Bernier’s Theory of Agrarian Decline

Monsieur François Bernier (25 September 1620 – 22 September 1688)

Copyright: Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi

In the first ten years of Aurangzeb’s reign, there was a scarcity of food grains although there is no direct evidence for that. This being not complementary to the emperor, the official history of Aurangzeb, Alamgirnama, is silent over this fact. Kazim Shirazi, in other words, conceals this fact. But at the same time, he says, Aurangzeb ordered langars to be opened:

“The Emperor in his gracious kindness an bounty directed the officials of Burhanpur, Ahmadabad and the country of Surat to establish soup kitchens, or alms-houses, such as are called langar in the language of Hindustan for the benefit of the poor and destitute.”

         The question is why this if there was no scarcity? This piece of evidence and certain other measures which were taken by the emperor conclusively prove that there was scarcity of food grain in the first decade OF Aurangzeb’s reign. Now what was the reason or the cause of this scarcity? Was there an economic crisis and what were the reasons for it?

         One would recall that in the war of succession which continued for about 2 yrs and in which more than half of the empire became involved area-wise, as first battle fought at Dharmat (Malwa), then at Samugarh (Agra), Khajua (Allahabad), and then Ajmer. Shah Shuja was pursued till Munghyre so Bihar involved too. Of course Bengal and Gujarat were also involved as Shah Shuja and Murad came from there. So this war caused damage to the standing crops which were destroyed due to the movement of large number of troops.

         Secondly there was a double realization of revenue in certain parts of the empire. For example in Gujarat, Bengal and Bihar, revenues were realized by Murad and Shah Shuja and then the area was taxed again by Aurangzeb. So no surplus was left with the peasants and their backbone was broken. The peasants were not in a position to invest in agricultural operation which came to a standstill due to the tyranny of the officials. The result was the flight of peasants from the villages.

         Thirdly, the rains failed and where it rained, it rained so heavily that there were floods. The cumulative effect of all these was scarcity of food grains but still not a famine condition. It was a result of the realization of this fact by Aurangzeb himself that he abolished rahdari or road tolls.

The innocent people thought it to be a philanthropic move for the welfare of the people, the khalqullah. As a matter of fact what he wanted was a flow of grain to the area of need without official hindrance. This fact points out that in certain areas there was a scarcity of food grains.

Aurangzeb also abolished other cesses which were levied on the peasants.

As usual every crisis was to be placed in a theoretical framework and had to be theorized. Thus Francois Bernier put up a theory. The simple fact of scarcity was theorized by Bernier to explain the scarcity of the food grains and make an attempt to explain the agrarian decline in the Mughal Empire.

According to Bernier’s theory of Agrarian Decline, as the Jagirdari System was transferable and not hereditary or permanent, the jagirdar was not interested in the development of the area assigned to him in jagir, because he was convinced that neither he nor  his descendants would be benefited by the investment of money or labour in the development of the area. This was so, as according to Bernier, the Jagirdars argued that they could be transferred the next year. Thus there was no guarantee of them or their descendants getting benefited from the labour or investment in the area. So they tended to exploit peasants to the maximum without putting a single pie. Result was the ruination of the peasants.

In the theory spelled out by Bernier on the pre-colonial state, he takes the Oriental Monarchies, i.e., the Mughal Empire and Turkey in to account. According to him these eastern states were different from their European counterparts in two major particulars: A) The king here was the owner of the soil, in other words, the exactor of rent; and B) as we have seen, those who actually collected the tax-rent, unlike the hereditary European lords, held only temporary tenures, as holders of jagirs or timars. The temporary tenures, which were a necessary reflex of state ownership of land, led to over-exploitation of the peasantry, and therefore, a progressive decline of the economy and polity.

This was in contrast to Western Europe, where the limitation of state right of sovereignty and the dominance of private property over the land, under its protection, were the surest means to progress and prosperity. Thus in this theory we see an emphasis towards a contrast between the Oriental Despotic state and the Occidental laissez-fare state.

The theory as propounded by Bernier does look attractive. Bernier was heavily obsessed and prejudiced by the sanctity of the right of private property and he was examining the Indian situation through the European glasses and was unnecessarily bracketing European feudalism with the Mughal Jagirdari system.

It will be a mistake to call the jagirdari system as a feudal system. It was not. At the most, the Mughal Jagirdari system can be defined as a bureaucratic feudalism: to be a jagirdar one had to be a mansabdar while a European feudal lord had to be a hereditary lord. Here until someone did not prove his worth, he could not be a mansabdar. If not a mansabdar, he could never be a jagirdar.

Abul Fazl says that as the transplantation of the plant is good for the health of the plant, the transfer of jagirs was absolutely necessary for the health of the administrative system. Abul Fazl is right as it was this system of transfer which ensured cohesion of the empire for about 200 years. The jagirdar should never think the jagir to be his own. This was the beauty of the system. Bernier could never visualise it.

So Bernier is not scientific in analysing the causes of agrarian decline and is unconsciously prejudiced. This was as he examined the Indian situation through European experience.

It is conceded that the jagirs were transferable. And again it may be conceded for the sake of argument that the jagirdars tended to exploit the peasants to the maximum limit and were blind enough to kill the goose which lay the golden eggs (the peasants). How the emperor could tolerate the situation? Obviously there were administrative checks on jagirdars practicing over-realization and exploitation. We have the evidence that whenever excess realization was resorted to, the jagirdars were punished or their jagirs were resumed. So checks and balances were there as far as the jagirdari system is concerned.the system functioned reasonably well so long as the emperor remained powerful and had the will and resources to impose rules , which on all accounts Aurangzeb was when he left in 1681 for the Deccan.

The theory advanced by Bernier for the agrarian decline doesn’t stand to be historically correct. Jagirdari system was the cardinal system of the Mughal Empire as Abul Fazl says and it was not responsible for the agrarian decline at least in the first 10 years of Aurangzeb’s reign.