Let Us All Work For the Greatness Of India

A Study of the Devastating Impact of the British Rule on Agriculture, Farming and Lifestyle of the People of India

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This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Food and Agriculture

The seeds of the present day situation were already laid down by the foreign invasions in India, more specifically by the establishment of the British dominion in India.

Here are some selected excerpts from two books i.e. “The Economic History of British India” (EHBI, Published by: KEGAN PAUL, TEENCH, TRUBNER & CO. Ltd., Sixth Edition) by Romesh Dutt – Lecturer in Indian History at University College, London, and “The Corporations that changed the World” (CCW, Published by Pluto Press, London, Year 2006) by Nick Robins that give us a feel for the impact of the rule of British in India.

“…a change came over India under the rule of the East India Company. They considered India as a vast estate or plantation, the profits of which were to be withdrawn from India and deposited in Europe. They reserved all the high appointments in India for their own nominees seeking a lucrative career in the East. They bought their merchandise out of the revenues of India, and sold it in Europe for their own profit. They vigorously exacted from India a high interest on their stock-in-trade. In one shape or another all that could be raised in India by an excessive taxation flowed to Europe, after paying for a starved administration.

The East India Company’s trade was abolished in 1833, and the Company was abolished in 1858, but their policy remains. Their capital was paid off by loans which were made into an Indian Debt, on which interest is paid from Indian taxes. The empire was transferred from the Company to the Crown, but the people of India paid the purchase-money. The Indian Debt, which was £51,000,000 in 1857, rose to £97,000,000 in 1862. Within the forty years of peace which have succeeded, the Indian Debt has increased continuously, and now (1901) amounts to £200,000,000. The “Home Charges” remitted annually out of the Indian revenues to Great Britain have increased to sixteen millions. The pay of European officers in India, virtually monopolising all the higher services, comes to ten millions. One-half of the net revenues of India, which are now forty-four millions sterling, flows annually out of India. Verily the moisture of India blesses and fertilizes other lands.” (EHBI, pages xii-xiii)

“What are the causes of this intense poverty and these repeated famines in India? Superficial explanations have been offered one after another, and have been rejected on close examination. It was said that the population increased rapidly in India, and that such increase must necessarily lead to famines; it is found on inquiry that the population has never increased in India at the rate of England, and that during the last ten years it has altogether ceased to increase. It was said that the Indian cultivators were careless and improvident, and that those who did not know how to save when there was plenty, must perish when there was want; but it is known to men who have lived all their lives among these cultivators, that there is not a more abstemious, a more thrifty, a more frugal race of peasantry on earth. It was said that the Indian money-lender was the bane of India, and by his fraud and extortion kept the tillers of the soil in a chronic state of indebtedness; but the inquiries of the latest Famine Commission have revealed that the cultivators of India are forced under the thralldom of money-lenders by the rigidity of the Government revenue demand. It was said that in a country where the people depended almost entirely on their crops, they must starve when the crops failed in years of drought; but the crops in India, as a whole, have never failed, there has never been a single year when the food supply of the country was insufficient for the people, and there must be something wrong, when failure in a single province brings on a famine, and the people are unable to buy their supplies from neighbouring provinces rich in harvests.

Deep down under all these superficial explanations we must seek for the true causes of Indian poverty and Indian famines….It is, unfortunately, a fact which no well-informed Indian official will ignore, that, in many ways, the sources of national wealth in India have been narrowed under British rule. India in the eighteenth century was a great manufacturing as well as a great agricultural country, and the products of the Indian loom supplied the markets of Asia and of Europe…. the East Indian Company and the British Parliament, following the selfish commercial policy of a hundred years ago, discouraged Indian manufacturers in the early years of British rule in order to encourage the rising manufactures of England.” (EHBI pages vi-viii)

[heading style=”1″]1. Excessive and Unprecedented Land Taxes Levied[/heading]

