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CBSE Notes | Class 12 | History | Chapter 11 - Peasants, Zamindars And The State

The chapter introduces students to the Mughal empire and the Agrarian society, it defines agrarian history through major chronicles like ' Ain-I Akbari'. The chapter also describes the rules of zamindari and the conditions of women in the agrarian society. We also highlight the land revenue systems: the economic mainstay in the Mughal empire.

Agrarian Society & the Mughal Empire

What are the Sources to Understand the Agrarian Society and the Mughal Empire?

The chronicles and the document from the Mughal Court are major sources for the Agrarian History.

Ain-i-Akbari is one of the important chronicles from the Mughal Court. This was authored by Abu’l Fazal.

This text recorded the arrangements made by the state to ensure cultivation, revenue collection by the agencies and the state.

This was done to regulate the relationship between the state and the zamindars.

Detailed revenue records from Gujrat, Rajasthan & Maharashtra from the 17th & 18th centuries were of great help.

The extensive records of the East India Company provide us with useful descriptions of agrarian relations in eastern India.

These resources record instances & conflicts between peasants, zamindars & the state.

Different terms used to describe Peasants

  • Riya or Muzarian ( Indo Persian sources)

  • The term Kissan or Asami were also used.

  • Khuda- kashta: They were the residents of the village in which they held their land.

  • Pasi-kashta: They were the non-resident cultivators, belonged to some other village. When revenue was in a distant village is more peasants moved to other villages.

  • Sometimes they were forced by economic distress after a famine.

Property & Land

The average peasant of north India possess more than a pair of bullocks and two ploughs; most possessed even less.

In Gujrat, peasants were rich as they possess about 6 acres of land. In Bengal, 5 acres were the upper limit of an average peasant farm.


Factors responsible for the constant expansion of agriculture:

  • Land Abundance

  • Labour

  • Mobility of peasants

Rice, wheat, and millets were the most often farmed crops because the major goal of agriculture is to feed people.

Monsoons have always been the backbone of the economy, and they continue to be so today. Some crops required more water than others, necessitating the use of an irrigation system. During Shah Jahan's reign, new canals were built and existing ones were renovated, such as Shahnahar in Punjab.


Through agriculture labour was intensive; peasants did not use technologies that often harnessed cattle energy

  • A wooden plough was used which was light and easily assembled with an iron tip.

  • A drill, pulled by a pair of giant oxen, was used to plant seeds, but broadcasting of seed was the most prevalent method.

  • Hoeing and weeding were done simultaneously using a narrow iron blade with a small wooden handle.


  • The agriculture was organised into two major seasonal cycles: The Kharif and Rabi

  • Most of the regions produced a minimum of two crops a year. Rainfall or irrigation assured a continuous supply of water.

  • The Mughal province of Agra produced 39 varieties of crops and Delhi produced 43 over the two seasons. Bengal produced 50 varieties of rice alone.

  • The Mughal state encouraged the cultivation of cash crops like cotton, oilseeds and sugarcane to increase revenue.

  • During the 17th century, several new crops were introduced like Maize via Africa & Spain. It was listed as one of the major crops of western India.

  • Vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes and chillies were introduced from the New World at this time, as were fruits like the pineapple and the papaya.

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The Village Community

Caste and the Rural Milieu

There were certain caste groups that were assigned menial tasks and thus related to poverty. These comprised a larger section of the village population.

The resources were constrained by their position in the caste hierarchy.

In Muslim community menials like halalkhoran, those who cut meat were housed outside the boundaries of the village

Similarly, the mallahzadas (sons of boatmen) in Bihar were comparable to slaves.

The correlation between caste, poverty and social status at the lower strata of society were not so marked at intermediate levels. In Marwar, Rajputs are mentioned as peasants, sharing the same space with Jats, who were accorded a lower status in the caste hierarchy.

The Gauravas who cultivated land in Uttar Pradesh sought Rajput status in the seventeenth century. Castes such as the Ahirs, Gujars and Malis rose in the hierarchy because of the profitability of cattle rearing and horticulture.

In the eastern regions, intermediate pastoral and fishing castes like the Sadgops and Kaivartas acquired the status of peasants.

Powers and Functioning of Panchayats and Headman

As it represents diverse castes and communities, the local panchayats in the assembly of elders is an Oligarchy.

The Mandal or Muqaddam is in charge of it. The zamindar had to ratify the choice of the headman, which was made by consensus of the village elders.

Its main task is to create a village account with the assistance of an accountant (patwari).

Individual donations to a single financial pool provided the panchayat with funds. This cash was utilised to cover the expenditures of entertaining revenue officials who came to the village on a regular basis.

The most crucial task was to guarantee that caste boundary were respected. All of the marriages took place in the Mandal's presence.

There were also severe penalties for misconduct, such as an exile from the community.

The petitions were presented to panchayats in western India, protesting about exorbitant levies imposed on the ‘superior' caste.

Village panchayats were seen as a unique appeals court that would ensure justice.

Jati Panchayat

  • Each sub-caste of jati in the village has its own Jati Panchayat.

  • These hold considerable power in rural society.

  • In Rajasthan jati panchayats arbitrated civil disputes between members of different castes.

  • They mediated in contested claims on land, decided whether marriages were performed according to the norms laid down by a particular caste group, and determined who had ritual precedence in village functions.

  • Except in matters of criminal justice, the state respected the decisions of Jati panchayats.

Life of Village Artisans

  • 25% of the total households were artisans.

  • Cultivators and their families would also participate in craft production – such as dyeing, textile printing, baking and firing of pottery, making and repairing agricultural implements.

