England and Rural India

Source: The Labour Monthly, Vol. 1, October 1921, No. 4, pp. 360-370
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

It seems to be an obvious duty at the present time to reconsider all our conventional ideas about the Empire and in particular about India. Now it is commonly held in England that whatever else we may have done or left undone in India, we have at any rate conferred great benefits on the agriculturists and landlords, who form nine-tenths of the total population. Every apologist of our rule has rightly emphasised the essentially rural character of the country, and few have had the hardihood to maintain that we have benefited either the few Indians who have received a European education, or that other class, the “landless proletariat” which has been brought into existence by the growth of the milling and mining industries.

In 1909 Lord Curzon stated, in his usual dogmatic manner, all that he considered the Indian agriculturist really needs: “To be worried as little as possible for money, to be helped generously in times of famine, to have their dispute settled without fear or favour, and to be protected against money-lenders, landlords, and legal practitioners.” In very many parts of India the modern agriculturist wants and expects a great deal more than this from Government; but even accepting Lord Curzon’s estimate as correct, it is at least arguable that we have failed completely and signally in the four points that he enumerates. It will be best to take each point separately—Land Revenue, Famine, Judicial Work, and Protection against Money-lenders.


Though our revenue system varies throughout India, the English usually adopted the method in force when they came to the country. Land taxes remain the chief method of raising revenue, just as they did under Asoka. A tax based on the fertility of the soil forms the first claim on all cultivated land. Sometimes it is fixed permanently, but over most of India is liable to periodic revision. The general effect of it is that in areas where there is no irrigation a village has to sell just about a tenth of its harvest to pay the revenue. Grain and straw are usually almost the only marketable commodities, so the land revenue leaves the village in the form of grain; and as revenue is collected at fixed periods, this means grain sold at the bottom of the market. The arrangements for assessment and collection are complicated, but not very efficient, and there is a considerable leakage, especially through minor officials. This leakage has, of course, to be made good by the cultivator.

In irrigated areas the question is more complicated; but every peasant imagines that Government gets its quid pro quo for all irrigation works in the form of increased revenue, and on the whole this is correct, as all irrigation works are expected to pay a fair percentage. It is a common mistake for Englishmen to assume that the native population, either in India, Egypt, or Mesopotamia, feels any gratitude for irrigation or railway works. Some years ago Lord Cromer pointed out that there was not the least reason to expect gratitude unless the irrigation works were a free gift, and recent history in Mesopotamia has merely emphasised this obvious truth.

Let us put ourselves in the position of the average villager, who realises that the revenue takes twenty cartloads of grain out of his hamlet, and who tries to think what he gets back in exchange. In the larger villages there are schools, with one or two underpaid masters, but few villagers care to keep their sons at school after they are old enough to start the simplest kinds of farm work. Sometimes there is a Government road near the village, and occasionally some other form building, but there are thousands of villages which have paid revenue for about a hundred years in which it would be impossible to find any sign of Government work. The villager has police protection of a sort, but he is usually too poor to be afraid of robbery, and the only other common serious crime is murder. As regards the latter, practically, every Hindu and most Mahommedans object strongly to capital punishment, and our elaborate judicial system seems to them merely ridiculous. I do not think that anyone would be bold enough to argue that our civil courts help the agriculturist.

I fear that the villager must realise that he gets very little in exchange for all that grain, while he probably forgets the chief benefit he receives from Government, which is immunity from war. Indeed, sometimes looking down on a little Maratha village I have remembered that the fathers of the present tired and hopeless-looking villagers were the men who watered their horses in the Indus, and terrified Calcutta, and I have wondered whether freedom from war is an unmixed blessing from the agriculturist’s point of view.

On the whole, it is difficult to see why the agriculturist should be thankful for our revenue system. It is fixed, rigid, and theoretically equitable, but none of these are characteristics which make for popularity. In many parts of India we have made the additional mistake of leaving the actual collection of land revenue in the hands of men who are of entirely different caste from the villagers.


