The result of this indiscriminate plunder was obvious to all but the British. Bengal was on the
verge of famine. It struck in the winter of 1769. It killed one third of the population of Bengal and
Bihar. The famine continued in 1770. The enormity of the suffering of the 1769 Famine is beyond
description. Bengal had been drained so badly, sapped as if by a vampire of its life blood, in the
thirteen years since Clive's victory at Plassey that by May 1770 it was at its worst. Crowds
wandered around, aimlessly with sunken eyes and swollen stomachs. People sold their children or
resorted to cannibalism when nought else was available.
The Famine was to bring about a veritable revolution (in, the general, not the literal sense) in
Bengal. It replaced the old relations of production with the new. This, perhaps, was the first
material and critical change in the quality of relations of production anywhere in the Sub-continent
in three thousand years. Henceforth bourgeois relations of production would dominate. In doing so
the Famine created an economic divide and upset the economic system precisely along the
The Famine wiped out one third of Bengal's population and one third of the impoverished
peasantry. The Calcutta Council insisted upon the recovery of land revenue rejecting all pleas for
remission. Its officers were directed to employ the normal coercive methods and to continue the
distress of farm animals and implements in all cases of default. Despite its ferocity, the
Company's revenue collectors had gone about their job of confiscating crops, reserves and even
seeds. Soon there was a shortage of both manpower and inputs. Only the Company had
well-fortified godowns at the Fort William factory near Calcutta. Only it was able to hoard and
build up any stocks. As people fled their lands and agriculture produce and grain became scarce,
the Company's officials took to hoarding of grain and were happily profiteering.
As famine conditions wore off the agricultural tiller found that he had become a scarce and
therefore a wanted commodity. There had been a sharp and sudden fall in propulation. The peasant
could, for once, demand a price for his services and contract with the highest bidder. Peasants fled
their villages, breaking their feudal bonds, aware that the weakened landlords were in no position
now to pursue them to distant districts. There was a major inter-district movement of the peasant
population. Large tracts of fertile land lay fallow and barren for want of tillers. For the first time in
Bengal cultivable land exceeded the number of capable hands available to farm it. Land-owners
under pressure of land revenue officials began to seek after peasants offering them more attractive
terms. The scarce manpower was at a premium and the nature of the landlord-peasant
relationship took a radical change. The peasant, conscious of his bargaining superiority did not
want to jeopardise his newly acquired mobility as demand for his labour was widespread. He was
not prepared to be tied up again to specific plots of land. He had obtained his freedom. His attitude
had also changed. He would not now wait for the crops to ripen and then receive a share of the
produce after many months of labour. He wanted ready cash. He demanded the periodic payment
for his labour. He demanded regular wages. This implied the "wage-nexus" and non-resident
And this, in turn, demanded financial and monetary liquidity in the master. The crops of 1771, and
therefter, required, thus, substantial investments and imputs. Both were beyond the means of the
Muslim feudatory and the occasional peasant proprietor.
This is where the Calcutta rentiers stepped in. They alone had the capital to invest. The high
price of crops, induced by the Famine, was incentive enough for investors. The Hindu merchants
had already benefitted as the natural economic allies of the British. They now bought lands
belonging to Muslims, at throw-away prices. The "wage-nexus" was thus also accompanied by
absentee landlordism. The power to collect revenue passed from the landlord to the bourgeoisie,
from the Muslim to the Hindu. The Divide was, in essence, one of contradictory economic
The "wage-nexus" was a new relation of production different from that of the bonded serf or the
land-tied tenant. It spelt a revolutionary change in the status of the peasant, allowing the teeming
millions of his kind an amazing independence, a new found confidence, and the first lessons in
self-assertion. The agricultural proletariat could now sense the importance and value of its labour
and was in a position to negotiate its own terms. It was only the beginning, of course. It could
have gone a long way. And for this very reason it had to be smothered in good time. In due course
the Permanent Settlement would do just that.
The Famine in Bengal was to have one other important social impact. On the one hand the
Calcutta Council realised that indiscriminate and unlimited plunder results in the subsequent
losses of revenue. On the other the new "landed class", Britain's allies themselves, began to
protest the high rates of land revenue and the system of institutionalised corruption practised by
the "Nabobs" of the East India Company. And this class of bourgeois allies had a more effective
voice than that which the farming lords had had at their command.
