Historical Analysis of land ownershipw

- Rajesh Kumar*

The problem of land ownership at present cannot be resolved without understanding the land ownership structure of the past. The past plays an important role in shaping our perceptions and ordering our priorites. Naturally, the solutions we find for the contemporary crisis are affected by our past. Hence, it is important to see how our ancestors understood land ownership.

There is a general consensus among experts that the question of land ownership came into existence in the post-vedic era because during the Rig vedic era, the Aryans were pastorals and cattle was the main index of wealth. Land ownership was not prevalent at that time. In the post-vedic era, due to use of iron implements in agriculture, people started staying in one place. We find reference to land ownership in the post-vedic book Aitareya Brahman in which it is written that when Vishwakarman Bhuvan donated land to the purohits for performing yagna, Prithvi protested. This suggests that it was not possible to donate land without the consent of the community. In other words, land ownership was based on community and there was no concept of individual ownership of land.

According to dharmashastra expert of Mahajanpad period, Gautam, any property that was the means of livelihood, could not be divided, and this, most probably, also included land. With the development of villages inhabitated by a wide spectrum of communities and professionals, the question of ownership of land that was not attached to an identifiable property became equally perplexing. The fact that there was common ownership of land can also be verified in Rishi Jaimini's Mimamsa sutras. Under this arrangement, no king can give away all the land of his kingdom since the earth belongs to all.

During the Maurya era, political philosopher Kautilya was in favour of the king's control over all agricultural land, but he did not sponsor the notion that the king should be the owner of all the land. Possibly, Manu was the first person to have talked about king's first right of ownership of the land. But this does not necessarily mean that he is the absolute owner of all the land. According to Manu, the king owns half of all that comes out of mines, because he is lord of the earth and protects it. The concept of king's ownership over all land was first propounded in the post-Gupta period by Sage Katyayan who said that the king is the owner of all land and therefore, he has right to one fourth of all the products of land. At the same time, he also accepts that one who lives on land, should be the man acknowledged as its owner. A similar sentiment is expressed in Narad Smriti. Contrary to this, the Narsingh Puran clearly says that the land belongs to the king and not to the farmer. One can say that Narsingh Puran is the first text which gives the king the total ownership of land.

According to Narad, if a family has been enjoying the fruits of a land for three generations, then they have the legal rights over it. However, the will of the king can facilitate transfer of the land to another farming household. This implies that the king's right can infringe upon the individual's right. Chinese travellers Fahien who came to India during the Gupta period and Hiuen Tsang who came during King Harshvardhan's rule noted that the land belonged to the king. Writing in the post-Gupta period, Brihaspati noted that during the division of ancestral property, shudra putras (lower caste sons) of upper caste men would not get a share. Besides, the division of grazing land was also an accepted practice. So, division of land and the continuation of accepting it as private property started during the Gupta period. The rules for sale of land were first laid down by Brihaspati. Kautilya talks only about the sale of house and the land attached to it, but he does not talk about sale of land per se. After Brihaspati, it was Katyayan who made rules in this regard. According to him, land which is taxed could be sold to pay the tax. According to Brihaspati, during sale of land one must mention the number of wells, trees, water sources, fields, ripe crops, fruits, ponds, tax houses etc. Here, one may conjecture that Brihaspati was delienating terms of selling an entire village.

According to Gautam and Manu, if a plot of land stays under possession of a person for 10 years or more, then it becomes his property. Yagyavallabh extended this period to 20 years, but none of them talked about land in this context. Vishnu, Narad, Brihaspati and Katyayan increased this period to three generations that is 60 years and also included land under this. With the 11th century Mitakshara law, the time period was increased to a 100 years and in the 13th century under Smriti Chandrika it was increased to 105 years. This makes it clear that the concept of individual ownership of land could not be challenged any further. So, we see that during the beginning of the ancient period, there was community ownership of land; by the end of the ancient period the stress was on the king's and individual ownership of land, even though it appears that these two rights are in conflict with one another. Due to king's ownership of land, the king could grant land to temple priests, powerful nobles and employees in return of services rendered to the king. And under the concept of individual ownership of land, the person who received a grant of land from the king could hand it over to farmers on patta. From the above it appears that since the early middle ages, there were more than one claimant for land and each had legal backing for it. A similar situation was prevalent in feudal Europe at that time, though there were some fundamental differences.

