THE BENGALEE JACQUES BONHOMIE.
TEIE Times has missed the point of the final decision recently given on the claims of the Indian peasantry, and its demand for a "short declaratory Act" would, if granted, speedily and most justly expel us from the Empire. We will try, by avoiding Indian terms and small technicalities, to make that point—incom- parably the greatest ever raised in India, and in some ways the greatest ever decided by a court of justice—clear to readers who know nothing of Indian tenures, premising that we are compelled to re-state the A B C of Indian politics. In the first place, then, the Bengalee " ryot " is not a labourer, or a tenant, or a cottier, or a lessee, but a man in this unique position : he is the ultimate owner of the soil, his primary tenure being not one derived either from conquest or legislation, but from the impre- scriptable principle of Hindoo society—" Whose is the sweat his is the soil." Setting aside exceptional cases like that of Gude, and the socialist tenure once nearly universal in Madras, this is the root idea of all Indian ownership, and Bengal is at this moment occupied by eight millions of families, each of which tills for itself, with little aid from hired labour, a plot it believes to be its own. Gradually, however, upon this ownership have been superinduced many burdens and some restrictions. The State had from the earliest times to be maintained by somebody, and has always found it easiest to take, either in cash or kind, a share of the produce of the soil. The lldussulman Emperors farmed this share, and when the British superseded them they found every farmer- general exercising powers very nearly feudal but not amounting to ownership. They could and did levy the State tax plus a heavy per-centage for themselves, plus all kinds of irregular bene- volences, but while these dues were paid they could not evict a peasant. Indeed that process never occurred to them. It was a great deal cheaper and pleasanter to cut off his ears, or rub cayenne pepper into his eyes, or drag him through ordure, or beat him into a jelly, and they preferred the easier and pleasanter course. Those practices, however, were not favourably regarded by a civilized Power, and under the British Government eviction became the sole penalty of failure to pay up the State and other dues which were still collected by the M.a-hommedan nominees. Under Lord Corn- wallis, however, a great change was introduced. He had an idea that if the farmer-general were made irremovable and his tax fixed
for ever, he would develope into a British proprietor, invest money in improvements, and suffer the yeomanry under him to grow rich, and he forced on the Civil Service and the Court of Directors the famous Settlement Act. This great law involved in theory a transfer of the ownership of a kingdom inhabited by forty millions of
people from those forty millions to a few thousands of families who had previously been mere officials, but it was not much resisted. The farmer-general rejoiced both in his new position as landlord and in the unalterable amount of the tax which had previously been raised or lowered every few years, while the peasant found that he had lost nothing. He had always paid. his " customary " proportion of his produce to somebody, and might just as well pay it to an hereditary official as to an official who was changed as often as the caprice of the Sovereign might suggest. The law gave nobody any power to turn him out so long as he paid what was customary, and he and the new land- lord could haggle out the meaning of that indefinite idea very easily indeed. At all events, so long as he paid what was asked he could not be evicted, and that for reasons we will explain was his one sine qua non. Though loaded with taxes he was still owner, had, for example, as the Sudder Court formally decided, the sole right to all game on his own land, could transmit his holding to his heirs down to the remotest collateral, could and did resist in court any notice of ouster unless based on non- payment of his quit-rent.
So matters went on for a hundred years, and Bengal flourished ex- ceedingly. There is no kingdom in the world more fertile, no popu- lation which when working for itself is more Industrious. Some of the consequences, also, prophesied by Lord Cornwallis from his Settlement Act really did follow that measure. The zemindar- the word means simply landholder—did not indeed turn English country gentleman, plant, build, drain, or hedge, for he had not the power, except on his wild lands, to do anything of the sort. That was the yeoman's business. He owned the soil, and conse- quently he and not the " landlord " built his house, ran up his barns, dug his watercourse, and bought his implements of tillage — did, in fact, all that the capitalist does in Europa. But the landlord being made secure, did make his tenants tolerably secure too, and instead of plundering them illegally every now and then, contented himself with his customary share of the produce from here- ditary "tenants," or femme, and anything he could get from new ones. This share being entirely unburdened by any claims except the State tax, by repairs, or remissions, or calls for im- provement, in process of time made him exceedingly rich. The strong hand of the white rulers secured social order, and under the ceaseless labour of eight millions of peasalit owners who work seven days in the week from 6 a.m to 3 p.m., and whose soil yields two crops a year, Bengal first fed itself, then paid for its State expenses, then furnished a surplus revenue of nearly ten millions to be spent on conquering the rest of India, and then created an export trade so vast, that in the nine years ending 1857 sixty millions in specie had been added to the cur- rency. The population increased incessantly, the value of land rose steadily, wild land was enclosed year by year, and an ominous change passed over the face of the country. So abso- lutely is this "tenant," whom the Times and its correspondent want to strip, owner of the soil, that his farm is transmitted to his descendants by Hindoo law—that is, in brief, is divided equally among them. The population increasing, and the profit of land, concurrently with its subdivision, there gradually came to be a fierce competition for it, and the zemindars availing themselves of their opportunity, drove harder and harder bargains. When- ever a farm fell in, either by the extinction or bankruptcy of a family, the tenant had to pay more, and to submit to a rate of increase very much more rapid. Still, however, he was considered owner; his pottah or lease was perpetual ; he could not, once seated, be turned out, and the rise in his rent was regulated by a body of decisions which stretch through a century, and which are, without exception, based on the principle that there is a limit to the rent which can be asked from a " ryot " other than competition. The limit varies in every hundred, but can never exceed the "custom,"—that is, the average rate actually paid for all the farms around. While he paid he could not be evicted, and eviction was the one doom he dreaded. Accustomed by the traditions of two
thousand years to consider himself owner of his plot the Bengalee peasant knows only how to till, the contest for land within the vil- lage is too fierce for him to get another plot ; outside is the wide
world peopled for aught he knows by devils, certainly by men who are not his relatives, and rather than go forth he will starve. He is said to be selfish, but nobody ever heard of a Bengalee Hindoo deserting his family, or refusing his wife her share of his food, or cheating his children, or failing to give half the last handful of parched rice to any poor relation who wanted it, or hesitating to drown himself in debt in order to settle his children comfortably in their rank. He is said to be a coward, but trespass on his crop, or turn his watercourse, or encroach on his plot, and he takes down a bamboo, goes into his field, and fights there till he slays or is slain—one half at least of all the "murders" in the Presidency being committed in defence of land. He must have it, and he consequently in practice puts up with a great deal of extortion which he knows all the while to be illegal.
