Excerpted from: Dharampal. India Before British Rule and the Basis for India's Resurgence. 1998. Gandhi Seva Sangh, Sevagram: Wardha, Maharashtra.


A major section of the collected material relates to policies and practices, including the use of torture, forced labour, military contingents, etc, in the collection of the tax on land which for about 125-150 years accounted for some 60% to 80% of the total revenue collection of the British state in India. The British themselves felt both around 1800 as well as during 1857-1858 that the tax on land "was collected by them at the point of the bayonet". There were often areas and times when the total land tax of specific areas very nearly equalled the gross agricultural produce, and at times even exceeded it.

The British hold on India and the extraction of the maximum possible wealth from it also enabled Britain to conquer and control the region from St. Helena to Hongkong for over a century on the basis of Indian resources, and in erecting the British created metropolises of Calcutta, Bombay, Madras, Delhi, and the countless military cantonments; innumerable halting places were built for the British officer class from much before 1800; and having settled in as seemingly permanent conquerors the British built residences and parks, and clubs for the officers who administered the districts of British India as also of what was known as Indian native states. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1858; not a penny was spent from Britain for the conquest and control of India and the areas around it from St. Helena on the west coast of Africa to Hongkong in the China seas. All the resources came from India itself.

During the major famines of the later 19th century a British economist who had been sent from Britain had enquired from the British Viceroy what used to happen during draught and famines about the realization of the tax on land in pre British times. The Viceroy, perhaps reluctantly, replied, that in those days if there was no production there was no tax either. But he added immediately that we cannot follow such practice. Our expences are fixed and they have to be incurred so we must keep up the realization of the tax even when there was little or no produce. We can at the most make our tax assessment moderate.

The Indian position had been very different. In many regions of India, especially in the coastal areas there was no tax on land. The state income arose from taxes on trade and commerce. In the rest, perhaps three-fourth of the Indian agricultural area, some one-fifth to one-half of the total land was assigned for local purposes like remuneration for the militia, police, and accounting purposes; for the maintenance of the village infrastructure, including maintenance of irrigation sources, channels, etc, which had a share of some 4% of the gross agricultural produce, and a substantial share was received by major cultural, religious and educational institutions of the region, and some times even by those situated a thousand or more miles away. In all, it seems that, around one-third of the cultivated land was anciently permanently assigned to institutions and professionals not to be disturbed by any authority, and around one-third of the gross agricultural produce was again distributed amongst the infrastructure, which in many places could have meant as many as 50-100 persons and institutions. In one district of Bengal those who felt they had a claim to some assignment numbered around 60,000 in the 1 770s. Further, despite the claimed Islamic over-lordship of Bengal from c. 1200-1750, the religious and cultural assignments in 1770 Bengal were in the proportion of 10 to 1 as between Hindu and Muslim institutions and persons.

According to accounts from Bengal (c. 1770s) as well as south India (c. 1800) it was stated that the amount of tax which a land-assignee received was only around one-third to one-fourth of what the British had started to demand from the areas they began to control. This and other data seems to suggest that the land which paid tax according to Indian norms till around 1800 paid it at around 10-15% of the gross agricultural produce.

The British fixed the tax from land, receivable by the British Indian state, formally at fifty percent of the average gross produce and took the tax in money after converting in money, at some calculated average prices, the estimated agricultural produce of the cultivator. To this were added various other dues by which earlier the village community may have remunerated some members of the village infrastructure, or that allotted for repair of irrigation sources, etc, and thus the share of the British state came around to sixty percent. This was initiated in Bengal and Bihar around 1780 A.D. But most years, after the start of British dominance, became either years of depression, or of acute scarcity, draught, famine, etc, and thus what the peasant had actually to pay at least till after 1860 was more like 70% to 80% of his total production. In certain regions and during many years the land tax even exceeded the total produce, and in the Madras presidency it was found, from around 1830s, that some of the most fertile and easily irrigable lands had gone out of cultivation because even the total produce of such lands could not pay the land tax. It is estimated that around one-third of the most fertile land in Madras pesidency had gone out of cultivation by around 1840 and thus brought about what the British termed as substantial "decay" of revenue.

