The Peshwa’s tax holiday: How the Mughals and Marathas dealt with distress migration

Diverse regimes in Early Modern India often saw the distress migration of rural inhabitants when, much like today, displacement became the forced choice between hope and hunger

June 20, 2020 04:01 pm | Updated June 21, 2020 11:42 am IST

People leave en masse in search of food and jobs during the 1873-4 Bengal famine.

People leave en masse in search of food and jobs during the 1873-4 Bengal famine.

The scale of the migrant labourer exodus from the precariousness of cities to the security of their home villages has few parallels in Indian history. Economist Chinmay Tumbe estimates that by the end of May, no fewer than 30 million Indians had moved across State lines, travelling hundreds of miles on foot, bicycle, or any available means of transport. This displacement considerably overshadows the other mammoth resettlement in living memory, the Partition, which uprooted over 15 million people.

People abandon homes mostly when livelihoods evaporate, when choices are circumscribed, and when the only alternative is hunger. The workers trekking on our country’s arterial highways left their cities because of the jobs they lost, the rents they could no longer afford, and the real prospect of deprivation.

Yet, such an exodus is not altogether new. Diverse regimes in Early Modern India often saw the distress migration of rural inhabitants when, much like today, displacement became the forced choice between hope and hunger. Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, millions of peasants were compelled to relocate due to famine or war.

In 1630, after the monsoon had failed for two years, the Deccan famine erupted and lasted two years. Abdul Hamid Lahori’s Badshahnama recorded that starvation was so rife that “life was offered for a loaf”. Other desperate forms of survival were not unknown: “Men began to devour each other, and the flesh of a son was preferred to his love.”

The English merchant Peter Mundy, travelling near Surat, confirmed that parents sold or consumed their own children, or sometimes gave them away to anyone who would feed them. Ravenous subjects accosted others walking in public to prey on them. Given these wretched circumstances, many chose migration. As Lahori recalled, “Every man whose dire sufferings did not terminate in death and who retained the power to move wandered off to the towns and villages of other [provinces].”

Imperial largesse

The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan organised food and cash transfers to urban residents of Gujarat and the Deccan as well as to rural migrants who had come into the towns. He set up langars to feed them, in much the same way that some State governments and civil organisations have done during the lockdown. Shah Jahan disbursed money to the poor on Mondays, the day he had acceded to the throne.

Over 20 weeks, Shah Jahan spent 150,000 rupees in those two regions. Today, the central government is still vacillating over substantive cash transfers to migrant workers.

In the Early Modern age, violent military conflict was a regular feature of rural life. Generals and officials frequently exacted food and provisions from peasants for their armies, spurring starvation and flight. The Maratha King Shivaji displayed a peculiar sensitivity towards such depredations. Mindful of the potential for distress migration, in the summer of 1674, he cautioned bureaucrats in the Konkan that reckless consumption by the military would exhaust rations before the monsoon ended and fresh demands would crush the farmer. “When you act that way,” the sovereign warned, “the peasants, who have barely held onto their homes and lives, will begin to flee. Some will perish from starvation. They will then consider you worse than the Mughals, who have seized the countryside. You will encounter such rage that the curses of the ryots and the horses will descend upon you.”

Left to rot

Shivaji also exhorted his officials against negligence in grain warehouses, which could cause “incalculable damage”. Tragically, during the pandemic, even as migrant labourers combat hunger, reports have emerged of tonnes of wheat stocks rotting in open granaries. It reeks of callousness on two levels: of public servants who have ignored storage norms and of governments failing to distribute stocks during an emergency.

As the pandemic wanes, governments will undoubtedly have to devise strategies to attract labourers back to kick-start economies. In the Early Modern era, when peasant desertions occurred, rulers encouraged their return by sometimes invoking ideologies that allowed farmers to believe they were active contributors to state building. Historian André Wink details how, in 1690, the Maratha King Rajaram granted revenue privileges to ryots in order that they hold a “stake in the country”.

While such participatory doctrines are useful, contemporary governments must ensure that they do not slide into the comfort of nativism. Some States today are contemplating restricting medical services to local residents, while others plan “sons of the soil” campaigns to spur production, all of which may prove counter-productive in the long run.

In the 18th century, the Peshwas offered abhaypatras or letters explicitly promising security to encourage migrants to return. They exempted ryots from land revenue. In 1752, the Nizam’s army encamped near Pune destroyed crops and scorched homes, pushing villagers to migrate. To induce their return, Peshwa Balaji Bajirao’s abhaypatra promised to forgo revenue collections the next year, increasing it to the full rate by the fourth year.

Peshwa Balaji Bajirao.

Peshwa Balaji Bajirao.

An end to disorder

The Peshwa urged villages to invite trading families, promised an “end to disorder”, and instructed them to “cultivate, grow abundant, and live happily”. State governments will have to find similar ways to attract and retain workers by assuring them of steady incomes and job security, instead of diluting labour laws as some are doing.

The Peshwas, however, did not have a uniformly lenient policy. They sometimes threatened cultivators to return. Government records in Persianised Marathi note two frequently occurring terms to describe truant farmers, paraganda and farar , both of which signify fugitives, implying that the peasant had shirked his responsibility of contributing to the exchequer. Seeing cultivators primarily as taxpayers meant the Peshwas could arm-twist them to return.

In 1753, ryots in Khandesh, perhaps in conflict with their revenue collector, migrated to the protection of a neighbouring pargana’s collector. A dispute arose between the two collectors, the former demanding that they be returned, and the latter suggesting that they be persuaded to come back consensually. News of this reached Balaji Bajirao, who turned apoplectic. He challenged the idea of peasants’ consent, writing, “How may those obliged to pay revenue to the government be permitted to flee? Ryots who migrate to other parganas must be warned and commanded to return to their own villages.”

Serfdom and inhumanity

Constraints on the freedom of movement of labourers are repeated today, as some States attempt to keep migrant workers captive or mandate that prior approval will be needed for their hiring.

The greatest heartlessness, however, was shown during the Raj. Distress migrations during this era were heightened by the inhuman attitude of the British towards the struggling farmers. In the midst of the great famine of 1876-78, Viceroy Lord Lytton organised a grand Imperial Assemblage in Delhi — where Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India — at the cost of a million rupees; much like the ₹20,000-crore Central Vista plan notified during the pandemic. Lytton said, “The task of saving life irrespective of cost is one which it is beyond our power to undertake.” Historian Mike Davis noted that the famine “befell a peasantry already ground down by exorbitant taxation and extortionate debt.”

Relief arrives at a distressed village during the 1873-4 Bengal famine.

Relief arrives at a distressed village during the 1873-4 Bengal famine.

Many farmers migrated from the British-administered Bombay Presidency to the princely state of Hyderabad, where Nizam Asaf Jah VI provided assistance. For those who stayed, colonial “relief” came in the form of hard coolie labour on railway and canal projects for pitiful wages. Many took to petty crime, preferring the relative luxury of prison where they would be better fed than in famine relief camps.

Post-colonial India, one hopes, won’t repeat this reckless imperialist approach, but for that, our governments have to be more attentive to the real suffering of those whose lives the pandemic and lockdown have affected the most.

The writer, a Ph.D. student of history at Rutgers University, is interested in the Deccan and Western India, and histories of religion, caste, gender and sexuality.

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