What was the Revenue system of Britishers in Malabar?

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In Malabar, one of the early major acquisitions of the British in South India, the existing Mysorean revenue system was sufficiently innovative and rapacious; on their assuming power the British made that oriental oppres­sion more systematic and cruel. C.A. Innes, the editor of Malabar and Anjengo, (Gazetteer) did not fail to notice this fact when he said, that here “the share of the pattam reserved for Government was, during the first ten year of the British occupation, increased from 50 to 60 per cent, in some nads and in Iruvalinad to 72 per cent, but on the other hand, the Mysorean jama was not enhanced by 10 per cent for collection charges…”

Macleod, the first Principal Collector of Malabar, considered this assessment of the district unduly low and imposed on it a higher percentage increase. Innes describes his ill-advised revenue policy thus: “he endeavoured with the help of the parbutties or village officers to make a survey of the district within 40 days. The time allowed for the purpose was ludicrously small; the parbutties were as corrupt as they were incompetent; and the resulting accounts ridiculously false.

Actual produce was over-estimated; produce was assessed that existed only in the imagination of the parbutties; and assessments were imposed on the wrong men. But his mistakes did not end here. Not content with revising the assessments, he revised also the rates of exchange; and the unfortunate cultivator, when he paid into treasury his heavy assessments in fanams, found that owing to the revised table exchange a balance was still due from him. An insurrection followed, and in the beginning of 1803 the province rose en masse to allay the storm which he was powerless to quell, Major Macleod summarily resigned his position and left the district”.

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The chaotic political conditions of the 18th century and the rise of the British to power had brought about a lurid economic anarchy in South India as a whole. In Nellore district, acquired from the Nawab of Carnatic, the British found an emaciated people who were ground down by the renters and left nothing with but their ploughs and cattle. The British in their turn, succeeded in depriving these wretched masses those ploughs and cattle also, thus making their condition more woebegone.

The miseries suffered by the people of the districts of Bellary and Cuddapah which were ceded to the British by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1800, perhaps, had no parallel. In a most unsettled state with no regular government to protect the weak, the Zamindars who were entrusted with the revenue collection, made the life of the people a synonym of woe.

It is said that “poligars and potails each of these became the leader of a little army and carried on destructive feuds with the villages immediately contiguous to him. Bands of robbers wandered through the country, plundering and murdering such travellers as refused to submit to their exactions, while the Government, conscious of its weakness scarcely attempted to interfere.”

The financial policy of the British was no her cause of the extreme poverty and backwardness of the people. The Anglo-Indian financial system differed from the earlier systems in four important particulars. (1) The payment of the army, police and other public establishments in cash. (2) The collection of the land tax in money instead of wholly or partially in kind. (3) The transfer of a portion of the Indian revenues to England, for the payment of the Home charges usually styled “The Indian Tribute”. (4) The creation of funded public debt, of which the interest has to be paid in cash.

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The hereditary revenue, military and police officials were generally paid by grants of land during tenure of service. Wages of farm hands and agricultural labourers were paid in grain. Grain was also the common medium of exchange. The ordinary people lived in a restricted and simple fashion having few wants. Money was needed only for the purchase of metal wares and other luxuries which were strictly limited to the affluent classes.

Quantity of coins in circulation was necessarily very small. The super-imposition of a money economy over a hereditary and predominantly barter economy of rural India was an innovation which, by its very nature was revolutionary.

Rise in the value of money was the inevitable consequence of the revenue and fiscal measures of the British. On the enforcement of money assessments of land, the amount of coin previously circulating and sufficient for the adjustment of the limited transactions, proved quite inadequate for the settlement.

When the British demanded money payment for settling land tax, the ryots and to sell larger quantities of produce then they used to. But the supply of coin remaining as before, the effect of this increased demand for it was of course to enhance its price. The coin in circulation had to perform double or treble the work it had accomplished before.

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The ryot requiring more cash to pay his money assessment had, in consequence, to bring more produce to market, which occasioned a glut and brought down price. When more land was brought under the plough, and military and civil establishment began to be paid in cash, the demand for money increased. Prices fell more and more and peasants became more impoverished than before and the juma fell in arrears.

An enlarged currency was not thought of at that time and the steady downward trend of prices ruined the traditional economic structure of the Indian society. But unmindful of the hardship of the people the British administrators raised their assessment rates without reference to the existing conditions and tax collectors employed every species of extortion and torture to collect the dues.

The discontent of the people steadily increased and as a result 19th century was rent by innumerable peasant uprising, big and small, in every part of the peninsula. The modus operandi of the revenue collection was more oppressive than the assessment itself. The extortive juma is more tolerable than the mode of collection.

The Sheristadars and Pardutties and their Kolkars seized and sold the property and personal effects of the revenue defaulters. For instance with reference to these evils of revenue administration in the Wynad area, in Malabar, T.H. Baber, the magistrate wrote to Warden, the Principal Collector : “a catalogue of effects seized and sold by your Parbutties during the two last year’s exhibit no less than 509 Brass Gendies, Ginnum, Oraly, and Lamps, 45 Kaikots, and other implements of Husbandry and 104 cattle, amount realised on which account is eight hundred and odd Rupees, a sum comparatively nothing to what will be required to replace those necessary articles; it is impossible such a system can last long.”

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The accounts of the varieties of torture administered by the revenue officers and their servants and the police on the ryots who failed to remit the revenue demands and bribes, are horrifying. These oppressions are generally said to be done by the native official in whom the English had no part; but in fact, they were perpetrated by these low-paid minions of the law under the direct supervision of the superior white officers.

