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Chapter 7 - Lower Classes and Unmitigated Exploitation

Chapter 7
Lower Classes and Unmitigated Exploitation

�The Muslims dominate the infidels, but the latter fortify themselves in mountains� rugged places, as well as in bamboo groves� Hence they cannot be subdued��

 Ibn Battuta

Lower classes formed the bulk of the population. They were economically poor and socially degraded. They existed to provide food and apparel, services and comforts, to the higher classes, and resided in towns and villages. In urban areas these comprised all kinds of artisans from basket and rope makers to clothprinters, embroiders, carpet makers, silk-weavers, blacksmiths, tin workers, carpenters, oil-men, barbers, jugglers, mountebanks, street singers, brewers, tailors, betel leaf sellers, flower sellers, masons, stone-cutters, bullock-cart drivers, doli-carriers, water-carriers, domestic servants, dhobis and workers in a hundred other skilled and unskilled crafts. In the villages there lived peasants and shepherds, besides a few artisans of the vocations enumerated above, although of inferior skill. The quality of work of the urban artisans and craftsmen used to be good. Let us take one example, that of stone-cutters and builders of edifices. Timur or Tamerlane, who invaded Hindustan in 1398, was highly impressed with Indian craftsmen and builders and on his return home from India he took with him architects, artists and skilled mechanics to build in his mud-walled Samarqand, edifices like the Qutb Minar and the (old) Jama Masjid of Delhi constructed by Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Babur too was pleased with the performance of Indian workmen and described how thousands of stone-cutters and masons worked on his buildings in Agra, Sikri, Biana, Dholpur, Gwalior and Koil. �In the same way there are numberless artisans of every sort in Hindustan.�

Despite this they were an exploited lot, and so were all others, tillers of the soil in the villages and workmen in towns. It is true that in the medieval times the concept of welfare state was not widely prevalent, although it was not entirely unknown, and many kings and nobles are known to have tried to promote the general wellbeing of the people. On a study of contemporary source materials, it appears that the condition of the people of India up to the fifteenth century was not deplorable. This is borne out by the evidence provided by Indian writers and foreign travellers from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. But thereafter there is hardly any foreign visitor to India in sixteenth-seventeenth century in particular, who was not struck by the extremely miserable existence of the lower class people. Such a situation prevailed in all parts of the country, north and south, east and west. We may attempt a study of the economic and social condition of these lower classes under two categories: (1) peasants and agriculturists, and (2) artisans and labourers, for better comprehension about their exploitation by the upper classes as well as the government of the day.

Peasants and Agriculturists

The condition of the peasantry in India, up to the fourteenth century, was not bad. Contemporary Indian writers and foreign travellers do not generally talk about poverty; on the contrary they give an impression of the wellbeing of the tillers of the soil. Alberuni (eleventh century) has said many things about the Hindus, but nowhere does he say that the people were living in suffering or want. Minhaj Siraj, Ibn Battuta, Shihabuddin Abbas Ahmad, the author of Masalik-ul-Absar, Al-Qalqashindi, the author of Subh-ul-Asha, Amir Khusrau and Shams Siraj Afif (thirteenth-fourteenth centuries), even talk of the prosperity of the people. Even Barani is impressed with their wealth and conveys this impression when he feels delighted at the action of contemporary Muslim rulers against rich landlords and cultivators. The decline of the political power of the Sultanate in the fifteenth century, saw a general recovery of people's strength and prosperity in good measure.

But by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries conditions are quite different. They change to such an extent that almost all foreign and many Indian writers are struck by the crushing poverty of the Indian peasant and do not fail to write about it. Athanasius Nikitin, Varthema, Barbosa, Paes, Nuniz, Linschoten, Salbank, Hawkins, Jourdain, Sir Thomas Roe, Terry and a host of others, all talk of the grinding poverty of the Indian people. It will serve no purpose to cite from each one of them, but one or two quotations may be given as specimens to convey the general trend of their impressions. Pelsaert, a Dutch visitor during Jahangir�s reign, observes: �The common people (live in) poverty so great and miserable that the life of the people can be depicted or accurately described only as the home of stark want and the dwelling place of bitter woe� their houses are built of mud with thatched roofs. Furniture there is little or none, except some earthenware pots to hold water and for cooking�� Salbank, writing of people between Agra and Lahore of about the same period, says that the �plebian sort is so poor that the greatest part of them go naked.� These two quotations would suffice to show how miserable the common people in the middle of the seventeenth century were. These and many others that follow lead one to the inescapable conclusion that the condition of the peasantry in India during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had considerably deteriorated.

It is pertinent to ask how the peasant during this period was reduced to such straits. India of the medieval times was mainly agricultural, and histories and legends of the times do not tire of singing in praise of the wealth and glory of the Great Mughals. Then how did the peasant become so miserably poor? Were there any ideas and actions of rulers which led to the impoverishment of the agriculturists? Also, were there any ideas of the peasants themselves which taught them to reconcile themselves to their lot and did not prompt them to fight against their economic disablement? Contemporary chronicles do betray the existence of such ideas. That these have not yet been analysed by historians, does not mean that these ideas were not there. An attempt is being made here to discover such ideas and assess their effects.

To find the roots of the miserable condition of the agriculturists in the seventeenth century, one has naturally to look back to earlier times and, indeed, at the very nature of the Muslim conquest of India beginning with the thirteenth century. In the history of Muslim conquest, a unique phenomenon was witnessed in India. Contrary to what happened in Central Asia, Persia or Afghanistan, India could not be completely conquered, nor could its people be converted to the Islamic faith. On the other hand, a ceaseless resistance to the Muslim rule in the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is clearly borne out by the records of the times. If Muslim chroniclers gloat over unqualified victories for their Turkish kings, there are a large number of inscriptions of Hindu kings who too lay exaggerated claim to military successes. One thing which is clear beyond doubt is that throughout the Sultanate period (and also the Mughal period), there was stiff resistance to Muslim rule, and in one region or the other of the country, the authority of the Sultanate was being openly challenged.

