People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 11

March 18, 2007

Patriotic And Comprador Zamindars In The Great Rebellion Of 1857


East India Company officials in India living like nawabs


Utsa Patnaik


WHAT made the great Bengal zamindars such faithful servants of the British Raj that they stood solidly behind the foreign rulers in 1857 and after, even though one of the first salvos of rebellion was fired by the Company’s sipahis in Barrackpur near Kolkata; while the taluqdars and zamindars of the United Provinces, the erstwhile ruling aristocracies of the Deccan, all rose against the Company’s rule once the lead had been given by the sipahis, and unitedly coordinated their struggle under the titular leadership of the Mughal Emperor? What in short explains the comprador nature of the feudal Bengal zamindars and the anti-imperialist activism of the equally feudal landed aristocrats of North India and the Bombay Deccan? The answer has to be sought in the political economy of the differing land settlements that the British undertook in Bengal compared to the rest of India. 


The compradorism of the Bengal zamindars was not accidental, but was the successful outcome of the conscious and clever strategy the foreign rulers had followed of building a base of social and political support for themselves in the very first province of India they had conquered, and they built this base through the 1793 Permanent Settlement of the revenues of Bengal. This was the only large province which ever had a Permanent Settlement: zamindari settlements were made elsewhere, but except for the northern coastal areas of Madras, and Benares, none was a Permanent Settlement of the revenues. In all other provinces including under the new zamindari system in Northern India, the initially high revenues were not fixed but raised further every twenty to thirty years. In this fact lies the key to understanding the agrarian causes for the Great Rebellion of 1857, which united Hindus and Muslims, the humble sipahis drawn from the peasantry and the proud aristocrats, in a desperate struggle to throw off the foreign yoke. 




The adventurer Robert Clive, by fomenting and financing treachery, obtained victory against the greatly superior forces of the Nawab of Bengal at Palashi in 1757, and installed his puppet Nawab in place, exactly a century before the Great Rebellion. He set about his machinations for securing the sovereign right to collect the revenues, which was finally granted by a weakened Mughal Emperor in 1765 in return for a nominal annual tribute. This acquisition of the Diwani of Bengal made the Company dizzy with joy because henceforth it did not have to spend a single penny of its own funds to purchase goods for export to Britain: it simply used a part of the Bengal tax revenues for buying export goods and spent the rest for financing further conquests. The Company’s officials and revenue farmers set about on a looting spree, extracting the maximum money possible from the peasantry, and the collections by 1768, the third year after the acquisition of the Diwani, was three times that under the Nawab. The population was driven down to below subsistence and with a bad harvest, into massive mortality.


By 1770 there was a great famine which a team from the Company, touring the districts in 1771, estimated had killed 10 million of the 30 million population of Bengal. Warren Hastings boasted to the Court of Directors that despite the massive famine, revenue collections had been raised: “Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of 1768…It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.” (India Office Records quoted in W W Hunter’s Annals of Rural Bengal and in R C Dutt’s Economic History of India, Vol.1) Not every Englishman was as complacent as Warren Hastings: the clever ones recognised that it was bad policy to kill the geese that laid the golden eggs. Edmund Burke who led the impeachment of Hastings in British Parliament made impassioned speeches on the rapacity of the Company and the oppression and injustice to the ryots, but his heart bled not so much for the peasantry of Bengal as for the output and potential revenues foregone through such unwise slaughter of the labour-force. The objective was to put in place a stable system of extracting the maximum surplus which would represent a sustainable rate of exploitation.


After much debate on the merits of temporary and permanent settlement of revenues, a Permanent Settlement in Bengal as advised two decades earlier by Philip Francis, was finally decided on, under which the zamindars were to be owners of land with freedom of mortgage and alienation, and were liable to pay the land revenue to the government at a rate which, once fixed, was to be unalterable in future. It was this last feature which was unique: a colonial state giving up the right to raise the revenue demand in future meant that any increase in the economic surplus would accrue to the new zamindars, not to the colonial state. However, there was hardly much choice in the matter for the new rulers: the region had been devastated by over-exploitation for a quarter century, and cultivable land had reverted to waste. Recovery could only take place if the Company curbed its immediate greed in its own long-term interest. Because once fixed, the revenue was never to be increased, it was pitched very high – nine-tenths of the estimated income of the estates was to go to government, and the total burden came to Rs 27 million or pound sterling 2.7 million, larger than the total taxes on the landlords of England at that time. A number of old zamindaris changed hands owing to failure to pay the high demand and were auctioned to the highest bidders.




