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Colonialism and the Countryside: Exploring Official Archives- NCERT Notes UPSC

Mar 30, 2022


Colonialism is the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically. Colonial rule was first established in Bengal. It is Bengal where the earliest attempts were made to reorder rural society and establish a new regime of land rights and a new revenue system.

Needless to say, Colonialism forms an integral part of the UPSC exam preparation and hence should be studied in depth while taking the UPSC coaching. Read this detailed article to understand the basics of Colonialism and to gain valuable insights on the topic. 

Bengal and the Zamindars

Auction in Burdwan

  • In 1797, there was an auction in Burdwan (present-day Bardhaman). A number of mahals (estates) held by the Raja of Burdwan were being sold. 
  • As the permanent settlement had come into operation in 1793, the East India Company had fixed the revenue that each zamindar had to pay. The estates of those who failed to pay were to be auctioned to recover the revenue. 
  • Since the raja of Burdwan had accumulated huge arrears, his estates had been put up for auction. 
  • During the auction, many of the purchasers turned out to be servants and agents of the raja who had bought the lands on behalf of their master. 
  • And over 95 per cent of the sale at the auction was fictitious. The raja’s estates had been publicly sold, but he remained in control of his zamindari. 

The Idea Behind Permanent Settlement

Britishers had been facing problems in regularizing their flow of revenue collection from Bengal because of the recurrent famines and declining agricultural output during the 1770s.

  • Investment in Agriculture will result in regularisation of revenue: Company felt that revenue of the company could be increased and regularised by encouraging investment in agriculture.
  • Having property rights, Zamindar will have an inherent interest in the development of estate: By securing the rights of property and fixing rates of revenue, Zamindars would get a sense of security and it would encourage them to improve their estates. 
  • The emergence of a class loyal to Company: Improvement of Estates would lead to the emergence of a class of rich land-owners loyal to the company, securing a regular flow of income to the company.
  • The emergence of Zamindars as a New Class of Landowners: They were rajas and taluqdars of Bengal, now classified as zamindars. They were not a landowner of the village, but a revenue collectors of the estate. The difference between the amount paid to the company and collected from the estate was his income.

Taluqdar: Literally means “one who holds a taluq” or a connection. Taluq came to refer to a territorial unit.

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Reasons for Defaulting of Zamindars on Payments

  • High demand for revenue by companies during the economic depression:
  • Wrongful Anticipation by Company: Company pegged initial revenue demands very high to minimize their loss in the long term because the company anticipated that in the coming years income from land will increase with the expansion of land and production. 
  • Economic Depression: In the 1790s, the prices of agricultural produce were depressed, making it difficult for the Ryots to pay their dues to the zamindar. Thus, zamindar defaulted on the payment.
  • The Law of Sunset and Invariable Demand of Revenue: The revenue was invariable and rigid, regardless of the harvest, and had to be paid punctually. In fact, according to the Sunset Law, if payment did not come in by sunset of the specified date, the zamindari was liable to be auctioned.
  • Restriction on Autonomy of Zamindar: Permanent Settlement initially limited the power of the zamindar to collect rent from the Ryot and manage his zamindari. The zamindars’ troops were disbanded, customs duties abolished, and their “cutcheries” (courts) brought under the supervision of a Collector.
  • Bad harvest, Low prices and Friction between Zamindar and Jotedar: Rent collection was a perennial problem. Sometimes bad harvests, low prices and friction for the authority between zamindars and jotedars made payment of dues difficult for the Ryots.

Rise of the Jotedars

  • Jotedar, a group of rich peasants, acquired vast areas of land. They controlled local trade as well as moneylending, exercising immense power over the poorer cultivators of the region.
  • Jotedars were called as haoladars in some places and elsewhere they were known as gantidars or mandals. Various factors were responsible for their rise which are as follows:
  • At the end of 18th century, zamindars were facing a crisis while jotedars were consolidating their power in villages.
  • They were more effective than that of zamindars because they were located in the villages unlike zamindars who often lived-in urban areas and exercised direct control over villagers
  • They fiercely resisted efforts by zamindars, prevented zamindari officials from executing their duties, mobilised ryots who were dependent on them, and deliberately delayed payments of revenue to the zamindar.