Naturally, the Muslim kings gave much thought to finding some means to suppress the recalcitrant elements. Besides other things, one idea that struck Alauddin Khalji (1296-1316) was that it was �wealth� which was the �source of rebellion and disaffection.� It encouraged defiance and provided means of �revolt�. He and his counsellors deliberated that if somehow people could be impoverished, �no one would even have time to pronounce the word �rebellion�.� How was this to be done? The Ulama would not have found it difficult to suggest a remedy. It is laid down in the Hidaya that when an �infidel country� is conquered, the Imam can divide it among the Muslims. He can also leave it in the hands of the original inhabitants, �exacting from them a capitation tax, and imposing a tribute on their lands.� If the infidels are to lose their lands, their entire moveable property should also be taken away from them. In case they are to continue with cultivating the land, they should be allowed to retain �such a portion of their moveable property as may enable them to perform their business.� In India the conquered land was divided among Muslim officers, soldiers and Ulama in lieu of pay or as reward. Some land was kept under Khalisa or directly under the control of the regime. But in all cases the tiller of the soil remained the original Hindu cultivator. As an infidel he was to be taxed heavily, although a minimum of his moveable property like oxen, cows and buffaloes (nisab) was to be left with him. The principle of the Shariah was to leave with him only as much as would have helped him carry on with his cultivation, but at the same time to keep him poor and subservient.

Bare Subsistence

According to W.H. Moreland �the question really at issue was how to break the power of the rural leaders, the chiefs and the headmen of parganas and villages�� Sultan Alauddin therefore undertook a series of measures to crush them by striking at their major source of power-wealth. But in the process, leaders and followers, rich and poor, all were affected. The king started by raising the land tax (Kharaj) to fifty percent. Under rulers like Iltutmish and Balban, it does not seem to have been above one-third of the produce. Furthermore, under Alauddin�s system all the land occupied by the rich and the poor �was brought under assessment at the uniform rate of fifty per cent�. This measure automatically reduced the chiefs practically to the position of peasants. The king also levied house-tax and grazing tax. According to the contemporary chronicler Ziyauddin Barani, all milk-producing animals like cows and goats were taxed. According to Farishtah, animals up to two pairs of oxen, a pair of buffaloes and some cows and goats were exempted. This concession was based on the principle of nisab, namely, of leaving some minimum capital to enable one to carry on with one�s work. But it was hardly any relief, for there were taxes like kari, (derived from Hindi word Kar), charai and Jiziyah. The sultans of Delhi collected Jiziyah at the rate of forty, twenty and ten tankahs from the rich, the middleclass and the poor respectively.

In short, a substantial portion of the produce was taken away by the government as taxes and the people were left with the bare minimum for sustenance. For the Sultan had �directed that only so much should be left to his subjects (raiyyat) as would maintain them from year to year� without admitting of their storing up or having articles in excess.� Sultan Alauddin�s rigorous measures were taken note of by contemporary writers both in India and abroad. In India contemporary writers like Barani, Isami and Amir Khusrau were inclined to believe him to be a persecutor of the Hindus. Foreigners also gathered the same impression. Maulana Shamsuddin Turk, a divine from Egypt, was happy to learn that Alauddin had made the wretchedness and misery of the Hindus so great and had reduced them to such a despicable condition �that the Hindu women and children went out begging at the doors of the Musalmans.� The same impression is conveyed in the writings of Isami and Wassaf. While summing up the achievements of Alauddin Khalji, the contemporary chronicler Barani mentions, with due emphasis, that by the last decade of his reign the submission and obedience of the Hindus had become an established fact. Such a submission on the part of the Hindus �has neither been seen before nor will be witnessed hereafter.� In brief, not only the Hindu Zamindars, who had been accustomed to a life of comfort and dignity, were reduced to a deplorable position, but the Hindus in general were impoverished to such an extent that there was no sign of gold or silver left in their houses, and the wives of Khuts and Muqaddams used to seek sundry jobs in the houses of the Musalmans, work there and receive wages. The poor peasants (balahars) suffered the most. The fundamentalist Maulana Ziyauddin Barani feels jubilant at the suppression of the Hindus, and writes at length about the utter helplessness to which the peasantry had been reduced because the Sultan had left to them bare sustenance and had taken away everything else in kharaj (land revenue) and other taxes.

But there was much greater oppression implicit in this measure. It was difficult to collect in full so many and such heavy taxes. �One of the standing evils in the revenue collection consisted in defective realization which usually left large balances,� and unrealised balances used to become inevitable. Besides, lower revenue officials were corrupt and extortionate. To overcome these problems, Sultan Alauddin created a new ministry called the Diwan-i-Mustakhraj. The Mustakhraj was entrusted with the work of inquiring into the revenue arrears, and realizing them. We shall discuss about the tyranny of this department a little later; suffice it here to say that in Alauddin�s time, besides being oppressed by such a grinding tax-structure, the peasant was compelled to sell every maund of his surplus grain at government controlled rates for replenishing royal grain stores which the Sultan had ordered to be built in order to sustain his Market Control.

After Alauddin�s death (C.E. 1316) most of his measures seem to have fallen into disuse, but the peasants got no relief, because Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq who came to the throne four years later (C.E. 1320) continued the atrocious practice of Alauddin. He also ordered that �there should be left only so much to the Hindus that neither, on the one hand, they should become arrogant on account of their wealth, nor, on the other, desert their lands in despair.� In the time of Muhammad bin Tughlaq even this latter fear turned out to be true. The Sultan�s enhancement of taxation went even beyond the lower limits of �bare subsistence.� For the people left their fields and fled. This enraged the Sultan and he hunted them down like wild beasts.

