Page images
PDF
EPUB

by a new view of the relation of the State to the people and to the land.

It is a question of purely academic interest whether, by old Hindu law or ancient custom of the country, the King, Emperor, or State was regarded (in any practical sense) as the owner of all land. As a matter of fact, when once the rule was assumed and acted on that the Sovereign could fix (and increase at pleasure) the proportion of produce, or the substituted money-rate, which he took, and when the amount actually levied became so considerable that it equalled (or nearly approached to) the full rental value of the land held, it followed that the cultivators or direct possessors of land became, ipso facto, the mere tenants or raiyats" of the State. And all the later Governments (Moslem, Sikh, and Mahratha) which directly preceded our own, claimed to be, or acted as, the virtual owners of all land.

66

Without going into any detail as to the history of British land-policy in India, it may be shortly stated that the British Government, having necessarily succeeded to all the rights enjoyed by the preceding Government, found itself confronted with the de facto rule that the State was the owner of all cultivated land.* And the administrators of our first acquired province, Bengal, were led to regard this as objectionable in principle. Lord Cornwallis went so far as to describe it as "ruinous." Accordingly, in Bengal, and afterwards in all Hindustan or Upper India, the assessment of the revenue was (in one way or another) so regulated by the proceeding known as known as a Revenue Settlement--that the State no longer took the whole rental, but left a valuable margin which, in fact, enabled a private proprietary right to exist. At the same time that right was recognised as residing in those persons with whom the settlement was made. In short, private property in land was either formally or inferentially recognised both in

* This limitation is adopted because the State still retains its right to waste and unoccupied land not included in any private holding or estate. It is on the basis of this unquestionable right that our "Rules for the Lease of Waste Lands," as well as our Forest Laws, are established.

Bengal and Northern India. In Bengal (as afterwards in Oudh) it is well known that circumstances had left certain native chiefs, large revenue farmers, or land officers of the Mughal régime, in such a position as to induce their recognition as landlords over (often considerable) estates, embracing a number of "villages"-by which term we indicate the primary groups of land-holdings in which cultivation was very generally, in the first instance, established.

[ocr errors]

But in all

In the North-West Provinces and the Panjâb, when the settlements came to be made (many years after the Permanent Settlement of Bengal), circumstances were different there the "villages" were mostly found to be in possession of joint bodies,.sometimes consisting of the descendants (widely extended families) of an original founder, grantee, or a later revenue-contractor; sometimes consisting of the members of a clan, or of some expanding family group, or even of voluntary associates. cases such groups were endowed with a power of cohesion; they were willing to be regarded as jointly responsible and as (in whatever exact sense) collective owners of the village area. Here, too, without issuing any formal title-deeds or legislative declaration of ownership, the village bodies were recorded proprietors, and entitled to share among themselves (according to their own constitution and custom) the valuable property which had a real existence now that the revenue demand was properly limited and fixed for a long term of years.

But in the extensive territories included in the "Presidencies" of Madras and Bombay, speaking generally, the villages were of quite a different constitution from those in the North, and under the circumstances the Government found it advisable to retain the title of supreme owner of the soil; it accordingly recognised the actual possessors or 'raiyats" as persons entitled to a permanent, hereditary, and alienable right of occupancy* of "Government lands.”

* One reason for this was the desire to leave the "occupant" free to relinquish his holding (on due notice given) if he did not feel able to THIRD SERIES. VOL. IX.

C

་་

But the "

[ocr errors]

occupants were so assessed that they had all

the practical benefits of peasant ownership.

Thus, in all the chief provinces, the Government in effect, and sometimes in form, divested itself of the ownership of land. But whether a legal ownership or a permanent occupancy right was conferred on private persons, in either case it was (at the time) considered necessary (whatever other limitations might restrict the title) to leave the owner or holder free to alienate, permanently or for a term, his land or interest in land. Free, that is to say, except so far as any existing native custom, family law, etc., did not already restrain his acts. I may beg attention to this exception; something more will have to be said of it presently.