“The invention of the power-loom in Europe completed the decline of the Indian industries; and when in recent years the power-loom was set up in India, England once more acted towards India with unfair jealousy. An excise duty has been imposed on the production of cotton fabrics in India which disables the Indian manufacturer from competing with the manufacturer of Japan and China, and which stifles the new steam-mills of India, Agriculture is now virtually the only remaining source of national wealth in India, and four-fifths of the Indian people depend on agriculture. But the Land Tax levied by the British Government is not only excessive, but, what is worse, it is fluctuating and uncertain in many provinces. In England, the Land Tax was between one shilling and four shillings in the pound, i.e., between 5 and 20 per cent, of the rental, during a hundred years before 1798, when it was made perpetual and redeemable by William Pitt. In Bengal the Land Tax was fixed at over 90 per cent, of the rental, and in Northern India at over 80 per cent, of the rental, between 1793 and 1822. It is true that the British Government only followed the precedent of the previous Mahomedan rulers, who also claimed an enormous Land Tax. But the difference was this, that what the Mahomedan rulers claimed they could never fully realise; what the British rulers claimed they realised with rigour. The last Mahomedan ruler of Bengal, in the last year of his administration (1764), realised a land revenue of £817,553; within thirty years the British rulers realised a land revenue of £2,680,000 in the same Province. In 1802 the Nawab of Oudh ceded Allahabad and some other rich districts in Northern India to the British Government. The land revenue which had been claimed by the Nawab in these ceded districts was; £1,352,347; the land revenue which was claimed by the British rulers within three years of the cession was £1,682, 306. In Madras, the Land Tax first imposed by the East India Company was one-half the gross produce of the land! In Bombay, the land revenue of the territory conquered from the Mahrattas in 1817 was £800,000 in the year of the conquest; it was raised to £1,500,000 within a few years of British rule; and it has been continuously raised since. “No Native Prince demands the rent which we do,” wrote Bishop Heber in 1826, after travelling all through India, and visiting British and Native States. “A Land Tax like that which now exists in India,” wrote Colonel Briggs in 1830, “professing to absorb the whole of the landlord’s rent, was never known under any Government in Europe or Asia.” (EHBI pages viii-x)

[heading style=”1″]2. (a) To Force the Indian People to Grow Raw Produce for Factories of Great Britain[/heading]

 “Their fixed policy…was to make India subservient to the industries of Great Britain, and to make the Indian people grow raw produce only, in order to supply material for the looms and manufactories of Great Britain. This policy was pursued with unwavering resolution and with fatal success; orders were sent out, to force Indian artisans to work in the Company’s factories; commercial residents were legally vested with extensive powers over villages and communities of Indian weavers; prohibitive tariffs excluded Indian silk and cotton goods from England; English goods were admitted into India free of duty or on payment of a nominal duty.

The British manufacturer, in the words of the historian, H. H. Wilson, “…employed the arm of political injustice to keep down and ultimately strangle a competitor with whom he could not have contended on equal terms; “millions of Indian artisans lost their earnings; the population of India lost one great source of their wealth. It is a painful episode in the history of British rule in India; but it is a story which has to be told to explain the economic condition of the Indian people, and their present helpless dependence on agriculture.” (EHBI page viii)

 [heading style=”1″]2. b) Peasants Forced to Grow Commercial Crops at Lower Prices[/heading]

“In the wider economy, Hastings rigorously enforced the longstanding ban on private trade. Learning the lessons of Clive’s failed Society of Trade, Hastings decided to establish corporate rather than private monopolies over opium, salt and saltpetre as a way of further increasing revenues. In the case of opium, Hastings argued that such a ‘pernicious article of luxury’ should be carefully regulated and only permitted ‘for the purpose of foreign commerce’. So, in 1773, Hastings deprived the Company’s Council in Patna of its opium privileges. In its place, the Company was given the exclusive rights to buy all opium, a function that Hastings farmed out to contractors to manage on its behalf. ‘All types of compulsion and coercion were used’, writes Chandra Prakash Sinha, ‘to force the ryots [peasants]to grow opium against their will, for which they received arbitrarily low prices.’ Before the Company took over, opium was selling for about three rupees a seer. Peasants were compelled to sell their poppy to the contractor, and the price they received soon fell to between one and two rupees. The average auction price, however, was six rupees a seer, winning the Company a substantial profit. When Francis complained that the monopoly was producing ‘universal poverty and depopulation’ in Bihar, Hastings handed the opium contract to Francis’s friend, John Mackenzie, thereby silencing the criticism. But Mackenzie’s tenure was no better, and in 1777 a group of peasants complained that a large area of corn had been forcibly cut down and replaced with opium.” (CCW pages119-20)