Still conditions did not become unbearable all at once. Nature�s bounty to some extent compensated for the cruelty of the king. If the regime was extortionist, heavy rains sometimes helped in bumper production. Babur noted that �India�s crops are all rain grown�. Farming in north India depended upon the monsoon rains coming from the Bay of Bengal. Artificial irrigation was there on a very limited scale, for irrigation �is not at all a necessity in cultivating crops and orchards. Autumn crops (Kharif season) grow by the downpour of the rains themselves; and strange it is that spring crops (Rabi season) grow even when no rain falls.� Young trees are watered during two or three years �after which they need no more (watering)� as the ground gets soaked with rain in the monsoon season. Ibn Battuta gives a detailed description of the crops grown in India and adds: �The grains that have been described are Kharif grains. They are harvested 60 days after sowing. Thereafter Rabi grains like wheat, barley and massoor are sown. These are sown in the very same field in which Rabi grains (are harvested). The soil of this country is very fertile and is of excellent quality. Rice is sown three times in the year. Production of rice is the largest in the country. Sesame and sugar-cane are also sown with Kharif.� Shams Siraj Afif writes that when, during the monsoon season, �there were spells of heavy rains, Sultan Firoz Tughlaq appointed officers to examine the banks of all the water courses and report how far the inundations had extended. If he was informed that large tracts had been made fertile by the spread of waters, he was overwhelmed with joy. But if any village went to ruin (on account of floods), he treated its officials with great severity.�

But the basic policy of impoverishing the people, resulted in crippling of agricultural economy. By the Mughal period the condition of the peasantry became miserable; if there was any progress it was in the enhancement of taxation. According to W.H. Moreland, who has made a special study of the agrarian system of Mughal India, the basic object of the Mughal administration was to obtain the revenue on an ever-ascending scale. The share that could be taken out of the peasant's produce without destroying his chances of survival was probably a matter of common knowledge in each locality. In Akbar�s time, in Kashmir, the state demand was one-third, but in reality it came to two-thirds. The Jagirdars in Thatta (Sindh) did not take more than half. In Gujarat, according to Geleynsen who wrote in 1629, the peasant was made to part with three-quarters of his harvest. Similar is the testimony of De Laet, Fryer and Van Twist. During Akbar�s reign, says Abul Fazl, evil hearted officers because of sheer greed, used to proceed to villages and mahals and sack them. Conditions became intolerable by the time of Shahjahan when, according to Manucci, peasants were compelled to sell their women and children to meet the revenue demand. Manrique writes that the peasants were �carried off� to various markets and fairs, (to be sold) with their poor unhappy wives behind them carrying their small children all crying and lamenting�� Bernier too affirms that the unfortunate peasants who were incapable of discharging the demands of their rapacious lords, were bereft of their children, who were carried away as slaves. Here was also confirmation, if not actually the beginning, of the practice of bonded labour in India.

In these circumstances the peasant had little interest in cultivating the land. Bernier observes that �as the ground is seldom tilled otherwise than by compulsion� the whole country is badly cultivated, and a great part rendered unproductive� The peasant cannot avoid asking himself this question: Why should I toil for a tyrant who may come tomorrow and lay his rapacious hands upon all I possess and value� without leaving me the means (even) to drag my own miserable existence? - The Timariots (Timurids), Governors and Revenue contractors, on their part reason in this manner: Why should the neglected state of this land create uneasiness in our minds, and why should we expend our own money and time to render it fruitful? We may be deprived of it in a single moment� Let us draw from the soil all the money we can, though the peasant should starve or abscond�� The situation made the tax-gatherer callous and exploitative on the one hand and the peasant fatalistic and disinterested on the other. The result, in Bernier�s own words, was �that most towns in Hindustan are made up of earth, mud, and other wretched material; that there is no city or town (that) does not bear evident marks of approaching decay.� Wherever Muslim despots ruled, ruin followed, so that, writes he, similar is the �present condition of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Palestine, the once wonderful plain of Antioch, and so many other regions anciently well cultivated, fertile and populous, but now desolate� Egypt also exhibits a sad picture� �

To revert to the Mughal empire. An important order in the reign of Aurangzeb describes the Jagirdars as demanding in theory only half but in practice actually more than the total yield. Describing the conditions of the latter part of the seventeenth century Mughal empire, Dr. Tara Chand writes: �The desire of the State was to extract the economic rent, so that nothing but bare subsistence. remained for the peasant.� Aurangzeb�s instructions were that �there shall be left for everyone who cultivates his land as much as he requires for his own support till the next crop be reaped and that of his family and for seed. This much shall be left to him, what remains is land tax, and shall go to the public treasury.�

Conditions could not always have been that bad. There were steps taken from time to time to help cultivation and ameliorate the condition of the agriculturists. Shamsuddin Iltutmish constructed a large tank called Hauz-i-Shamsi. Traces of Alauddin Khalji�s Hauz-i-Khas and Firoz Tughlaq�s irrigation canals still exist. Similar steps taken in Mughal times are also known. But such steps in aid of the development were taken because these could offer better means of increasing the revenue. Some steps which looked like helping the agriculturists, sometimes resulted in their perpetual penury. For example, a very common administrative measure of the medieval times was to advance loans to peasants to help them tide over their difficulties. But the important ideal entertained by rulers can be best summarized in the words of Sher Shah�s instructions to his Amils: �Be lenient at the time of assessment, but show no mercy at the time of collection.� This was, on the face of it, a good principle. But even Sher Shah Suri, renowned for his concern for the wellbeing of cultivators, was much more keen about the benefits to be drawn by his Afghan clansmen from the lands they administered. He sent his �good old loyal experienced servants� to districts which yielded good �profits� and �advantages� and after two years or so transfered them and sent �other servants like them that they may also prosper.� It was of course the peasant who paid for this prosperity.

