The TV adaptation of Vikram Seth’s epic novel A Suitable Boy was recently released on Netflix in India. Set in the fictional town of Brahmpur in 1951, the tv show, much like the book gives us an insight into the political and social tensions that existed in a newly-independent partitioned India. Two episodes prominently featured an issue that was at the forefront of political discourse at the time: the abolition of the Zamindari system in India.
Zamindars (meaning “land owner” in Persian) were first formally recognized during the Mughal era. Often members of the nobility, Zamindars held hereditary ownership rights to all land within a certain area, which was then leased out to peasant farmers who paid revenue back to the Zamindar.
The abolition of the Zamindari system was not initially at the forefront of Indian political discourse. The Nehru Report of 1928 provided for a right to property, and further guaranteed “all titles to private and personal property lawfully acquired”. The revolutionary Communist leader M.N. Roy’s Constitution of Free India: A Draft, 1944 made a more radical proposition: Article 115 declared that “ownership of land, underground riches and railways is hereby transferred to the people”.
This proposal was never accepted by mainstream parties, but the belief that it was necessary to abolish the Zamindari system to revitalize agriculture and end the exploitation of peasant farmers began to gain steam by the mid-1940s.
The Indian National Congress, which had a strong majority in the Constituent Assembly, pledged to eradicate the system in its election manifesto for the 1945 Provincial elections. By 1947, a number of Provincial Legislative Assemblies had already passed acts to abolish the Zamindari system. The fact that the system would be abolished was without question; however, the issue of compensation for the acquisition of Zamindari land was hotly debated.
During the Constituent Assembly debates, Symanandan Sahaya and several other members reminded the Assembly that the Congress Manifesto had supported the payment of “equitable compensation” to Zamindars. Govind Ballabh Pant, who supported the introduction of abolition Bills in the United Provinces legislature, argued that the financial limitations of the State had to be taken into account when deciding the rate of compensation. He reminded the Assembly that “no class and no interest can be allowed to come in [the] way”...of the interests of the State and citizens at large.
After the Constitution came into force, Parliament passed the Zamindari Abolition Act which allowed state governments to acquire Zamindari land without paying market values. The state laws were challenged before various Courts. In response, Parliament enacted the 1st Amendment to the Constitution – inserting Article 31B which created the Ninth Schedule. The laws inside this Schedule – which now included Acts regulating compensation to Zamindars – were immune from constitutional challenge.
Court cases which questioned the validity of laws enacted to acquire Zamindari property continued to plague the government even after the 1st Amendment. Interestingly, the plaintiff in some of these cases was Raja Jagannath Bakhsh Singh: a Constituent Assembly member who had previously advocated for “just” compensation in the Assembly. It was only in 1978 with the passage of the 44th Amendment which abolished the right to property altogether, that the matter was resolved.