Labour Monthly

India's Agrarian Revolution


Source: Labour Monthly November 1940, No. 11.
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Ltd., London.
Transcription/HTML: Salil Sen
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). 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.

After one hundred and eighty years, in which mountainous fortunes have been built up and huge profits extracted from India, British Imperialism today announces through the mouthpiece of an official Commission set up in Bengal its complete bankruptcy; it admits that for a century and a half it has pursued a policy that has inevitably led to increasing poverty and final disaster; admits that it has created and bolstered up a class of landlords that is an incubus on society; admits that : -

if present conditions continue, it may not be too much to say that the system will break down of its own accord.... It has brought about a situation in the Province, in which the welfare of agriculture is neglected, and a great proportion of the wealth from the land is appropriated by middlemen, most of whom have no connection with agriculture and have treated the land simply as a commercial investment. 1

The spectre of agrarian revolution haunts the minds of the imperialists. The system upon which they have relied for the prolonged enjoyment of the profits of colonial exploitation threatens to "break down of its own accord", or, maybe, under the hammer blows of the people's anger and distress. In a striking passage in his recent book, India Today, R. P. Dutt says:

Between the two opposing extremes of the imperialist exploiters at the apex of the pyramid and the destitute producing masses at the base, exist a host of transitional forms, intermediary parasitism, subordinate mechanisms of exploitation, old decomposing forces and new advancing forces. Through it all, extending every year, develop the rising national consciousness of the Indian people and the rising economic demands of the hungry Indian masses. This is a situation packed at every turn with social dynamite.

In the Floud Commission's report there is no Marxist analysis of the root cause of Indian poverty; no questioning of imperialist rule itself; no suggestion that the City of London is responsible for the lop-sided development of Indian economy, and, as a result, for the impoverishment of the masses. But in its detailed account of the existing land system and its social and economic effects, the Report confirms every word of Dutt's Marxist analysis and lays bare the seriousness of the crisis now affecting the Empire in India.

But without this Marxist analysis and understanding of the nature of imperialist rule, it is inevitable that the pitiful defeatism, characteristic of modern liberalism, should creep in. Thus we are told that the problem of poverty is well-night insoluble .... for,

however we look at the problem of uneconomic holdings we are forced to return to the fundamental fact that there is not enough land to go round. There is now slightly less than one acre of cultivated land per head of the population.... It is the most difficult problem which we have to face because it is virtually impossible under present conditions to suggest any remedy for it.

Whether intentionally or not, it seems that the operative words in this helpless statement are "under present conditions" .

These "present conditions," of which no fundamental analysis is made in the official report, were dealt with in the greatest detail by the Communist International at its Sixth World Congress in 1928. It was shown that im¬perialism, so far from encouraging the development of colonial industry along independent lines, arrests the normal development of its subject peoples, maintaining their countries as agrarian, raw-material producing reserves. Such industry as is allowed to develop is only of a secondary nature and, because it is concentrated in the hands of British capitalists and subservient to their banking system, tends to accentuate the dependence of the colonial country upon the finance-capitalism of the "mother country".

Moreover, imperialism, whilst preserving for itself all the profits, every¬where keeps in existence the semi-feudal and pro-capitalist forms of exploita¬tion in the villages and country areas as a political basis for the landlord and money-lending class which it uses as its trusted allies against the people. Thus the Indian people, some 75 per cent of whom are still dependent on agriculture for a living, suffer under a double yoke -- out of the product of their labour an expensive imperialist machinery (and its profits) have to be paid for, whilst a parasitic class of landlords is licensed to batten upon them.

This background to the problem of Indian poverty, not unnaturally, is outside the scope of any official Commission.

The structure of agrarian society in Bengal is extremely complex and varied. The following simplification does not, however, falsify its general characteristics. At the top of the social hierarchy are the Zemindars or Big Landlords, most of them absentee landlords, Maharajas, Rajas and Nawabs, who pay revenue to the Government. Their obligations were fixed in per¬petuity by the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 at £3 million. Not only the old chieftains and Rajas, but tax collectors and tax-farmers, were by this act given rights as proprietors of the soil at the expense of the peasant cultivators to whom previously "the land belonged without dispute". The intention of the authors of this Permanent Settlement was, it is generally believed, simultane-ously to protect the tenants against exorbitant rent enhancements but "their intention was defeated by the omission to make any definite provisions regarding customary right and pargana (district) rates". This striking omission led to a situation which the Government itself in 1902 described as one in which the peasantry were "rack-rented, impoverished and oppressed." For, from 1792 onwards, the landlords have progressively increased the rents they have collected from their tenants whilst their obligation to the State has remained fixed.

