Peasants, Zamindars and the State
Sources to understand agrarian society under Mughal period
1. Our major source forthe agrarian history of the sixteenth and earlyseventeenth centuries are chronicles and documentsfrom the Mughal court.
2. One of the most important chronicles was theAin-i Akbari authored by Akbar’s court historian Abu’lFazl. Thistext meticulously recorded the arrangements madeby the state to ensure cultivation, to enable thecollection of revenue by the agencies of the stateand to regulate the relationship between the stateand rural magnates, the zamindars.
3. The detailed revenue records fromGujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan dating fromthe 17th and 18thcenturies.
4. Further,the extensive records of the East India Company provide us with useful descriptionsof agrarian relations in eastern India.
5. All thesesources record instances of conflicts between peasants, zamindars and the state. In the processthey give us an insight into peasants’ perception ofand their expectations of fairness from the state.
Different terms used for describing peasants
1. The term which Indo-Persian sources of the Mughalperiod most frequently used to denote a peasant was raiyat or muzarian.
2. In addition, wealso encounter the terms kisan or asami.
3. Sources ofthe seventeenth century refer to two kinds of peasants – khud-kashta and pahi-kashta.
4. The khud-kashta were residents of the village in which they held theirlands.
5. The pahi-kashta were non-resident cultivators who belonged to some other village, but cultivated landselsewhere on a contractual basis.
6. People became pahi-kashta either out of choice or out of compulsion.Whenterms of revenue in a distant village were more favourable peasants moved to other villages.
7. Sometimes they were forced by economic distress after a famine.
Property and land of peasants
1. Average peasant of north Indiapossessed a pair of bulls and one plough and others possessed two pairs of bulls and two ploughs.; most possessed even less.
2. In Gujaratpeasants possessing about six acres of land wereconsidered to be affluent; in Bengal, five acres was the upper limit of an averagepeasant farm
Irrigation used by peasants
1. The three factors thataccounted for the constant expansion of agriculture were the abundance of land, available labour and the mobility of peasants.
2. Since the primary purpose of agriculture is to feedpeople, basic staples such as rice, wheat or milletswere the most frequently cultivated crops.
3. Monsoons remained the backbone of Indianagriculture, as they are even today. But there werecrops which required additional water. Artificialsystems of irrigation had to be devised for this.
4. In northern India the state undertookdigging of new canals and also repairedold ones like the shahnahr in the Punjab during Shah Jahan’s reign.
Technology used by peasants
1. Though agriculture was labour intensive, peasants did use technologies that often harnessed cattleenergy.
2. One example was the wooden plough, whichwas light and easily assembled with an iron tip orcoulter.
3. A drill, pulled by a pair of giant oxen,was used to plant seeds, but broadcasting ofseed was the most prevalent method.
4. Hoeing andweeding were done simultaneously using a narrowiron blade with a small wooden handle.
Crops and cropping seasons
1. Agriculture was organised around two major seasonal cycles, the kharif and the rabi. This would mean that most regionsproduced a minimum of two crops ayear whereas some, where rainfall orirrigation assured a continuous supply of water, evengave three crops.
2. In the Mughal provinces of Agra produced 39 varietiesof crops and Delhi produced 43 over the two seasons.Bengal produced 50 varieties of rice alone.
3. However, the focus on the cultivation was basicstaples such as rice, wheat, pulses and vegetables etc. The Mughal state also encouraged peasantsto cultivate cash crops such as cotton,oilseeds and sugarcane which brought morerevenue.
4. During the seventeenth century several new cropsfrom different parts of the world reached the Indiansubcontinent. Maize (makka), for example, was introduced into India via Africa and Spain and bythe seventeenth century it was being listed as oneof the major crops of western India.
5. Vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies were introduced from the New World at this time, as were fruits like thepineapple and the papaya.
Agriculturalproduction involved the intensive participation and initiative of the peasantry. How did this affect the structure of agrarian relations in Mughal society?