[heading style=”1″]3. Forcing More Land on a Farmer Than he could Cultivate[/heading]

 “Travelling further westwards, Dr. Buchanan reached Palachy on the 24th November.…The worst grounds in this district were left for pasture and paid no rent, and the remainder belonging to each village was reckoned as arable, and had an average assessment fixed, ranging from 2s. l0.75d. to 7s. 3d. the acre. “The farmers complain that the land is forced on them, and that they are compelled to rent more than they have stock to enable them to cultivate. A man who rents seventeen Bullas of land (a Bulla = 4.25 to 6 acres) is able only to plough nine of them, whereas, if he had full stock, he would plough between eleven and twelve, leaving one-third part in fallow. The rents, however, have been lowered, in some villages one-fifth, in others one-third, in order to compensate the loss which the farmer suffers by this manner of renting lands, where there is not a sufficient stock to cultivate the whole. This sort of tenure seems to be a great evil.” (EHBI page 220)

[heading style=”1″]4. Forcing People to Abandon their Occupation and Work for the Company[/heading]

 “It was not, however, the policy of the East India Company to foster Indian industries. It has been stated in a previous chapter that, as early as 1769, the Directors wished the manufacture of raw silk to be encouraged in Bengal, and that of silk fabrics discouraged. And they also directed that silk-winders should be made to work in the Company’s factories, and prohibited from working outside “under severe penalties, by the authority of the Government.” This mandate had its desired effect. The manufacture of silk and cotton goods declined in India, and the people who had exported these goods to the markets of Europe and Asia in previous centuries began to import them in increasing quantities.”(EHBI page 256)

An entire section of the book is devoted to such policies that led to the decline of Indian industries that were directly or indirectly related to agriculture.

[heading style=”1″]5. Charging Heavy Duties and Taxes on Country Traders[/heading]

 “In the eighteenth century, the transit of goods by roads and navigable rivers was subject to inland duties in India, as in other parts of the world. The East India Company had, however, obtained a Firman, or royal order, exempting their export and import trade from these payments. The goods which the Company imported from Europe, and those which they purchased in India for export to Europe, were thus permitted to pass through the country without duties. A Dustuck, or certificate, signed by the English President or by chiefs of English factories, was shown at the toll-houses, and protected the Company’s merchandise from all duties…” (EHBI page 18)

“…the difficulty about the inland trade increased from year to year. The Company’s servants conveyed their goods from place to place duty-free, while the goods of the country merchants were heavily taxed in the transit. The country traders were ruined; the Nawab’s revenues declined; and the servants of the Company monopolised the trade and reared colossal fortunes.” (EHBI page 19)

“As Smith had predicted, the Company was soon unable to compete against the surge of new entrepreneurs, and it ceased exporting merchandise to India in 1824, largely because there was little it could buy in India for sale back in Britain. For India’s producers, this so called opening of trade brought little relief. In the wake of the Bengal Revolution, the East India Company had used its political position to establish monopoly control over Bengal’s weavers. Its hunger for the weavers’ output was still as strong, if not stronger, than ever before as it looked for new ways of returning the wealth of Bengal to Britain through increased exports of cloth. Exploitation certainly followed in the most cruel form, and for the weavers the result was dislocation and impoverishment. Paradoxically, however, it was the end of the Company’s trading monopoly in 1813 that would turn this terrible situation into one of complete destitution. A 20 per cent increase in import duties on Indian goods was added in 1813 to ensure that open competition did not challenge the British producer. This took the tariff wall to a huge 78 per cent on calicoes and 31 per cent on muslins. ‘Had not such prohibitory duties and decrees existed,’ wrote Henry Wilson in 1858, ‘the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have stopped in their outset and could scarcely have been set in motion, even by the powers of steam.’ In place of its earlier position as the monopoly purchaser of Indian cloth, the Company’s new role was simply to prevent the introduction of any countervailing measures to ‘level the playing field’.