When any outsider ventures to criticise British rule in India, he is nearly always met by a reference to famine work. Perhaps it is fortunate that very few Englishmen have any practical experience of famine work, so that one of the weakest points in our administration has gone almost unchallenged.

The frequency and severity of famines before the British came to India is a complicated question, which has, unfortunately, become a subject of political controversy. Undoubtedly there were famines, for, besides a certain amount, of historical evidence, many parts of India are dependent for their year’s harvest on certain rains not only being sufficient, but also being properly timed. Of course, it is quite possible that agriculturists used to keep larger reserves of grain in hand, but there is no real doubt that two bad years n succession must always have caused immense sufferlng, and also practically exterminated the cattle in affected areas.

From the earliest days of the East India Company it was known that India was liable to suffer from famines, and one of the very worst occurred in Bengal shortly after we had undertaken the administration of this country. It is interesting to remember that in France and other parts of Europe this famine was ascribed to the exploitation of the country by the English. Since then there has been a severe famine about once every twenty years, the last being in the year following the war, 1918-1919. At no period during the last century could the English have argued that a famine was so unexpected that a reasonable Government should not have made preparations for it. In spite of this it was not till after the famine of 1900 that any clear-cut schemes were worked out for dealing with famines. It does not require a very high standard of administrative work to realise that all office work necessary for starting relief works, and arrangements for importing grain and fodder into precarious areas, and the hundred and one practical details of famine work, have to be worked out for each district and kept ready in case of famine. This, however, was never seriously attempted till the last twenty years. For nearly a century famine succeeded famine, and on each occasion there was the same story of delay before the declaration of famine, and when it was too late the sanctioning of relief works which had not been properly thought out, and ill-arranged systems of dole which only touched the fringe of the general distress.

In 1877 five million people died of starvation, and the famine of 1900 in the Deccan was completely mismanaged, yet no one seems to have realised that tragedies of this sort were anybody’s fault; they seem to have been considered as inevitable, like the Irish potato famine. Mr. Kipling’s absurd picture of famine work, in which a district officer wanders round the country in charge of what seems to have been an itinerant relief camp, has been accepted by most people in England as something about which we should be proud. As a matter of fact, the history of our famine work is very similar to that of many of our smaller wars. The Englishman is excellent at the elementary practical side of the work, and by dint of physical hard work and energy has managed to gloss over the defects of the system, just as the British soldier frequently has won victories in spite of bad staff work.

Even to-day our famine codes are faulty and ruined by excessive centralisation and hopeless parsimony. The methods of camp organisation, etc., are those which the last war has shown to be wrong, while too little attention is paid to the prevention of famine conditions directly the rains have proved a failure. Although the agriculturist pays the bulk of the revenue in direct taxation, and, as we have see gets little enough in return, yet the one time Government might make some recompense, they work out famine codes which aim at just keeping the population on the borders, of starvation. It is difficult to avoid forming opinion on chance impressions, but the present writer was much struck by two camps seen in January and April of 1919. The first was a refugee camp in Mesopotamia for the inhabitants of the Lake Van district who had fled in front of the Turks. About 30,000 men, women and children were housed in large tents and looked after so well that they cost about Rs.15 per head daily. The second camp was a famine relief camp in the Deccan, and consisted of rows of huts made from three pieces of matting. These formed a slight protection from the sun, but none from the rains which started towards the end of the famine operations. The cost of the camp per head was about one-third of a rupee daily, and the inhabitants worked eight hours a day breaking stones. It should, perhaps, be mentioned that the guard for the Mesopotamian camp was a Maratha regiment, recruited in the Deccan, and that the expenses of that camp were partly contributed from Indian sources. It is, presumably, better to belong to a country upon which an Empire has ambitions than to the Empire itself.