Collection of Arrears

We have earlier referred to the problem of collection of arrears. When agriculture was almost entirely dependent on rainfall and land tax was uniformally high, it was not possible for the peasants to pay their revenue regularly and keep their accounts ever straight with the government. The revenue used to fall into arrears. From the study of contemporary sources it is almost certain that there were hardly any remissions - even against conversion to Islam. Muslim rulers were very keen on proselytization. Sultan Firoz Tughlaq rescinded Jiziyah for those who became Muhammadan. Sometimes he also instructed his revenue collectors to accept conversions in lieu of Kharaj. Rajas and Zamindars who could not deposit land revenue or tribute in time had to convert to Islam. Bengal and Gujarat provide specific instances which go to show that such rules prevailed throughout the Muslim-ruled regions. But remissions of Kharaj were not allowed. On the other hand arrears went on accumulating and the kings tried to collect them with the utmost rigour. In the Sultanate period there was a full-fledged department by the name of the Diwan-i-Mustakharaj. The work of this department was to inquire into the arrears lying in the names of collectors (Amils and Karkuns) and force them to realize the balances in full. Such was the strictness in the Sultanate period. Under the Mughals arrears were collected with equal harshness. The system then existing shows that the peasants were probably never relieved of the �burden� of arrears. In practice it could hardly have been possible always to collect the entire amounts and the balance was generally put forward to be collected along with the demand of the next year. A bad year, therefore, might leave an intolerable burden for the peasants in the shape of such arrears. These had a natural tendency to grow It also seems to have been a common practice to demand the arrears, owed by peasants who had fled or died, from their neighbour. And peasants who could not pay revenue or arrears frequently became predial slaves.

In short, between the thirteenth century when armies had to march to collect the revenue, and the seventeenth century when peasants were running away from the land because of the extortions of the state, no satisfactory principle of assessment or collection except extortion could be discovered. The situation became definitely worse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as attested to by contemporary historians Jean Law and Ghulam Hussain. It is this general and continued stringency that was the legacy of the Mughal empire and the Indian Muslim states which continued under the British Raj.

Another idea of the rulers of medieval India was to keep the prices of commodities of everyday necessity low. This idea too emanated in the time of Alauddin Khalji. It was either his own brain-child or that of his courtiers and Ulama. His passion for incessant conquests and constant invasions of Mongols had rendered maintenance of a large army unavoidable. Even if he had recruited the large number of soldiers on a moderate salary, the entire treasure of the state would have been exhausted in five or six years. Alauddin, therefore, decided to cut down the salary of soldiers; but to prevent their falling victim to economic distress, he also decided to reduce the prices of commodities of daily use.

To the contemporary chronicler these prices were quite low and fluctuation, not even of a dang (small copper coin), was ever allowed whether in seasons of drought or of plenty. Indeed the �low� and �fixed� prices in the market were �considered to be one of the wonders of the age.� But �when a husbandman paid half of his hard earned produce in land tax, some portion of the remaining half in other sundry duties, and then was compelled to sell his grain at cheap rates� to the governments, it does not speak well of the general condition of the peasantry in those days.� They could never have been happy in selling their grain cheap in the open market nor to the government itself at fixed rates without making profit. Profit is the greatest incentive to production, but it was completely checked by Alauddin�s market regulations and the peasants seem to have lived a life of monotony and low standard.

Without caring to understand that low prices cripple production and impoverish the producer, many sultans after Alauddin Khalji took pride in competing with him in keeping prices low. But their actions led not only to the impoverishment of the peasantry but also of shopkeepers and businessmen. Shams Siraj Afif feels jubilant at describing and listing the low prices during the reign of Firoz Tughlaq, claiming that while Alauddin had to make strenuous efforts to bring down the prices, in the time of Firoz Tughlaq they remained low without resorting to any coercion. �Like Alauddin, Sikandar Lodi also used to keep a constant watch on the price-level� in the market. Abdullah, the author of Tarikh-i-Daudi, says that �during the reign of Ibrahim Lodi the prices of commodities were cheaper than in the reign of any other Sultan except in Alauddin�s last days�, and adds that whereas in Alauddin�s time the cheapness of prices was maintained through compulsion, force and dire punishments, in Ibrahim�s reign prices remained low �naturally.�

So Alauddin Khalji had pioneered the idea of maintaining prices of necessaries at cheap rates. It was followed by his successors up to the beginning of the sixteenth century, without perhaps caring for its implications on the condition of the peasantry. Historians of Sher Shah affirm that he was indebted to Alauddin in laying down his agrarian policy and Akbar adopted many measures of Sher Shah. During the Mughal period prices by and large went up, although as late as in the reign of Aurangzeb, sometimes the prices reported were regarded as exceptionally cheap. But since the land revenue accounted for by far the larger portion of the peasant�s surplus produce, it is obvious that this increase must have wiped out any possible advantage that the peasantry might have obtained through a rise in the prices.

Besides these handicaps, the peasant suffered because there were no clear ideas about a regular commissariat service to maintain supply-line for the army during a campaign. There is evidence that camp-markets were sometimes established for the convenience of soldiers. There are also situations on record when the soldiers were encouraged to loot the peasants to obtain grain. Sher Shah took appropriate measures to see that agriculturists were not harassed by an army on march, but Babur noted that on the news of the arrival of an army the peasants used to leave their land, flee for life and establish themselves elsewhere. Encouragement to soldiers to loot was inherent in khums tax, through which the state obtained as its share one-fifth of the booty collected by the troops, while four-fifth was left with the soldiers.