The earthquake that struck Dhaka in 1812 – demolishing the Company’s agency building in Tejgaon – was only a portent of a far more savage economic disaster that was about to strike. In 1753, just before Plassey, Dhaka exported Rs2,850,000 in textiles to Britain; by the end of the century, this had already fallen to Rs1,362,000. But it took only four years following the removal of the Company’s monopoly for exports to cease altogether, and in 1818, the Company’s cloth ‘factory’ at Dhaka was wound up. The city imploded upon itself, and by 1840, its population had fallen from 150,000 to just 20,000, with jungle and malaria ‘fast encroaching upon the town’. Once again, horrific acts of mutilation are said to have accompanied this upheaval. In a grisly repeat of earlier cruelties, when machine-made yarns were first introduced into Dhaka in 1821, the ‘thumb and index finger of some of the renowned artisans began to be chopped off in order to disable them from twisting finer yarns’, according to Syed Muhammed Taifoor. Taifoor adds that some reputed artisans also ‘chopped off their own finger-ends in order to avoid the tyranny of the middlemen’.” (CCW pages 147-48)

[heading style=”1″]6. Forcible Acquisition and Public Auction of Estates[/heading]

 “Agriculture had always been the main source of the subsistence of the people …but it declined under the new system of land settlements introduced by the Company’s servants. … The Company’s servants, however, introduced a new system in Burdwan and Midnapur soon after they had acquired those districts from Mir Kasim in 1760; they disregarded the customary rights of the Zemindars, and sold their estates by public auction to increase the revenue, with the most lamentable results.” (EHBI page 43)

“Cornwallis’s main task was to bring some order to the Company’s ad hoc system of tax collection. Taxes had certainly risen under Company rule in Bengal. One estimate suggests that the annual taxes collected in Bengal during Mir Kasim’s reign in the early 1760s amounted to about £646,000, rising to £1,470,000 in the first year of the Company’s diwani. During the 1770s, the collection had advanced to £2,577,000 and by 1790-1 to £2,680,000, a four-fold increase in 30 years. But the revenue system remained forever temporary, with frequent changes to the rates and management methods. Starting with Philip Francis, a growing number within the Company believed that the only way to resolve the situation was to fix the system of tax collection in perpetuity. In a case of tragic misperception, the Company’s analysts came to see the zamindari class of Mughal taxfarmers as equivalent to the propertied landed gentry of England, with the ryots as their tenant farmers. But self-interest was at work as well. The Company wanted to build up a political class of landholders who would support their presence. In place of complex systems of ownership, with intersecting rights and responsibilities, the Company introduced the English model of landlordship.

For Cornwallis, a ‘permanent settlement’ was ‘the only effectual mode to render the proprietors of the lands economical landlords and the prudent trustees of the public interest’. And so on 22 March 1793, a proclamation was made fixing the jumma at £3 million ‘for ever’. For this, Bengal’s peasantry were sacrificed in the same way as the rights of England’s commoners had been smashed by the enclosure movement. The zamindars were given exclusive rights over their lands and, in Ranajit Guha’s phrase, a ‘rule of property’ was introduced, bringing a total rupture with previous systems of landholding and governance. According to John Capper, writing in the 1850s, the result was that ‘20 million small landholders were dispossessed of their rights, and handed over, bound hand and foot to the tender mercies of a set of exacting rack-renters’. From an imperial perspective, this was Cornwallis’s greatest achievement – absorbing the Company’s territories in Bengal into a legal and administrative system that was fully aligned to the wider needs of the British Empire. On his return to England, the grateful merchants of London made Cornwallis an honorary freeman of the City, awarding him a gold medal in a gilded box. But back in Bengal, large numbers of zamindars were unable to pay the new levy, with the result that their lands were forcibly auctioned off. By 1796 perhaps one-tenth of the whole of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa was advertised for sale, and 163,000 lawsuits over arrears remained outstanding in 1812.” (CCW pages 137-38)

[heading style=”1″]7. All Policies Resulting in Famine Condition and no Relief at the Time of Famine[/heading]

“..the famines which have desolated India within the last quarter of the nineteenth century are unexampled in their extent and intensity in the history of ancient or modern times. By a moderate calculation, the famines of 1877 and 1878, of 1889 and 1892, of 1897 and 1900, have carried off fifteen millions of people. The population of a faired-sized European country has been swept away from India within twenty-five years.” (EHBI page vi)

