Effect of Land Laws: British Ideology & Ignorance Behind

The British East India Company had arrived in India after the Mughal rule. During the Mughal rule, the king leased the state’s property to Rajas of the particular areas who were assigned the job of collecting revenues and taxes arising from the land. Initially, Rajas were only in the possession of the land as the true owner was the state. However, due to the end of Mughal rule, the possessors of this land, grabbed the land and became the owners. East India Company had occupied India with a motive of making as much revenues as possible. In furtherance of this motive, they committed actions which have deeply impacted the Indian society. This paper is concerned with critiquing the actions of British in framing land tenure systems.

When the British had arrived, they were shocked to see the kind of culture and tradition in India. They termed Indians as ‘barbaric’ and people who had to be civilized by the British. As already discussed above, earlier in India, there was nothing called ‘private property’ and everything was state owned. “With the idea of  introducing ‘private property’ British felt that they would bring security to Bengal as an unfamiliar blessing.”[1] Here, comes the aspect of British improving the Indian society as they call it the ‘white man’s burden’.

When they had come, the idea of permanent settlement involved declaring the zamindars as real owners of the land and fixing the revenue tax to be extracted from that particular land in order to bring stability in the administration. While they hoped and wished something, the consequences of their act was completely different. There was a gap between what British proposed and expected and what happened in reality. They were new to Indian society and experimented everything they could. They rigidified three kinds of system in India- Zamindari system, mahalwari system and ryotwari system. “Zamindari system was introduced by Lord Cornwallis in parts of Bihar, Bengal and Odisha.

In zamindari system, the land was owned by the zamindar and the peasants cultivated in that land. They were treated as tenants of the land. Zamindar collected rent from peasants for using their property and also took revenue generated out of it from the peasants which was then transferred to the company. Ryotwari system was established by Thomas Munro in the Madras presidency. Under this, the British government collected the revenue from the cultivators directly instead of taking it through an intermediary(zamindar). In mahalwari system, village land’s revenue was collected by the village head person from the peasants. The headman gives the revenue to the company as the revenue of the whole village. This system was introduced in Punjab, Odisha, Oudh, Madhya Pradesh by Holt Mackenzie.”[2] “In some parts of North-west province of India, the village land was owned by one person or one family which made mahalwari system somewhat akin to the oppressive zamindari system.”[3] Now, the first question of fact is that why different kinds of systems were imposed in different places?

Was there any valid reason for it? Was having different systems beneficial to the different places in India? Through this research paper, we will be looking into reasons and fallacious assumptions which prompted  permanent settlement in Bengal. The focus of the essay will be how due to the British ideology and ignorance, mistakes were committed by the company in establishing permanent settlement in Bengal which had unexpected and irreversible consequences on the state. I will be reviewing the paper, ‘The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India’[4] in two parts. In the first part I will be analysing the reasons for choosing different land tenure systems and how the British ideology played a tremendous role in deciding it. Later, I will be reviewing the second paper, ‘Some Aspects of Permanent Settlement in Bengal’[5]. At the end, the second part of the first paper will be reviewed which consists of the long term effects of colonial rule in India.

The author of ‘The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India’[6] covers everything very minutely however, I believe some important things could have been covered. The name of the paper precisely explains that the context of the research is to evaluate the long term effects of the British land tenure systems on India. The first part of the paper consists of reasons for opting different land tenure systems in different states of India after which the authors proceed to discuss the effects of these land systems on the country.

The author broadly provides four major reasons for imposing different land laws. “Firstly, in Madras presidency the ryotwari system was implemented because of influence of individual administrators. Village based landlord system was implemented in Madras but Thomas Munro went back to London to convince the directors to implement the ryotwari system in Madras instead of village based landlord system.”[7] He said that through this method, individual cultivators will suffer less oppression at the hands of zamindars. “They will also be entitled to insurance and other services provided by the government and in return government can control them directly.”[8] Similarly, they established mahalwari system in north-west province on the advice of Holt Mackenzie.