During 1200s, when the Muslim sultanates were established in north India, there was a change in the pattern of land ownership. The land under the Sultanate was divided into three parts. The first was 'khalsa' land which was directly under the Centre, the second was 'Ekta' which was given to the officers in lieu of their salary. The officers were expected to take their salary from the revenue generated from the land and return the remaining to the Centre. The third type of land was donated to scholars and priests. Since land was in plenty, the question of ownership was relatively less intimidating. Khoot, Mukaddam and Choudhary were the intermediate land owning class. Of them the Khoots had the status of zamindars, while Mukaddam and Choudhary were heads of villages and were prosperous farmers. This intermediate land owning class used to collect tax from the farmers and deposit it in the Central treasury. But, during the era of Allauddin Khilji, the powers of the intermediate class were taken away and the State's employees were given the task of collecting tax directly from the farmers. In the rural society, the land owning farmers and the landless farmers lived side by side, but only the land owning farmer paid the taxes.

During the rule of Sher Shah Suri, the 'Jabt' system was introduced and the tax was based on the size of the holding. All cultivable land was measured and each farmer was given a title deed in which the tax to be levied was also mentioned. The direct relation with the state saved the farmer from exploitation by the zamindars and other intermediaries. During the Mughal period, the situation remained unclear, as had been during the Sultanate regime. It is possible that the state and other sections had right over the same plot of land, but there was no concept of total ownership of land. During this period the influence of the zamindars increased and they amassed enormous social clout. Akbar divided the land under him into 'Khalsa' and 'Jagir'. The Mansabdars, whose salaries were derived from the revenue of the land given to them, were known as the Jagirdars. Along with them there was a large class of Zamindars, who, in turn, were divided into three categories. The farmers were of two types - the 'Khudkashta' and 'Pahikashta'. The former were farmers who tilled their own lands and the latter were landless peasants who tilled other people's land. One may deduce that the settlement pattern during the Mughal period led to the rise of several claimants to the same plot of land.

The question of land ownership once again came to the forefront during the British. It was in Bengal that the British rule first tried to solve this problem. In the beginning, all the land was considered to be that of the ruler and revenue collection was based on contract. The highest bidder of a tract of land was given the right to collect the revenue. After experimenting with several models of revenue collection, the then governor general Cornwallis accepted that the Zamindars had the right of ownership of land and this ownership passed from father to son. This was done so that if a zamindar failed to give the promised revenue on time, his land could be auctioned. When lands of the zamindars were auctioned, it was the traders who usually purchased them. During the British period, industries had declined and for the traders there was no safer investment than land. However, the zamindars lived in the cities and the problem associated with absentee landlordism started cropping up.

The main aim of the absentee zamindars was to extract the maximum amount of revenue from the farmers and little from the tillers. Gradually, the new generation of the zamindars also started living in the cities and their motive too was to extract the maximum amount of revenue from the farmers.

Apart from Bengal, the ownership of land was given directly to the farmers in the rest of the country upon the payment of fixed revenue called malguzari. If they failed, their land had to be mortgaged or sold to pay the
dues. In south India, the farmers used to deposit the land revenue directly to the government, while in Punjab and other parts of north India, the Mahal, who represented the farmers, used to collect revenue. Over a period of time, the British increased their demand for land revenue and to ensure that it could be collected, they made land a saleable property. So whenever a zamindar, farmer or Mahal failed to deposit the revenue on the given date, his ownership of the land was auctioned and the land revenue was collected. Prior to the British rule, such auctions of confiscated land was rare. In most of the cases the land on which people could build houses or land that was to be donated for religious purposes were bought and sold. Even during the British period, 40 per cent of the area came under the princely states and the pattern of ownership on this land was based on concepts that varied from the medieval to modern.

After independence, the question of land was discussed in detail at the Constituent Assembly and Parliament. Since India had decided to become a democratic republic, it was decided that a land distribution should be more just and equitable. Egged on by the Centre, the State governments passed the Zamindari abolition act and other similar acts to bring about some regularity in the ownership pattern of land.

After zamindari was abolished, the zamindars were given compensation of their land and it was distributed among those who had been tilling them. In most of the States, the zamindari system was abolished by 1956. But the absence of land records made it difficult to implement laws abolishing zamindari. According to one study, the area under kashtakars (share croppers) had come down from 42 per cent in 1950-51 to around 20-25 per cent in the beginning of the 60s. This did not mean that the share croppers had become owners, rather it meant that the landowners had evicted them. On the other hand, the compensation given to the zamindars was often inadequate and varied from State to State.

