The Mughal State and the Agrarian Order
From the reign of Akbar onward, the Mughals sought to integrate Indians into their political system at two levels. At the elite level they endeavored to absorb both Muslim and non-Muslim chieftains into the imperial service, thereby transforming potential state enemies into loyal servants. They also sought to expand the empire’s agrarian base, and hence its wealth, by transforming forest lands into arable fields and the semi-nomadic forest-dwelling peoples inhabiting those lands into settled farmers. “From the time of Shah Jahan [1627–58],” records an eighteenth-century revenue document,
An undated order by Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb (1658–1707), reveals a similar concern with increasing arable acreage, adding that should any peasant flee the land, the local revenue officers (‘āmil) “should ascertain the cause and work very hard to induce him to return to his former place.” Such an appeal hardly suggests a state bargaining from a position of strength. In fact, it points to the chronic surplus of land over labor that obtained in premodern India generally, and in Bengal until as late as the mid nineteenth century.
it was customary that wood-cutters and plough-men used to accompany his troops, so that forests may be cleared and land cultivated.…Ploughs used to be donated by the government. Short-term pattas [documents stating revenue demand] were given, [and these] fixed government demand at the rate of 1 anna per bigha during the first year. Chaudhuris [intermediaries] were appointed to keep the ri‘aya [peasants] happy with their considerate behaviour and to populate the country. They were to ensure that the pattas were issued in accordance with Imperial orders and the pledged word was kept. There was a general order that whosoever cleared a forest and brought land under cultivation, such land would be his zamindari. Ploughs should also be given on behalf of the State. The price of these ploughs should be realised from the zamindars in two to three years. Each hal mir (i.e., one who has four or five ploughs) should be found out and given a dastar [sash or turban; i.e., mark of honor] so that he may clear the forests and bring land into cultivation. In the manner, the people and the ri‘aya would be attracted by good treatment to come from other regions and subas [provinces] to bring under cultivation wasteland and land under forests.
If such extracts reflect policy, how was it implemented in Bengal? In the older, more settled parts of the province, meaning the western and northwestern sectors, Mughal officials collected the land tax from a predominantly Hindu peasantry at the usual, full rates, through the existing class of Kayasthas and other zamīndārs. In the relatively uncultivated forest and marshlands of the east and south, however, the government promoted the founding of new agrarian colonies focusing on individuals considered to possess local influence. The basis of this influence was most often religious, since the government sought to patronize persons attached to stable, and hence reliable, institutions. At local levels, the most typical building blocks of Mughal authority were mosques or shrines.