Beneath the Big Landlords are the Intermediary Landlords who have leased lands from them, not with the idea of themselves taking part in agriculture but in order to acquire a vested interest in the land as rent-receivers. This army of non-agricultural rent-receivers is increasing year by year; in the decade 1921 to 1931, it increased by 61 per cent. In many districts there are as many as 15 to 20 of these intermediary landlords between the Zemindar and the man who actually tills the soil; all of them live on the rent paid by the man at the bottom. This process, known as "subinfeudation" has had disastrous effects upon the economy of Bengal's agrarian life; it shifts

from one to another the responsibility of collecting rents. The system has prevented the landlords from fulfilling the functions which provide the economic justification for a landlord-tenant system. .... The land is nobody's concern.

It is not too much to say that the extent of subinfeudation has become an incubus on the working agricultural population, which finds no justification in the performance of any material service so far as agricultural improvements are concerned.

In less than 150 years this army of landlords has succeeded in increasing the rents of the cultivating peasantry fourfold. Over and above these "legal" extortions is the vast sum annually exacted from the peasantry illegally and by means of intimidation. This practice is admitted by the Floud Commission "to still represent an appreciable addition to the burdens of the culti¬vators." As so often in the history of British rule, legislation devised to protect the poor and the oppressed has a surprising way of "proving ineffective".

Beneath the various landlords are the Tenant Farmers, either cultivating their own small holdings or subletting them. Legislation devised to protect and encourage this class has, again, been abortive; their hereditary rights in land which the law seeks to maintain are rapidly passing into the hands of money-lenders and land-speculators. The rapid increase in the number of sharecroppers is, says the Commission's Report, "an indication of the extent to which the hereditary raiyats (tenant farmers) are losing their status and being depressed to a lower standard of living".

Beneath the Tenant Farmer again is the Sub-tenant, who, because he does not enjoy the same legal protection against rent-enhancement and eviction from his holding, is most cruelly exploited and rack-rented.

Free transferability of land has tended and must tend to facilitate the transfer of "occupied (i.e. hereditary) rights" into the hands of money-lenders and non-agri-culturists, with the result that the number of rack-rented sharecroppers and sub-tenants is going up by leaps and bounds.

Finally, at the bottom rung of the ladder are the sharecroppers and land¬less labourers. The former, having no right in land, cultivate the fields of their masters and receive in return half of the crop. "No one denies that half the produce is an excessive rent.... If the crop is even a partial failure, he does not earn the cost of cultivation". Perhaps the most striking evidence of the chronic and deepening crisis of agriculture in Bengal is the rapid increase in the landless labourers. In the decade 1921 to 1931 their number increased by 34 per cent; a million peasants expropriated and thrown on to the scrap-heap by the money-lending and landlord class in the period of ten years. What the figures for the decade 1931 to 1941 will reveal (covering the worst years of the economic crisis) is a matter for speculation.

Such is the framework, firmly constructed and riveted together by Imperialism 150 years ago by the Permanent Settlement Act, within which destitution and poverty has grown to such proportions that even the Govern¬ment is forced to set up a Commission of inquiry. Though by nature and climatically richer than any other of the Provinces, the rice yield per acre in Bengal is lower than elsewhere. The value of all crops per head of the agri¬cultural population is found to be £3 per annum. "The percentage of families holding 2 acres or less is 41.9 per cent, and percentage holding between 2 arm 4 acres is 20.6 per cent." Since, in the opinion of the Commission 5 acres is the minimum economic holding fora family of five (or 8 acres in the West of Bengal), it is clear that from 60 per cent to 70 per cent, or perhaps more, are living in destitution. "Those families whose land is insufficient for their maintenance, cannot pay rent unless they can make sufficient income from other sources. It makes little difference if the rent of such holdings is high or low". With such supreme indifference the problem of uneconomic holdings and mass destitution is dismissed.

With this picture before them the majority of the members of the Commission find that landlordism in Bengal no longer serves a useful purpose.

It is no longer suitable to the conditions of the present time .... it has developed so many defects that it has ceased to serve any national interest .... the present system should be replaced by one which will bring the actual cultivators into the position of tenants holding directly under the Government.

The landlords are to be expropriated; "fair" and uniform rents fixed; and sharecroppers to be admitted, as soon as possible, to the status of cash-paying tenants directly under the Government like other cultivators.

So, after a century and a half of complacent support for, and patronage of, the oppressive class of Bengal Landlords, a Government Commission, presided over by a retired High Commissioner of Canada, admits the rottenness of the whole social structure on which Imperialism rests.

