During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries about 85 per cent of the population of India lived in its villages. Both peasants and landed elites were involved in agricultural production and claimed rights to a share of the produce. This created relationships of cooperation, competition and conflict among them. The sum of these agrarian relationships made up rural society. t the same time agencies from outside also entered into the rural world. Most important among these was the Mughal state, which derived the bulk of its income from agricultural production. Agents of the state – revenue assessors, collectors, record keepers – sought to control rural society so as to ensure that cultivation took place and the state got its regular share of taxes from the produce. Since many crops were grown for sale, trade, money and markets entered the villages and linked the agricultural areas with the towns.
1. Peasants and Agricultural Production
The basic unit of agricultural society was the village, inhabited by peasants who performed the manifold seasonal tasks that made up agricultural production throughout the year – tilling the soil, sowing seeds, harvesting the crop when it was ripe. Further, they contributed their labour to the production of agro-based goods such as sugar and oil. But rural India was not characterised by settled peasant production alone. Several kinds of areas such as large tracts of dry land or hilly regions were not cultivable in the same way as the more fertile expanses of land. In addition, forest areas made up a substantial proportion of territory. We need to keep this varied topography in mind when discussing agrarian society.
1.1 Looking for sources
Our understanding of the workings of rural society does not come from those who worked the land, as peasants did not write about themselves. Our major source for the agrarian history of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries are chronicles and documents from the Mughal court (see also Chapter 9). One of the most important chronicles was the Ain-i Akbari (in short the Ain, see also Section 8) authored by Akbar’s court historian Abu’l Fazl. This text meticulously recorded the arrangements made by the state to ensure cultivation, to enable the collection of revenue by the agencies of the state and to regulate the relationship etween the state nd rural magnates, the zamindars. The central purpose of the Ain was to present a vision of Akbar’s empire where social harmony was provided by a strong ruling class. Any revolt or assertion of autonomous power against the Mughal state was, in the eyes of the author of the Ain, predestined to fail. In other words, whatever we learn from the Ain about peasants remains a view from the top. Fortunately, however, the account of the Ain can be supplemented by descriptions contained in sources emanating from regions away from the Mughal capital. These include detailed revenue records from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Further, the extensive records of the East India Company (see also Chapter 10) provide us with useful descriptions of agrarian relations in eastern India. All these sources record instances of conflicts between peasants, zamindars and the state. In the process they give us an insight into peasants’ perception of and their expectations of fairness from the state.
1. What are the problems in using the Ain as a source for reconstructing agrarian history? How do historians deal with this situation?
2. To what extent is it possible to characterise agricultural production in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries as subsistence agriculture? Give reasons for your answer.
3. Describe the role played by women in agricultural production.
4. Discuss, with examples, the significance of monetary transactions during the period under consideration.
5. Examine the evidence that suggests that land revenue was important for the Mughal fiscal system.
6. To what extent do you think caste was a factor in influencing social and economic relations in agrarian society?
7. How were the lives of forest dwellers transformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries?
8. Examine the role played by zamindars in Mughal India.
9. Discuss the ways in which panchayats and village headmen regulated rural society.
Please refer to attached file for NCERT Class 12 History Peasants, Zamindars And the State(Agarian Society And the Mugal Empire)