It is worth while to notice that all the time this policy of recognising private ownership (or something practically equivalent thereto) was being worked out and applied, it never occurred to any of the authorities as within the sphere of practical policy to ask, whether the old de facto ownership of the State should not rather be diverted to a useful purpose than (practically) abandoned altogether? Might it not be retained legally and in form, for certain beneficial ends, while the working profits and real benefits of a (fairly assessed) holding were left to the several classes -superior landlord, joint village body, or individual raiyat -concerned?

If the settlement of a land policy had to be considered all over again in our own days, it would probably occur to many to consider carefully, and to some to advocate warmly, a rule that the older State right should be retained as a nuda proprietas or formal ownership; the important, if only, effect of which would be that while private persons derived all the benefits of possession and enjoyment, they could not alienate the land itself. And it might further have been made conditional in the case of a

discharge the revenue obligation. In these countries, exceptionally, there are landlords and holders of "inām," or revenue-free lands, who are

owners.

(raiyatwāri or) occupancy tenure, that the right of occupancy itself should not be sold, or mortgaged beyond a term of years. Nothing of the kind, however, was contemplated during the long years in which the landsettlements of Bengal, the North-West Provinces, Madras, or Bombay, were being elaborated. Not only then was there once an unquestionable opportunity for restricting the alienation of land-and at that time people were quite accustomed to the idea*-but the opportunity was deliberately, and of set policy, let go.

It is well, however, to note that some restrictions on alienation have in special cases long been in force. I need not take account of the early prohibition in Bengal against leases for more than ten years, for that was purely in the interest of the revenue, and was soon withdrawn. But from the first, the permanently setted Zamindāris (1801-2) of Madras were granted on the express condition of nonalienation, and of the succession going on by primogeniture. This, of course, was in the interest of the great estates, and to prevent their being broken up into a number of peasant holdings. In Oudh also, some sixty-five years later, the landlords were encouraged to accept primogeniture; and alienation, though not prohibited, was fenced round with various precautions (Act I. of 1869). Alienation is also restricted by law, in the case of the North Bombay Talukdārs, or landlords.

Nothing, however, has been hitherto attempted as regards the great and interesting class of (proprietary) village communities in the North-West Provinces, parts of Oudh, and the Panjâb, or as regards the (non-proprietary) village aggregates of severalty holders throughout Madras and

* Under later native government, sale of peasant holdings was generally restricted, chiefly, however, because the conditions of assessment did not leave any saleable value to a holding. In other cases restriction was imposed in order that the Rājā or Governor might levy a round fee for permission to sell. But in general, I think, the upper classes, holding on any privileged or superior tenure, were alone able to sell, and did so, but not very commonly.

[ocr errors]

Bombay. The consequence is obvious: the land-holder soon found out that he could borrow as much as he pleased to the extent of his (new-found) credit. He was not slow to exercise his privilege, and that, naturally, on the security (direct or indirect) of his land, or his occupancy right, as the case might be. Now, although it is true that the villager's almost sole taxation burden, the land-revenue, is regulated strictly by the average yield or average paying power, taking good and bad years together, still, the cultivator does not (as once remarked by Sir A. Colvin) live by "averages." He spends in a good year, and lays up nothing. In a bad year (and, indeed, very commonly in other years) he has to take an advance of cash from the money-lender to meet the inexorable demand for his revenue instalment, to say nothing of his occasional abnormal expenditure on weddings and other family ceremonials, when feasting and giving presents is the equally inexorable demand of social custom.

As time went on, notwithstanding the general moderation of assessments,* village holdings, at least in certain localities, became heavily encumbered. This occurred equally under all systems-the " raiyatwari" of Bombay or the village system " of North-Western India. Acts have been passed for the relief of ryots in the Dakhan and elsewhere; they have rarely had any pronounced or complete success.† Agricultural savings banks, had they been earlier invented and really widely encouraged, might possibly have played a great part in the progress of peasant society; that I must not attempt to discuss. But, as a matter of fact, indebtedness has locally increased, and with it, as a natural consequence, the deprivation of owners or occupants of peasant holdings. In other words, the loss of their independent livelihood by the agricultural classes,

* This general description is quite justifiable, in spite of local cases of drawback or of mistakenly high assessment.

† See my "Origin, etc., of Village Communities in India," p. 146, et seq. (Swan Sonnenschein, 1899)-a little book designed to give a short and more popular account of villages and their economy.

« PreviousContinue »