Agrarian societies are different from the simple or primitive societies mainly because of the use of more efficient technology in agriculture which leads to a surplus. This surplus is appropriated by those who acquire property rights and land and also the right to employ others.
Andre Beteille in his book “Agrarian Social Relations” says that the agrarian economy cannot be understood without understanding its social framework because the economy is not independent of society but is part of it. Agricultural activities involve a social organisation of rights and obligations, e.g., those of landlord and tenants or landlord and labourers.
These are class relationships which Beteille defines as being concerned with the ownership, use and control of land. In addition to this class relation Beteille says that in India there are also caste relationships in agriculture based on style of life.
Caste relations are more visible, clearly defined and sharp as compared to class relations who are often overlapping and less visible than caste. Both are equally important in agriculture but caste has been studied more than class for this reason.
Thus castes have got name and are fixed by birth for each individual but classes such as landlord, tenants and labourers are not fixed so that an individual can belong to several such categories.
Beteille says that agrarian society in India can be understood both in terms of class as well as caste and there is twofold link between caste and class. Firstly, class relations are legitimised and sanctioned by the caste system. The life style of upper castes requires them to desist (not to work) from working with their hands and this is a powerful sanction for their upper class ranking.
Secondly there is a direct link between caste and class as the upper castes such as Brahmins and Rajputs were traditionally land owners, the middle castes were traditionally tenants and the lower castes or untouchables are labourers.
This link between caste and class has been called Cumulative Inequality by Andre-Beteille, which he distinguishes from dispersed inequality where the link between caste and class is broken so that the upper castes are no longer the upper classes.
Beteille says that many social changes such as land reforms, the marketability of land and the green revolution have changed stratification in India from cumulative to dispersed inequality. In order to grasp these social changes it is necessary to understand the class stratification in traditional India.
Classes in traditional Indian society have differed from region to region according to differences in ecological conditions and the land revenue system. Beteille says that the ecological conditions are those of the wheat growing areas as distinguished from the rice growing areas.
The rice growing areas have had a more elaborate class structure consisting of many levels of class starting from the actual tiller of the soil. This is because the growing of rice is a much more difficult task than the growing of wheat and so there are a large number of non-cultivating classes depending on the actual tiller.
The variations in classes are according to land revenue system. There is a difference between the British system of collection of land revenue and the traditional Indian method. Traditionally revenue was collected as a fixed part of the produce of the land either directly by officials of the state or indirectly through tax farmers who kept part of the produce for themselves and deposited the rest with the state, earlier, the officials and the tax farmers did not have any proprietary rights on land i.e., they were not hereditary land owners.
Land was owned by the community and was tilled by the cultivators who could not be driven away from the land if they paid land revenue regularly. The land revenue was paid in kind and not in cash and it varied according to the produced since it was always a fixed part of it. The British land revenue system introduced the notion of property for the first time as it made the tax farmers land owners or zamindars and the revenue had to be paid in cash which was a fixed amount for; times. This was the zamindari system introduced by the permanent settlement of 1793 by Lo Cornwallis. Now land was declared transferable from the cultivator if he failed to pay fixed amount revenue and so land could be bought, sold or mortgaged.
This meant that the land owner could lease land to tenant or could supervise the tilling of land the hired labourers. In this way the British introduced the classes of Land owners, Tenants and Agriculture labourers by their land revenue system.
There were two types of land revenue systems introduced by the British. The first was the zamindari system introduced by the Permanent Settlement of 1793 by Lord Cornwallis mainly in Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. Later on a second system of land revenue called Ryotwari was introduced primarily in North and South India.
In the Zamindari System, there was an elaborate hierarchy of rights in lam consisting of many levels which served as intermediaries between the actual cultivator and the British state. There was considerable sub-infatuation in this system but the ultimate purpose was for the intermediaries to collect land revenue on behalf of the British from the cultivator and to deposit a fixed amount in the treasury keeping the rest for himself.
The Ryotwari system on the other hand did away with the intermediaries and instead brought the cultivator directly into contact with the state for the collection of land revenue. In this way, the Zamindari System brought into existence the absentee lane owner who owned large tracts of land without cultivating it himself and the Ryotwari System brought in to existence proprietary holders with vast tract of lands cultivated by themselves or hired labourers.
In both systems, there was a concentration of land in the lands of a few to be cultivated by either tenants or labourers. In 1951 a study by the Government estimated that 2% of the population held 55% to 60% of the land and the rest of the land was held by proprietary holders making up 29% of the population. These figures clearly show that the majority of the population consisting of about 70% was landless and was forced to become either tenants or labourers. The following classes existed in the agrarian structure prior to the introduction of land reform in 1950.
1. Absentee land owners
2. Proprietary holders who also cultivated the lands
3. Non cultivating tenants
4. Cultivating tenants with occupancy rights
5. Share-croppers leasing land without permanent rights
6. Agricultural labourers