Land and Society; Mirasidars and Dubashes
Then, as now, the area of the Jagir was dotted by more than three thousand artificial reservoirs called tanks—some quite large—built to catch rainwater. Rain in this part of the subcontinent fell mostly between September and December, and the main rice crop was harvested between January and March. In 1796, the total arable land of the Jagir was divided between that considered to be irrigable (nañcai) or wet (212,155 kanis or about 636,465 acres) and that which was considered to be unirrigable (puñcai) or dry (129,631 kanis or about 388,893 acres); only 70,718 kanis (about 212,154 acres) or 37.1 percent of the nañcai or wet paddy land was actually being cultivated at the time. Likewise, at that time only 28,806 kanis (about 89,418 acres), or 22.22 percent of the dry, unirrigable dry or puñcai land was being cultivated.
Rice cultivation demanded irrigation and intensive labor. In this area, dominant groups—those who belonged to the higher status groups in the caste system—would not touch the plough and did not do the actual cultivation themselves. Evidence from the late eighteenth century as well as more recent information gathered by anthropologists and others suggests that two of the most important groups of dominant subcastes, or jātis, in this area were brahmans—some of whom had been given grants by kings around the sacred center of Kanchipuram forty-five miles west of Madras town—and Koṇḍaikaạại vēḷḷāḷas. Called the kāṇiyāạci system in Tamil documents and parlance, in the 1790s the system of dividing the crop into shares was known as the mirāsi system. Though the mirāsi system differed from area to area in the coastal Tamil region, the basic premise was that the harvest of the fields in the village was divided into a series of shares. Persons who possessed one or a part of a share were called Mirāsidars because they had what was termed a mirās. In the Jagir, assessments of the land tax by the state were made with the Mirasidars of each village collectively (in a village settlement) for what was called the mēlvāram (the state share) of the village agrarian product. In the pre-British system, mirasi land in the Tondai country (a sociocultural region in the north of the Tamil-speaking area) seems to have largely circulated among members of the coparcenary group in each village. “Circulated” means that there was no particular piece of land associated with any particular individual or family; instead, land was redistributed either every year or every few years. A later commentator, F. W. Ellis, tried to show in 1814 that it was possible to alienate the rights to mirasi land; he succeeded in calling the mirasi system a form of real property. This seemed more convincing by the last decade of the eighteenth century, because the custom of redistributing the land operated with less force by that time.
Both brahman and Kondaikatti vellala Mirasidars enjoyed the hereditary right to a share of the produce of the land and the work of their bonded laborers or Pannaiyals. The dominant groups in this relationship were called Kāṇiyāạcikkārars or Mirasidars (a later Arabic and Urdu term taken into Tamil). According to this evidence, Kondaikatti vellala Mirasidars usually had Pannaiyals from the paraiyar caste while brahman Mirasidars had Pannaiyals who were pallis. Pallis as a caste group were located above the untouchability line in status and were later self-ascribed as vanikula kshatriyas. In fact some pallis had managed to become Mirasidars themselves. The term “Pannaiyal” applied to laborers who, as individuals, were permanently tied to the land or to specific Mirasidars by debt bondage. Mirasidars could and did use violence to force Pannaiyals to do what they wanted them to do: evidence from the earlier period makes it clear that violence was used both in agrarian and domestic slavery. As we will see, though debt bondage and the Pannaiyal system ended in the 1940s, even as late as the 1970s paraiyar laborers in Chingleput district were quite conscious of the landlords to whom they were connected. At the same time, because the labor of the Pannaiyals had become valuable, they could no longer be abused.