And above all, one fact is clear in the chronicles of medieval India - any measures against the higher classes ultimately affected the peasants, because any loss to the former was surreptitiously transferred to the peasants. For, as Sir Thomas Roe (1615-19) wrote, the people of Hindustan lived �as fishes do in the sea - the great ones eat up the little. For first the farmer robs the peasant, the gentlemen robs the farmer, the greater robs the lesser and the King robs all.� Bernier corroborates the conclusion when he writes: �In eastern countries, the weak and the injured are without any refuge whatever; and the only law that decides all controversies is the cane and the caprice of a governor.�

Of all the ideas, motivations and actions mentioned above leading to the impoverishment of the peasantry, the one of leaving �nothing but bare subsistence�, was the most atrocious. Writing about the times of Aurangzeb, Dr. Tara Chand rightly observes that �the policy (of leaving) bare subsistence was suicidal for it killed the goose that laid the golden eggs. It left no incentive for increasing the production or improving the methods of cultivation.� Consequently, there was a progressive deterioration in the living standards of the peasantry as decades and centuries passed. As said earlier, Alberuni, Barani, Ibn Battuta and Shams Siraj Afif talk about the prosperity of the people right up to the fourteenth century. R.H. Major in his translation of the works of Nicolo Conti, Athnasius Nikitin, Santo Stefano etc., only refers to the poverty of the Indian peasant in the fifteenth century. But Babur in the sixteenth century witnessed extreme poverty; he repeatedly talks about langoti as the only apparel and khichri as the only food. Witnesses for the seventeenth century are unanimous in observing extreme poverty of the peasantry.

Resistance of the Peasantry

The idea of leaving only the bare minimum to the peasant and collecting the rest of his hard-earned produce in land revenue and other taxes, remained the basic policy of the rulers during the medieval times. Some chroniclers were aware of its evil effects. Shams Siraj Afif, writing in the days of Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1351-88) says that �Unwise regulations had been made in former reigns, and the raiyyats and subjects were oppressed in the payment of revenue. Several writers told the author of this work that it was the practice to leave the raiyyat one cow and take away all the rest.� Such a policy proved counter-productive. It not only harmed the agriculturists but also the Muslim regime, for, in place of minimising opposition, it actually encouraged resistance. In the unequal struggle between the poor peasantry and the mighty government carried on over a long period of time the tillers of the soil ultimately lost. But not without stiff resistance. Hindu Zamindars as the leaders and the peasants as their followers, both fought against the unjust demands of the king. Under Alauddin himself the Khuts and Muqaddams (Zamindars) avoided to pay taxes, did not care for the summons of the Diwan-i-Wazarat or Revenue Department, ignored to call at his office and paid no heed to the revenue officials. And the peasants, finding continuance of cultivation uneconomic and the treatment of the regime unbearable, left the fields and fled into the jungle from where they organized resistances. In this confrontation Zamindars played the role of leaders and the peasants joined under their banner.

Ibn Battuta describes this scenario. �The Muslims dominate the infidels,� writes he, �but the later fortify themselves in mountains, in rocky, uneven and rugged places as well as in bamboo groves (or jungles)� which serve them as ramparts. Hence they cannot be subdued except by powerful armies.� The story of the resistance of the Hindus to Muslim dominance and injustice is repeated by many contemporary writers. Ziyauddin Barani says that if the Hindus �do not find a mighty sovereign at their head nor behold crowds of horse and foot with drawn swords and arrows threatening their lives, they fail in their allegiance, refuse payment of revenue and incite a hundred tumults and revolts.� Similar is the testimony of Amir Khusrau, Ibn Battuta, Vidyapati and the Muslim chroniclers of the fifteenth century. In the fifteenth century, when the Sultanate of Delhi had grown weak, the tillers of the soil evaded, more than ever, payment of land tax, and revenue could be collected only through army sorties in regular yearly or half-yearly expeditions. Such resistance continued throughout, for the Indian peasant had his own survival strategies. These comprised mainly of two options - to fight with determination as far as possible, but, if resistance proved of no avail, to flee and settle down elsewhere. Medieval Indian society, both urban and agrarian, was to some extent an armed society. In cities and towns the elite carried swords like walking sticks. In villages few men were without at least a spear or bow and arrows, and they were skilled in the use of these arms. In 1632, Peter Mundy actually saw in the present day Kanpur district, �labourers with their guns, swords and bucklers lying by them while they ploughed the ground�. Similarly, Manucci described how in Akbar�s days the villagers of the Mathura region defended themselves against Mughal revenue-collecting officers: �The women stood behind their husbands with spears and arrows, when the husband had shot off his matchlock, his wife handed him the lance, while she reloaded the matchlock.� The countryside was studded with little forts, some surrounded by nothing more than mud walls, but which nevertheless provided centres of the general tradition of rebellion and agrarian unrest. Armed peasants provided contingents to Baheliyas, Bhadauriyas, Bachgotis, Mandahars and Tomars in the earlier period, to Jats, Marathas and Sikhs in the later.

But as the people put up a continual resistance, the Muslim government suppressed them ruthlessly. In this exercise the Mughal emperors were no better than the pre-Mughal sultans. We have often referred to the atrocities of the Delhi sultans and their provincial governors. Abul Fazl, Bernier and Manucci provide detailed accounts of the exertion of the Mughals. Its summing up by Jahangir is the most telling. In his Tarikh-i-Salim Shahi he writes:

�I am compelled to observe, with whatever regret, that notwithstanding the frequent and sanguinary executions which have been dealt among the people of Hindustan, the number of the turbulent and disaffected never seems to diminish; for what with the examples made during the reign of my father, and subsequently of my own, there is scarcely a province in the empire in which, either in battle or by the sword of the executioner, five or six hundred thousand human beings have not, at various periods, fallen victims to this fatal disposition to discontent and turbulence. Ever and anon, in one quarter or another, will some accursed miscreant spring up to unfurl the standard of rebellion; so that in Hindustan never has there existed a period of complete repose.�

