The term ‘jagir’ commonly found in official papers of the seventeenth century to describe revenue assignment is not seen in any work compiled before Akbar. It apparently gained currency with the transition from the semi-permanent territorial assignments of the Lodi period to the revenue assignments of the Mughal empire.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the term came to be accepted as the official term for a revenue assignment, having been derived from the Persian jaygir, meaning possessing, occupying a place, fixing a habitation making a settlement. It seems petty officials used it as a jargon in the early years of Akbar, and it found its way in official papers only gradually. Abul Fazl and Badauni tended to spell it as ‘jaygir’ and in the third volume of Akbarnama, Abul Fazal substituted it for the expression ‘iqta’ presumably showing his disinclination to use a term of somewhat vulgar origin.
It seems the varying frequency of the term jagir resulted due to the changing nomenclature for different kinds of assignments in the original documents referred to by the chroniclers. Assuming that the terms used by the chroniclers reflect the changing administrative jargon of official papers, the inference drawn by Irfan Habib that initially the term was meant to designate the petty assignees of revenue (and not the commanders or nobles holding large charges) is validated.
The year 1561 appears to mark a watershed in the evolution of the jagir system, because this was when a few significant and far-reaching changes were introduced. In fact, these changes were the forerunners of the measures introduced by Akbar in 1574- 5. The first of these changes, brought about in 1561, concerned the manner in which the jagirs were assigned.
From this time on, as a conscious policy, the jagirs of great nobles came to be assigned in fragments scattered over a number of parganas located at considerable distances from each other. Synchronized with this change was the beginning o a new concept of assignment, which could be regarded as pre-sanctioned income determined in accordance with the status and obligations of the assignee.
A consequence of the process of fragmentation of jagirs was that it separated the jagirs from administrative jurisdiction, which, in turn, slowed down the regional concentration of the jagirs of the nobles. Nonetheless, there was also a definite policy of not allowing the clans to remain concentrated in particular regions.
Summing up, therefore, it may be said that the arrangement of jagirs during the first twenty years of Akbar’s reign was an evolving process and the emerging system was a different kind of arrangement from the military-cum-revenue assignments of Babar. It is also in order to suggest that the origin of the Mughal assignment system lay in the administrative policy of the Sur dynasty, though the findings so far in this regard are not quite conclusive.
According to Abul Fazl, the division of the Mughal empire at the time of Humayun’s death into a number of military zones under the charge of senior nobles was as per a scheme thought of by Humayun in 1555, sometime before his demise. Professor Nurul Hassan called it a plan for the decentralisation of authority by delegating powers to the nobles administering the military zones. However, the assignments sanctioned during the first four years of Akbar’s reign seem to indicate that the military command which Humayun passed on to him was superimposed on a revenue system under the close control of the central government.
The system in use after 1575 was conditioned by a new method of revenue assessment and collection as also by the introduction of an extensive military hierarchy and its obligations.
Theoretically, the emperor was the sole claimant of the land-revenue and other taxes, However, by using a system of temporary alienations of the claim in specific areas, the jagirs, a small ruling elite was permitted to share the revenue among themselves. The ruling elite consisted of persons who were granted mansabs or ranks by the emperor.
The mansabs were numerically expressed ranks which entitled the holder or mansabdar to a particular amount of pay or talab. Normally, this could be given in cash from the exchequer of the state, but more often it was the practice to assign an area which was officially estimated to yield an equivalent amount of revenue.
In order to ensure exactness in assigning jagirs, the standing estimates of the average annual income from revenues, known as jamas or jamadanis were prepared for every administrative divisions right down to the villages. Khalisa or the land not assigned in jagirs was the main source of income of the king’s treasury, and the king’s officers were responsible for its collection. The size of the khalisa was not constant.
Under Akbar, it amounted to 25 per cent of the total jama in at least three of the provinces during the later years of his reign. (In Jahangir’s times, it’s proportion went down to one- twentieth, while Shahjahan raised it to one-seventh.) The rest of the country, comprising of the vast bulk of the territories were in the jagirs.
This practice of assigning overwhelmingly large portion of land in jagirs meant that a small number of people were in effect controlling nearly all the agricultural surplus in the form of revenue of the country. In other words, much of the GNP of the country was in the hands of these small number of people. Among them, yet another small portion belonged to the class of the zamindars, for example, the Rajput, Baluch and Ghakkar chiefs. The majority of the jagirdars were immigrants, such as Turanis, Iranis, Afghans, etc., while a small number was from the local intelligentsia or petty bureaucrats like shaikhzadas, khatris and so on.
