such as hats and bazaars, and fairgrounds. The regular police forces of big zamindars were organised and controlled within a system of thanas which were the largest police units, and under these came the smaller posts known as chaukies or pharies. In the heyday of the Mughals, the faujdar retained supreme authority over the thanas, nominally placed under the zamindari control. In the nawabi Bengal the thanas gradually fell under the control of the monopolistic zamindari estates.

The territorial zamindars had judicial powers. Naturally, judge-magistracy, as an element of state authority conferred status with attendant power, which really made them the lords of their domains. They held regular courts, called zamindari adalat. The courts fetched them not only power and status but some income as well by way of fines, presents and perquisites. The petty zamindars also had some share in the dispensation of civil and criminal justice. The chaudhuris, who were tiny zamindars in most cases, had authority to deal with the complaints of debts, thefts and petty quarrels and to impose paltry fines. Having no penal establishments, the smaller zamindars would refer the serious cases meriting confinement or capital punishments to the nearby Qazi or thanadar. In caste disputes, the high caste zamindars of good reputation were the most desired arbiters. But some prime zamindars, though low in caste ladder were seen to decide caste disputes under the dictates of exigencies. In fact, when the local panchayet (council of elders) failed to satisfy the aggrieved party, appeals were lodged to zamindars. Although the zamindari bichar (trial) was easily accessible, speedy and often cheap, the custom of vesting both executive and judicial functions in one person had its inherent weaknesses. Some zamindars might turn out tyrants to the tenantry by taking the advantage of local autonomy. To obviate such prospect, the government always kept vigilance on the activities of individual zamindars.

Zamindars, specially the principal ones, were required to furnish military assistance to the faujdars or military governors stationed at the faujdari circles with a limited number of troops and drought animals in the event of serious rebellions or external invasions. Since the Mughals did not maintain a large standing army, they had to depend heavily on the indirect recruits of soldiers drafted from the territorial chiefs, clan or caste leaders. Some zamindars were even enrolled personally into the imperial service as mansabdars (nobles, holding military titles or ranks) and were remunerated in grants of jagirs, proportionate to their status. Moreover, torrential monsoon rain in the flat and riverine Bengal rendered the cavalry and artillery almost useless except in the dry season. In such a situation, to fight against the rebellious chiefs, the Magh and Feringi pirates who had been intermittently raiding the southern and eastern frontiers of Bengal, the Mughals had to depend greatly on the military assistance of the zamindars who were obliged to provide the troops with victuals and other daily necessaries and to cut off supplies to the enemies of the government. The great territorial zamindars were empowered to keep armed establishments and construct forts with a view to defending their territories, protecting agriculture, trade and commerce, ensuring the safe despatch of the revenues and keeping the raiyats under control. But the erosion of the imperial authority and the subsequent unsettled condition of the subah considerably weakened the nawab's hold on the landed gentry, who changed their loyalties as the tide of conflicts between the nawab and the Marathas or the nawab and the English east india company flowed and ebbed.

Zamindars developed a system of zamindari management of their own through their privileged hereditary position and built up their courts and a style of private life vying with each other in pomp and grandeur. The landed aristocracy of the pre-British period included few absentee zamindars. Those who retained their official position as qanungos or chowdhuris were zamindars of the same locality. Consequently, the social life and public activities of the landed class were usually confined within the bound of their 'little kingdoms'. Their luxurious lifestyle boosted local crafts and small-scale industries like fine quality cotton textiles, exquisite silks, jewellery, decorative swords and weapons. Again, the extravagance of the prime zamindars in socio-religious festivities helped in no less degree the circulation of wealth in the society. Their darbars (courts) were modelled after the nawabs', and the Mughal dress, food, art and architecture were emulated which paved the way for a synthesis between the Turko-Persian and the indigenous cultures.