“Secondly, some political events like after the revolt of 1857, British felt that it would be politically advantageous to keep landlords on their side which is why they proposed the landlord system in many districts of Oudh which were under the mahalwari system earlier. Thirdly, the date of conquest mattered, the areas which were conquered at a later date had some non-landlord precedents to follow.”[9] One major reason why there was zamindari system is because zamindars had large local networking as they were based in their areas since long. In the beginning, British had less money to set up hierarchical institutions in India to collect taxes. They used zamindar’s acquaintance with the people, customs and their areas so that they are required to set up very less administrative departments on their own.

I feel that the author has not covered one of the biggest reasons why British rigidified the ownership of land everywhere. The rationale behind imposing zamindari system was backed by a common ideology of the British. There would be a failure in criticizing the British policies in India if their ideas of ‘property’ were not highlighted. British were more concerned with fixing the ownership of the land in order to bring a stability in the land administration. “They believed that if lands are given to the zamindars and in some cases to the ryots in perpetuity, then it would ideally increase their security and enjoyment towards property.”[10] They placed prominence on the concept of ‘permanence of dominion’[11].

British rejected the ‘crown ownership’[12] system in India and felt the need to decide individual owners of the land as zamindars due to the benefits zamindars could provide. However, I feel this concept of ‘all the property is the state property’ was better suited to a country like India. The Mughal Kings gave possession to the zamindars but owned the land, by this zamindars could never have been extra oppressive due to the fear of a superior authority. When the British came, zamindars lacked any kind of fear from their position as zamindars were locally more known and influential than the British were. Zamindars were never used to this kind of complete power over the land. The bringing of permanency in property, gave zamindars absolute authority over their property and over the cultivators.

“The French physiocracy says that the landlords must improve the land by investing in it, employ labourers to work on the land and the net produce must be kept by the landlord like the firm’s profit rather than the rent.”[13] In fact, I agree with the author because one of the reasons why ‘zamindari system’ was implemented was because zamindars were rich and so it was assumed that they would employ methods that would increase the quality of their land and ultimately they would use their wealth for the upliftment of the land and cultivators working on the land.

Important point to remember is that British ideology believed in controlling systems with the help of law. “Many historians have also commented that British were so obsessed with the legality that they ignored the practicality and made decisions on false premises.”[14] This will be clear by the end of this paragraph. Indeed, law might have been of some help but it was made on fallacious assumptions about the country. The law said that British could dispossess the zamindars from their land on arrears to pay tax.

They thought that such law could end ‘oppression on ryots’. “If zamindars are harsh towards ryots, ryots will leave the land and no one will be present to cultivate on the land, hence, no revenue. Through this, the zamindars will fall into arrears and his land will be dispossessed. This will remove the incapable and oppressive zamindars from the system. By this method, only those zamindars will possess the land who are humane and abled.”[15] “This method of dispossession of land and the other zamindar acquiring it shows the company’s  willingness to conduct free selling and buying of the land which has a connection with the ideas of capitalism and free trade.”[16] “Their policy was consistent with the ‘sale of lands’ in order to create a competitive and healthy land market. They assumed that such market will not only do good to the agricultural sector but also bring a stimulus to all other economic activities.”[17]

However, this logic had so many loopholes. Firstly, this fear of dispossession of land among zamindars will increase their insecurity towards their land and is against the British believed principle of ‘permanence of dominion’ and security of land. This insecurity would discourage them to improve their lands and the agricultural sector will drift. It will prompt the landlords to collect more revenue from tenants as they will be in a pressure of dispossession. “Thirdly, even if zamindars fall into arrears, in many cases they have gained their property through fraudulent practises of benami holdings due to their contacts.”[18] In many other cases, British themselves have returned the property to the zamindars. “One such instance happened in Bihar, where the Raja was dispossessed of his land due to failure in paying the tax. Surprisingly, British officer called the Raja back and gave the land to him as the British alone found it immensely difficult to collect revenues from individual ryots. Rajas had a long established administrative system and a great grasp on the local people which the British lacked.”[19] All of this made it impossible for the zamindars to be dispossessed of their lands and provided them confidence to continue with the cruel treatment. It increased dependency on the zamindars and empowered them. So, if zamindars were so confident about their influence and authority to get the land back, why would they stop supressing ryots when they could extract the money they wanted? Assuming, that harsh zamindars were removed from the system but then how much time would have this taken? In reality, British allowed to such oppression due to their weak policies which they tried to control with the help of ‘law’ (Law- British ideology).