There were several hurdles to the abolition of zamindari system. In Uttar Pradesh, the zamindars were allowed to keep land for their personal cultivation, but there was no limit to this holding, as a result of which the absentee landlord could save their land from acquisition. However, some of the bigger landlords did cultivate land on their own and invested in the land, which were included in goals of land development. The land owners also tried to block the implementation of the Act by misusing the path of judicial remedy. However, by 1960, zamindari was abolished in most parts of the country except in some parts of Bihar. While on the one hand, the big landowners were the main losers; on the other hand, the sharecroppers who had been working on the same land for years gained the ownership of the land. According to a rough estimate, due to abolition of zamindari system, two crore sharecroppers got land.

Efforts were made to improve the sharecropping system and there were three main ingredients to it. The time period for registering as sharecropper was kept at six years. Moreover, the land revenue was reduced from one fourth to one sixth of the production. However, to get ownership rights, the sharecropper had to deposit a lump sum land revenue. For example, in Andhra Pradesh it was only after the payment of eight years' land revene that a farmer could acquire rights over the land he tilled. Despite these Acts, the right of the absentee landowners to start farming and the loosely framed concept of personal cultivable land meant that many sharecroppers were evicted from the land. Since the agreements between the farmers and the landlords were rarely documented, the legality of sharecropper's claim could not be verified. But even then a large section did benefit from it. To improve the lot of sharecropper, the Operation Barga was launched in Bengal by the Left government in 1978 and by 1990, over 14 lakh Bargadars were registered. The main aim of Operation Barga was to provide security to the sharecropper on the land he tilled. He could no more be evicted on the land owner's whim and it also ensured that his rights were passed on to his successor. The division ratio between the sharecropper and land owner was kept at 75:25 and if the land owner invested in the seeds and fertiliser, then it was a 50:50 share between the two. Training camps were set up during Operation Barga where officials from more than 10 departments interacted with 30 or more agriculture labourers and sharecroppers to devise strategies on implementing Operation Barga in that area. At first Operation Barga was hugely successful, but later it could not sustain its momentum because the holdings of landowners were no bigger than that of most sharecroppers of the area and because many started cultivating their own lands.

Under the Hadbandi Act, no family could keep cultivable land above a certain limit. In 1946, the Akhil Bharatiya Kisan Sabha had kept 25 acres as the maximum limit of cultivable land a family could keep. However, there
was a great delay in framing the rules under this Act and different State governments fixed different limits as a result of which the impact of this act lost its intensity. In a country like India where the average holding of 70 per cent of the farmers was less than 5 acres, the threshold limit of land holding fixed by the State was very high. In Andhra Pradesh it was fixed between 27-132 acres depending on the type of land. In most states the threshold limit was fixed on an individual basis and there was provision to increase it. Even with its limitations, this act was an important milestone in the programme of land reforms. It greatly succeeded in ending the land market and concentration of land.

The landowners often took advantage of the loopholes in the land reform laws. At some places they managed to evict their sharecroppers and to save their land from the Hadbandi Act. Moreover, they started keeping land in fictitious names. It was then that Vinoba Bhave, a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi, started the Bhoodan movement. The movement appealed to the individual landowner to donate land to the landless.

The main thrust of the Bhoodan movement was to address the conscience of the landowner and get him to donate one sixth of his land. The land thus procured was distributed among the landless. By March 1956, the movement started losing momentum after getting more than 40 lakh acres of land. It was found that most of the donated land was either barren or locked in litigation. Efficient distribution, too could not be ensured. By the end of 1955, the Gramdan movement was also launched. Once again the inspiration of this movement was Gandhiji who believed that all land belonged to God. Under Gramdan, all the villagers had joint ownership over the land in the village. This movement started in Orissa. Even though it held a lot of promise, by the 60s the Bhoodan and Gramdan movement lost their momentum. But by these movements an effort was made at land reforms which not only complemented land reform legislations but also encouraged the farmers to enter politics and increased the number of farmer producers' cooperatives among other things.

So, we find that the pattern of land ownership changed from community ownership in ancient India to individual and then to king's ruler's ownership.

In the middle ages the king\sultan and zamindar\farmer had concurrent rights over the same plot of land. In the British era, due to excessive land revenue extracted from farmers, land became a saleable product. In independent India, the laws of land ownership were framed to ensure that each farmer had a minimum amount of land with him, but this target could not be reached. Although, some of the disparities in land ownership were addressed over the years by movements such as Bhoodan and Gramdan, there are still many with large tracts of land and many more who are landless while it remains to see how dexterously the government handles social inequality arising out of uneven distribution of land. An empathetic approach is sought from the big land-owners.

* The writer is an engineer and has published four books on history | Email: