Manipulating Company Values and Institutions
Perhaps, then, the most unusual characteristic of the Mirasidars and their agents who were Company employees was that they understood and used both the structure and goals of the Company to their own advantage. They manipulated the very values of the Company to foil any attempt to impose a stiffer tax settlement on them, realizing that any person against whom a petition was written would have to deal with the charges in it. This understanding made it essential for the Mirasidars to go to Place’s superiors, the Board of Revenue. Moreover, when they looked for grievances to put forward, they couched these in terms and values articulated by the Company itself. For instance, collectors and other Company officers were expected to pay for all supplies requested in their tours through the district. Collectors were also subjected to many other informal moral constraints by the Board. A petition, if it was going to be effective against a Company officer, thus had to invoke the apparent values that the British themselves honored and contain charges that would be almost impossible to deal with. In this interaction, the Mirasidars not only helped to change what the British seemed to have meant by anticipating their response but also shaped the outcome so that those values were neither European nor local and “indigenous.”
If what came to be called the Poonamallee Petition had these things as goals, it succeeded beyond possibly even the expectations of its formulators. In it Place was criticized not only for violating many customary arrangements but for having flogged villagers to get his way. In the famous sacred Vaishnava center of Tirumalisai, the petition claimed, Place had demanded that the inhabitants provide him with food, firewood, and fodder free of charge. The petitioners also claimed that Place had forced villagers in the settlements around the large Chembrambakkam irrigation tank to use bricks and stones taken from temples to repair the embankments of the tank. He then divided the cost of repairing these embankments (rupees 4,000) among the villages who benefited from the repair. As a result, the tax on these villages was necessarily doubled to recoup the costs of repairing the tank. When villagers refused to agree to the tax rates proposed, Place (said the petitioners) told the Mirasidars to sign a document indicating the forfeiture of their mirasi rights. Perhaps the greatest grievance cited against Place was that he decided to eliminate one category of deduction that favored the Mirasidars called badarnavīsi, particularly in Tirumalisai village. He himself described these deductions as “suppressions of the produce of lands, defalcations, and excisions from the Government dues, traced by examination into the state of cultivation, and by a wanton coincidence in the several circumstances connected with it, termed…Budernavees, a compound Persian word conveying precisely the above signification.” Place included in these miscellaneous deductions what the petitioners characterized as backyards or puḻakkaḍais, where they grew their chilies, other spices, and fruit trees. Finally, the petitioners argued that tank fees (eri merais), which were usually collected as part of the taxation system, should be augmented to pay for the repair of the tanks instead of Place’s practice of repairing the tanks and then foisting a higher assessment on the village benefiting from the repair. Mirasidars should also not be forced to allow Payirkkaris to begin cultivation in a village and claim a share of the produce. Rather, the Mirasidars should be allowed to accept these Payirkkaris or tenants only if they wished to.
How problematic were these attacks on Place’s behavior? It is quite true that Place used corporal punishment such as flogging on many occasions. Place also used everything he could lay his hands on to repair the Chembrambakkam tank or reservoir. He certainly sought to intimidate Mirasidars by trying to force them to sign a document forfeiting the mirasi rights if they would not agree to his demands. More important than these specifics, however, was the fact that Place appears to have sought to impose his will in a style that was far more vigorous than any of his predecessors. This was the main reason why the petition was submitted.
And how successful was the petitioner’s strategy? When Place was confronted with the grievances, he said that he had “anticipated in great part the information thereby required” in the letter that he had already written to the Board. He accordingly requested a personal interview with the Board to clear up the grievances detailed in the petition, but this was denied. One of the reasons why the Board treated Place’s request for an interview so coolly was because Place had noted that he was forcing Mirasidars to forfeit their mirasi rights (conceived of by the Board as private property) if they did not accept his tax assessment of the village. In this instance, the Board of Revenue shared the horror felt by the Mirasidars. Consequently, Place was told that “in the present constitution of the [Company’s] service the Inhabitants can have no security unless the Collector afford an early answer when called upon for explanations to complaints of grievance appealed to the Board of Revenue.” Place, obviously irritated with the Board’s decision, wondered whether it was possible for a Collector to “stem the torrent of Interest, intrigue and opposition that they [the Dubashes and Mirasidars] are capable of letting loose unless he is upheld by the strenuous and uniform support of superior authority.” He felt that in demanding a great variety of specific information in answer to the Poonamallee Petition, “the combination of Dubashes…will have gained their principal object. They will not only have prolonged the settlement [tax assessment] but will have successfully resisted the authority of your Collector.”