1. Caste and the rural milieu
a. Despite the abundance ofcultivable land, certain castegroups were assigned menialtasks and thus relegated topoverty. Such groupscomprised a large section ofthe village population, hadthe least resources and wereconstrained by their positionin the caste hierarchy, muchlike the Dalits of modern India.
b. In Muslim communities menials like the halalkhoran,those who cut meat were housed outside theboundaries of the village; similarly the mallahzadas, boatmen in Bihar were comparableto slaves.
c. There was a direct correlation between caste,poverty and social status at the lower strata ofsociety. In Marwar, Rajputs are mentioned as peasants,sharing the same space with Jats, who were accordeda lower status in the caste hierarchy.
d. The Gauravas, who cultivated land in UttarPradesh sought Rajput status in the seventeenthcentury. Castes such as the Ahirs, Gujars and Malisrose in the hierarchy because of the profitability ofcattle rearing and horticulture.
e. In the easternregions, intermediate pastoral and fishing castes like the Sadgops and Kaivartas acquired the statusof peasants.
2. Powers and functions ofPanchayats and headmen
a. The village panchayat was an assembly of elders. In mixed-caste villages,the panchayat was usually a heterogeneous body. The panchayat represented various castes and communities in the village so it is calledan oligarchy.
b. The panchayat was headed by a headman known as muqaddam or mandal. Some sources suggest thatthe headman was chosen through the consensus ofthe village elders, and that this choice had to beratified by the zamindar. Headmen held office as longas they enjoyed the confidence of the village elders.
c. Thechief function of the headman was to supervise thepreparation of village accounts, assisted by theaccountant or patwariof the panchayat.
d. The panchayat derived its funds fromcontributions made by individuals to a commonfinancial pool. These funds were used for defrayingthe costs of entertaining revenue officials, expenses forcommunity welfare activities such as tiding overnatural calamities and digging a canal whichpeasants usually could notafford to do on their own.
e. One important function ofthe panchayat was to ensure that caste boundaries amongthe various communitiesinhabiting the village wereupheld. In eastern India allmarriages were held in the presence of the mandal.
f. Panchayats also had the authority to levy finesand inflict more serious forms of punishment likeexpulsion from the community. It meant that a person forced to leavethe village became an outcaste and lost his right to practise his profession.
g. In western India people of lower castes presented petitions to the panchayat complaining about extortionate taxation or the demand for unpaid labour (begar) imposed by the “superior” castes orofficials of the state.
h. In the eyesof the petitioners the right to the basic minimum forsurvival was sanctioned by custom. They regardedthe village panchayat as the court of appeal thatwould ensure that the state carried out its moralobligations and guaranteed justice.
i. The decision of the panchayat in conflicts between “lower –caste ”peasants and state officials or the local zamindar could vary from case to case. In cases of excessive revenue demands, the panchayat often suggested compromise.
j. In cases where reconciliation failed, peasants took recourse to more drastic forms of resistance, such as deserting the village.
a. In addition to the village panchayat each sub-caste or jati in the village had its own jati panchayat.
b. These panchayats wielded considerable powerin rural society.
c. In Rajasthan jati panchayats arbitrated civil disputes between members ofdifferent castes.
d. They mediated in contested claimson land, decided whether marriages were performedaccording to the norms laid down by a particularcaste group and determined who had ritual precedencein village functions, and so on.
e. In most cases,except in matters of criminal justice, the staterespected the decisions of jatipanchayats.
3. Life of Village artisans
a. 25 per cent ofthe total households in the villages were artisans. The distinctionbetween artisans and peasants invillage society was a fluid one, asmany groups performed the tasks of both.
b. Cultivators and theirfamilies would also participate incraft production – such as dyeing,textile printing, baking and firingof pottery, making and repairingagricultural implements.
c. Village artisans – potters, blacksmiths, carpenters,even goldsmiths – provided specialisedservices in return for which they were compensatedby villagers by giving them a share of theharvest, or an allotment of land, perhaps cultivablewastes, which was likely to be decided by thepanchayat.
d. Zamindars inBengal who remunerated blacksmiths, carpenters,even goldsmiths for their work by paying them “asmall daily allowance and diet money”. This latercame to be described as the jajmanisystem,though the term was not in vogue in the sixteenthand seventeenth centuries.
Why were villages called “little republic”?
a. Some British officials in thenineteenth century saw the village as a “littlerepublic”. Because villages were made up of fraternal partners of sharingresources and labour in a collective. However, thiswas not a sign of rural egalitarianism.
b. There wasindividual ownership of assets and deep inequitiesbased on caste and gender distinctions. A groupof powerful individuals decided the affairs of thevillage, exploited the weaker sections and had theauthority to dispense justice.
