Land Tenure in Ancient India
Ancient record show that land has been under cultivation
in India for more than 5,000 years. In the beginning, tribes
exercised control (especially delimitation and defence) over
the areas they had taken possession of. This right of the
conqueror was the initial from of land right. The tribes allotted
to the individual families land for their utilization, usually
by means of shifting cultivation.
The jungle which covered unlimited land, although economically
useless, led to another form of land right, namely, the right
of the first clearer. Whoever cleared a plot in the jungle
also had the right to use this land. However, this individual
right of utilization was only valid as long as the land was
actually cultivated. As soon as it was abandoned, the power
of disposition over it reverted to the tribe.
The strenuous work of clearing, the necessity of mutual help,
small scale defence measures, and the expansion of the families
led, in the course of time, to the formation of villages which
assumed the regulation of land rights. Two different forms
developed in time.
The village which had individual land rights consisted of
a group of families which had rights to the land on the basis
of having cleared it. The claims of the families were limited
to the cleared land. The uncultivalabel land in the vicinity
of the village was jointly utilized, but no claims were made
to it. It belonged to the ruler who, in later epochs, also
granted permission to cultivate the land.
In the case of villages which held land rights jointly, the
village community claimed the right to all land within the
village boundaries and allotted it to individual families
for utilization. The administration was not carried out by
a village headman, but by the panchayat, a village council
in which the individual families had their say.
Thus, at an early period already, there were individual and
joint land rights. But landed property, as known in the West,
did not exist at all. The rights were a privilege granting
inheritable utilization rights and included social obligations,
especially taking consideration of the village community's
Because of the need for defence, authority concentrated in
the course of time, and thus, a state was formed with one
ruler at its head. Costs of governing were covered, at first,
with gifts. Soon, however, it became obligatory to deliver
a share of the grain yield- in other words-, a tax was introduced.
The king was thus only given a right to a share of the yield,
but ro rights to the land and its utilization. However, he
was entitled to all the uncultivated land that lay between
It was necessary to establish an official hierarchy to collect
the taxes. The tax collectors were remunerated by being given
a share of the collected taxes and a plot of crown land. This
"watan" land was free of tax, inheritable, and transferrable,
and represented a new form of land rights, namely, land rights
on account of the government allotting land to government
In the course of time, the tasks of the central government
increased. In this huge country where transport conditions
were difficult, possibilities of simplifying administration
played an important role. Therefore, the ruler allotted the
tax revenue from specific areas to people who had to maintain
troops in the provinces, make roads passable, and keep the
passes open. At first, the transfer of the right to these
taxes was valid only for the time during which these tasks
were carried out. Even priests and favourites were provided
for in that way, at first for life, later on, all these cessions
became inheritable. This right to the land on the basis of
the transfer of the right to taxes included taxes only, but
not ownership of the land as in the case of 'watan’
In pre-islamic times already, there had been a diversification
in the land rights. In addition to the land claims of the
village community and the farmers based on the right of the
conqueror and the first clearer, the ruler's claims to a share
of the yield and the uncultivated land between the villages
were generally recognized. In addition, the right to collect
taxes for certain regions was transferred to specific people
and land rights to officials. These were only allotted crown
land. The traditional rights of the cultivators remained unaltered.
The Moguls who conquered India in the 12th century left the
land to the cultivators at first in exchange for the usual
taxes. Often, former small rulers were employed as tax collectors
and were given 10% of the collected amount as remuneration
for their trouble. They were even allowed to keep the land
they had held before and were exempted from paying taxes.
They were strictly controlled to prevent them from collecting
more taxes than was lawful.
Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) implemented radical reforms. He
replaced the payment of taxes in kind by a monetary tax which
was no longer fixed as a share of the actual but rather of
the average yield. Thus, it was not calculated according to
the yield, but according to the area sown, and the cropping
risk was shifted to the cultivators. In addition, the taxes
were increased to amount to half of the average yield. Although
this resulted in evil times for the rural population, the
Moguls did rot make any claims to the land itself after their
conquest. Tax administration was high level; a land register
was introduced; and taxes were levied according to criteria
such as quality of the soil, and so on.
After Aurangzeb's death in 1707, the power of the central
government decreased rapidly, and the control over the tax
revenues was lost. In order to obtain revenues at all, tax
collectors' posts were leased to the highest bidders in exchange
for fixed sums. On the basis of their knowledge of the local
conditions, the tax collectors were free to extort as much
as possible from the rural population and keep for themselves
the difference between the collected taxes and the amount
to be remitted. These "assignees" were the first
intermediary step in the direct tax relations between the
government and cultivators.
The transfer of tax collection rights, know already in pre-Mogul
times, for specific regions as remuneration for services rendered
became so common that, under Aurangzeb's reign, 90 % of all
tax revenues fell to such privileged parties, and only 10
% to the ruler. These grants of land with the right to collect
taxes from it were also conferred on favourites. The conferment
of such "jagir" transferred all the rights the government
held, i.e., taxes, claims to uncultivated land, police power,
etc., but no claims to the cultivators' land. Whenever tax
collectors became landlords in the course of time, this was
due to their reclaiming waste land or their confiscating the
land of people who owed taxes.
Towards the end of the Mogul era, a type of "right"
to land developed which was in the hands of sometimes parasitical
rent collectors who did not perform any work. But this refers
to the government's tax rights, not to a direct claim to landed
property, or land utilization, on peasants' land. Their old
saying 'Taxes are the king's wealth, the land belongs to me"
was still valid.