For the reason that ideology had an abundant role in determining the land tenure systems, I feel that it should have been included in the section why British chose the revenue systems that they did. By explaining the flaws in their ideology, it can be understood that ‘ideologies’ were of primary nature while deciding the revenue systems and its ultimate structure. If their decisions were not based on false premises and on false understanding of India, the reality would have been different. The fact that they were new to the Indian society, they must have given more time to introspect the complex institutions embedded within Indian society instead of straight away applying their intellectual and philosophical ideologies.

Many decisions failed in India because of the attempt of British to apply their native principles in India and polish the Indians according to their culture. “In fact, the landlord system was in itself the concept of English land system. However, many historians argue that these policy decisions were not made in furtherance of British ideology but were made due to British ignorance.”[20] “H.R.C Wright in his book ‘Some Aspects of Permanent Settlement in Bengal’ writes that the first question before the British on arrival was who owns the land? They assumed that someone might definitely own the land and hence, zamindars were mistaken for landlords in Bengal.”[21] Even after the realisation that zamindars were not the true owners, they voted for zamindars remaining the true owners. “In fact, Lord Cornwallis had said that they were barely concerned with the correct owners of the land, and what bothered the government was the payment of revenue.”[22]

“The British had come to India only with the aim of extracting revenue and profit maximization, they were least concerned with the ryots and their rights.”[23] Though they had made plenty of efforts to save the ryots but those proved to be ineffective because the priority of the British was not to protect the ryots but to get plenty of public revenue which was possible only with the help of zamindars. “Historians have also said that the zamindars were given the rights of ownership not for justice but for the reasons of expediency.”[24] It would have become impossible for the British to collect revenue without zamindars.

British made policies which favoured the zamindars and then they laid down laws to protect the ryots. “Company tried to put intermediaries between the zamindars and ryots who would collect the revenue to control the oppression on ryots. This scheme miserably failed as the intermediaries proved to be more oppressive than the native zamindars.”[25] British were of the view that permanent settlement, will make the rents and revenue that the ryots have to pay the zamindars permanent and hence, it will end the harsh treatment. “Also, in future no government will be able to set the rents and revenue at higher rates as they were settled and would remain unchanged, this would bring the historical oppression of ryots to an end.”[26] This shows that British did introduce measures to protect the cultivators but they were secondary in nature. British were least interested in altering or compromising their policies to save the ryots. Ryots were oppressed because British failed to take up their responsibility as a state and protect the vulnerable ones. The only place they spent the revenue was on administration and defence.

H.R.C. Wright brings Philip Francis and Warren Hastings into a conversation with each other. Francis is fighting for the zamindari system due to the benefits attached to it however, Warren Hastings is more concerned with the rights of ryots. This gives us a sense of their similar ideologies but different routes suggested to fulfil them. Francis wanted to freeze the property rights and revenue and Hastings wanted to do that only after proper assessment of revenue that the ryots used to pay earlier. He did not want to set any extortionate value which the ryots might not be able to pay. “However, the permanent settlement was imposed without genuine revenue assessment as there were little past records of revenue that ryots used to pay and hence, difficult for British to ascertain it. Two decades after imposing permanent settlement, the revenue rates increased. It was found that the ryots used to pay revenues on a nominal land and the actual land holding of zamindars were larger than that. So, zamindars by measuring their lands would increase the revenue that has to be paid by ryots.”[27] All of these points out to the gaps in the system introduced by the British.

According to me, British ideology played a great role in drafting land policies within Bengal. “British felt that zamindars would become the elite, royal, loyal and law abiding class of Bengal whose example could be given to show the result of British rule.”[28] However, British did not know the long-term consequence of this decision. Due to permanent ownership, the gap between the rich and poor widened and hence, inequality increased. Ryots were at a complete disadvantage and thus, suffered more. British fetched high dreams for India which they badly failed to implement. Additionally, some huge mistakes were made in understanding Bengal which worsened the situation. The ideology coupled with decisions made on false premises together led to the breakdown of the agricultural sector in India.