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Ways Adopted by the Zamindars to Escape the Auction of Estates

The authority of the zamindars in rural areas did not collapse at once until the Great Depression of the 1930s when they finally collapsed and the Jotedars consolidated their power in the countryside.

  • Fictitious sale and transfer of estates: It was a strategic manoeuvre of rajas to keep their zamindari intact. 
  • Raja transferred some of his zamindaris to his mother since property of a women would not be taken over. 
  • When a part of the estate was auctioned, the zamindar’s men bought the property, outbidding other purchasers. Subsequently they refused to pay so, the estate had to be resold. This process continued endlessly until all other bidders exhausted and at last estate was sold to raja or zamindar at low price.
  • Payment deliberately withheld by zamindar: The revenue demand of the Company was deliberately withheld, and unpaid balances were allowed to accumulate.
  • Deterrence to outsider bidders: When people from outside the zamindari bought an estate, they could not take possession as their agents would be attacked by lathyals of the former zamindar.
  • Sense of Loyalty: Sometimes even the Ryots themselves resisted the entry of outsiders. They felt bound to their own zamindar through a sense of loyalty and perceived him as a figure of authority and themselves as his proja (subjects).

Report on the Administration of the Company

 A report was submitted to the British Parliament in 1813 on on the administration and activities of the East India Company in India, often referred as the Fifth Report.

  • Opposition to Monopoly of the Company by Private Traders: Private traders, closely watching the activities of company in Britain, opposed the monopoly of company in trade. 
  • Demand for Revocation of the Royal Charter: Private Traders wanted revocation of the Royal Charter that gave the Company this monopoly. Many political groups in England also argued that the conquest of Bengal was benefiting only the East India Company.
  • Scrutiny of Company’s Administration: Company’s misrule, maladministration, incidents of the greed and corruption was hotly debated in Britain and widely publicised in the press.
  • The Fifth Report: This report, submitted in British Parliament, has shaped our conception of what happened in rural Bengal in the late 18th century. It contains petitions of zamindars and ryots, reports of collectors from different districts, statistical tables on revenue returns, and notes on the revenue and judicial administration of Bengal and Madras.

The Conflict Between Hoe (Paharias) and the Plough (Santhals)

When the peasant economy expanded, swallowing up pastures and forests, it created conflicts. As the Santhals were pouring into the area of Rajmahal hills, clearing forests, ploughing land; Paharias had to receded deeper into Rajmahal hills. Paharia life was symbolised by the hoe, which they used for shifting cultivation while the Santhals represent the plough.

  • Rajmahal Hills and the Paharias: It was a densely forested area where hill people known as Paharias, lived around the Rajmahal hills, subsisting on forest produce, practising shifting cultivation and intimately connected to forest.
  • The Life of Paharias: 
  • Sense of Identity: Paharias considered the region of Rajmahal hills as the basis of their identity and survival. They raided the plains where settled agriculturists lived, for their survival and even controlled the passes that passed through their area in return of a toll fee for the safe passage and security. 
  • British policy of extermination and pacification towards Paharias: In the 1770s the British embarked on a brutal policy of extermination, hunting the Paharias down and killing them. Then, by the 1780s, Augustus Cleveland, proposed a policy of pacification
  • Agreement: Paharia chiefs were given an annual allowance and made responsible for the proper conduct of their men.
  • White as Symbol of Oppression: For Paharias, every white man appeared to represent a power that was destroying their way of life and means of survival, snatching away their control over their forests and lands. 

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Santhals: Wanderers to Cultivators

Santhals extended the frontiers of cultivation by displacing the hill folk, Paharias, who lived on these lower slopes. Unlike Paharias, Santhals, by contrast, gave up their earlier life of mobility and settled down, cultivating a range of commercial crops for the market, and dealing with traders and moneylenders.