�In such a society,� observes Kolf, ��the millions of armed men, cultivators and otherwise, were its (government�s) rivals rather than its subjects.� This attitude was the consequence of the Mughal government�s policy of repression. As an example, the exploits of one of Jahangir�s commanders, Abdullah Khan Uzbeg Firoz Jung, can provide an idea of the excessive cruelty perpetrated by the government. Peter Mundy, who travelled from Agra to Patna in 1632 saw, during his four days� journey, 200 minars (pillars) on which a total of about 7000 heads were fixed with mortar. On his way back four months later, he noticed that meanwhile another 60 minars with between 2000 and 2400 heads had been added and that the erection of new ones had not yet stopped. Abdullah Khan�s force of 12,000 horse and 20,000 foot destroyed, in the Kalpi-Kanauj area, all towns, took all their goods, their wives and children as slaves and beheaded and �immortered� the chiefest of their men. Why, even Akbar�s name stands besmeared with wanton killings. In his siege of Chittor (October 1567) the regular garrison of 8000 Rajputs was vigorously helped by 40,000 armed peasants who had shown �great zeal and activity�. This infuriated the emperor to massacre 30,000 of them.

In short, the Indian peasant was clear in his mind about meeting the onslaughts of nature and man. Attached to his land as he was, he resisted the oppression of the rulers as far as his resources, strength and stamina permitted. If conditions went beyond his control, he left his land and established himself in some other place. Indeed, migration or flight �was the peasant�s first answer to famine or man�s oppression.� Babur�s description of this process may be quoted in his own words: �In Hindustan,� says he, �hamlets and villages, towns indeed, are depopulated and set up in a moment. If the people of a large town, one inhabited for years even, flee from it, they do it in such a way that not a sign or trace of them remains in a day or a day and a half. On the other hand, if they fix their eyes on a place in which to settle,� they make a tank or dig a well; they need not build houses or set up walls, khas-grass abounds, wood is unlimited, huts are made and straightaway there is a village or a town.�

Similar is the testimony of Col. Wilks about South India. �On the approach of a hostile army, the� inhabitants of India bury underground their most cumbrous effects, and� issue from their beloved homes and take the direction� sometimes of a strong fortress, but more generally of the most unfrequented hills and woods.� According to Amir Khusrau, �wherever the army marched, every inhabited spot was desolated� When the army arrived there (Warangal, Deccan), the Hindu inhabitants concealed themselves in hills and jungles.� This process of flight seems to have continued throughout the Mughal period, both in the North and the South. Writing of the days of Shahjahan, Bernier says that �many of the peasantry, driven to despair by so execrable a tyranny, abandon the country and sometimes fly to the territories of a Raja because they find less oppression and are allowed a greater degree of comfort.�

To flee was a good idea, when it is realized that this was perhaps the only way to escape from the cruel revenue demand and rapacious officials. Some angry rulers like Balban and Muhammad bin Tughlaq hunted down these escapists in the jungles, others clamped them in jails, but, by and large, the peasants did survive in the process. For, it was not only cultivators alone who fled into the forests, but often even vanquished Rajas and zealous Zamindars. There they and people at large organized themselves to defend against the onslaughts of the regime. For it was not only because cultivation was uneconomic and peasants left the fields; it was also a question of saving Hindu religion and Hindu culture. Under Muslim rule the two principal Muslim practices of iconoclasm and proselytization were carried on unabated. During the Arab invasion of Sind and the expeditions of Mahmud of Ghazni, defeated rulers, garrisons of captured forts, and civilian population were often forced to accept Islam. The terror-tactics of such invaders was the same everywhere and their atrocities are understandable. But even when Muslim rule had been established in India, it was a matter of policy with Muslim rulers to capture and convert or disperse and destroy the male population and carry into slavery their women and children. Minhaj Siraj writes that Sultan Balban�s taking of captives, and his capture of the dependents of the great Ranas cannot be recounted. In Katehar he ordered a general massacre of the male population above eight years of age and carried away women and children. Muhammad Tughlaq, Firoz Tughlaq, Sikandar Lodi, Sikandar Butshikan of Kashmir, Mahmud Beghara of Gujarat and emperor Aurangzeb were more enthusiastic, some others were lukewarm, but it was the religious duty of a Muslim monarch to capture people and convert them to Islam.

In these circumstances the defeated Rajas and helpless agriculturists all sought refuge in the forests. Forests in medieval India abounded. Ibn Battuta says that very thick forests existed right from Bengal to Allahabad. In his time rhinoceroses (gender) were to be found in the very centre of the Sultanate, in the jungles near Allahabad. There were jungles throughout the country. Even the environs of Delhi abounded in forests so that during the time of Balban, harassed Mewatis retaliated by issuing forth from the jungles in the immediate vicinity of the south-west of Delhi, attack the city and keep the king on tenter-hooks. When Timur invaded Hindustan at the end of the fourteenth century, he had learnt about this resistance and was quite scared of it. In his Malfuzat he notes that there were many strong defences in India like the large rivers, the elephants etc. �The second defence,� writes he, �consists of woods and forests and trees, which interweaving stem with stem and branch with branch, render it very difficult to penetrate the country. The third defence is the soldiery, and landlords and princes, and Rajas of that country, who inhabit fastnesses in those forests, and live there like wild beasts.�

Growth of dense forests was a cause and effect of heavy rains. Forests precipitated rainfall and rains helped in the growth of forests. Therefore, like forests, rains also helped the freedom loving �wild-beasts� living in the jungles in maintains their independence and culture. It is truly said that in India it does not rain, it pours. The rainfall in the north and the northeastern India - Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal, including eastern Bengal (now Bangla Desh) and parts of Assam (the Hindustan of medieval times) - is in the following order: The average annual rainfall in U.P., Bihar and Bengal is 100 to 200 cms. (40 to 80 inches), in eastern Bengal and Assam it is 200 to 400 cms. and in some parts above 400 cms. (80 to 160 and above 160 inches). In all probability a similar average obtained in the medieval period also. Medieval chroniclers do not speak in quantitative terms: in their language �rivulets used to turn into rivers and rivers into seas during the rainy season.� The situation is best depicted by the sixteenth century conqueror Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur himself in his memoirs Tuzuk-i-Baburi or Babur Nama. He writes about Hindustan: �Sometimes it rains 10, 15, or 20 times a day, torrents pour down all at once and rivers flow where no water had been.� Such intensity of rainfall had rendered precarious the grip of Turkish rulers in many parts. For example, the government at Delhi could not always maintain its hold on Bengal effectively. There were very few roads and hardly any bridges over rivers in those days, and the almost primitive medieval communication system used to break down during the rainy season. Local governors of the eastern region - Bihar and Bengal - did not fail to take advantage of this situation and used to declare independence. Governor Tughril Beg of Bengal �depended on the climate and waterlogged soil of the province to wear out the Delhi forces,� for three years (1278-81). Bengal almost remained independent till the middle of the sixteenth century.

In short, heavy rains and thick forests affected the mobility of the government�s army, leaving the refugees safe in their jungle hide-outs and repulse any intrusion. Ibn Battuta describes how people used to fight behind barricades of bushes and bamboo trees. �They collect rain water� and tend their animals and fields, and remain so strongly entrenched that but for a strong army they cannot be suppressed. Babur confirms this: �Under the monsoon rains the banks of some of its rivers and torrents are worn into deep channels, difficult and troublesome to pass through anywhere. In many parts of the plains (because of rains) thorny jungle grows, behind the good defence of which the people� become stubbornly rebellious and pay no taxes.� It was because of this that Muslim conquest could not penetrate the Indian countryside nor Muslim rule affect it. If there was any fear of attack, the villagers just fled and re-established themselves elsewhere, or returned after the storm was over.

SC, ST and OBC

Those who took to the jungle, stayed there, eating wild fruits, tree-roots, and the coarsest grain if and when available, but surely preserving their freedom. But with the passing of time, a peasant became a tribal and from tribal a beast. William Finch, writing at Agra about 1610 C.E., describes how Jahangir and his nobles treated them - during Shikar. A favourite form of sport in Mughal India was the Kamargha, which consisted in enclosing a tract of country by a line of guards, and then gradually contracting the enclosure until a large quantity of game was encircled in a space of convenient size. �Whatever is taken in this enclosure� (Kamargha or human circle), writes Finch, �is called the king�s shikar or game, whether men or beasts� The beasts taken, if man�s meat, are sold� if men they remain the King�s slaves, which he sends yearly to Kabul to barter for horses and dogs: these being poor, miserable, thievish people, that live in woods and deserts, little differing from beasts.� W.H. Moreland adds: �Other writer (also) tell it besides Finch.� Even Babur, always a keen observer, had not failed to notice that peasants in India were often reduced to the position of tribals. �In our countries,� writes he in his Memoirs, �dwellers in the wilds (i.e. nomads) get tribal names; here (i.e. Hindustan) the settled people of the cultivated lands and villages get tribal names.�

In short, the avalanche of Turco- Mughal invaders, and the policy of their Government turned many settled agriculturists into tribals of the jungles. Many defeated Rajas and harassed Zamindars also repaired to forest and remote fortresses for security. They had been defeated in war and due to the policy of making them nest-o-nabud (destroy root and branch), had been reduced to the position of Scheduled Castes / Tribes / Backward Classes. For example, many Parihars and Parmars, once upon a time belonging to the proud Rajput castes, are now included in lower castes. So are the �Rajputs� counted in Backward Classes in South India. Two examples, one from the early years of Muslim rule and the other from its closing years, would suffice to illustrate the point. In the early years of Muslim conquest, Jats had helped Muhammad bin Qasim in Sind; later on they turned against him. Khokhars had helped Muhammad Ghauri but turned hostile to him and ultimately killed him. This made the Turkish Sultanate ill-disposed towards them, and in course of time many of these Jats and Khokhars were pushed into belonging to low castes of to-day. For the later times is the example of the Satnamis. This sect was an offshoot of the Raidasis. Their stronghold in the seventeenth century was Narnaul, situated about 100 kms. south-west of Delhi. The contemporary chronicler Khafi Khan credits them with a good character. They followed the professions of agriculture and trade on a small scale. They dressed simply, like faqirs. They shaved their heads and so were called mundiyas also. They came into conflict with imperial forces. It began as a minor trouble, but developed into a war of Hindu liberation from the persecution of Aurangzeb. Soon some five thousand Satnamis were in arms. They routed the faujdar of Narnaul, plundered the town, demolished its mosques, and established their own administration. At last Aurangzeb crushed them by sending 10,000 troops (March, 1672) and facing a most obstinate battle in which two thousand Satnamis fell on the field and many more were slain during the pursuit. Those who escaped spread out into small units so that today there are about 15 million Satnami Harijans found in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Thus were swelled the numbers of what are today called Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes (SC / ST / OBC). The eleventh century savant Alberuni who came to India in the train of Mahmud of Ghazni, speaks of eight castes / sections of Antajya (untouchable?), or workers in low professions in Hindustan such as fuller, shoemaker, juggler, fisherman, hunter of wild animals and birds. �They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleaning of the villages and other services.� In his time their number was obviously not large. Today the SC / ST alone comprise 23 percent of the population or about 156 million, according to 1981 census.