“..Famines in India are directly due to a deficiency in the annual rainfall; but the intensity of such famines and the loss of lives caused by them are largely due to the chronic poverty of the people. If the people were generally in a prosperous condition, they could make up for local failure of crops by purchases from neighbouring provinces, and there would be no loss of life. But when the people are absolutely resourceless, they cannot buy from surrounding tracts, and they perish in hundreds of thousands, or in millions, whenever there is a local failure of crops. Early in 1769 high prices gave an indication of an approaching famine, but the land-tax was more rigorously collected than ever. “The revenues were never so closely collected before.” Late in the year the periodical rains ceased prematurely, and the Calcutta Council in their letter of the 23rd November to the Court of Directors anticipated a falling off of the revenues, but specified no relief measures to be undertaken. On the 9th May 1770 they wrote: “The famine which has ensued, the mortality, the beggary, exceed all description. Above one-third of the inhabitants have perished in the once plentiful province of Purneah, and in other parts the misery is equal.” On the 11th September they wrote: “It is scarcely possible that any description could be an exaggeration of the misery the inhabitants . . . have encountered with. It is not then to be wondered that this calamity has had its influence on the collections; but we are happy to remark they have fallen less short than we supposed they would.” On the 12th February 1771 they wrote: “Notwithstanding the great severity of the late famine and the great reduction of people thereby, some increase has been made in the settlements both of the Bengal and the Behar provinces for the present year.” On the 10th January 1772 they wrote: “The collections in each department of revenue are as successfully carried on for the present year as we could have wished.” (EHBI pages 51-52)

“While the London establishment were contemplating the costs of its financial excesses in the summer of 1769, across the world in Bengal a drought of unprecedented ferocity was just commencing. For six whole months from August 1769 to January 1770, the monsoon rains failed to arrive, delivering a chronic water shortage that destroyed up to half the crops, particularly in the west and north-west of Bengal. With the New Year, drought started to turn into famine. Plentiful rain fell in June 1770, but ‘hopes of relief were disappointed by the overflowing of the rivers in the eastern provinces’, adding flood to famine.

Famine had been an established part of India’s social reality for thousands of years, and was only truly defeated following Independence in 1947. Early English travellers had commented with horror on the scale of the terrible famine of 1631, which had severely disrupted normal trade. Yet, the incidence of famine expanded dramatically, first under Company and then under the British Crown. In fact, British control of India started with a famine in Bengal in 1770 and ended in a famine – again in Bengal – in 1943. Working in the midst of the terrible 1877 famine that he estimated had cost another 10 million lives, Cornelius Walford calculated that in the 120 years of British rule there had been 34 famines in India, compared with only 17 recorded famines in the entire previous two millennia. One of factors that explained this divergence was the Company’s abandonment of the Mughal system of public regulation and investment. Not only did the Mughals use tax revenues to finance water conservation, thus boosting food production, but when famine struck they imposed ‘embargos on food exports, anti-speculative price regulation, tax relief and distribution of free food’. More brutally, if merchants were found to have short-changed peasants during famines, an equivalent weight in human flesh would be taken from them in exchange.

Like previous failures of the natural cycle, the inadequate monsoon of 1769 in Bengal could have been managed without great loss of life. But the Company had significantly increased Bengal’s vulnerability to natural disaster. Bengal had been picked clean by the Company and its executives in the preceding decade. Revenue collection had increased dramatically from just £606,000 the year before the Company took over the diwani to a peak of £2,500,000 two years later. Flows of bullion into Bengal fell from £345,000 in 1764 to £54,000 in 1765, and ceased entirely in 1766. Instead, silver started leaving Bengal to pay for the Company’s tea trade. By 1769, Richard Becher, the Company’s Resident at Murshidabad, admitted with some shame that ‘the condition of the people of this country has been worse than it was before’, arguing that ‘this fine country, which flourished under the most despotic and arbitrary government, is verging towards its ruin while the English have so great a share in the Administration’.

