Rural communities of eighteenth-century India were partly unified, but always stratified. Moreover, they were increasingly connected with and dependent upon, but also opposed to, the larger political, social and cultural world. That connection and dependency dated from the early medieval age when polities were constituted of state regimes and communities, and communities contin- ued to have means of resistance. When entitlements were threatened from without, opposition was first articulated through assemblies of protest against what were considered unjust state demands. Dissent then proceeded to such measures as the withholding of taxes or labour services to state officials, and finally to armed opposition. The mobilization of resistance was facilitated (and even made possible) because rural communities retained the vestiges of belief that local entitlements of all sorts were shared (however unevenly) among the members of various groupings according to generally agreed rules of local origin.
By the eighteenth century, however, new conditions affecting the relation- ship between states and communities were in place. Communities had become increasingly divided and internally stratified according to wealth and the con- sequent ability of some individuals and households to buy the office of headman or accountant, to deploy freely their domestic resources of land and stock, to hire the labour of others and to enter into more or less advantageous share-cropping agreements. Entitlements were also affected by the perceived status of the claimant, whether individual or group, as resident in or foreign to the community. The inequality of access to benefits further intensified
during the colonial period and encouraged the generation of ideological sur- rogates for the weakening capacity for unified community action.
Wealthy members of communities, the holders of landed privilege during the eighteenth century and later, constituted a part of the emergent middle class of the nineteenth century. Its members became major commodity- producers, linked to urban markets and periodic rural markets, and thus ultimately to export production. Landlords hired labourers and specialists to irrigate and cultivate the fields they owned, and to transport the commodities produced. These agricultural capitalists were often drawn from ancient landed and chiefly families and clans; they constituted a small rural elite. More numerous were middle peasant households, of lower social standing and less wealth. Middling households in the countryside held small properties whose productivity was based upon family labour; they constituted part of a rapidly growing ‘lower-middle class’. Included in the same category were households that lacked the means to exploit their often large holdings, and were therefore dependent upon the wealthier cultivators to lease their holdings at rates below the usual land tax. The bulk of these households were those who had acquired land on privileged revenue terms, priests or mullahs, temple and mosque officials, pensioned soldiers and village servants; the rental of their land to cultivators of independent means amounted to a disguised form of share-cropping.
It is easier to define classes of proprietors, holders of large and small prop- erties, than it is to define something that would qualify as a ‘proletariat’; indeed, the latter task even in today’s India is a fraught exercise. During the eighteenth century a large underclass existed whose subsistence and very survival depended on money wages or on the consumption and production loans which they were, as coerced labourers, compelled to make. Estimating the size of this section of the agrarian population is obviously difficult, and little better than a broad range can be suggested. In highly commercialized, late eighteenth-century Bengal, an estimated 70 to 80 per cent of rural families had too little land, tools and stock to sustain themselves without wage labour for even a single season. However, in the dry Deccan districts of the Madras Presidency, at about the same time, the proportion of similarly impoverished and wage dependent cultivating families was about 35 per cent. The per capita consumption of this lowest stratum was about one-half that of the highest stratum, which suggests a flatter income distribution than in Bengal.
The underclass in eighteenth-century towns and cities is, if anything, more difficult to estimate, since the urban poor were less likely to be found in the records of revenue collections than the rural poor. A large urban pauper population – ‘a sub-proletariat’ of carters and casual labourers, and street vendors and artisans with paltry stocks and tools – must be assumed. In eighteenth-century towns like Madras, they could be a volatile and riotous presence.
In numerous rural and urban locales were formed important elements of the modern classes of India, including the petty bourgeoisies of the time. The pre-eminent non-agrarian capitalists of the eighteenth century were the moneyed revenue contractors. As fiscal agents of contemporary Indian
mercantilist regimes, they were able to extend the reach of the commercial and banking operations that initially made them eligible to farm taxes. Unques- tionably, tax farming involved others as well. The petty tax contractors were village headmen, who acted as an important hinge between direct producers and the commodity networks of which they also formed a part. Direct invest- ments in agrarian production were made by both large and small revenue contractors as suppliers of credit to producers with whom they had long-term share-cropping arrangements; all such investments and engagements were made more secure for the small or large capitalists by the police powers that accompanied revenue responsibilities. In addition, moneyed men, both great and small, enjoyed monopolistic powers over military contracting and immu- nities from ordinary business liabilities, as a result of the efforts of minor lords to foster mini-mercantilism in their small jurisdictions.
The building of mini-states during the eighteenth century carried forward earlier practices of major and minor rulers, which included establishing towns and markets, investing in roads, warehousing and forgoing the collection of trade taxes – for a time at least. By these means, the burden of paying the usual revenue was shifted to smaller merchants and artisan-traders.
The viability of smallholding landlords was delicately balanced. They required a certain prevailing level of capitalist development to entice rich peasants into leasing their low-rent holdings (an arrangement that enabled them to avoid higher, fixed, land revenue payments), and a political regime that permitted their petty privileges while maintaining tax demands on the smaller direct producers who provided a modest stream of rental income for those with landed privilege. Too much capitalism or too strong political regimes could and eventually did threaten the interests of this large rural middle stratum and thrust many former beneficiaries into a land market where they were relatively weak participants.
New towns were another kind of hinge between mercantilist and commu- nity structures, although town growth had long been fostered by religious developments as well. In south India, towns were the centres of temple and sect organization, contributing a diffuse ideological element to the political and economic functions of urban centres. Towns became the district and locality headquarters of the nineteenth-century Company and Imperial Raj. Militarily, they were the fortified garrisons of state regimes, the places where soldiers were provisioned and housed between forays to maintain order and to assist in the collection of the revenue by a tax contractor. Economically, they were the nodal points for bulking and distributing commodities that flowed to and from the coastal ports of high, international commerce. In cultural and ideological terms, towns harboured temples and mosques, sect and cultic centres, with their linkages to surrounding villages.