When complaints poured in from every village in Madras (now Chennai) Presidency against the inhuman treatment of the ryots at the hands of these revenue and police officers, the Government appointed a commission to enquire into the matter and the Report of the Commissioners for the Investigation of alleged cases of Torture submitted in 1855 is a revealing document. This Report will show how miserable was the life of the peasantry in South India under the British rule. A few extracts are given below:

“Many a witness has declared to us that the people would be satisfied if the demand of the Revenue Officers were restricted to the just Government dues; we entertain no doubt but that the extortion, of what are erroneously termed “Bribes”, is universal, and that when payment cannot be obtained by fair means, foul will be resorted to.

Then is brought into play all that perfect but silent machinery which combines the forces of Revenue demands and police authority; the most ingenious artifices which the subtlety of the native mind can invent had recourse to; and it seems highly probable to us that it is a common practice with the native officer to give their own illicit demands precedence, when pecuniary means being more plentiful or easily procurable.

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The process of extraction is more readily compiled with, under hopes and promises of future services, perhaps that of assisting in cheating Government among others, expressly with a view to keep the revenue demand as a corps de reserve to fall back upon, the practice of oppression and violence to extract that, being not so apparent an injustice in the eyes of the people as the application of the same measures for mere private personal purpose.

The description of violence commonly in vogue for revenue and private extortion purposes, which have been spoken to in the course of this inquiry, are as follows: Keeping a man in the sun; preventing his going to meals or other calls of nature; confinement; preventing cattle from going to pasture by shutting them up in the house; quartering a peon on the defaulter who is obliged to pay him daily wages; the use of the kittee; anundal; squezing the crossed fingers with the hands; pinches on the thighs; slaps; blows with first or whip; running up and down; twisting the ears; making a man sit on the soles of his feet with brickbats behind his knees; putting a low caste man on the back; striking to defaulters’ heads against each other, or tying them together by their back hair; placing on the stocks; tying the hair of the head to a donkey’s or buffalo’s tail; placing a necklace of bones or other degrading or disgusting materials round the neck; and occasionally, though very rarely, more severe discipline still.”

In the course of this investigation one thing which had impressed the Commissioners even more painfully than the conviction that torture existed was the difficulty of obtaining redress which confronted the injured parties. The reasons, they said, were many: “In the first place the infliction of such descriptions of ill-treatment in the collection of the revenue as we have above specified has, in the course of centuries, come to be looked upon as “Mamool” customary, a thing of course to be submitted to as an everyday unavoidable necessity.

It is generally practiced probably only on the lower order of ryots, whose circumstances least permit of their making any complamts on the one hand, whilst their ignorance and timidity render them more submissive on the other, such is the native character that very often those able and ready to pay their dues will not do so unless some degree of force be resorted to..”

The other reasons, were as follows : “The distances which those who wish to make complaints personally to the collector have to travel; the fear that their applications by letter if permitted to reach headquarters unadulterated by misinterpretation will be returned with the ordinary endorsement of a reference to the Tahsildars; the expense and loss of time which a visit to, and more or less prolonged attendance upon, the collector’s office entail; the utter hopelessness, after all is said and done, of the European authorities personally investigating the case, generally speaking; the persuasion that a reference of the petition to the Tahsildar is likely to end in a nullity.

The immense power wielded by the native servants in the districts and those in the Collector’s Office, who work together in concert to render all complaints to the superior European officials nugatory; the probability that if any trial takes place before the Tahsildar the complainant’s witnesses will either be bribed and bought off or intimidated, or, if they appear, that their statements will not be believed, or will be garbled and an unfavourable report upon them returned to the collector.

Above all perhaps, the conviction that he who seeks redress at the hands of the European is thenceforth a marked man amongst the native officials, that his whole future peace and safety are jeopardized by this attempt, and that every means of annoyance and of oppression, even to false accusations of felony, will be brought into play against him, until his. own ruin and that of his family are sooner or later consummated; some or all of these circumstances untie in every case, in more or less forcible combination to render redress not only difficult, but in many instances almost impossible…”

It cannot be possible that the European officers were totally unaware of the malfeasance of their sub-ordinate native officials, for the practice of these oppressions and tortures had a long history of several decades and individual complaints used to reach them very often. But as the establishment was corrupt to the core, they could do nothing but keep their eyes off the sore spots. Moreover their main concern being revenue, any method that was efficacious to overcome the ryots’ professed inability or unwillingness or stubbornness in the matter of clearing the liabilities, could be tacitly sanctioned by them. Records speak of cases when oppressive and arbitrary revenue collection showed a steady increase in the jamabundy, the Board of Revenue expressed great satisfaction.

In Malabar, all the injudicious and patently violent acts of oppression on the part of petty revenue officers were done with the express knowledge and concurrence of the Collector Mr. Warden. His argument for the continuance of this iniquitous process was that as the judicial authority had not obstructed it since its establishment, “it has not occurred to me to make any alternation”.

The directions of T.H. Baber, the magistrate, intended to prevent the abuse in the revenue administration, were not at all heeded by him. He had moreover the full support of the higher authorities in Madras (now Chennai) who had their eyes fixed upon more revenue.

About Baber’s adverse remarks on his work as Collector, the Secretary to the Revenue Board wrote to Warden that the Board were not disposed to attach much weight to Baber’s observations, “some of which are obviously frivolous. The Board have often had occasion to express their satisfaction with your engagement; they have a firm reliance on your activity and judgement.”

It was this management of the revenue affairs which perpetrated crimes against humanity that produced a strong spirit of resistance and aggressive behaviour on the part of the people of Wynad and brought about the Kurichiya Rebellion of 1812.

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