Women in Agrarian Society under Mughal rule
1. In Mughal period women and men hadto work shoulder to shoulder in the fields. Mentilled and ploughed, while women sowed, weeded,threshed and winnowed the harvest. With the growthof nucleated villages and expansion in individuatedpeasant farming the basis of production was thelabour and resources of the entire household.
2. Biases related to women’sbiological functions did continue. Menstruatingwomen, for instance, were not allowed to touch theplough or the potter’s wheel in western India, orenter the groves where betel-leaves weregrown.
3. Artisanal tasks such as spinning yarn, sifting andkneading clay for pottery, and embroidery were amongthe many aspects of production dependent on femalelabour. In fact, peasant and artisan women worked not onlyin the fields, but even went to the houses of theiremployers or to the markets if necessary.
4. Women were considered an important resource inagrarian society also because they were child bearersin a society which dependents on labour. At the same time,high mortality rates among women – owing tomalnutrition, frequent pregnancies and death duringchildbirth – often meant a shortage of wives.
5. Shortage of women led to the emergence of new social customs in peasantand artisan communities that were distinct fromthose prevalent among elite groups. Marriages inmany rural communities required the payment ofbride-price rather than dowry to the bride’s family.Remarriage was considered legitimate both amongdivorced and widowed women.
6. The importance attached to women as areproductive force also meant that the fear of losingcontrol over them was great. According to establishedsocial norms, the household was headed by a male.Thus women were kept under strict control by themale members of the family and draconian punishments were given to suspected infidelity on the part of women.
7. Women sent petitions tothe village panchayat, seeking redress and justice.Wives protested against the infidelity of theirhusbands or the neglect of the wife and children bythe male head of the household.
8. Whilemale infidelity was not always punished, the stateand “superior” caste groups did intervene when it cameto ensuring that the family was adequately providedfor. In most cases when women petitioned to the panchayat, their names were excluded from therecord: the petitioner was referred to as the mother,sister or wife of the male head of the household.
9. Amongst the landed gentry, women had the rightto inherit property. Instances from the Punjab showthat women, including widows, actively participatedin the rural land market as sellers of property inheritedby them.
10. Hindu and Muslim women inherited zamindaris which they were free to sell or mortgage. Women zamindars were known in eighteenth-century Bengal.
Forest Society and Tribes in Mughal Period
1. An average of 40 per cent of Mughal Empire was covered by forests. Forest dwellers were termed jangli incontemporary texts. Jangli did not mean an absence of “civilisation”,rather, the termdescribed those whose livelihoodcame from the gathering of forestproduce, hunting and shiftingagriculture.
2. Collection of livelihood was largely season specific. Spring was reservedfor collecting forest produce, summerfor fishing, the monsoon monthsfor cultivation, and autumn andwinter for hunting.
3. For the state, the forest was a place of rebels and troublemakers. Babur says thatjungles provided a good defence “behind which the people of the pargana become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes”.
4. The staterequired elephants for the army. Elephants were captured from forest and sold. So the peshkash levied from forest people often included a supply of elephants.In the Mughal political ideology, the hunt symbolised the overwhelming concern of the stateto ensure justice to all its subjects, rich and poor.
5. Rulers went for regular hunting expeditions which enabled the emperor to travel across the extensiveterritories of his empire and personally attend to thegrievances of its inhabitants.
6. The spread of commercial agriculture was animportant external factor that impinged on the livesof those who lived in the forests. Forest products –like honey, beeswax and gum lac – were in greatdemand. Some, such as gum lac, became major itemsof overseas export from India in the seventeenthcentury.
7. Social factors too wrought changes in the lives offorest dwellers. Like the head men of the villages, tribes also had their chieftains. Manytribal chiefs had become zamindars, some even became kings.
8. Tribal Kings recruited people from their lineagegroups or demanded that their fraternity providemilitary service. Tribes in the Sind region had armiescomprising 6,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry.
9. In Assam, the Ahom kings had their paiks, people who were obliged to render military service in exchangefor land. The capture of wild elephants was declareda royal monopoly by the Ahom kings. Though the transition from a tribal to amonarchical system had started much earlier in India.