The brash vagaries of the Famine, and the contribution made to these by the callous barbarities of
the Calcutta Council might have gone unnoticed in England had the victims remained the
peasantry and the feudals. But now the junior partner of the British Indian system, the Indian
bourgeoisie, was on the receiving end. Its voice spanned the high seas, and reached Westminster.
And this was a time when two Englishmen of great talent but corrupt proclivity succeeded each
other in the command of the affairs of the Company. Robert Clive had been appointed the
governor of Fort St. David (near Madras) in 1755, but attained fame as he sailed into Calcutta to
recover it and Fort William from Siraj-ud-Daulah in 1756. Subsequently the Battle of Plassey
made him a household name in India and back home in England. Between 1756 to 1767 Clive spent
two terms as governor in India. He had come as a pauper, but returned as a millionaire. Soon after
his second return, the Company appealed to the the imperial government to save it from
bankruptcy. Clive defended himself in an all-night debate in the House of Commons complaining
that he was being treated like a sheep-stealer, and asserting: "I stand astonished at my own
moderation". He was exonerated.
Warren Hastings was governor and then governor-general between the years 1772-1785.
Hastings earned a reputation of arbitrariness, avarice and inconstancy in India on account of his
frequent breaking of treaties, his selling of whole Indian districts, his hiring away British troops as
if they were his personal retainers, and the deliberate, and quite unjustified humiliation of the
Begums (ladies) of the princely house Oudh. But what had "finally roused British parliamentary
concern over the state of Bengal was not the plight of India's peasantry, but the Company's
professed inability to pay a promised annual tax of 400,000 pounds to the treasury in 1767. As
every member of parliament could see, many individual servants of the company returned home
from India with larger private fortunes than that they could have carried in their gunny bags.
Clearly something was wrong with the state of Bengal."
The cavalier jobberies of Governor Robert Clive, and the inscrutable and despotic actions of
Governor General Warren Hastings, were the subject of heated Parliamentary debates in London
in which the libertarian instincts of Edmund Burke sparkled with a lustre rare in these times rich
with the new imperial loot. Although both were acquitted (Hastings after seven years), both the
erstwhile heroes of the Company were humiliated in England by the debates and controversy.
Clive took his own life in despair. Hastings quitely married again and receded into retirement until
his death in 1818.
It would be too much, however, to conclude from these proceedings that England was somehow
ashamed of the expropriationary policies of her sons. Most Englishmen were, indeed, smug with
the benefits accompanying the plunder. Prime Minister Pitt evoked that sentiment when he made a
pointed and bitter reference to Edmund Burke in the course of a debate in the House of Commons
in 1782: "We now see foreign princes not giving vote but purcahsing seats in this House, and
sending their agents to sit with us as prepresentatives of the nation. No man can doubt what I
allude to. We have sitting among us the Members of the Rajah of Tangore and the Nawab of
Arcot, the representatives of petty Eastern despots." The allusion to a Raja and a Nawab was, of
course, inappropriate. The heroically articulate Burke was never a spokesman of feudal India. His
passionate speeches were evoked by the distresses of the Indian bourgeoisie. This class
continued to petition and press upon parliamentarians in London. It had itslobbyists. It
emphasised that the prevalent rate of unbridled and unsystemised plunder would jeopardise
Britains dominion in India.
The British dominion could be in jeopardy. The indiscriminate plunder could result in losses of
revenue, and the antipathy of the new land-owning allies created by the Company's own
expropriationary policies. The goose that laid the golden eggs could not be killed. It had to be
sustained at the same time that it was exploited. Cornwallis came, accordingly to rationalise the
Company's adminstrative and revenue system.
The Famine established upon the Company and the British Government the counter-productivity
and irrationality of unfettered and unrestricted expropriation. To milk the cow you must maintain it
too. And fatten it, if you want good beef. Not that the Company's objects were not coincidental
with its primary interests. Only its methods of achieving those objects were misconceived. It was
interested in making the maximum gains. It had only opted for the wrong policy. And that too
Famine had killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Expropriation had, therefore, to be
systematised. It had to be rationalised. The "loot-machine" had to be properly stream-lined and
lubricated. As James Morris points out, it had been officially declared that "The main work of the
Indian Administration is the assesment of the land tax, the chief source of revenue". And
Cornwallis was the man given just this mandate. He was a land-owner in his own right, and
belonged to the inner circle of close friends of Prime Minister Pitt.