Recapture of Calcutta by Clive


However once the demographic recovery got under way in Bengal and cultivation expanded, economic surplus also rose, and the land revenue payable by the zamindars had dropped to 35 per cent of the rents they obtained, within a few decades. The balance, which was considerable even after the creation of layers of intermediaries, remained in the hands of the zamindars, whose halcyon days had begun. The construction of palatial houses filled with imported marble statuary and chandeliers, and a lavish life-style combined with cultivation of the arts (never of the sciences) marked the golden age of the zamindars. Their gratitude to the Company Bahadur was such that they stood faithfully behind British rule at the height of the Great Rebellion. Francis and Cornwallis’s vision of an indigenous aristocracy which would form the local political bulwark of colonial rule and be complicit in the exploitation of the peasantry in return for an entrée into ‘civilized’ society, was realized. Zamindar and rich bhadralok scions went to England to be educated in ‘civilised’ values by a country which had risen to economic power through enslaving others and through insensate violence exercised against colonised peoples. Even an otherwise insightful author like R C Dutt is fulsome in his praise for Cornwallis and the Permanent Settlement, and ignores the unjust laws which were passed at the same time allowing the zamindars to exact as much rent as they wished from the peasantry using whatever methods they found to be effective.


Because the comprador zamindars exercised hegemony over intellectual activity and culture in the 19th through to the early 20th century, they have left a deep imprint of subservience to the ruler amounting to servility, on the intellectual life of Bengal which persists to this day among sections of the bhadralok, and whose influence should not be underestimated. The modern middle class Bengali is brought up from childhood to believe that all that is worthwhile, most sophisticated and most advanced, in intellectual life is to be found in Northern countries, and the ultimate joy of their lives if they are academics, is the stamp of approval of the sahibs. Many of those who profess to be progressive and on the political Left are not free from this brand of intellectual servility.


This is not to say that the countervailing intellectual trends of uncompromising defiance and rebellion against imperialism were absent: the long-suffering and long-exploited peasantry of Bengal threw up their own urban tribunes and their organic intellectuals. The famous play Neel Darpan on the miseries of forcible indigo cultivation is a case in point. Yet, it would be true to say that the travails of the peasantry of Bengal under colonialism to this day have not been adequately documented nor are the precise mechanisms adequately analysed, through which their surplus labour was appropriated, embodied in an unending and swelling stream of goods flowing to England and later to the world, which was only possible through operating deflationary surplus budgets which depressed mass consumption more and more via heavy taxes and rental burdens.


The ‘wisdom’ of the Permanent Settlement referred to repeatedly by R C Dutt which, he believed, prevented famine in Bengal, was wisdom only from the viewpoint of the zamindars, not of the peasantry. In the forty years after Dutt wrote (in 1903-05), Bengal was to see steadily declining foodgrains output per head – indeed after First World War there was absolute decline in rice output, leading to a massive 38 per cent fall in per capita foodgrains availability in the region (since imports did not compensate), the largest fall of all regions in British India, whose average decline was 29 per cent. This necessarily happened in each region as scarce land and resources were diverted away from grain production for local populations towards export crops production for Northern industrialising countries, included exported grain like wheat. It was not a question of one British administrator or another being less or more ‘wise’ in terms of policy: the logic of colonialism was to force the colony to specialise in export crops, purchase the export crops out of taxes paid by the population and hence obtain them at no cost, and for this logic to operate it was essential to reduce the purchasing power and demand for their own output, of the mass of the local population through deflationary fiscal policies and heavy rent burdens. There was little fine-tuning of colonial exploitation and usually ‘overshooting’ into famine resulted.


The Company’s rule in Bengal began with a devastating famine in 1769-70, and Britain’s rule in India ended with another devastating famine in Bengal, 1943-44. In a last and unprecedented act of inhumanity the British government appropriated not just their economic surplus, but their very means of subsistence from the peasantry and artisans of Bengal to the extent of most of the Rs 3,800 crore, which was the cost over six years of financing Britain’s war in Asia, which burden was unjustly and compulsorily put entirely on the colony. (The normal pre-War budget size for the whole of British India was Rs 200 crore). Over 3 million peasants, artisans and fishermen of Bengal died in the great famine, and half a million households were reduced to destitution and beggary, as a survey by Mahalanobis and others documented. Yet such is the intellectual hegemony exercised by two centuries of comprador zamindar and bhadralok mentality that no Bengali historian or economist to date has put forward a correct analysis of the famine. The peasantry rose up in the tebhaga movement, but this was disrupted by Partition. At Independence this originally most productive region of British India had the highest levels of landlessness and poverty in the whole of India, and Bangladesh remains today one of the least developed countries of the world.