10. War was a commonoccurrence between tribalkingdoms in the north-east.The Koch kings foughtand subjugated a number of neighbouring tribes in a long sequence of wars through the sixteenth andseventeenth centuries.
Role of The Zamindars in rural society
1. Zamindars, who were landed proprietors who also enjoyed certainsocial and economic privileges by virtue of theirsuperior status in rural society. Caste was one factorfor their elevated status and another factor was that they performed certainservices (khidmat) for the state.
2. The zamindars held extensive personal landstermed milkiyat, meaning property. Milkiyatlandswere cultivated for the private use of zamindars,often with the help of hired labour. Thezamindars could sell or donate theselands at will.
3. Zamindars also derived their power from the state that they could often collect revenue on behalf of the state.They had control over military resources wasanother source of power. Most of the zamindars hadfortresses as well as armed contingentcomprising units of cavalry, artillery and infantry.
4. Abu’lFazl’s accountindicates thatmost of the Zamindars were from an “upper-caste”, Brahmana or Rajput. It also reflects a fairly largerepresentation of Zamindars from the so-called intermediate castes,as well as a liberal sprinkling ofMuslim zamindaris.
5. The dispossession of weaker peopleby a powerful military chieftain was quite often away of expanding a zamindari. It is, however, unlikelythat the state would have allowed such a show ofaggression by a zamindar unless he had been confirmed by an imperial order.
6. Zamindars spearheaded the colonisation ofagricultural land, and helped in settling cultivatorsby providing them with the means of cultivation,including cash loans. The buying and selling ofzamindaris accelerated the process of monetization in the countryside.
7. In addition, zamindars sold theproduce from their milkiyatlands. There is evidenceto show that zamindars often established markets to which peasants also came to sell their produce.
8. Although there can be little doubt that zamindars were an exploitative class, their relationship with thepeasantry had an element of reciprocity, paternalismand patronage.
9. Two aspects reinforce this view. First,the bhakti saints, who eloquently condemnedcaste-based and other forms of oppression. They did not portray the zamindars as exploiters or oppressors of the peasantry.
10. Second, in a large number of agrarian uprisingswhich erupted in north India in the seventeenthcentury, zamindars often received the support of thepeasantry in their struggle against the state.
Land Revenue System under Mughal Rule
1. Revenue from the land was the economic mainstayof the Mughal Empire. It was therefore vital for thestate to create an administrative system to ensurecontrol over agricultural production, and to fix andcollect revenue from across the empire.
2. This system included the office of the diwan who was responsible for supervising the fiscal system of theempire. Thus revenue officials and record keeperspenetrated the agricultural domain and became adecisive agent in shaping agrarian relations.
3. Theland revenue arrangements consisted of twostages – first, assessment and then actual collection. The jamawas the amount assessed and hasil, the amount collected.
4. Akbar decreed ordered amil-guzaror revenue collector that he should strive to make cultivators payin cash, the option of payment in kind was also tobe kept open. While fixing revenue, the attempt ofthe state was to maximise its claims.
5. Both cultivated and cultivable lands were measuredin each province. Efforts to measurelands continued under subsequent emperors. Aurangzeb instructed hisrevenue officials to prepare annual records of thenumber of cultivators in each village. Yetnot all areas were measured successfully.
The Flow of Silver coin into Mughal Empire( Revenue through trade)
1. The Mughal Empire was the large territorialempires in Asia among the Ming (China),Safavid (Iran) and Ottoman (Turkey) empires that had managed to consolidate powerand resources during the sixteenth and seventeenthcenturies.
2. The politicalstability achieved by all these empires helped createvibrant networks of overland trade from China to theMediterranean Sea.
3. Voyages of discovery and theopening up of the New World (America)resulted in a massiveexpansion of India’s trade withEurope.
4. An expanding trade brought in huge amounts of silverbullion into India to pay for goods procured from India. This was good for India because it did not havenatural resources of silver.
5. As a result, the periodbetween the 16th and17th centuries wasalso marked by a remarkable stability in theavailability of metal currency, particularly the silverrupyain India. This facilitated an unprecedentedexpansion of minting and circulating of silver coins.