In 1793, Cornwallis promulgated his "Settlement". It fixed the rates of land revenue and the terms
of the landholding. This Settlement was later made permanent, and came to be so called. So long
as the landlord continued to pay the "settled" amount, his holding would be secure. He could retain
all he was able to extract from the peasant in excess of the settled rates. Thus while the peasant
was still exposed to extortion and arbitrary levies, the land-owner was given the respite of the
pre-determined and fixed (settled) demands of the government (the Company). The landlord thus
became a revenue-collection-agent for the Company. But to enable him to effectively play that
role, he was necessarily invested (settled) with certain key powers enabling him to employ
coercive force, and to keep the country-side quiet. He thus became a pivotal confederate of the
Raj (in conjuction with the bureaucracy) by assuming the responsibility, at the lowest level, of
both the elemental and primary concerns of the British Government in India: collection of revenue
and maintenance of law and order.
Cornwallis' measures continue to be admired by the revenue-minded and Raj-oriented
bureaucratic elite of Sub-continent to this day. They still style him a genius, a revenue expert, and
an administrator of the rarest qualities. Yet what he in effect did was only to rationalise and
systematise what Clive and Hastings had done before him: plunder. He had come to oil the
machine that had been used for the expropriation of Bengal's surplus produce. From the previous
cumulative 'settlement' (collection) of 2,818,000 pounds sterling, Cornwallis raised the settled
revenue to 3,400,000 pounds!
Cornwallis' Permanent Settlement of Bengal (1793) was ostensibly intended to rid the
land-owner of the vagaries and arbitrary assessments of the revenue collectors. Land was
assessed throughout the province and the revenue 'settled' upon the land-owner initially for a
period of ten years, (later this rate was made permanent). So long as the land-owner continued to
pay the fixed revenues, he was secure in his tenure and immune from eviction. How he obtained
the revenue, and what he extracted in excess of it, was none of the Company's business. The
Company and the recently formed Hindu land-owning class had thus arrived at a working
relationship. This was a partnership in furtherance of mutual interests. It was only the peasant
who was being short-changed in the bargain. And the peasant had no voice.
For the vast majority of the Bengali populace, therefore, the Settlement spelt disaster. The
peasants had enjoyed a short period of a rare status since the Famine. Being in short-supply, the
peasantry had been wooed after and sought to be won over on attractive terms. It had, no doubt,
shared the burden of the expropriationary revenue-extractions with the landlord, but the latter's
disposition towards it had been mild, and his authority restricted. Now the Settlement again
relegated the peasant to an insecure tenancy. The landlord, no doubt, escaped the unpredictable
vagaries of the collector, but the tenant was at once made subject to an equally unprincipled
Custom had made the erstwhile feudal lord at least responsible for the peasant house-hold's
expenses on births, marriages and other necessary cermonies besides some subsistance
insurance in case of ill-health. Age-old practices, norms, and traditions that placed a paternal,
albeit cruel, responsibility upon the landlord's shoulders towards the survival of his serf,
prevented the excessive collection of land revenue in certain circumstances. The peasant could
plead these before the feudal lord to obtain mitigation of his burden. But not so before rentiers
(absentee landlords) or the Company. These were not bound by, or inititiated in, any such usages
or traditons. In the case of the Company its Directors were motivated only by profit. It therefore
continued to devise means to extract the most, and more than that too. This eliminated the
remaining old feudals who were now caught between tradition and the new demands. There was
another spate of sales of lands. The Calcutta rentier took them all.
The distant Calcutta rentier was concerned only with the expropriatable surplus. And the concept
of the "surplus value", to his mind, was far in excess of the surplus expropriated under the feudal
order. Despite his authority the Zamindar could not fleece the peasant beyond a particular level.
The new men from Calcutta, the financial speculators, who had stepped in to buy the lands, bought
the land cheap and squeezed the tenant hard. They lived in Calcutta, and became absentee
landowners. The agrarian surplus began to fatten all the "Calcutta-wallas": the officials of the
Company and this new class of absentee landlords, the Calcutta rentiers.
The British could not discard the profit-motive. They were indifferent administrators, but
unsparing merchants. In the zeal to make the most of everything, and to squeeze out the juices of
their subject peoples, the Settlement at first decreed astronomically high rates of land revenues,
and pathetically low prices of the farmer's produce. The justification of the former was ostensibly
the inducement to increase productivity; of the latter, to enable the Company's officials to
unabashedly profiteer in black-market trade by hoarding.