In this mix there was also a group of individuals called Padiyals from both the paraiyar and palli castes who were hired agricultural laborers. Padiyals were an important part of the intensive cultivation system and received wages in kind. Padiyals usually made an agreement for their labor with Mirasidars annually at the start of the cultivation and tax year, in the middle of July. Though Padiyals did not occupy a position of debt bondage much, evidence suggests that relations between Mirasidars and Padiyals were not good. Generally speaking, Pannaiyals and Padiyals were referred to by eighteenth-century Company documents as “farm laborers” or “farm servants.” By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, Pannaiyals particularly came to be referred to as “slaves.” As we will see in Chapter 4, British and Indian reformers became concerned with the condition of these Pannaiyals, whom they too called slaves. If we anticipate these discussions a bit, we may say that the “emancipation” of these Pannaiyals simply took the right to use violence against these debt-bonded laborers away from the Mirasidars and gave it to the state.
Relations between the Mirasidar patrons and the Padiyals and Pannaiyals thus constituted one of the most important vertical relationships in the Jagir; these relationships were based in the village. However, Mirasidars also had social and marriage networks that stretched to many parts of the Jagir and to Madras town. For instance, some of the Kondaikatti vellalas had been employed as government servants under the Nawab of Arcot. During the time when the Nawab leased the Jagir from the Company (1763–82) and during the early years after the Company took it over, many Kondaikatti vellalas gained privileges to cultivate land at a reduced land tax or at no tax at all. These rights were called māṉiyams and surottiriyams (Tamil “curōttiriyam”), iṉāms, and the like. One of the main conflicts between the Company and these Mirasidars concerned the resumption by the Company of these privileges, many of which the Company officials believed had been usurped illegally. Even when legally held, these tax privileges were viewed by the Company as part of a general process by which Mirasidars and Palayakkars, who had been employed to “police” or “watch” villages under the pre-British system, defrauded the Company of substantial amounts of money. Indeed, Poonamallee, one of the areas under Company control from 1749 onward, formed a base for the growth of power of many Kondaikatti vellala families. Poonamallee had been granted to the Company by the Nawab in 1749; named for a village called P;amuntamalli, located about fourteen miles from St. George in Madras, the Poonamallee territory was characterized by the presence of many Kondaikattis who had established themselves through these “usurped” privileges.
As important as the village-based vertical ties of the Mirasidars were the horizontal relationships developed between the Mirasidars and their literate kin, called Dubashes, who lived in Madras. A Dubash was a person who knew two languages; generally, the term was employed by the British in Madras to refer to a group of individuals who knew English and Tamil or Telugu. Usually Dubashes acted as agents or brokers either for individuals or as employees of the British and other European Companies. Even today, modern companies in Madras that have origins in the eighteenth century have a senior official called a Dubash, a vestige of this practice. Most of the Dubashes in late eighteenth-century Madras were Telugu brahmans or Telugu perikavārs, Tamil kaṇṇakappiḷḷais, Tamil yādhavas, or Tamil Kondaikatti vellalas. Many of these Kondaikatti vellala Dubashes were connected by kinship to Kondaikatti vellala Mirasidars in the Poonamallee and other rural areas of the Jagir. In contemporary documents, these Kondaikattis were knownas Mudalis—later lengthened to “Mudaliyār”—a term that literally meant a person of first rank. However, in the view of many of the Company officers, the term “Mudali” carried a pejorative meaning. Mudalis were despised by the British because they were considered both essential actors and great threats to individual British and Company operations. Place said that almost every domestic servant down to the lowest menial employed by a European gentleman could be included in the network of connections deployed by these Dubashes. According to him, the Mudalis were able to use their contacts and knowledge of Europeans to retain “every inhabitant [in their own villages] in complete subjection.”
Thus, it is in regard to this nexus of relationships previously established by Mirasidars that a new, interactive process of reconstituting the past was brought to bear. The dialogic process that emerged at this crucial point in time had no single prize to be won at the end of the negotiations. Indeed, the process itself was the game, and the result of the negotiations at any point shaped the next phase of interaction. As noted, it was not only the nature of local players and the past that was altered by the dialogue; the conceptualization of British society at home as well as in a colonial context was also subject to naturalization and reconstruction.