The British conquered Bengal first and then they reordered its rural society and established a regime of land rights and revenue system. The first revenue collection system was introduced in Bengal and Bihar. It was known as the Permanent settlement by Lord Cornwallis.
As per this system, the zamindars and taluqdars were recognized as estate owners and were given revenue collection responsibility. They had to collect land revenue from farmers, pass on the share fixed by the British to them and keep the rest. Since the revenue rate was permanent they were kept high. It was argued that as they couldn’t be increased the subsequent loss to the British had to be overcome initially. The British felt this system would benefit the British, Zamindars who would invest in the land to improve its productivity as it would increase their share and farmers too. But the system was a big failure.
However, the system failed and a large number of zamindars defaulted. Reasons: The system limited their power of collecting revenue by force, they agriculture prices were stagnating during that period.
The Jotedars were rich farmers who cultivated land directly and became more powerful under this system. They resisted payment of rent to zamindars as they were happy to see them in trouble. The Jotedars also bought most of the land auctioned off a defaulting zamindar. Jotedars soon possessed a thousand of acres of land and became powerful in the rural society. The zamindars couldn’t get relief from the judicial process too as it was overburdened. So their influence decreased.
However, zamindars devised newer ways to cheat the system. They collected rent but never passed on the share to the British. Thus when the British auctioned the property the zzamindars would use his agents to purchase it back but not pay the purchase money. The property would then be reauctioned. This process would continue till finally the same property would be returned to the zamindar.
The rural society viewed zamindar as the lord and themselves as his Praja and hence rejected the authority of new zamindars if they came. Thus zamindars remained in power for a long time but collapsed finally in 1930 due to the Great Depression and Jotedars became powerful.
Shifting Cultivators: Pahadias and Settled Cultivators: Santhals
Pahadias were forest dwellers of Rajmahal hills. They were hunters, gatherers, and shifting cultivators. Their social structure consisted of tribal chiefs and tribes which would live as a community and go to war with other tribes. Settled cultivators were outsiders and would be raided if scarcity was faced. Hence the settled cultivators or traders would pay tributes to the tribal chiefs to buy peace or to use travel routes controlled by them.
The British viewed shifting cultivators are dangerous and wanted them to settle as it would ensure control and a source of revenue. They offered stipends to tribal chiefs to control their tribes and settle down but if the tribal chiefs refused this they would follow a policy of extermination. The Pahadias were therefore forced to move to inner parts of the jungle to escape this persecution.
Soon another threat appeared to them in the Rajmahal jungles: Settled cultivators called Santhals.
Santhals too were moving cultivators but were provided the foothills of Rajmahal for settling down. They occupied and cleared the forest for settled cultivation. The Pahadias were forced now to move to deeper areas that were drier and infertile. Their shifting cultivation also failed as newer areas couldn’t be accessed as these were occupied by Santhals. Meanwhile, Santhals prospered and brought high revenues to the British. Soon they realized that the land revenues were high and the trader-moneylenders were making them impoverished by usurping their land. Finally, in the 1850s, they rebelled against the colonial state and its agents.
Bombay Province and the Ryotwari Settlement
Due to the defects of the Permanent Settlement System of Bengal, the British felt the need for a better system of revenue and so Thomas Munro proposed the Ryotwari Settlement which was operated in Madras, Bombay, and Assam. Under this land was reassessed every 30 years and revenue was revised.
However, the revenue demand was very high and rigid. The tax officials collected with the utmost severity and forced the peasants to escape from his village. The peasants were forced to borrow from moneylenders at high rates to pay the revenue. This made them indebted and they lost their possessions.
Things turned better during the American Civil War as cotton supply to the British was cut off and India became a sole source. Thus prices of cotton boomed. The moneylender lent long-term loans to ryots for cotton production. But as the Civil war ended the loans had to be repaid but the prices of cotton had fallen. In such cases, the peasant had no choice but to revolt. His anger was focused on the moneylenders and traders who cheated him and usurped his land. He, therefore, rioted till his immediate problems were solved.
The British supported the rioting peasants and appointed a relief commission and took steps to alleviate their plight. The reasons for British sympathy were that farmers revolted against moneylenders not them and these revolts ad occurred in the aftermath of the 1857 revolt.
A Leader is Born
Gandhiji was invited in 1915 to talk at the inauguration of Benaras Hindu University. At that event many dignitaries, guests, and prominent leaders like Jinnah, and Beasant were present. Gandhiji was a relatively unknown figure amongst them but when it was his turn to speak he charged the audience. He spoke about how the Indian National Congress was a league of influential people and the National Movement was a movement of the elite without the participation of the poor. He said that independence can be achieved only if the poor were brought into this movement. He got a chance to put his principles into practice when a member of the audience asked him for assistance in Champaran village.
Limits to the Civil Disobedience
The civil disobedience movement was called in 1930 after the British refused to accept congress’s demands. Gandhiji launched the movement with the Salt Satyagraha. Till the Gandhi Irwin pact was signed the first phase of Civil Disobedience continued. This was the most organized mass movement of the Freedom struggle but it wasn’t embraced by all social groups.
- Dalit leaders believed that the answer to emancipation was through political solutions. The Dalit leaders, therefore, wanted separate electorates and reservations in education and politics. To petition for this they needed the support of the British and so didn’t ask the community members to join the Civil Disobedience.
- Muslims too didn’t participate in the movement as they felt disillusioned with radical calls by Hindu Mahasabha and their own community leaders. They felt that they would lose their identity in a Hindu-dominated country. Since Congress failed to quell these thoughts, the Muslims couldn’t unite when the movement was announced.
- Industrial workers too didn’t participate in large numbers except in Nagpur. But this was due to the proximity of congress to industrialists.
- Big Zamindars participated but they were motivated by their own demands of reducing the government’s revenue demand on them. Falling prices and poor productivity had made it impossible to pay the governments.
- Poor peasants participated due to the call of radical socialists and communists. They wanted a No Rent campaign against the landlords but congress didn’t want to displease the landlords and so didn’t support them fully.
Decentralization under the British
Mayo’s Resolution of 1870
- Financial decentralization was a legislative devolution inaugurated by the Indian Councils Act of 1861. Apart from the annual grant from the imperial Government, the provincial governments were authorized to resort to local taxation to balance their budgets.
- This was done in the context of the transfer of certain departments of administration, such as medical services, education, and roads, to the control of provincial governments. This was the beginning of local finance.
- The various provincial governments such as Bengal, Madras, NorthWestern Province, and Punjab, passed municipal acts to implement the policy outlined.
Royal Commission on Decentralisation (1908)
- Pointing out the lack of financial resources as the great stumbling block in the effective functioning of local bodies, the commission made the following recommendations.
- It emphasized that village panchayats should be entrusted with more powers like judicial jurisdiction in petty cases, incurring expenditure on minor village works, village schools, small fuel and fodder reserves, etc. The panchayats should be given adequate sources of income.
- It emphasized the importance of sub-district boards to be established in every taluka or tehsil, with separate spheres of duties and separate sources of revenue for sub-district boards and the district boards.
- It urged the withdrawal of existing restrictions on their powers of taxation, and also, the stoppage of regular grants-in-aid from provincial governments except for undertaking large projects.
- The municipalities might undertake the responsibility for primary education and, if willing, for middle vernacular schools, otherwise, the Government should relieve them of any charges in regard to secondary education, hospitals, relief, police, veterinary works, etc.