The peasant, whose surplus was, in effect, what the entire game was all about, lost that recent
independence that the cruelty of the Famine had ironically given him. He was again relegated to
the status of an insecure, tenant-at-will. He was downgraded at once, and once again, to the
lowly position of the serf held captive by the landlord's absolute authority and the landlord's
potential of, and propensity towards a brutal use of force. This was, however, a turning point in the
Bengali character. The brief period of twenty five years in which hithertofore unknown privileges
had been gained was not to be easily forgotten. Privileges and bargaining power enjoyed by one
whole generation could not readily surrendered. The fact that the peasants had, over the years,
adopted the Islamic beliefs of their old masters, and were now under the dominion of the Hindu
absentees, must also have contributed to the hostility of the new land-owners towards, the
peasantry although the very nature of the relationship between them, itself evoked this
antagonism. Henceforth Bengal would see more peasant uprisings, more popular unrest, than
most of the other regions of India.
This process of large-scale sale of their lands by the old Muslim land-owners to the new
breed of the urbanised speculators, also implied the early emergence of the Hindu bourgeoisie.
Its support for, and integration in, the processes of governance in the early days of the British Raj
provided a mainstay of support to the Company. There were mutual benefits for both. The
socio-economic topography of Bengal thus underwent a radical and absolute change. The ruthless
policies of the British instantly, and savagely, transformed the social fabric of Bengal.
There were yet other ways in which the Bengali Muslims were adversely affected by the
Company's victory, leaving room to be filled up by the enterprising Hindus. For centuries, India
had obtained its justice either from the local panchayats, the tribunals of the guilds, or the courts of
justice set up by the government. Substance and procedure in the past had been was regulated by
the precepts of Islamic law. Cases of the more serious crimes, relating to law and order, and other
more prominent or inter-guild disputes ended up in the Islamic courts, be they of the local Qazi or
the provincial governor, and sometimes indeed the court of the Emperor. These courts normally
followed fairly arbitrary methods but were supposed to apply the norms of the Islamic Sharia. A
vast body of petition writers, munshis, advisers, and experts in the language and forms of the
Sharia had developed, though there was no tradition of lawyers since vicarious representation was
not known to feudal or Islamic justice. The position of these courts was being undermined as the
British revised public law. They began to supplant Islamic law with their own procedures, rules of
evidence and substantive precepts practised before a new heirarchy of civil, criminal and revenue
courts. Countless Muslim petition-writers, munshis, and Sharia experts were out on the limb.
By the mid-ninteenth century Hindus were to go far ahead of the Muslims both in the levels
of western education and in the proportion of jobs in the subordinate civil services of the East
India Company. The trend led to an early spread of a bourgeois development amongst the Hindus
while the resentful Muslims remained backwardly feudal. The nationalist movement in India also
broke out first in the bourgeois dominated areas, and among the bourgeois middle classes. By the
late nineteenth century the Hindu bourgeoisie, having matured fully, wished to break the bonds of
its partnership with the British and to undertake the struggle to replace the British merchant,
manufacturer and Government. The Muslims were, as yet, far behind. The religious divide merged
in the divide of the two different classes, of the two different social orders. Although the religious
differences would, in time become prominent, yet the essential contradiction would initially emerge
less out of dogma, and more out of the divergence of economic and social interests.
But that is not to suggest that barring the economic and religious distinctions, there was nothing
to distinguish the Hindu from the Muslim. There were many cultural and attitutidinal differences.
"Muslim religion and culture militated against hoarding and excercised almost irresistible pressure
in favour of display, use and, necessarily, waste. Muslim women wore gold ornaments on their
feet - which Hindu women avoid. Muslims used gold and silver plates and utensils, and gold and
silver leaf for hte decoration of eatables, thus consuming what in all amounted to a considerable
quantity of precious metals as food. Hindu beliefs and social forms reduced the cooking utensils
and plates and dishes to the minimum that could kept ritualistically, and actuall, clean; Muslim
culture made the manufacture and utilization of a number of cooking utensils of large sizes
necessary, because the entertainment of guests was a social duty." In short, and broadly, the
Muslims were given to spending; the Hindus to saving.Read more...
The Indus Saga and the Making of Pakistan