Revenue Sale Law, 1793

Revenue Sale Law, 1793 was enacted as an integral part of the body of laws relating to the permanent settlement. The Regulation 14 of 1793 provided that revenue arrears of zamindars would be recovered by causing the land of the defaulters to be sold in public auction. Under the permanent settlement, land was made the private property of zamindars. Under the Mughal constitution, land was owned by the state and the zamindars were merely state appointed agents for the collection of rent from raiyats who enjoyed customary rights in land. The relation between zamindars as rent collecting agents and raiyats as hereditary possessors of land was substituted by a new relation, under which zamindars got the absolute proprietary rights on land. The raiyats were turned into their tenants-at-will. In addition to this great privilege, zamindars, as proprietors, got another unique privilege in the form of a fixed tribute payable to government. The government was permanently barred under law to increase the revenue demand on zamindars as fixed at the time of the permanent settlement.

Against these two extraordinary privileges - free gift of proprietary right on land and perpetually fixed government revenue demand, the colonial government made the stringent law that the zamindars could never claim any remission of revenue on account of any natural calamity like flood, drought, and epidemic and that the government would invariably realise revenue arrears by disposing of the zamindari land in public auction. In a monsoon based agrarian economy like that of Bengal, such a law was sure to create havoc among the landholders because, loss of crops and often livestock were sure to happen at times of floods and droughts which paralyse the economy periodically.

In spite of protests from zamindars, the Revenue Sale Law was put to operation in 1793. Within seven years, nearly half of the landed property of zamindars changed hands. The large territorial zamindars were particularly affected by the law. Within a decade of the operation of the law, the great zamindaris of Rajshahi, Nadia, Bishnapur, Dinajpur, Rajnagar, Lashkarpur and largely Burdwan were dismembered and their lands were transferred to new hands. The medium and smaller zamindars were under constant threat of the axe of the law falling on their heads any month during the year. As it was the system in those days to pay rent in twelve kisti or instalments, zamindari land was liable to be sold in auction at the end of every month if any of the kisti got in default. The rule of selling a defaulter's land at the appointed time was applied so invariably and mercilessly that the sale was as inevitable and as certain as the sun-set, and hence people euphemistically called it sun-set law. Landholders suffered from the dreadful fear that their lands must be sold at the appointed day before the sun was set.

The crisis in land control and land market immediately after the permanent settlement unsettled the whole landed society. The dispossessed zamindars often resisted the sale proceedings and obstructed the purchasers to take possession of their lands. The law courts were flooded with litigation from both sides. The social discontent and disgust and the increasingly deteriorating conditions of law and order and most importantly, the consequent uncertainty of the collection of government revenue led the government to amend the law in 1799. Under the Regulation 7 of 1799, the system of selling defaulter's land at the end of the month was rescinded and the new system of auction sales at the end of the year introduced.

The amendment contributed significantly to the stabilisation of the land market and landed society. With the growth of population and rise in prices, the zamindari income from rental sources increased phenomenally from the mid-nineteenth century. But the government revenue demand on zamindars remained unchanged according to the rule of the permanent settlement. Therefore, the application of the sale law for revenue default became a rare phenomenon in the late nineteenth century and after. But the epithet 'sun-set law' continued to haunt the zamindars until the end of the zamindari system in 1950, mainly because of the social content of the auction sale. The landholders were socially influential and respectable people. Obviously, an auction sale of their land and transfer of their right to others was interpreted as a loss of prestige and dignity of the family. [Sirajul Islam]

See also sunset law.