Zamindars under the Mughals were, in fact, more the public functionaries than revenue collecting agents. Although zamindaris were allowed to be held hereditarily, the holders were not considered to be the proprietors of their estates. The zamindari estates, which were never divisible between the successor of the incumbents or transferable to others, were then not inherited but obtained by a successor of the deceased incumbent with a fresh sanad from the government. The sarkar or government had always reserved the right to cancel or forfeit such sanads any time. A sanad was a charter of inviolable rights and responsibilities on the part of the zamindar. A zamindar continued his status through good conduct, not through any right. A failure of revenue payment punctually did not lead automatically to foreclosure of the zamindari right to the state unless it was deliberately done contumaciously or through any conspiratorial motive. A zamindar could seek relief from the government when raiyats failed to pay revenue due to natural disasters or any other factor beyond their control.

Despite the cooperation and services rendered by the zamindar class to the causes of the Mughal government, the inherent clash of interest between the two remained unresolved. The erosion of the imperial authority following the death of aurangzeb (1707), the succession wars for the vice regal throne, the wrangling of parties at the nawab's court coupled with the entry of the East India Company in the political arena of Bengal, increased the dependence of the nawabs on zamindars. The big zamindars, in league with the emerging banking class and the Company entered the mainstream of politics, aligning themselves with the contenders for the nawabi. Thus, the role of zamindars impacted profoundly on political and financial turmoil. With the government inaction buttressed by the inefficiency and corruption of the officers, the powers of zamindars continued to grow unabated till the transfer of the diwani (revenue authority) to the East India Company in 1765.

The zamindari institution of the Mughal times had undergone revolutionary changes under the colonial regime when zamindars lost many old rights and privileges and gained many new, and when the modified institution was exposed to constant metamorphosis until its formal dissolution in 1951.

The acquisition of the diwani of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa by the East India Company was the first step towards the new status of zamindars. But until 1772, when zamindars were replaced by revenue farmers, the institution did not suffer much structural changes. Naib Diwan Syed Mohammad reza khan, who managed diwani administration on behalf of the Company, was a strong believer in the Mughal Revenue System, and hence during his administration zamindars could somehow sustain their status, though the period was already marked by erosion of zamindari powers. Without a formal declaration, zamindars were shorn of their traditional powers and privileges and reduced to mere revenue collectors.

Warren hastings, first Governor (1772-1774) and then Governor General in Council of the fort william in Bengal (1774-1785) assumed the Diwani administration into his own hands at the instruction of the court of directors, and sent Reza Khan, the naib diwan, behind bar. In the land control system, Hastings took a revolutionary measure by departing from the centuries-old revenue administration and replacing the established zamindars and talukdars by the highest bidding ijaradars or revenue farmers. For traditional zamindars, the measure was stunning indeed, and yet they did not resort to widespread rejection of the system because their wrath was much moderated ostensibly by holding out to them an unearned income of ten percent of the actual collection of revenue as malikana or so-called proprietary allowance. Hence, financially they were not losers at all, rather gainers, as they would receive more or less the same income without bearing the cost of revenue collection and without undergoing the drudgeries of rent collection.

But the farming system, known as Quinquennial Settlement, did not yield the desired effect. The revenue farmers, who mostly came from trade and commerce, had no previous experience about land management. In their desperate attempts in collecting rent for paying government revenue and also for making a profit out of their investment in the farming speculation, the farmers in general resorted to rack-renting. Many of them were compelled to do so to save themselves from ruin, because their speculation had no relation with the actual resources of the land. The raiyats, being rack-rented and oppressed, resorted to desertions and disturbances. The revenue collection showed downturn and uncertainty. The general economic conditions of the country were declining fast.

In view of the ruinous effect of the farming system, the court of directors suggested to the Calcutta government to revert to the old zamindari system for revenue collection at the end of the Quinquennial Settlement. In 1777, the term of the farming system expired and according to the direction of the court, revenue settlements were made with zamindars for a term ranging from one to three years. In 1778-79, revenue settlements were made with zamindars again on short-term basis. But the process of decadence of zamindars and talukdars as a class, that started silently from the time of the acquisition of the diwani in 1765 and got heightened in the late 1770s, turned the landholders into an impoverished and ignorant class. They proved to be unable to respond to the new circumstances and adjust with them. It was found that zamindars got used to living with unearned income of the farming period and when they got the land settlements in their own names, they were found to have resorted to the same ijara system. All large zamindars had divided their estates into numerous blocs and leased them to ijaradars. The change of 1778 did not, therefore, improve the situation. The declining trend of the economy could not be arrested and the revenue collection could not be made certain.

Under pitt’s india act of 1784 the Calcutta government enacted many rules and regulations with the object of reorganising the colonial state on a permanent basis. Attempts were made to make settlement of land with zamindars and frame durable rules and regulations to govern the state efficiently and to the benefit of both the rulers and of the ruled. lord cornwallis was sent as governor general with the positive instructions to make the new kingdom strong and stable economically and politically. Under the Act and under the instructions of the court of directors, Cornwallis was obliged to abandon the path of ruinous experiments and make permanent settlement with zamindars, talukdars and other landholders of the country.

Cornwallis concluded the permanent settlement with zamindars in March 1793. The status of zamindars and their roles came to be very different under the Permanent Settlement. The landholders of all categories were declared proprietors of land. As proprietors, zamindars were to pay government revenue without any alteration for all time to come. The zamindari property, like any other property, could be freely transferred or mortgaged without the necessity of taking any sanction from the authorities. The zamindari right was also inheritable among the successors of zamindars according to Hindu and Muslim laws of succession. Zamindars got these proprietary rights entirely gratis. In return for these rights and privileges, zamindars were required to pay revenue to government absolutely punctually according to the contract, otherwise, their lands were made liable to be sold in public auction. Zamindars were formally stripped of all state powers and privileges they had been enjoying traditionally as local potentates. Traditional zamindari adalat (court) was banned. The zamindari right to sayer collection was abolished and all sayer mahals (hats, bazaars, ganjes, octrois, fisheries) were resumed and brought under direct rule of the district collector. In the eyes of law, zamindars and raiyats were made equal.

Predictably, zamindars responded to the permanent settlement very sharply. They accepted the settlement because there was no alternative before them. They were asked either to accept the settlement or to surrender the right in lieu of an annuity. Zamindars, by and large, tried to swallow the pill of the permanent settlement, because they saw with horror that those who resisted the new system were ruthlessly suppressed.

To zamindars, the most invidious aspect of the permanent settlement was the revenue sale law, which they called euphemistically the Sunset Law. The law provided that the public revenue was to be paid at the district collectorate in twelve kists (installments). If the payment of any installment fell in arrears, the district collector would realise it in the following month by selling the equivalent amount of land of the defaulter. Since the very beginning of the operation of the permanent settlement hundreds of zamindari estates were sold under the operation of the Sunset Law, which in effect led to the eclipse of a ruling family.

The rise of a new zamindar class at the expense of the older ones was in-built in the very mechanism of the Permanent Settlement. The authors of the system were conscious that the regulations of the Permanent Settlement, when set to operation, would create a competitive land market, which would operate in eliminating the weak and incapable zamindars from land control and infuse new blood into land ownership. It was anticipated that new men of capital and enterprise, who would enter land control through the operation of the Permanent Settlement, would be catalysts for changes in the agrarian landscape.

But unfortunately, in estate management, the new zamindars most of whom came from zamindari service, government jobs and trade and commerce were not fundamentally different from the old zamindars. While the traditional zamindars tended to show indolence and lack of motivation, the newcomers in land control were found to have been more eager in enhancing their income by increasing rent without making any capital investment in agricultural improvement.