Let us now analyse the second part of the first paper, ‘The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India’. The second part of this paper covers the long term effects of the colonial land tenure systems in India. It differentiates between the condition of landlord areas and non-landlord areas. The author also digs out the reasons of this difference and has minutely taken into consideration almost everything while concluding the difference. The various calculation gaps that may arise in the process of distinguishing has been covered by using coefficients and other mathematical expressions. What I liked about the analysis was that the writers have not ignored the pre-independence conditions while determining the reason of differences in productivity between landlord and non-landlord areas. “The landlord areas were said to be inherently fertile for cultivating crops which is why productivity was more in the landlord areas than the non-landlord areas. The inherent fertility of the landlord area was established by observing the statistics and that they had higher rainfall, black soil, greater depth of top soil and lower altitude.”[29] However, after independence, the non-landlord areas became more productive than the landlord areas. “This study was conducted to show that the landlord areas did not start with a disadvantage.” [30]

Authors provide plenty of reasons for this slow-down of agricultural sector in landlord areas. “During British rule, most of the canals were constructed in the non-landlord areas and no such canals were made in the landlord areas as very less revenue was generated from those areas.”[31] However, this individual reason is not the basis why landlord areas lag behind. “In the post-independence period, landlord areas enacted 6.5 land reform measures whereas the non-landlord areas did only 3.5 land reform measures.”[32] “Higher the land reform, higher will be the decline in productivity. Landlord areas were said to have 8 percent more ‘marginal’ land areas than the non-landlord areas.

Though British believed that large farms would show better results of improvement than the small farms, latest statistics have shown that, small farms show better development results than the large farms.”[33] Hence, it cannot be laid that landlord areas are less productive now as they have higher number of small farms. The main reason of landlord areas being more productive is the quantum of development expenditure spent on the field. “Studies reveal that landlord areas spent Rs 13 per capita on development whereas the non-landlord areas spent an average of Rs. 19 per capita on the development in the post-independence period. It was also seen that landlord areas were spending Rs 29 per capita on implementing new technologies as opposed to non-landlord areas which spent around 49 rupees on it. Author also predicts that this spending gap arises because when the non-landlord areas were developing and implementing new technologies, the landlord areas were busy in enacting land reform measures.”[34] It was seen that state policies and investments in the agricultural sectors were the major reasons why landlord areas productivity has declined over the period. “Currently, non-landlord places have 24 percent higher areas of irrigated area and 42 percent higher levels of fertilizer use. Estimates also show that it is because there has been significant rise in agricultural investments in the non-landlord areas than the landlord areas.”[35] The result of all this is higher productivity in the non-landlord places.

However, I felt that the authors did not provide sufficient reasons for their analysis and conclusion in the last part of the paper. I would like to highlight on it. The writers say that areas with landlord systems have higher cases of crimes like rape, murder, kidnapping and robbery. However, I feel that the land systems are not the determinants of higher crimes in the landlord areas. “In the 1990’s, crime rate was one of the highest in Tamil Nadu whereas Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal were said to have low crime rates.”[36]  Tamil Nadu had both ryotwari and zamindari system. However, crime rates are higher here than the states under landlord system like Bihar and Bengal which were fully under the landlord system. In fact, I agree that crimes are higher in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but it is due to the large population and not because of landlord systems. Hence, the authors have failed to give proper reasoning why crimes are higher in landlord areas than in non-landlord areas. The British tenure systems not only affected the agricultural sector for a short duration but had a long lasting impact on the country but I do not find any reason to believe that more crimes are committed in the landlord areas. Overall, the research question of the essay was satisfied as there are correct proofs and statistics which do show why the landlord areas lag behind and earlier land tenure system is a vital reason why they do.

The laws framed by the British offer us a critique about their land tenure systems. They were miserably unsuccessful in bringing up the benefits of permanent settlement to the ryots and zamindars. Their laws failed in Bengal due to their lack of knowledge about Bengal and hasty decisions made on incorrect bases. “One major reason why zamindars stopped oppressing after independence was because their formal power and authority was taken away by the post-independence legislations.”[37] The post-independence Indian government did not depend upon zamindars to collect the revenue. However, during British rule, zamindars were encouraged and company required the zamindars which is why taking away their authority was impossible. As explained earlier, zamindari system was encouraged by the British and it was never their priority to stop the zamindars. British did enact measures to protect ryots but never bothered to end the root cause of their suppression(abolishing zamindars) as this would disable the British to collect revenues. Under them, the zamindars and ryots got separated.

“Hetukar says in his paper that earlier, zamindars and cultivators fought together for their collective rights.”[38] However, British rule created a gap between them. “The economic considerations and religious values strengthened the relations between zamindars and the local people. The moral status of zamindars was high in the society due to the ‘revenue free land gifts’ they used to make to the people.”[39] However, British stopped this policy under the permanent settlement, which detached the zamindars from the local people. I also feel that when the financial gap widened between the rich and poor due to the permanent settlement, the relation between local people and zamindars suffered. Additionally, the free hand given to the zamindars worsened their ties.

One of the biggest mistakes British committed was that they did not assess the revenue correctly and set it at an exorbitantly high rate. Even if it was difficult to determine the revenue, the productivity of soil and some other determinants could have been used to set an affordable rate. Additionally, the correct measurement of the lands possessed by every zamindar would have made the situation better. British were proud and over-confident about their ideologies. They were inclined more towards legality than practicality. They thought that they would apply the British ideology in India and would turn the Indians into intellectuals. However, the highly improbable dreams fetched by them could not be fulfilled.


[1] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 207. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[2] Banerjee, Abhijit, and Lakshmi Iyer. “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India.” The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1190-213. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132711.

[3] Ibid., 1194.

[4] Ibid., 1190-213.

[5] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 204-15. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[6] Banerjee, Abhijit, and Lakshmi Iyer. “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India.” The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1190-213. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132711.

[7] Ibid., 1195.

[8] Ibid., 1195.

[9] Ibid., 1195.

[10] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 208. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[11] Guha, Amalendu. “Ideological Roots of the Permanent Settlement.” Economic and Political Weekly 17, no. 41 (1982): 1651. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4371452.

[12] Ibid., 1651.

[13] Ibid., 1651.

[14] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 213. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[15] Ibid., 213.

[16] Guha, Amalendu. “Ideological Roots of the Permanent Settlement.” Economic and Political Weekly 17, no. 41 (1982): 1653. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4371452.

[17] Ibid., 1653.

[18]Ibid., 1654.

[19] Jha, Hetukar. “Permanent Settlement in Bihar.” Social Scientist 9, no. 1 (1980): 55. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/3517142.

[20] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 205. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[21] Ibid., 205.

[22] Ibid., 212.

[23] Ibid., 205.

[24] Ibid., 211.

[25] Wright, H. R. C. “Some Aspects of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal.” The Economic History Review, New Series, 7, no. 2 (1954): 204-15. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/2591622.

[26] Ibid., 212.

[27] Ibid., 214.

[28] Ibid., 215.

[29] Banerjee, Abhijit, and Lakshmi Iyer. “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India.” The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1200. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132711.

[30] Ibid., 1201.

[31] Ibid., 1209.

[32] Ibid., 1209.

[33] Ibid., 1209.

[34] Ibid., 1209.

[35] Ibid., 1210.

[36] National Crime Records Bureau, “Survey of Crime,” ncrb.gov.in, https://ncrb.gov.in/sites/default/files/crime_in_india_table_additional_table_chapter_reports/chapter-1.pdf.

[37] Banerjee, Abhijit, and Lakshmi Iyer. “History, Institutions, and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India.” The American Economic Review 95, no. 4 (2005): 1210. Accessed November 4, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4132711.

[38] Jha, Hetukar. “Permanent Settlement in Bihar.” Social Scientist 9, no. 1 (1980): 56. Accessed November 4, 2020. doi:10.2307/3517142.

[39] Ibid., 56.

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