There are certain questions that evade clear answers; the question of the ownership of land is a similar one. Land is a part of the natural resources of the category of water and air, both of which don’t have clearly marked ownership. It is because of this ambiguity that different civilizations have looked at land in different manners. Some provided certain individuals with absolute private proprietorship rights while others kept the rights fluid. The Indian civilization belongs to the latter category.
There was a never a clear idea of the land being a private property in India. However there were certain theoretical notions about the sacrality and divine ownership of land which were sometimes different from ground realities.
The theoretical aspects of the land ownership involved the divine attributions and the kingly supervision on the basis of divine rhetoric of kingship. Through ancient and medieval ages in the Indian history these notions have time and again propped up. It can be safely said though, that whenever there was a centralised rule the theoretical aspect of king being the caretaker of the land on behalf of the Almighty was asserted. During times of decentralization this notion couldn’t have been asserted. However even during the times when divine authority over land was expounded, the practical realities remained different. The peasant or the local land tiller and holder on the ground exercised more immediate proprietary rights. However absolute proprietorship did not rest with any authority. The peasant held the land on the ground, the king held the right to extract revenue due to his divine association and due to the fact that he provided protection to the given piece of land.
For ancient India nature of land use has been divided into three types by scholars:
- The land being owned by the sovereign
- The land being communally owned by the village, these later developed as feudal centres
- The land being owned by the peasant
None of these however were applied exclusively to a piece of land and the major phenomenon was the King regulating and governing the land which was essentially under peasant proprietorship.
A brief look at the role of the ruler in managing the land would be helpful. In ancient India it was understood that the king had the right to confiscate and to transfer land from one person to another. This understanding is supported by a quote from the Arthashastra, which says ‘lands may be confiscated from those who do not cultivate them, and given to others’. In fact in the absence of the owner of land it went to the King. These two things can be used to conclude that the King is only the in-charge as long as there is no claimant to the land and that the propriety rights rested at local level. Junnar inscriptions has example of private transfers of land owned by individual proprietors
Counter to this narrative there is another interesting aspect that has been reported in Mimasa texts of ancient times. There the question ‘What can a man legally give as his own?’ comes up to which the answer is given that Land can not be transferred, for it belongs equally to all and men enjoy lordship over the fields but not the whole earth. The aspect of divine right and protective custody over the land also can be made out from a reference in the Narasihtha Purana which states, ‘By conquest, the earth became the property of the holy Parasurama; by gift, the property of the sage Kasyapa; and committed by him to Ksatriyas for the sake of protection’.
Both the trends of thought, on suggesting divine authority over land and the other suggesting private proprietorship existed in ancient India. The King was allowed to manage and extract revenue by the virtue of him protecting the domain.
In the Medieval period the theoretical aspect of divine attribute of land and king’s right to manage and protect it was properly formalised. Bernier and certain other European travellers call the king, the owner of the land, which is a wrongly placed notion, coming up due to their European understanding of land ownership. The Mughal Emperor was not the owner of the land but merely an in-charge. The European travellers misunderstood the Indian land system as they understood it to be like European feudal system where lord had absolute proprietorship rights. The land in medieval Indian understanding truly belonged to God. The King didn’t take a rent on land from the people instead he took a tax on the crop. According to Abul Fazl, he did so only as remuneration for his services of providing protection and justice to the subjects. The concept of rent on an owned entity was completely absent in Indian scenario as was the case with the feudal Europe. The absence of any absolute authority over land can be made out from the fact that there was provision known as ihya land which was a piece of unclaimed fallow land which became the domain of anyone who cultivated it.
Having established this the ground realities were slightly different and despite his justified claims over the tax which made him de facto manager of the land of his domain, the king dare not disturb the local potentates who commanded ground level authority. Thus we see that it was more often than not that the local zamindars with roots and links with the peasants and workers on ground were incorporated in state machinery. Rajputs were not shifted from their homelands when they were inducted in the government services and were mostly assigned lands in their ancestral areas. The workers at the immediate ground level, muqaddams (village headmen) and patwaris (village accountant) were not state appointed but locally chosen. The local potentates like zamindars could even sell their zamindari rights. The same cannot be said about Iqta or Jagirdari rights, which bestowed economic and administrative authority over a piece of land given to a noble by the Emperor for a limited time. In fact the developed system of Iqta or Jagirdari land grants had an inherent element of shifting where the authority over the resources of these lands was subjective to the King’s will.
Thus in Medieval era too there were notions of divinity associated with land and similarly there were certain proprietorship rights that could be exercised by private individuals on ground.
This ancient and medieval understanding of land ownership changed with the coming of the colonizers. The British drastically changed the way of looking at land which till now was as an entity with fluid proprietorship with divine attributes and multiple claimants. They had the concept of feudal ownership in their minds where the feudal lord was considered the ultimate authority over land. And having seen that system they understood the Indian subcontinent’s land tenure to be of the same nature, and thus they claimed rent from the land and not taxes. The rent presupposes the notion of absolute ownership. On their arrival to the Indian subcontinent they couldn’t really identify the owner of land and the first thing they did was to assign an absolute owner of land and then extract the revenue. They auctioned the land on the basis of who can make the payment of revenue to the British government. Their extraction from the land became rigorous by the day because of the colonial parasitic nature.
The coming of concepts of western modernity where the state was supposed to be completely divorced from religious elements discounted all the notions of the divinity of land and it solely became a property of the private individuals. It is a version of this idea of land ownership that has come down to present.
Thus it can be said that the pre-modern concepts of ownership of land, did not divorce the land from the divine attribute that it had because of it being a natural and not a man-made entity. With the coming of the ideas of western modernity to the Indian subcontinent in the form of colonial hegemony, the land now developed the nature of a property completely alienable, devoid of its sacred nature.