The land settlements in North India and the Bombay Deccan were radically different from the Permanent Settlement in Bengal. There was some talk of making the zamindari and ryotwari settlements permanent, but it was never a serious issue: having created a stable revenue and political base in Bengal, there was no reason for the Company to give up potential rise in revenue in these new areas. Initial revenue demand was pitched extraordinarily high both in what became later the United Provinces, as well as in the Deccan, and it was slated to be revised upwards every 20 to 30 years. Although ostensibly the colonial state was to take two-thirds of the estimated surplus, termed ‘rental’, in the absence of any surveys of area, yields and output relative to production costs there was no way of knowing what this ‘rental’ was. The actual method followed by the Company’s administrators was to look at what the collections were under the Mughal and Maratha rule respectively, and to substantially jack up these collections within three years or so of acquiring control. For example in Allahabad and surrounding districts, ceded by the Nawab of Awadh under pressure to the British in 1801, the revenue collections were forced up to 24 per cent higher by 1804, to 1.7 million pounds sterling which comes to as much as half of the entire collections of Bengal under Permanent Settlement. Similarly in the rich Ganga-Yamuna doab, despite famine and devastation following war, gross revenue collection was forced up to 1.5 million pounds sterling by 1816 compared to below one million pounds in 1807. These high collections were further jacked up when systematic settlements of 20-30 years started from 1822-35. Increasing collections to satisfy the insatiable greed of the Directors of the Company was only possible through pushing the peasantry and artisans down to ever lower levels of living, through taxation and rent extraction. This was compounded by the destruction of hand spun yarn and hand woven textile production entailed in the import surge of manufactured yarn and cloth from England from the 1820s. The story of over-assessment and unremitting pressure on the mirasidars and peasantry alike, was repeated in the Bombay Deccan despite a famine there in 1813.




In the course of the thirty years before the Great Rebellion, it is estimated that up to one-third and possibly more of the estates in the doab region had changed hands. Zamindars and taluqdars lost their estates owing to default on revenue payment. The practice of seizure and auction sales by the colonial state of estates which defaulted, infuriated the zamindars and taluqdars because it meant a complete denial and reversal of the principle of hereditary possession of estates. The pressure to meet the unrealistic revenue demands was passed down to the actual cultivators leading to over-exploitation of the peasantry, which drained them of all reserves for facing unfavourable seasons. There was a massive famine in North India in 1837. 


Over-exaction of taxes and rents, a large part of which are not spent in normal ways but used to ‘purchase’ export goods thus exacting these goods without equivalent, creates a situation of mass income deflation and leads eventually to contracting internal demand and falling prices, which in turn raises the real burden on the peasantry of the rents and taxes. Such a deflationary spiral appears to have operated over much of the country under British rule. The uprising of the sipahis came about not because of a mere incident or two of discrimination, which merely provided the spark. It expressed the simmering discontent of an increasingly immiserized peasantry, from whose ranks the sipahis were drawn, and which flamed into the Great Rebellion. Agrarian exploitation under colonialism was the reason that the rebellion received mass support and spread like wildfire, and the local landed aristocracies, facing the threat of dispossession or actually dispossessed, gave it leadership, embarking on the desperate yet glorious struggle which many must have anticipated would end in suppression and their own death, but which they were impelled into by the pan-Indian forces of patriotic resistance released by imperialist oppression itself.




This great anti-imperialist uprising 150 years ago, holds contemporary lessons for every patriotic Indian today. In the course of the last fifteen years, we see once more the attempt to colonise our lands in the era of neo-imperialism, and this attempt has already succeeded to quite an extent owing to the failure of large sections of our intellectuals and political leaders to understand and apply the lessons of history, and therefore their failure to protest effectively. Once more deflationary fiscal policies are being systematically followed, by our own government this time, which leads to unemployment and contraction of aggregate demand, and once more our lands are opened up to the pull of international demands. Our cropping patterns have shifted to export crops, domestic foodgrains output per head of population has declined alarmingly, and on average the rural family today is absorbing at least 115 kg. per annum less of foodgrains than in 1998, reflected in data on falling energy intake despite asset loss and rising landlessness. 


There is in the last five years, absolute stagnation of grain output even as the new types of primary exports to stock advanced country supermarkets, are booming. The depth of rural hunger is increasing, large segments of the peasantry is getting hopelessly indebted and immiserized, and in desperation in many areas it has been turning its agony upon itself in thousands of suicides. The agony has to turn to anger and be directed against imperialism in all its manifestations including the intellectual hegemony it is re-asserting in the guise of false and self-serving theories of development and blatantly false official claims of decline in rural poverty. It is ironic indeed that this sixtieth anniversary of Independence sees a substantial economic re-colonisation of our agriculture, and that too few voices are being raised against the betrayal of our peasantry by our own increasingly collaborating ruling classes. A new process of peasant resistance all over the country has begun: it will be instructive to see the course of its future development. Let us not celebrate the Great Rebellion in a ritualistic manner, but draw the right lessons from it so that we do not, simply through a lack of understanding, betray the memory of the millions of peasants and workers who died under colonial misrule, and the memory of the many thousands of patriots who gave their lives in the 1857 rebellion and in the nearly hundred years of the struggle against imperialism and for freedom, which followed it.