But for the British, though it created financial difficulties for the state, this was nothing for worry. Around 1750, the rent from land in Britain and in most other European countries is stated to have ranged between 50% and 80% of the gross agricultural produce. The share of the British agricultural labourer, or temporary tenant, who did the actual cultivation and production is estimated at 18% of the total gross produce even around 1800. So the rack-renting, sequestering of the produce, etc, and thus the resourcelessness and misery of the Indan peasant was nothing unforeseen for the British conquerors. These things had been happening in their own lands for centuries. There would be hundreds of taluks in India where the people remained starved for years on end, where the population got reduced by half every decade, like in Palnad in Andhra Pradesh in the first half of the 19th century, and which ultimately broke the people’s back. However such breaking of ordinary people’s backs, must have gone on in most of Europe for centuries till around 1920.


It is perhaps the West which in its quest about its past, time and again, comes out with hypothesis or data which even a century earlier would have been considered as fiction and wholly unbelievable. In 1966 some American scholars came out with an estimate of the 1492 aboriginal human population of the Americas as having been between 90 to 112 millions. The conventional estimates till then put the aboriginal American population in 1492 as around 10 million. The estimate of 90-112 million has now been moved up by scholars to 140 millions.

The pre-1492 American civilizations had been considered as not very old till a decade or two ago. Now archaeologists date them to anywhere between 30,000 to 50,000 years back with indications of high sophistication in manners and life. The idea of the poor primitives seems to have gone overboard for much of America, if not also for the inhabitants of other continents.

There are recent studies on African demography. According to them the population of Africa south of the Sahara around 1500 was quite possibly double of what it became in the 19th and early 20th centuries. We need to acquaint ourselves with these studies and their methodologies.

It has been generally agreed for long that ever since 1492 Europe has been on a mission of plunder of the dominated or conquered areas as they fell to it from time to time. As for India, according to Alexander Walker, the conqueror of Malabar and Gujarat around 1795 to 1809, "it has been computed that Nadir Shah carried out of India 30 million Sterling, but the spoils of the East India Company [That is in reality that taken by Britain] have probably exceeded that sum a hundred fold.... The drain which we have made from India have been less violent than the exaction's of other conquerors, but they have perhaps in their operation proved more destructive and deadly to the people. They have emptied gradually, but the pitcher has gone constantly to the well. There has been no relaxation. The demand has been regular and unremitting." Walker wrote this around 1820. After that the British were in India for another 130 years. What went before would have continued perhaps with greater pressure as the Indian resistance got weaker and weaker. What Walker describes for India must equally apply to other areas of the world which fell to Europe.

But even the more crucial data relates to the totality of industrial production in the world around 1750. The current estimates are that what today is known as the Third World (principally China and India) then accounted for 73% of world manufacturing output. As late as 1830, their share was still 60%. That China was far in advance of the West in science and technology till about 1850 is now fairly well known. Such advancement of China was there even 2,000 years before 1850, while the West reached this point only around the mid-l9th century.

Those of us who concern ourselves with demography and population trends in India know that till around 1900, in most regions of India, the proportionate number of females was somewhat larger than the males. But in the 90 years since the census of 1901, this proportion has gone down countrywide as much as by 6%, that is while there were around 980 females to 1000 males in 1901 now in 1991 it is around 920 females. And this has happened in a period when women are said to have an improved status and greater rights.

The questions which one can raise are innumerable. According to the census data of the period 1881-1911 out of every 5 females (including a girl of 3 months as well as an elderly woman of 80) one was, on an India-wide average, a widow. How did this come about? and what really happened to the men. My own understanding is that British rule and its various impositions. and before that the disturbance in certain areas created by Islamic rulers, smashed the organisation and norms of Indian society whereby it felt lost and aimless. To survive somehow the Indians made what remained, frozen, thinking that at least something will get saved. The Indologists and the Indian scholars dependant on them gave these deformed remnants a literal legitimacy and the happenings of the period of British rule were made to be forgotten, or treated as resulting from the will of Kala. If I may make a conjecture, the number of people who were killed by the British and their policies between 1748-1947, was not just a few lakh martyrs as is generally assumed, or a few crores who died in the famines or in the plagues, etc, but was somewhere between 20-50 crores of people who died in all possible ways, but due to British action and policy.

Such an elimination of conquered people has been the norm wherever Europe has gone as conqueror in its long history. But it is not only in non-European regions that such elimination was carried out. In the case of Britain this has been practiced nearer home, in Ireland, for several centuries. And quite possibly the elimination which might have taken place after the conquest of England by William the Conqueror was no different. It has to be remembered that the dominant European instinct is that of a killer. That India also experienced it should be examined as the norm. And if it is found that something like this did take place it should explain not only the fact of "out of 5 females 1 was a widow" but a whole range of events which transformed the people of India from being fearless to a state of unending fearfulness.