Probably, famines are not a great peril of the future. Railways at first accentuated famine conditions by discouraging the habit of hoarding grain, for, while it was never impossible to get enough grain into a famine district, all the distress was caused by the difficulty of getting it distributed properly. Nowadays people in precarious tracts are learning to use the railways to emigrate in bad years to industrial centres, or to parts which are not so badly hit. Thus, in the Deccan, the “ryot,” when he has seen his crop wither past recovery, sells his cattle or leaves them with a less enterprising neighbour, and makes his way down to the mills at Bombay or any other work that may be available.


Although Indian criminal and civil law are based on the English system, yet the actual administration of both is almost entirely in Indian hands. It is a common idea in England that the Indian peasant can always take his case before an English magistrate, and usually prefers to do so. Even if there was once some foundation for this belief, it has not the remotest connection with modern Indian conditions. As long ago as 1840 Macaulay had converted the Indian Government to the principle of adopting the English system of law, as well as English methods of education. He failed to see that a handful of Englishmen would never have sufficient influence to enable these foreign importations to take root in an unsuitable soil. Just as education has never flourished, so law has become more and more divorced both from justice and from the general welfare of the people.

India has earned an unenviable reputation for the amount of its civil litigation, the greater part of which concerns land disputes, mortgages, and religious trusts, all of which closely affect the rural classes. These cases are tried under a complicated civil code, either before a Sub-Judge, who is invariably, or the District judge, who frequently is an Indian. Lawyers are almost always employed, even in the smallest cases, and the law is interpreted correctly but pedantically. The final court of appeal is a provincial High Court, with little of the independence or prestige of an appellate court at home, and which consequently tends to administer the strict letter of the law. It is clear that the average peasant has nothing to gain from this system when he becomes involved in a dispute with a wealthy moneylender; in fact, no better method could have been evolved for placing the illiterate mass of agriculturists into the power of the small class who can understand subtle legal points and employ expensive lawyers. The smaller civil courts are not free from the taint of bribery, which is another powerful weapon in the hands of wealthy litigants.

There can be scarcely two hundred English magistrates taking original criminal work in India. A similar proportion per head of population in England would be about thirty for the whole British Isles. Nearly all minor cases are taken by Indian magistrates, who are usually Government servants, as it is almost impossible to get suitable men to sit on District Benches. In these courts, lawyers appear in nearly every case, and they have a well-organised system of touting. In any little village dispute, the parties are urged to take the case into court, and, once there, it drags on for months before some Brahmin clerk, who is an easy prey to a procrastinating lawyer.

As regards the more serious offences, like murder, a villager who is accused of some crime will get a theoretically fair trial before the District Judge, but he gains little by a system which places his defence entirely in the hands of a lawyer, while the case is solemnly thrashed out in a language which he does not understand, under a code which means nothing to him.

When Lord Curzon wrote about the agriculturists’ disputes being settled without fear or favour, I am afraid he was deliberately playing on a mistaken idea which his countrymen hold about our methods of administering law in India.


Most English writers on Indian subjects seem to assume that because Government’s general attitude is opposed to absentee landlords and money-lenders our rule has therefore tended to protect agriculturists against them. This claim is so preposterous that it could scarcely have gone unchallenged unless most of the Indian nationalist Press was financed by the lawyer and money-lending class. Undoubtedly the two great evils of rural India are absentee landlords and the excessive subdivision of the land into small holdings; but though legislation has been attempted on both these questions, it has proved such a failure that the whole problem has been shelved. In many parts of India it has been decided that such subjects should best be dealt with by the new councils. Very likely this is a sound decision, but it is also a confession that our policy is bankrupt in regard to a side of Indian life in which we have usually posed as the chief defenders of the Indian masses.

Very little thought will show that the legal system we have introduced is such a powerful shield for the money-lender, or “buniah,” that any ordinary legislation aimed against him is bound to fail. As the land systems in India vary a great deal, it will be best to take a specific area to show how complete our failure has been. In the Deccan, as in most of India, the Government is theoretically the sole landlord. In practice, about a fifth of the area has been permanently alienated during early days of the East Indian Company, and given to the families of various landowners who assisted the English. The remainder of the land has been allowed to be alienated by the original holders, and the only result of the State being landlord is to make the land revenue the first claim on land, which is liable to be forfeited on failure to pay. In early days the Company naturally encouraged the larger land owners, as the only possible way in which a foreign power can keep a hold on a large semi-civilised population.