Throughout 1769, the Company monitored the situation, and in November, the Calcutta Council wrote back to London that revenues would be reduced in the year ahead. A harrowing letter published under the name of J.C. in the Gentleman’s Magazine in September 1771 reveals the unrelenting pursuit of self-interest that governed the Company’s approach to the crisis. Rather than take action to curb price speculation in grain, ‘as soon as the dryness of the season foretold the approaching dearness of rice’, wrote J.C., ‘our Gentlemen in the Company’s service were as early as possible in buying up all they could lay hold of’. The peasants quickly complained to the Nawab that the English had ‘engrossed all the rice’. But when these accusations were put before the Company’s Calcutta Council, the complaint was met with howls of laughter and thrown out. Huge fortunes were made as Company staff cornered the market. One junior executive accumulated over £60,000, as rice prices soared from 120 seers of rice per rupee at the beginning of the famine to just three seers a rupee in June 1770. At the time, a seer was equivalent to about 2 lb in weight. The Nawab and other Bengali nobles tried to respond in the traditional way and distributed rice free of charge. But because of the hoarding by the Company’s executives, their stocks were soon depleted.

As the famine intensified, thousands flocked to Calcutta, many dying in the streets. Whoever he was, J.C. clearly had humanitarian feelings and would hand out food to the starving who gathered near his Calcutta residence. But he was also squeamish. On one occasion, he sent his servants to get the starving to move away from his house. But one of the near-dead rebelled, and cried out: ‘Baba! Baba!, my Father, My Father! This affliction comes from the hands of your countrymen, and I am come here to die, if it pleases God, in your presence.’ J.C. concludes his letter by describing Calcutta’s good fortune of having both vultures and dogs to deal with the dead – the first to take out the eyes and intestines, and the latter to gnaw the feet and the hands.

With no pictures or photographs to drive home the horror of the event, we are left with eye-witness accounts of the living feeding off the dead, of the Hugli full of swollen bodies and, in the words of Karim Ali, author of Muzaffarnamah, of whole families being yielded up to the ‘talons of the wrath of the godless’. However, the Company’s first concern was to feed its army and then to ensure that its taxes were secure. Not only did the Company continue to collect its land revenues throughout the famine – instead of introducing some form of relief in the Mughal fashion – it actually increased the rate. In February 1771, Calcutta reported back to the directors that ‘notwithstanding the great severity of the late famine and the great reduction of people thereby, some increase has been made’ in revenue collection. Many of the Company’s leading executives used their position to purchase grain by force – even seed for the next year’s planting – and then sold this at famine prices in the big cities of Calcutta and Murshidabad. Eventually, the Company did act, providing Rs90,000 in relief, a pittance in a land of some 30 million people with annual revenues of over Rs17 million. Even later imperial historians admitted that the Company did not even ‘attempt to cope with the disaster’. This was a man-made catastrophe.

The absence of comprehensive records means that it is impossible to calculate accurately the numbers of those who died in the famine. In 1772, Warren Hastings estimated that 10 million Bengalis had starved to death, equating to perhaps a third of the population. Hastings also concluded that the famine was caused by an artificial shortage of food supplies caused by market manipulation. For this, Hastings blamed the local merchants, ignoring the role of the Company executives themselves. Mortality was highest among low-income groups, the rural artisans and urban poor, neither of whom had direct access to food stocks. In Purnea, one of the worst-affected districts, the Company’s agent reported that ‘on the high and sandy soils, more than half the ryots are dead’. Mortality in Malda also approached 50 per cent, while in Rajshahi between a third and a half of the people died, and in Birbhum up to a quarter perished. Re-examining the data, Rajat Datta has recently argued that the accepted estimate of 10 million deaths is inflated, suggesting a death toll of 1.2 million instead. Yet, even if this more conservative figure is taken, the terrible outcome of the famine can still be barely understood. This was a time when the population of London was well under a million. All of these and more would have been wiped out if the famine had hit the Company’s home town, instead of far-off Bengal. In effect, London would have been left a ghost town. Instead, it was Bengal that was depopulated, with one-third of the Company’s territory lying ‘as jungle inhabited only by wild beasts’. The sheer barbarity of the Company’s conduct during the 1770 famine lies in its refusal to temper its demands for taxes with a sense of responsibility for the people of Bengal. As Warren Hastings acknowledged in a letter to the Company’s directors in November 1772, ‘it was naturally to be expected that the diminution of the revenue should have kept an equal pace with other consequences of so great a calamity’. The reason that revenues were maintained was ‘owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard’.” (CCW pages 90-93)