  • British installed Santhals in Rajamahal hills: Having failed to subdue and transform Paharias into settled agriculturists, the British officials hired Santhals to reclaim land and expand cultivation and to settle in the Jangal Mahals. 
  • Damin-i-Koh: By 1832 a large area of land was demarcated as Damin-i-Koh, declared to be the land of Santhals
  • Reason for the revolt of Santhals: The state was levying heavy taxes on the land that the Santhals had cleared, moneylenders (dikus) were charging them high rates of interest and taking over the land when debts remained unpaid. By the 1850s, the Santhals felt that the time had come to rebel against zamindars, moneylenders and the colonial state.
  • Conciliatory policy of the Company: It was after the Santhal Revolt (1855-56) that the Santhal Pargana was created, carving out 5,500 square miles from the districts of Bhagalpur and Birbhum.

A Revolt in the Countryside, The Bombay Deccan

One way of understanding the social condition of a region like countryside of Bombay deccan is by focusing on a peasant revolt and their resentments. One such revolt occurred in 1875 in the Deccan at Supa, a large village in Poona, on 12 May 1875.

Account Books are Burnt

  • Ryots from surrounding rural areas gathered and attacked the shopkeepers, demanding their bahi khatas (account books) and debt bonds. 
  • They burnt the khatas, looted grain shops, and in some cases set fire to the houses of sahukars. From Poona the revolt spread to Ahmednagar. Then over the next two months it spread even further.

Ryotwari, A new Land Revenue System

  • This revenue system was introduced in the Bombay Deccan came to be known as the Ryotwari settlement. The revenue was directly settled with the Ryots. 
  • The average income from different types of soil was estimated, the revenue-paying capacity of the Ryot was assessed and a proportion of it fixed as the share of the state.
  • Rationale behind new system:
  • Need for maximization of revenue: As British rule expanded from Bengal to other parts of India, colonial government had to think of ways to maximise its land revenue, which could not be increased due to capping under Permanent Settlement.
  • Rise in Agricultural Prices: After 1810, agricultural prices rose, increasing the income of the zamindars of Bengal. This increase in price made British think of new revenue system to collect more revenue.
  • Ricardian Theory of “Average Rent” and Rise of Rentiers: Colonial officials followed Ricardian ideas while formulating new revenue system.
  • According to Ricardian ideas, a landowner should have a claim only to the “average rent” that prevailed at a given time. 
  • More than this “average rent”, the state needed to tax. If tax was not levied, cultivators were likely to turn into rentiers, and their surplus income would not be invested in the improvement of the land. 
  • History of Bengal confirmed Ricardo’s theory, there the zamindars seemed to have turned into rentiers, leasing out land and living on the rental incomes.
  • Therefore, the revenue demand was no longer permanently fixed in any other part of the country.

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Problems with Ryotwari Settlement:

  • High Revenue Demand and the Peasant’s debt: In the 1820s, the revenue that was demanded was so high that in many places’ peasants deserted their villages and migrated to new regions.
  • Poor soil and fluctuating rainfall: In areas of poor soil and fluctuating rainfall the problem was particularly acute. When rains failed and harvests were poor, peasants found it impossible to pay the revenue.
  • Dip in agricultural prices: Prices of agricultural products fell sharply after 1832 and did not recover for over a decade and a half. This meant a further decline in peasants’ income.
  • Famine and debt trap:  At the same time the countryside was devastated by a famine that struck in the years 1832-34. Inevitably, they borrowed but once a loan was taken, the ryot found it difficult to pay it back. As debt mounted, and loans remained unpaid, peasants’ dependence on moneylenders increased.

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The Cotton Boom

Before the 1860s, three-fourths of raw cotton imports into Britain came from America. India was seen as a country that could supply cotton to Lancashire if the American supply dried up for eventuality. 

  • American Civil War and India: When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, a wave of panic spread, messages were sent to India to increase cotton exports to Britain.
  • India possessed suitable soil, a climate favourable to cotton cultivation, and cheap labour.
  • British gave advances to urban sahukars who in turn extended credit to those rural moneylenders who promised to secure the produce. 
  • As a result, the riots in the Deccan villages suddenly found access to seemingly limitless credit. By 1862 over 90 per cent of cotton imports into Britain were coming from India.
  • End of American Civil War and the Credit to Sahukars Dries Up: By 1865, as American civil war ended, cotton production in America revived and Indian cotton exports to Britain steadily declined.
  • Export merchants and sahukars in Maharashtra were no longer keen on extending long-term credit. They could see the demand for Indian cotton fall and cotton prices slide downwards. 
  • So, they decided to close-down their operations, restrict their advances to peasants, and demand repayment of outstanding debts.
  • Money Lender and the experience of Injustice: Moneylending was widespread before colonial rule, but a variety of customary norms regulated the relationship between the moneylender and the Ryots. 
  • Interest more than Principal: One general norm was that the interest charged could not be more than the principal. Under colonial rule this norm broke down.
  • Deccan riots commission: In one of the many cases investigated by the Deccan Riots Commission, the moneylender had charged over Rs 2,000 as interest.
  • System of deeds and bonds as new oppressive system
  • Limitation Law and loopholes: In 1859, the British passed a Limitation Law that stated that the loan bonds signed between moneylenders and ryots would have validity for only three years but moneylender, forcing the ryot to sign a new bond every three years.
  • Compounded interest on exorbitant rates: When a new bond was signed, the unpaid balance, that is, the original loan and the accumulated interest – was entered as the principal on which a new set of interest charges was calculated. 
  • Peasants in the clutches of Moneylender: Moneylender generally refused to give receipts when loans were repaid, entered fictitious figures in bonds, acquired the peasants’ harvest at low prices, and ultimately took over peasants’ property.
Deeds of Hire:
When debts mounted, the peasant was unable to pay back the loan to the moneylender. He had no option but to give over all his possessions – land, carts, and animals – to the moneylender.

The peasant took land on rent and animals on hire. He had to sign a deed of hire stating very clearly that these animals and carts did not belong to him.

The Deccan Riots Commission

  • When the revolt spread in the Deccan, the Government of India, worried by the memory of 1857, pressurised the Government of Bombay to set up a commission of enquiry to investigate into the causes of the riots.
  • The commission reported that the government demand was not the cause of peasant anger. It was the moneylenders who were to blame. This argument is found very frequently in colonial records.
  • This shows that there was a persistent reluctance on the part of the colonial government to admit that popular discontent was ever on account of government action.


  • 1765: English East India Company acquires Diwani of Bengal.
  • 1773: Regulating Act passed by the British Parliament to regulate the activities of the East India Company.
  • 1793: Permanent Settlement in Bengal 1800s Santhals begin to come to the Rajmahal hills and settle there.
  • 1818: First revenue settlement in the Bombay Deccan.
  • 1820s: Agricultural prices begin to fall.
  • 1840s-50s: A slow process of agrarian expansion in the Bombay Deccan.
  • 1855-56: Santhal rebellion.
  • 1861: Cotton boom begins.
  • 1875: Ryots in Deccan villages rebel.

Interesting Points

  • Ryot is the way the term raiyat, used to designate peasants, was spelt in British records. Ryots in Bengal did not always cultivate the land directly but leased it out to under-ryots. 
  • Benami, literally anonymous, is a term used in Hindi and several other Indian languages for transactions made in the name of a fictitious or relatively insignificant person, whereas the real beneficiary remains unnamed.
  • Lathyal, literally one who wields the lathi or stick, functioned as a strongman of the zamindar.
  • Aquatint is a picture produced by cutting into a copper sheet with acid and then printing it.
  • A Sahukar was someone who acted as both a moneylender and a trader.
  • Rentier is a term used to designate people who live on rental income from property.

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