Karl Marx in the New-York Tribune 1858

Lord Canning’s Proclamation and Land Tenure in India

Source: New-York Daily Tribune, June 7, 1858;
Transcribed: by Tony Brown.

Lord Canning’s proclamation in relation to Oude, some important documents in reference to which we published on Saturday, has revived the discussion as to the land tenures of India – a subject upon which there have been great disputes and differences of opinion in times past, and misapprehensions in reference to which have led, so it is alleged, to very serious practical mistakes in the administration of those parts of India directly under British rule. The great point in this controversy is, what is the exact position which the zemindars, talookdars or sirdars, so called hold in the economical system of India? Are they properly to be considered as landed proprietors or as mere tax-gatherers?

It is agreed that in India, as in most Asiatic countries, the ultimate property in the soil rests [with] the Government; but while one party to this controversy insists that the Government is to be looked upon as a soil proprietor, letting out the land on shares to the cultivators, the other side maintain that in substance the land in India is just as much private property as in any other country whatever — this alleged property in the Government being nothing more than the derivation of title from the sovereign theoretically acknowledged in all countries, the codes of which are based on the feudal law and substantially acknowledged in all countries whatever in the power of the Government to levy taxes on the land to the extent of the needs of the Government, quite independent of all considerations, except as mere matter of policy, of the convenience of the owners.

Admitting, however, that the lands of India are private property, held by as good and strong a private title as land elsewhere, who shall be regarded as the real owners? There are two parties for whom this claim has been set up. One of these parties is the class known as zemindars and talookdars, who have been considered to occupy a position similar to that of the landed nobility and gentry of Europe; to be, indeed, the real owners of the land, subject to a certain assessment due to the Government, and, as owners, to have the right of displacing at pleasure the actual cultivators, who, in this view of the case, are regarded as standing in the position of mere tenants at will, liable to any payment in the way of rent which the zemindars may see fit to impose. The view of the case which naturally fell in with English ideas, as to the importance and necessity of a landed gentry as the main pillar of the social fabric, was made the foundation of the famous landed settlement of Bengal seventy years ago, under the Governor-Generalship of Lord Cornwallis — a settlement which still remains in force, but which, as it is maintained by many, wrought great injustice alike to the Government and to the actual cultivators. A more thorough study of the institutions of Hindostan, together with the inconveniences, both social and political, resulting from the Bengal settlement, has given currency to the opinion that by the original Hindoo institutions, the property of the land was in the village corporations, in which resided the power of allotting it out to individuals for cultivation, while the zemindars and talookdars were in their origin nothing but officers of the Government, appointed to look after, to collect, and to pay over to the prince the assessment due from the village.

This view has influenced to a considerable degree the settlement of the landed tenures and revenue made of late years in the Indian provinces, of which the direct administration has been assumed by the English. The exclusive proprietary rights claimed by the talookdars and zemindars have been regarded as originating in usurpations at once against the Government and the Cultivators, and every effort has been made to get rid of them as an incubus on the real cultivators of the soil and the general improvement of the country. As, however, these middlemen, whatever the origin of their rights might be, could claim prescription in their favor, it was impossible not to recognize their claims as to a certain extent legal, however inconvenient, arbitrary and oppressive to the people. In Oude, under the feeble reign of the native princes, these feudal landholders had gone very far in curtailing alike the claims of the Government and the rights of the cultivators; and when, upon the recent annexation of that kingdom this matter came under revision, the Commissioners charged with making the settlement soon got into a very acrimonious controversy with them as to the real extent of their rights. Hence resulted a state of discontent on their part which led them to make common cause with the revolted Sepoys.

By those who incline to the policy above indicated — that of a system of village settlement — looking at the actual cultivators as invested with a proprietary right in the land, superior to that of the middlemen, through whom the Government receives its share of the landed produce — the proclamation of Lord Canning is defended as an advantage taken of the position in which the great body of the zemindars and talookdars of Oude had placed themselves, to open a door for the introduction of much more extensive reforms than otherwise would have been practicable — the proprietary right confiscated by that proclamation being merely the zemindarree or talookdarree right, and affecting only a very small part of the population, and that by no means the actual cultivators.

Independently of any question of justice and humanity, the view taken on the other hand by the Derby Ministry of Lord Canning’s proclamation, corresponds sufficiently well with the general principles which the Tory or Conservative party maintain on the sacredness of vested rights and the importance of upholding an aristocratic landed interest. In speaking of the landed interest at home, they always refer rather to the landlords and rent-receivers than to the rent-payers and to the actual cultivators; and it is, therefore, not surprising that they should regard the interests of the zemindars and talookdars, however few their actual number, as equivalent to the interests of the great body of the people.

Here indeed is one of the greatest inconveniences and difficulties in the Government of India from England, that views of Indian questions are liable to be influenced by purely English prejudices or sentiments, applied to a state of society and a condition of things to which they have in fact very little real pertinency. The defense which Lord Canning makes in his dispatch, published to-day, of the policy of his proclamation against the objections of Sir James Outram, the Commissioner of Oude, is very plausible, though it appears that he so far yielded to the representations of the Commissioner as to insert into the proclamation the mollifying sentence, not contained in the original draft sent to England, and on which Lord Ellenborough’s dispatch was based.

Lord Canning’s opinion as to the light in which the conduct of landholders of Oude in joining in the rebellion ought to be viewed does not appear to differ much from that of Sir James Outram and Lord Ellenborough. He argues that they stand in a very different position not only from the mutinous Sepoys, but from that of the inhabitants of rebellious districts in which the British rule had been longer established. He admits that they are entitled to be treated as persons having provocation for the course they took; but at the same time insists that they must be made to understand that rebellion cannot be resorted to without involving serious consequences to themselves. We shall soon learn what the effect of the issue of the proclamation has been, and whether Lord Canning or Sir James Outram was nearer right in his anticipation of its results.