“In London, news of the famine generated a genuine sense of horror and humanitarian concern. The first inklings of what was taking place reached London in December 1770, when the Gentleman’s Magazine reported that ‘provisions were so scarce in the Company’s new acquisitions that parents brought their children to sell them for a morsel of bread’. When the full story became known, horror turned to outrage at the Company’s negligence. As Horace Walpole said at the time, ‘we have murdered, deposed, plundered, usurped – nay, what think you of the famine in Bengal, in which three millions perished, being caused by a monopoly of provisions by the servants of the East Indies’.” (CCW page 95)

[heading style=”1″]8. Weavers of Bengal Reduced to Virtual Slavery under the Company[/heading]

“Never rich, Bengal’s weavers still had a better standard of living than their counterparts in contemporary England, largely owing to their ability to determine their terms and conditions. According to Prasannan Parthasarathi, there is compelling evidence that India’s weavers had ‘higher earnings than their British counterparts and lived lives of greater financial security’. Economic tradition in India supported the position of the weaver against the merchant. At a time when the British state was intervening on the side of the employer – for example, to set maximum levels for wages – Indian weavers were able to act as a collective body, improving their ability to negotiate favourable prices. This bargaining power combined with strong European demand for cloth in the first half of the eighteenth century created a seller’s market, enabling Indian weavers to enjoy a ‘golden age’ of low costs and high prices.

All this ended following Plassey. From a situation of relative economic independence, Bengal’s weavers were forced into a position of near slavery, unable to sell to others and obliged to accept whatever the Company’s agents (gomastas) would offer for their cloth. ‘The Company went to market as Sovereigns and Tyrants’, argued a revealing briefing written for Philip Francis in the 1770s. ‘Instead of seeking a preference by paying better,’ it added, ‘they forced the manufacturers to Work for them and to work at an under price, at the same time that they prohibited all private merchants from dealing in the Assortments required for their Investment.’ The outcome was inevitable: ‘thus a general Monopoly was at once rigorously established’.” (CCW page 77)

[heading style=”1″]9. Misuse of Political Power to Concentrate all Trade in the Hands of the Few[/heading]

“Clive also turned his hand to private trade, despite the directors’ insistent ban on all involvement in Bengal’s internal market. A month after his arrival in Calcutta, he formed a syndicate that turned a profit of 45 per cent from the trade in salt over the next six months. Then in August 1765 came his cunning plan to eliminate the anarchy of private trade by installing an exclusive business in its place. A peculiar ‘special purpose vehicle’ known as the Society of Trade was established with monopoly rights over the trade in betel nut, salt and tobacco, with shares allocated free to the Company’s leading executives in Calcutta. Out of 56 shares, Clive allocated himself five, or just under 10 per cent of this elite enterprise. The ten other members of the Council received two shares each, but lower down the chaplain only got two-thirds of a share, and the poor sub-export warehouse keeper a measly one-third of a share. By this measure, a tiny gang of 60 executives simply engrossed the whole of the inland trade, excluding not only Asian merchants, but also junior executives and independent European traders. In theory, the scheme would provide the Company’s elite with sufficiently high returns that they would not be tempted by private trade; the Company would also receive a guaranteed flow of revenues from duty payments. The reality was scandalous, doubling prices for salt, defaulting on duty payments and siphoning off profits for a select few. Clive alone received £21,000 in profits from the first year of trading.

When the Company’s directors learned of this novel moneymaking machine in 1766, they protested that it was ‘a determined resolution to sacrifice the interests of the Company and the peace of the country to lucrative and selfish views’, forbidding any executive from taking part. Just as with the ban on presents, however, Clive and the Calcutta Council studiously ignored the directors’ orders for as long as they could, only winding up its affairs in September 1768. Public opinion back in London was incensed by Clive’s Society of Trade scam. For the Gentleman’s Magazine, Clive’s establishment of a monopoly over the necessaries of life had ‘signed the death warrant for two millions of his fellow creatures’.” (CCW page 86)

[heading style=”1″]10. Uprising Against Forced Economic Hardship[/heading]