  • There were people in the village like potters, blacksmiths, carpenters etc that provided specialized services in return they were compensated by the villagers by giving them the share of their harvest or an allotment of land.

  • Zamindars in Bengal remunerated blacksmiths, carpenters, even goldsmiths for their work by paying them “a small daily allowance and diet money”.

  • This later came to be described as the Jajmani system, though the term was not in vogue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Why villages were called “Little republics”?

In the nineteenth century, some British authorities viewed the village as a "small republic" made up of brotherly partners who pooled their resources and labour. This, however, was hardly an indication of rural equality.

Individual ownership of assets existed, as did profound disparities based on caste and gender. A small handful of powerful persons ruled the community, exploited the weaker portions, and possessed the capacity to administer justice.

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Women in Agrarian society under Mughals

Women and men were required to work in the fields in equal numbers during the Mughal period. Men tilled and ploughed, while women were responsible for sowing, threshing, and winnowing, among other tasks.

Menstruating women were not permitted on the farm, nor were they permitted to touch the plough or the potter's wheel, nor were they permitted to access the betel groves.

Among the numerous components of production that required female labour were spinning yarn, sifting and kneading clay for pottery, and needlework. They were seen as a valuable resource since they were the child-bearers in a labour-dependent society.

There was a high mortality rate among women owing to malnutrition.

In the peasant and artisan communities, this resulted in the formation of new social traditions.

Bride price was paid to the bride's family instead of dowry in many rural cultures. Women who had been divorced or widowed were both allowed to remarry.

As a result, male members of the family and community held women under rigorous control.

If they suspected women of cheating, they could subject them to harsh punishments.

Wives protested their husbands' adultery by submitting petitions to the village panchayat.

Women had the right to inherit property as well. Women in Bengal Muslim inherited zamindari, which they could sell or mortgage.

Forest society and Tribes

An average of 40 per cent of the Mughal empire was covered with forests. Forest dwellers were termed jangli in contemporary texts. Being jangli, however, did not mean an absence of “civilisation”.

Rather, the term described those whose livelihood came from the gathering of forest produce, hunting and shifting agriculture.

Activities were season-specific, spring was reserved for collecting forest produce, summer for fishing, the monsoon months for cultivation, and autumn and winter for hunting.

This presumed and perpetuated mobility, which was a distinctive feature of tribes inhabiting these forests.

The forest was a place for rebels and troublemakers. Babur says that jungles provided a good defence “behind which the people of the pargana become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes”.

Pargana was an administrative subdivision of a Mughal province.

Elephants were required for the Army, they were captured from the forest and sold.

In the Mughal political ideology, the hunt symbolised the overwhelming concern of the state to ensure justice to all its subjects, rich and poor.

Rulers went for the regular hunting expedition which enables the emperor to travel across the extensive territories of his empire.

The spread of commercial agriculture was an important external factor that impinged on the lives of those who lived in the forest. Forest products were in great demand like honey, beeswax, gum lac.

Social factors too wrought changes in the lives of forest dwellers. Like the “big men” of the village community, tribes also had their chieftains. Many tribal chiefs had become zamindars, some even became kings.

They recruited people from their lineage groups or demanded that their fraternity provide military service. Tribes in the Sind region had armies comprising 6,000 cavalries and 7,000 infantry

In Assam, the Ahom kings had their paiks, people who were obliged to render military service in exchange for land. The capture of wild elephants was declared a royal monopoly by the Ahom kings.

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Class 9 French Reolution - A Society of Estates.jpg

Role of Zamindari in Rural Society

Zamindars were landed proprietors who also enjoyed certain social and economic privileges by virtue of their superior status in rural society. Caste was one factor that accounted for the elevated status of zamindars; another factor was that they performed certain services (khidmat) for the state.

They held extensive personal lands termed milkiyat, meaning property.

Milky lands were cultivated for the private use of zamindars, often with the help of hired or servile labour. The zamindars could sell, bequeath or mortgage these lands at will.

Zamindar could often collect revenue on behalf of the state. They also had control over the military resources. Most zamindars had fortresses (qilachas) as well as an armed contingent comprising units of cavalry, artillery and infantry.

According to Abu’lFazal, his account indicates that many of the zamindars were from the upper caste, brahmana or Rajput.

The dispossession of weaker people by a powerful military chieftain was quite often a way of expanding a zamindari. It is, however, unlikely that the state would have allowed such a show of aggression by a zamindar unless he had been confirmed by an imperial order (sand).

Zamindars spearheaded the colonisation of agricultural land and helped in settling cultivators by providing them with the means of cultivation, including cash loans.

The buying and selling of zamindaris accelerated the process of monetisation in the countryside. In addition, zamindars sold the produce from their milkiyat lands.

There is evidence to show that zamindars often established markets (haats) to which peasants also came to sell their produce.

Although there can be little doubt that zamindars were an exploitative class, their relationship with the peasantry had an element of reciprocity, paternalism and patronage.

There are two aspects that reinforce this view;

  • First, the bhakti saints, who eloquently condemned caste-based and other forms of oppression did not portray the zamindars (or, interestingly, the moneylender) as exploiters or oppressors of the peasantry.

  • Second, in a large number of agrarian uprisings which erupted in north India in the seventeenth century, zamindars often received the support of the peasantry in their struggle against the state.

Land Revenue System

Land revenue was the economic mainstay of the Mughal Empire.

This was vital for the state to create an administrative system to ensure agricultural production and to fix and collect revenue from across the empire.

This system included the office (Daftar) of the diwan who was responsible for supervising the fiscal system of the empire. Thus revenue officials and record keepers penetrated the agricultural domain and became a decisive agent in shaping agrarian relations.

The land revenues system consisted of two stages:

  • Assessment