But the old allies of Imperialism, "the host of subordinate mechanisms of exploitation", are not to be thrown on to the dust heap unregarded. The recommendation to expropriate them is accompanied by a promise of handsome compensation. Pensioned off, these go-betweens of exploitation are promised a new sphere of parasitism. They are offered ten, twelve or fifteen years value of their interest in land (the sharks are unable to agree upon their price), thus involving the State with an additional financial burden of from £100 million to £137 million. This debt, incurred to keep in idleness a class that had no social function, would inevitably call for increased taxation of the people. The Commission, perhaps with this fact in mind, is careful to record that "there would be justification for enhancements rather than reductions of rent in Bengal". This, let it be noted, in spite of the fact that some 60 per cent to 70 per cent of the population is admitted to be in destitution.

Generous as the terms of compensation are, the voice of the landlords is lifted in protest. Two of them, members of the Commission, have recorded a note of dissent from the Commission's majority findings. They deplore the unsympathetic treatment meted out to their long-suffering class. They ask, are 150 years of loyalty to British rule to be rewarded thus? They draw attention to that significant passage in the India Act of 1935 which, with the intention of protecting all vested interests from democratic control, specifically mentions the necessity of shielding the Bengal landlords from the danger of "economic revolution". They threaten to appeal to the Viceroy for protection as a minority which "whether on account of the smallness of its number or its lack of education (sic) .... cannot as yet fully rely on joint political action in the legislature to resist oppression". With solemn words they warn that the "abolition of landlords will mean the disintegration of social classes .... will mean encouraging socialism and communism of a kind which is not salutary for the Province."

Poor persecuted and oppressed landlords, they disguise their anxiety for their own vested interests in expressions of anxiety for the future stability of the country. They, as always, identify their own interests with those of the country as a whole. They excuse their own rapaciousness by quoting economic authorities (unnamed) to prove that high rents ensure efficient farming. They have no solution to offer for the problems whose existence they cannot deny; and in order to maintain the old basis of exploitation, they suggest that it is the "human unit" that must be improved. By that they mean that the cultivator must be taught to employ greater skill, more industry, to have a clearer vision, better judgment, more self-control in his habits, more faithfulness to his landlord and greater frugality. Such is the sermon preached by one of the most dissolute and pampered classes in history to those whose blood they have sucked for 150 years.

A note of dissent has also been written by the two British civil servants on the Commission. Trained for service in a bureaucracy which considers it the highest merit to retain the status quo, they run true to type in elaborating the obstacles to reform. The Congress representative, remarkably enough, declares in a note of dissent that he has no mandate from the Congress Party to recommend the abolition of landlordism; he fears that it would amount to a "revolution in the social and economic structure of the Province."

It would be a mistake to imagine that the recommendations of the Floud Commission, in so far as it advocates drastic social changes, will stand any chance of being accepted by the Government. The babel of dissentient voices will supply the desired occasion for their rejection or emasculation, as is the custom with the reports of Commissions. For, from the point of view of the Government of Bengal the two years labour of the Commission will not have been wasted. The main purpose in setting it up was to gain time, to cause a period of delay in which the Premier, Mr Fazlul Buq, could escape from the angry demands of his followers that he should give effect to his election pledges. For having come into office at the head of the majority party in the 1937 elections, Mr Buq saw fit to form a coalition with the most reactionary landlords and imperialists in Bengal after having fought on a radical, even revolutionary, platform for the abolition of all landlordism and the winning of freedom for India from British rule. His betrayal has split the party which he led and, whilst winning him the support of the Imperialists, has finally discredited him with the masses.

Whilst Imperialism falteringly admits its bankruptcy and the landlords haggle over the price of their expropriation, one voice alone speaks clearly and claims the ability to solve the crisis of the Indian people. This is the voice of the man in the fields, the man who tills the land but may not enjoy the fruit of his labour. With lofty contempt for the real significance of the mass movements that are sweeping across India to-day, the Commission grumbles that "the situation is complicated by the development in certain areas of a no-rent mentality which threatens the stability and the security of the land system as a whole." Yes, it threatens the stability of the present land system; those million and more organised peasants threaten also the stability of Imperialism "as a whole", threaten to solve the problem of poverty in a far more drastic and final manner than ever the professional politicians of Imperialism or their painstaking Commissions dream to be possible. For they threaten to carry through, in the not-so-far-distant future, the very social revolution which the Commission in spite of its admission of Imperialist bankruptcy, seeks to avert.

In this article all the italicised portions are quotations from the Report. So far as is possible technical terms of land tenure, monetary and land measurements have been given in their English equivalent. — M.C.


1. Report of the Land Revenue Commission, Bengal (Chairman, Sir Francis Floud, K.C.B., K.C.M.G.), published by the Bengal Government Press. The Commission, set up two years ago, consisted of twelve members drawn (with the exception of the Chairman and two civil servants) from the political parties in Bengal.