““In June 1782, peasants from Dinajpur travelled to Calcutta with a petition against the oppressive behaviour of Debi Singh, the Company’s agent in the region. The ryots wanted relief from unpayable levels of tax, the removal of unauthorised levies and an end to the forcible sale of property to pay tax arrears, as well as redress for the violence of the Company’s agents. But the Company rejected the complaint as ‘frivolous’ and ‘fabricated’. By November, ryots were refusing to pay their rents, and in January, full-scale revolt broke out in Dinajpur and Rangpur. Peasant grievances merged with the holy war of the sannyasin led by Shah Munju and Shah Musa. This rebellion was, however, quickly suppressed by the Company’s troops. But neighbouring Awadh also rose up in revolt against Hastings’s mounting demands for tribute, which had resulted in those unable to pay being ‘confined in open cages’. Again, the uprising was easily crushed, only to be followed by a vicious famine in 1784, thankfully not on the scale of the 1770 disaster.

Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya would later base his groundbreaking novel, Anandamath, on the story of sannyasin uprisings against the Company during Hastings’s tenure. Central to the story of Mahatma Satya, Mahendra, Bhavan and Kalyani is the inclusion of the nationalist anthem, ‘Bande Mataram’ (Hail to the Mother) as the song of the rebels. What was striking about the novel was the emphasis that the main characters placed on armed rebellion as the only way to rid India of the British, a strategy that was later adopted by Bengal’s revolutionary movement at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the novel, the radical Bhavan attempts to convince Mahendra of the need for revolt: ‘the British are shipping our wealth to their treasuries in Calcutta’, he says, ‘and from there that wealth is to be shipped again to England. There is no hope for India until we drive the British out … by sheer force of arms.’” (CCW page 123)

[heading style=”1″]11. Some other relevant excerpts from EHBI:[/heading]

“Ramsay asserted that the condition of Ryots, who laboured for European planters, was worse than that of other Ryots; that European planters compelled them to sow a larger portion of their land with indigo than they would otherwise have done; that European planters interfered with the tiller’s right to cultivate his land as he liked.” (EHBI page 278)

“Lord Ellenborough in England took up this report, and in his own forcible language pointed out to the East India Company in 1835 the evils of the system. “The effect upon the national morals is yet more serious than the effect upon national wealth. Every merchant, every manufacturer, and every traveller is, as it were, compelled, for the security of his property or the protection of his personal comfort, and not unfrequently for that of the feelings of the females of his family, to enter into unlawful collusion with the officers of Government. It is a system which demoralizes our own people, and which appears to excite the aversion of all the foreign traders of Asia. . . .(EHBI pages 306-07)

No system could be devised by human ingenuity better calculated to keep an agricultural nation permanently poor and resourceless than the system which left to the revenue officials the absolute and unrestricted power to increase the revenue demand at each recurring settlement. The cultivator had no voice in the settlement of the Land-Tax; he was not consulted in fixing that tax; he was called upon, after the demand was settled, to pay it or to quit his ancestral land and starve.

That we are not exaggerating the evils of the new system will appear from the testimony of those who took a part in the making of the Settlement. The Company’s charter came up for renewal in 1853, and, as usual, there was a Parliamentary inquiry into all branches of the Company’s Indian administration before the charter was renewed. Select Committees of the Houses of Lords and Commons recorded evidence in 1852 and framed their Reports. They recorded further evidence in 1853, and the Lords submitted three Reports and the Commons six. From this voluminous mass of evidence we will select that of a young officer, Goldfinch, who had himself done Settlement work in Bombay, and described it on the 20th June 1853.

After the survey was finished, when you found a field, say No. 11, of five Bighas [about two acres]of land, in the possession of some particular person, did the Collector assess the revenue upon it arbitrarily, or did he ask the occupant or proprietor whether he was willing to pay the amount?” The assessment was fixed by the Superintendent of Survey, without any reference to the cultivator; and when those new rates were introduced, the holder of each field was summoned to the Collector and informed of the rate at which his land would be assessed in future; and if he chose to retain it on those terms, he did; if he did not choose, he threw it up.” …“To Goldfinch it appeared that to fix the Land-Tax “without any reference to the cultivator,” and then to ask him to accept the assessment or to throw up his land, was a fair and equitable procedure. It did not strike him that the land belonged to the cultivator, and had been held by his ancestors at a fixed Land-Tax; and that the option of throwing up the land meant a confiscation of his hereditary property.” (EHBI pages 380-82)

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