The ranks or mansabs they held were usually not inheritable. However, normally such ranks were conferred on sons and relations of nobles or higher mansab holders, thereby creating almost a dynasty of khanzfids who made their living out of mansabs from generation to generation.
Although the power and the resources enjoyed by the ruling classes were considerable, the mansabdar’s dependence on the emperor’s will was quite significant. This control over the mansabdar was further increased by giving the jagirs a purely temporary character.
A mansabdar no doubt was entitled to a jagir; but not a specified piece of land in jagir. and definitely not the same land in perpetuity, year after year. This principle was introduced deliberately, as mentioned earlier, and was an unavoidable consequence of the working of the mansabdari system.
Promotions and demotions from time to time required revisions of the mansabs and each such alteration in mansab required a change in the mansabdar’s jagir. However, this was not possible without changing the other mansab holder’s assignments. Likewise, officials were transferred from one province to another, when in such instance, a place had to be allocated for the jagir of the official in the new province. This again required adjustments of jagirs.
“The result was that no one could be sure of how long he would remain in possession of a particular area. The average period of term would be manifestly impossible to work out; but the fact that Sehwan in Sindh, for example, was transferred no less than 17 times in a period of 43 years (1591- 1634), lends point to general statements such as that jagirs were transferred yearly or half yearly, or every two or three years” (Dr Irfan Habib, The Cambridge Economic History of India).
The jagirdar’s assignment was thus not permanent and his remuneration was limited to the authorized land-revenue and taxes. It was necessary for him to keep a copy of every revenue paper with the permanent state official or qanungo, from whose record he had to draw his revenue assignments.
He was not empowered with any judicial powers; the qazi appointed by the emperor dispensed justice. He had no police force either; the faujdar, again an appointee of the emperor, was the one who maintained such forces. The faujdar was also a person of some consequence.
These were, however, of theoretical importance; in practice, the jagirdar’s powers were not that limited. Especially if he was a big jagirdar enjoying faujdari or police jurisdiction as well. Actually, the larger portions of the country’s territories lay within the jagirs of such satraps.
It has been figured out that in 1646, 36.6 per cent of the total jama was under the control of 68 princes and nobles, while the next category comprising of 587 officials held 25 per cent of the territories. The still lower rank of mansabdars numbering 7555 shared among themselves between twenty-five to thirty-three per cent of the revenues.
Even after taking into account the fact that some of them got their salaries in cash, these proportions would still indicate the high concentration of jagir holdings in a few hands. The bigger jagirdars had large establishments for administrative purposes (sarkar) to collect revenues in their places of assignment. They maintained a large military force, and, due to their power and prestige, they were somewhat immune to complaints made against them in the imperial court.
The jagirdars were quite famous for their enormous clout and there was a saying that the hakim (jagirdar) for a day could remove a zamindar of five hundred years tradition, installing there a destitute since birth. It was within his authority to detain his peasants and to bring them back if they ran away. Consequently, it was widely believed that the jagirdars were all inclined to treat their peasants with severe oppression.
There was also a reason for this unusual severity. As they were not quite sure of the time they would continue in the jagirs, they tried to extract as much money as possible within the shortest period regardless of its baneful effects on long term revenue collection. No doubt, the Mughal administration tried to put a curb on the excesses committed by the jagirdars, but such efforts did not appear to be particularly successful.
Incidentally, there was a small but quite vocal section enjoying some small share of the empire’s revenue resources. They were the people who were granted madad-i-muash, also known as sayurghal, by the emperor. These awards entitled them to collect revenues from specified lands, usually for life. When the awardee died, the award was usually confirmed upon his successor under certain conditions.
These people belonged generally to Muslim scholarly and theological classes and included retired government officials, widows and women of families of some social eminence. However, the revenue given away through such awards was not very large.
In 1595, the revenue so distributed amounted to four per cent in Agra suba and to five per cent in Allahabad suba. As their assignments were more or less permanent, the assignees tried to acquire zamindari rights in the assigned areas and elsewhere. In this manner, some of them transformed themselves into small zamindars. Apart from this, they had no effect on the agrarian economy of the country.