Suddenly it was proposed to abolish the primary condition of his tenure, his right of ownership, subject to his burdens. The infinitesimal subdivision of land in Bengal has long been felt to be a nuisance, for capital cannot be sank in a s8i1 covered by peasant owners standing as thick as rabbits in a warren. A class of thinkers has sprung up who argue that the tenure is the root of all Indian evils, who believe that the ryot would be happier if paid weekly wages and deprived of his plot, and who would make of
all zeinindars absolute proprietors under the English system.
Having against them the Government, the peasantry, and the bureaus, this class would probably have contented itself with
abstract speculation, but for two accidents—the passing.of a measure known as Act 10, of 1859, and the breakdown of the old system of indigo cultivations. Act 10 was the re- sult of an agitation kept up for many years by the mission- aries and the more humane civilians against the exactions of the zemindars, and their habit of "trying on" evictions, and some ancient powers which had forcibly struck the philan- thropic imagination. A zemindar had the right, for example, of summoning a ryot to attend his office, and the courts held that this right could be asserted by force, and that if in assert- ing it the ryot had to be killed that was his fault, and not his landlord's. Act 10 was therefore drawn up by some of the ablest revenue officers in Bengal expressly to lighten the shackles on the peasant, and define his relation to the copyholder, and did there is no doubt remove a vast amount of misery. It would have slipped quietly into its place in the body of land laws, but that a European settler, justly vexed by the pertinacious refusal of the peasants to keep old indigo contracts, and unjustly enraged by their still more pertinacious refusal to make new ones, suddenly discovered, as he said, a way "of paying them out." A clause in Act 10 gave him, as he thought, the right of raising rents indefinitely, he proceeded to put it in force, and the first appeal against him was rejected by the Chief Justice. His fellow settlers, who own large zemindaries, imitated him, the native landholders caught their cue, and it seemed for a few months as if the holdings of forty millions of people lay at the mercy of a few thousand families. The right of unlimited competition involves of course the right of eviction, and so terrible is the villagers' dread of this process, that rather than submit to it they would have reduced themselves to a bare subsistence, or even below that point, keeping themselves alive by little loans. The entire result of a century of toil, the crops, and barns, and water- courses, and fruit orchards guaranteed to their owners by two thousands years of prescription and a century of British decisions, 'would have passed into the hands of a mushroom aristocracy, who have never planted, or built, or drained, or done any one thing to the land except eaten its firstfruits, and maintained a rude country-justice kind of administration ; who during a hundred years have never once claimed the right it is proposed to give them; and who, each man by himself, acknowledges to all comers that the primary right of ownership rests with the peasant. An entire population of small proprietors, the only one in British India which approves our rule, would have been reduced for ever to live by weekly wages, by working twelve hours a day, at the bidding of gang-masters, on great " led " farms. We do not hesitate to say that within six months of that decision having been brought home to the population of Bengal and Behar, every vestige and trace of British rule would have 41isappeared, and most justly disappeared, from the Valley of the Ganges. Seventy millions of people, led by the Sepoy peasants and followed by the Sikh peasants, all equally endangered, would have been in arms for a question which to them seems one of life and death, and against that force even a British army of one to 10,000 would have been led in vain. The Act framed by philan- thropists, and interpreted by men really anxious for civilization, would have been made the instrument of a scheme of plunder on a scale such as the world has never witnessed, or witnessed only when Boris Godunoff handed over lands and people alike to the Rus- sian noblesse. Fortunately for Bengal the Chief Justice, of whose ability and conscientiousness it is impossible to speak too highly, stood alone in his interpretation of the law. Every other judge of the Fifteen, whether barrister or civilian, stood by the people and the rights of ownership, and the final judgment in appeal, while enormously enriching the zemindar, leaves the people a share in the wealth they have created. The landlord, who does nothing on earth except sit and eat, is to increase his rent till it bears the same proportion to the produce of the soil as the-old rent did, but the remainder is the cultivator's, and with it exemption from eviction. The copyholder therefore, whose own quit-rent never varies, may double his " tenant's " quit-rent, but cannot strip him to the skin, and the peasant is not forced to choose between star-: 'ration by the road aide, or predial labour, or agrarian insurrection for the extirpation of the white Courts.
One word more. The correspondent of the Thus says the semindar has a claim on the State, for he pays the State rent. Nothing of the kind. The ryot pays the rent directly, and the consumer indirectly, the zemindar being nothing but the funnel to convey the stream to the State exchequer. One -would think, to hear such an argument made a ground for a change of tenure, that the zeminder spat the rupees out of his own mouth, instead of collecting them by every variety of pressure from the thousands below him.