The relation between zamindars and raiyats deteriorated progressively in the early part of the 19th century. The conflict between the two classes mainly originated from zamindari attempts of enhancing the established rent rate. The pressure of the permanent settlement, decline in zamindari income through rise in prices and many other factors including litigation, family feuds and fragmentation of the parent estates among successors, persuaded zamindars to enhance rent of raiyats. But raiyats were steadfastly resisting such attempts on the ground that zamindars had no right to change the pargana nirikh or established rate of rent. But zamindars refused to accept such demand and argued that as absolute proprietors of land they had the right to revise the rate of rent according to the fluctuation of prices and value of land. The consequence was growing peasant unrest and occasional uprisings in different parts of the country. The unrest led to the great anti-zamindari peasant uprisings in the 1870s including the Tushkhali Movement (1872-75), Pabna Uprising (1873), and Chhagalnaiya (Noakhali) and Munshiganj Uprising (1880-81).

All these peasant movements only indicated that there was considerable awareness among peasants of their rights in land. They very strongly asserted these rights which zamindars refused to accept and about which courts were giving contradictory verdicts. The customary rights of peasants were vaguely recognised in the cornwallis code but these were never expressly defined. The widespread peasant discontents in the country led the colonial government to study the whole situation and take necessary measures to establish peace in the countryside. Another problem was the creation of hierarchic intermediate classes in land control. Most zamindars, particularly of the eastern Bengal districts, had created permanent intermediate tenures called madhyasvatvas (intermediate tenure), which had far removed zamindars from their raiyats. In-between zamindars and raiyats there were several degrees of interests one upon another all of whom drew their rental income from the same plot of land and from the same raiyat. Overburdened raiyats responded to such situation by desertion or organised resistance.

A Rent Commission was established in 1880 to study the agrarian situation and report to the government suggesting remedies. Based on its report (1883) the Bengal Legislative Council enacted the bengal tenancy act 1885. The Act tried to define the rights and liabilities of all interests in land including various categories of raiyats, madhyasvatvas and landholders. Under this Act the powers of the superior landed interests to make arbitrary enhancement of rent were severely curtailed. This Act recognised the right of superior raiyats to transfer their holdings subject to payment of a namzari selami (registration dues) to the proprietor. The Act also recognised the rights of all intermediate interests. Zamindars lost the right to enhance rent without showing reasons. Under this Act they could raise rent only when they could prove that they invested capital in land development or that the prices had gone up. All these restrictions meant the serious curtailment of zamindari power. The legal recognition of special tenurial position of rich peasants and tenure-holders was a positive negation of the status accorded to zamindars under the regulations of the permanent settlement.

The twentieth century developments like Indian nationalism, politics of agitation, Muslim separate electorate and separatist politics, penetration of communist ideas, and the like had seriously undermined the social authority of the zamindar class which was politically moderate and loyal to British raj. Peasant politics was entirely against zamindari system. As most zamindars were Hindus, the Muslim peasantry, who formed the majority of the population in the countryside, was vehemently against zamindars. The zamindar-tenant relations so changed that all the leading political parties participating in the general elections of 1937 had made commitments that the zamindari system would be abolished if they were voted to power. Accordingly, the muslim league-krishak praja party coalition government constituted a commission to report as to the zamindari system. The commission, floud commission as it was called, recommended for the abolition of the Permanent Settlement. But the post-war situation, communal strife and politics of partition obliged the government not to implement the recommendation of the commission. The zamindari system was finally abolished in Bangladesh under the east bengal state acquisition and tenancy act of 1950. [Sirajul Islam and Shirin Akhter]

Biblography Shirin Akhtar, The Role of the Zamindars in Bengal 1707-1772, Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 1982; Sirajul Islam, The Permanent Settlement in Bengal: A Study of its Operation 1790-1819, Bangla Academy 1979; Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement, Orient Longman 1981, first published 1963; FD Ascoli, Early Revenue History of Bengal and the Fifth Report, 1812, Oxford 1917.