What was like the Indian agriculture, the Indian villages in the Mughal times? Poverty, famines, oppression, peasant rebellions….. Here is just a few facts from a noted historian.

Sometimes it helps to look at our rural Indian countryside in a historic past. How did our village ancestors live and prosper? For a change we looked at the pages of one of the authorities on medieval India. Prof. Irfan Habib is a historian of great erudition. His classic, The Agrarian System in Mughal India, 1556-1707, OUP is a vast piece of exploration in several aspects of living in villages under the great mughals. Starting with Akbar and ending with Aurangazeb.
The book should help our agri policy makers, we feel. The chapters cover chronologically the extent of cultivation, means of cultivation, irrigation, the crops, agri manufacture, trade in agriculture, the market, prices and the long and local trades. The most important chapter is on the material conditions of life of the peasantry, famines are dealt with in detail. One other chapter is on agriculture property, labourers, village community, village officials. Zamindars, how this class arose, other landlords, land revenue is a big chapter, running to some 60 pages : we should remember in the agrarian India as it was under the moghuls, the chief sources of revenue for the imperial administration and for the king was just agriculture revenue. So much detailed survey, assessment, jama, the collection, the so many intermediaries who ate up the revenue collection, all these form an interesting, even absorbing detailed study.

Then comes one chapter about the resistance of the peasantry, there were agricultural revolts, the famed revolts by the jat peasants, a hardy peasant community who is still politically powerful and influential in laying down much of our current agriculture policy!

Then comes a long list of important statistics and other jargon that governed the agrarian economy and administration. These appendices are : measures of land, weights, coinage and gold and copper value of the rupee, revenue statistics, jama and hasil, last the bibliography. There are some telling pictures, drawings and maps : iron ploughs, geared water-life, map on Indus Basin and Doab : rivers and canals, oilman and his mill Kabir preaching, Peasant listening to Sufi saints, Maps on Jat zamindari, 1595 and 1844.
Interesting news about the extent of land cultivated under Akbar’s reign given. Abu Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari gives lots of statistics. In 1595, the bighas (measured land), in 12 provinces, subas, sarkars in each territorial division in provinces. Mahals or parganas are given for each sarkar. A bigha is 0.24 acres. All North Indian states, including Kabul but except, Dakshin was Akbar and Aurangazeb’s empire’s geographical extent. Total number of villages under Aurangazeb given : 4,01,567. Total area of land : 29,57,42,337 bighas.

Village community is dominated by zamindars, a common term in the North for any big village landowner and the castes who won’t touch the plough, those who did and those who were labourers are too big a subject treated in the volume. Zamindari was sold and bought. It was under Sher Shah measuring of the land by rope (jarib) became a novelty. Pattas were given to individual peasants, revenue collected by patwaris, amin the assessor fixed the jama.

Aurangazeb imposed jizya, poll tax on non-Muslims in 1679 and it became oppressive. In Shajahan’s regin total villages: 78,000. total revenue : Rs.2,81,21,227. In Aurangazeb’s, total villages : 958(?). Total revenue : 2,34,51,956.
Mughals were strong in cavalry, mounted archers. They were swift in the movements and in the open field. Infantry became strong when muskets replaced bow and arrow.
System of jagirdars with raising army for the king became the method of building the army.
A rapid reading through the pages gives again a succession of different images. There is, however, one underlying theme : the coming of the moghuls brought under one central authority the whole of the geographical area, of course, during the 150 years under review we have the moghul rule extending from Kabul to Deccan but excluded are the extreme Southern geography, roughly what the moghuls called the Dakhin, may be the Carnatic of the pre-British Southern parts.

How India, if we can call by such a name, became one country, remained one country?
The development of firearms in the sixteenth century kept the great Asian empires united, say some. May be the one reason is the cavalry, swift movement, victory in the open field.
The other factor for unity is the central administration, the mughals showed the way. In organising the geographical areas into well-thoughtout subas, parganas, mahals and villages, revenue administration has been a singular contribution of the Mughals. Which remains even today, after what all the British did. The British only refined the system, made perhaps more bureaucratic, may be less oppressive.

The collapse of the moghul empire is also explained. There were frequent revolts, by zamindars, by various ethnic population that comprised the mughal society and polity. Hindu reaction against Aurangazeb is one very important factor. Abu-l-Fazl speaks about the climate of the country another reason. “The vast country of Hindustan notorious for rebelliousness, bravery and courage” (p396). The zamindars didn’t pay revenues and often revolted, so too the “ri ayat who drive the plough, the villagers.
Agra and its environs were always scenes of rebellion and army action. Akbar himself led one attack against a village in his 7th year of reign. Tens of thousands persons, women and children were slaughtered!.

Religion often replaced caste for the forging of unity among the rebels, satnamis, Hindu mendicants organised the villagers in the rebellion. The Marathas were the single big reason for the downfall of the mughal empire.

Abu Fazl and Todar Mal stand out as the key architects of the moghul revenue administration, Fazl the only source of recorded information.

Our correspondent

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