6. Italian traveller, GiovanniCareri, who passed through India c. 1690, providesa graphic account about the way silver travelledacross the globe to reach India. It also gives us an ideaof the phenomenal amounts of cash and commoditytransactions in seventeenth-century India.
The Ain-i Akbari of Abu’lFazlAllami
1. The Ain-i Akbariwas the culmination of a largehistorical, administrative project of classification undertaken by Abu’lFazl at the order of EmperorAkbar. It was completed in 1598after having gone throughfive revisions.
2. The Ainwas part of a larger projectof history writing commissioned by Akbar. Thishistory, known as the Akbar Nama, comprised threebooks. The first two provided a historical narrative.The Ain-i Akbari, the third book, was organized as a compendium of imperial regulations and agazetteer of the empire.
3. The Aingives detailed accounts of the organization of the court, administration and army, the sourcesof revenue and the physical layout of the provincesof Akbar’s empire and the literary, cultural, religious traditions of the people and quantitative information of the provinces.
4. The Ainis made up of five books (daftars), of which the first three books describe the administration.
5. The first book, called manzil-abadi, concerns theimperial household and its maintenance.
6. The secondbook, sipah-abadi, covers the military and civiladministration and the establishment of servants.This book includes notices and short biographicalsketches of imperial officials like mansabdars, learned men, poets and artists.
7. The third book, mulk-abadi, is the one which dealswith the fiscal side of the empire and provides richquantitative information on revenue rates, administrative and fiscaldivisions, totalmeasured area, and assessed revenue ( jama).
8. After setting out details at the subalevel, the Aingoes on to give a detailed picture of the sarkarsbelowthe suba in the form of tables, whichhave eight columns giving the following information:
9. (1) parganat/mahal; (2) qila(forts); (3) araziandzamin-i paimuda(measured area); (4) naqdi, revenueassessed in cash; (5) suyurghal, grants of revenue incharity; (6) zamindars; columns 7 and 8 containdetails of the castes of these zamindars, and theirtroops including their horsemen (sawar), foot-soldiers(piyada) and elephants (fil).
10. The fourth andfifth books (daftars) deal with the religious, literaryand cultural traditions of the people of India and alsocontain a collection of Akbar’s “auspicious sayings”.
Limitations of Ain-i-Akbari
1. Although the Ain was officially sponsored to recorddetailed information to facilitate Emperor Akbar, it was much more than areproduction of official papers. That the manuscriptwas revised five times by the author would suggesta high degree of caution on the part of Abu’lFazland a search for authenticity.
2. For instance, oraltestimonies were cross-checked and verified beforebeing incorporated as “facts” in the chronicle. Inthe quantitative sections, all numeric data werereproduced in words so as to minimise the chancesof subsequent transcriptional errors.
3. Historians who have carefully studied the Ainpointout that it is not without its problems. Numerouserrors in totalling have been detected. These areascribed to simple slips of arithmetic or oftranscription by Abu’lFazl’s assistants.
4. Data werenot collected uniformly from all provinces. Forinstance, while for many subasdetailed informationwas compiled about the caste composition of thezamindars, such information is not available forBengal and Orissa.
5. Further, while the fiscal datafrom the subasis remarkable for its richness, someequally vital parameters such as prices of commodities and wages of workers from these same areas are not as well documented.
6. These limitations notwithstanding, the Ainremainsan extraordinary document of its times. By providingfascinating glimpses into the structure andorganisation of the Mughal Empire and by giving usquantitative information about its products and people.
1. What are the problems in using the Ainas a source forreconstructing agrarian history? How do historians dealwith this situation?
2. To what extent is it possible to characterise agriculturalproduction in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries assubsistence agriculture? Give reasons for your answer.
3. Describe the role played by women in agriculturalproduction.
4. Discuss, with examples, the significance of monetarytransactions during the period under consideration.
5. Examine the evidence that suggests that land revenuewas important for the Mughal fiscal system.
6. To what extent do you think caste was a factor ininfluencing social and economic relations in agrariansociety?
7. How were the lives of forest dwellers transformed in thesixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
8. Examine the role played by zamindars in Mughal India.
9. Discuss the ways in which panchayats and villageheadmen regulated rural society.