Add to this the Other Backward Classes and they all count to more than fifty percent. This staggeringly high figure has been reached because of historical forces operating in the medieval times primarily. Muslim rule spread all over the country. Resistance to it too remained widespread. Jungles abounded through out the vast land from Gujarat to Bengal and Kashmir to Kanyakumari, and flight into them was the safest safeguard for the weak and vulnerable. That is how SC / ST people are found in every state in large numbers. During the medieval period, in the years and centuries of oppression, they lived almost like wild beasts in improvised huts in forest villages, segregated and isolated, suffering and struggling. But by settling in forest villages, they were enabled to preserve their freedom, their religion and their culture. Their martial arts, preserved in their Akharas, are even now practised in different forms in many states. Such a phenomenon was not witnessed in West Asian countries. There, in the vast open deserts, the people could not save themselves from forced conversions against advancing Muslim armies. There were no forests into which they could flee, hide themselves and organize resistance. Hence they all became Muslim.

In the Indian forest villages these �primitive� Hindus continued to maintain themselves by engaging in agriculture and simple cottage industries. They also kept contact with the outside world for, since they had remained Hindu, they were freely employed by Rajas and Zamindars. They provided firewood and served as boatmen and watchmen. The Hindu elite engaged them for guard duty in their houses, and as palki-bearers when they travelled. Travelling in the hot climate of India was mostly done at night, and these people provided guard to bullock carts and other conveyances carrying passengers and goods. There are descriptions of how these people ran in front and rear of the carts with lighted torches or lanterns in one hand and a lathi in the other. They also fought for those Hindu leaders who organized resistance from remote villages and jungle hide-outs. The exaspertated and starving peasantry sometimes took to highway robbery as the only means of living. Raiding bands were also locally formed. Their main occupation, however, remained menial work, including scavenging and leather tanning. But with all that, their spirit of resistance had made them good fighters. Fighting kept their health replenished, compensating for the non-availability of good food in the jungles. Their fighting spirit made the British think of them as thugs, robbers and bandits. But the British as well as other Europeans also embarked upon anthropological and sociological study of these poor forest people. In trying to find a name for these groups, the British census officials labelled them, in successive censuses, as Aboriginals (1881), Animists (1891-1911) and as Adherents of Tribal Religions (1921-1931).

These days a lot of noise is being made about helping the SC / ST and OBCs by reserving their quotas in government jobs. It is argued that these people have been oppressed by high caste Hindus in the past and they should now be helped and compensated by them. But that is only an assumption. It is they who have helped save the Hindu religion by shunning all comforts and taking to the life of the jungle. That is why they have remained Hindu. If they had been harassed and oppressed by high-caste Hindus, they could have easily chosen to opt for Muslim creed ever so keen on effecting proselytization. But they preferred to hide in the forests rather than do so. There is another question. Was that the time for the Upper Caste Hindus, fighting tenaciously to save their land, religion and culture, to oppress the lower strata of Hindus whose help they desperately needed in their struggle? The mindset of upper-caste / backward-caste conflict syndrome needs reviewing as it is neither based on historical evidence nor supported by compulsions of the situation. The present day isolated conflicts may be a rural politician / plebian problem of no great antiquity.

Another relic of the remote past is the objection to the entry of men of lower class people into temples. In Islam slaves were not permitted to bestow alms or visit places of pilgrimages. In India, according to Megasthenes, there were no slaves. But slavery (dasta) probably did exist in one form or the other. Were the dasas also debarred from entering temples and the practice has continued; or, was it that every caste and section had its own shrines and did not enter those of others? The picture is very blurred and origins of this practice are difficult to locate.

Above all, there is the question: Would the SC / ST by themselves accept to change their way of life and accept the assistance? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. An example may help understand the position. In June 1576 Maharana Pratap of Chittor had to face Akbar�s armies in the famous battle of Haldighati. Rana Pratap fought with exemplary courage and of his soldiers only a little more than half could leave the field alive. In the darkness of the evening, the wounded Rana left the field on his favourite horse Chetak. A little later, in October, Akbar himself marched in person in pursuit of the Rana, but the latter remained untraced and unsubdued. Later on he recovered all Mewar except Mandalgarh and Chittor. His nearest associates, the Bhil and Lohia tribals, had taken a vow that until their motherland was not freed, they would not eat in metal plates, but only on leaves; they would not sleep on bedsteads, but only on the ground; and they would renounce all comforts. The bravest among them even left Chittor, to return to it only when Mewar had regained independence. That day was not destined to come in their life-time. It was not to come for decades, for generations, for centuries. During these hundreds of years they lived as tribals and nomads, moving from city to city. On India regaining independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who knew about these people�s poignant history, decided to rehabilitate them in Chittor. In March 1955 an impressive function was arranged there and Pandit Nehru led the descendants of these valiant warriors back to their homes in independent Chittor in independent India. But most of them did not care to return. They live as nomads even today. The SC / ST and OBCs too may find their way of life too dear to relinquish for the modern �urban� civilised ways. Many welfare officers working in their areas actually find it to be so.


The forest-village-dwellers, whether escapees or resisters, suffered untold privations. Still they had the satisfaction of being able to preserve their freedom, their religion and their culture. But all victims of aggression were not so �lucky�. Many vulnerable groups and individuals could not extricate themselves from the clutches of the invaders and tyranny of the rulers; they used to be captured, enslaved and even sold, not only in India but also outside the country. It was not only Jahangir, a comparatively kind hearted emperor, who used to capture poor people during his hunting expeditions and send them to Kabul in exchange for dogs and horses, all Muslim invaders and rulers collected slaves and exploited them as they pleased.

When Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sind, he took captives wherever he went and sent many prisoners, especially women prisoners, to his homeland. Parimal Devi and Suraj Devi, the two daughters of Raja Dahir, who were sent to Hajjaj to adorn the harem of the Caliph, were part of a large bunch of maidens remitted as one-fifth share of the state (Khums) from the booty of war (Ghanaim). The Chachnama gives the details. After the capture of the fort of Rawar, Muhammad bin Qasim �halted there for three day, during which time he masscered 6,000 �men. Their followe