Undoubtedly the village “buniah” was a feature of village life before we came to the country, but he lent his money without real security, and his despotism was based on the comparative good will of the inhabitants, and was tempered by a very real fear of robbery and assault.

The English administration gave him police protection and civil courts, with Indian judges interpreting civil law pedantically and with little regard to equity. With this assistance the “buniah” could afford to smile if the revenue officials were unsympathetic, for he knew that he must win in the end. Even if the English revenue officer took such opportunities as came his way to help the agriculturist against him, yet most of the revenue work, the improvement of land records, and the registration of documents, etc., all played into his hands. He has never flourished as he does to-day, and he has been reinforced by other classes; especially practising lawyers. Every year when the harvest is below average the “buniahs” spread their tentacles over more land, and it is the exception to find any land within reach of a town which is free from encumbrance.

About 1916 Dr. Mann undertook a careful analysis of a typical Deccan village. It was a small hamlet of about 100 families, mostly cultivators working on about 800 acres of unirrigated land. The Government revenue came to Rs.1,600, or about two rupees an acre. The indebtedness of the village was Rs.13,000, at interest varying from twelve to seventy per cent. The yearly interest charge was over three rupees an acre. This is not abnormal, and many villages would show a higher rate. During the famine of 1918 I collected some figures for an ordinary village inside the famine area, and a long way from the nearest town. The village had an acreage of about 1,000, and was assessed by Government at about two rupees an acre. During four famine months the villagers had mortgaged land for a nominal Rs. 12,000, of which, following a common custom, they had actually received less than Rs.10,000. All these transactions were mortgages with possession made out in proper form, and entered in the village records, and will undoubtedly be enforced by civil courts. Co-operative societies have been started, but they have done practically nothing to release the average cultivator from this burden of debt, and frequently these societies get into the hands of the old “buniahs.”

Some attempts have been made to deal with this state of affairs by legislation, but the only result has been to provide the lawyers with new sources of income. Thus the Deccan Agriculturists Relief Act gave a civil court the right to inquire into the actual terms under which land was mortgaged, and to grant relief in the case of exorbitant interest being charged. In a few months the “buniahs” had discovered the method of “false sales,” where a mortgage with possession is made out in the form of a sale. For this and other reasons the Act has proved a complete failure, and no attempt has been made to replace it.

Quite possibly the problem is insoluble. The first effect of foreign rule is to upset the natural balance between classes, and we must look on the present ascendancy of the “buniah” and the lawyer as a necessary consequence of our occupation; but it seems incredible that anyone, even a retired Viceroy, should be so ignorant of actual conditions as to claim that the English have held the “buniah” in check. As a matter of fact, the first result of our withdrawal from the Deccan would be the hasty retreat of the Marwadi and the other rapacious and cowardly castes who batten on the agriculturist.

The other great rural evil, the excessive subdivision of land holdings, has grown steadily worse during the last fifty years, and no attempt has been made to deal with it. Under the present Hindu law a man’s estates are usually divided amongst his heirs, field by field, instead of by taking the property as a whole. The result is that an enormous proportion of land, especially in the Deccan, is divided into uneconomic small holdings, so that a man owning ten acres will usually have them scattered about the village in plots of one or two acres, frequently of an awkward and unworkable shape. No one disputes the importance of this evil, but the local Governments realise that any legislation would probably offend some portion of the people, and as the problem is not one that endangers our rule, the whole subject has been left untouched.

A century of British rule has now ended in a confession of failure, and the measure of our failure is not the amount of agitation against our government, but the hopeless condition of the Indian cultivator, and his poorer brother, the coolie, It is too early to consider the effect of the new Councils, but their powers are limited, and they represent the middle classes rather than the actual cultivators. Their institution does not relieve us of a fearful responsibility.