Working Papers

PROPERTY AND SOVEREIGNTY: Creating, Destroying, and Resurrecting Property Rights in British India (1600-1800)

Centre for Policy Research

December 31, 2020

This paper, the first in a series of three papers, constitutes the first systematic legal attempt since the late nineteenth century to describe the changing configuration of property rights of zamindars (landlords) and ryots or raiyats (peasants) relative to the English East India Company in colonial India over a period of two hundred years from 1600 to 1800. This period begins with the Company’s first arrival in India to the court of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir in 1600 as merely a trading company. It ends with the introduction of the Permanent Settlement in Bengal by Lord Cornwallis, the Governor General of Bengal in 1793, pursuant to the Company’s exercise of sovereign authority over the provinces of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. As described in the paper, during this period of great political upheaval, scandal, and intrigue, as the East India Company gradually transitioned from a monopoly trading company to a conquering and then an administering power, Company officials, including the Governor General, and later the Supreme Council of Bengal, created, destroyed, and resurrected property rights of landlords and tenant cultivators. Following a series of experiments with land revenue administration and the lives of zamindars and raiyats, with the sole objective of maximising revenue for the East India Company, Lord Cornwallis introduced the Permanent Settlement of Land Revenue in 1793, which completely destroyed the rights of peasant cultivators in favour of zamindars, and wreaked great injustice and misery upon the people of Bengal. It would take nearly seventy years for British government to begin to reverse this injustice through tenancy protection legislation enacted in 1859, and this reversal in law would only be completed following land reforms introduced by provincial governments post India’s independence in 1947. These later developments will be the subject of the next two papers in this series.

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