Development of Land rights

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Shri Sudheer Birodkar

Laws regarding land rights existed in India since ancient times. These laws evolved over period of time as the civilization progressed from common holding of tribes to individual ownership.

Vedas prohibit land grants

At the dawn of civilization many of our customs, rituals, beliefs, land-holding patterns, etc were born from the basic necessities and realities of day-to-day life. Their origins are today lost in the misty past and we presume that they have always been a part of our lifestyle.

Shatapatha Brahmana (a post Vedic text referred to in the Mahabharata) states that land must not be given away even on the plea of a sacrificial fee. Land grants were being scoffed up to the Mahabharata period (dated prior to 3000 BCE) as till then land was held as common property of tribe (Gana). Even the legal literature frowned at such practice. The idea that land could be an object of purchase and sale had not yet been established. Practice of making land grants to Brahmins and noblemen, and regular purchase and sale of land was the characteristic of later times. Individual ownership gradually came to be established when it was linked to the labor put into making it cultivable, as the statement in the Manusmriti (a later text) reflects.

Land ownership during Tribal period

In the tribal set-up of the days of the Rig Veda (i.e. before 1500 B.C.E.) every male member of a tribe had to work in the collective activity of hunting. When the disintegrating tribal society of hunters, took up agriculture to be its prime occupation, land was collectively owned to begin with. Every member of the tribe had an equal right to whatever the tribe produced collectively.

Even the tribal chief did not wield the absolute powers that characterised the monarchs of later ages. That the Vedic king's authority was limited is clear from the fact that in the Atharva Veda, Indra is invoked to give the king's share (Bhaga) in the village. But in later times the king himself is stated to be the collector of his share according to the Panchavimsa Brahmana.

Manusmriti on Rights to Land Ownership

According to an ancient text, the Manusmriti, "Land belonged to him who first cleared the timber and a deer to him who first wounded it." This couplet makes it clear that, at least to begin with, the title to property of land was allied to the labor put into making it cultivable. Land grants as well as purchase and sale of land would have seemed strange when vast tracts of virgin land was freely available which could be cleared and claimed by any person.

But when society established itself on the Gangetic plains and the shortage of arable land began to be felt due to population increase, frequent transfer in the ownership of land became common. Transfer of land apart from being a sign of settled agriculture also indicates a shortage of land. When virgin land is abundant, the motive to transfer land or to get it transferred is naturally weak.

Pattern of Ownership of Land changed from Common to Individual

The changes in the pattern of land ownership also brought about corresponding changes in the connotation of words used in day to day language. Meaning of the words like Bhratru and Bhratrivya which stand for brother and brotherhood in the Atharva Veda became rival and rivalry. This change in connotation shows that hostility had started manifests itself with the Vedic Kulas i.e. families, over the division of property, of which, land was the primary constituent in an agrarian society.

The system of landholding also gradually underwent fundamental changes. Whereas to begin with, the whole tribe (Gana) held the ownership of land being cultivated, the ownership gradually narrowed down to the Vamshas or blood relations which further disintegrated to the Kulas or families. This narrowing down of ownership must have affected the size of the individual holdings. Tribal holding upon which the entire tribe used to work, must have been much bigger in size. Its fragmentation into separate family holdings must have naturally limited its size. It must have been further limited in the subsequent period with the rise of the individual proprietary rights on land.

The Ashwa Medha Sacrifice was a Method for Land Grabbing

After the individual ownership of land had come to be established parallel to the tendency of fragmentation, there was also an opposite tendency of the formation of large landed estates.

As people practiced settled agriculture on individually owned land, it could be grabbed by others. The landed estates must have come into being in this way, as a result of war and the grabbing of land of one kingdom by another. The martial caste of the Kshatriyas would have been in the position of carrying out such plunder. The Ashva-Medha Yagna was another method of extending ownership to the lands under weak kings or over lands which had not come under individual proprietary ownership. Such accumulation of land in the hands of a few landlords created a class of landlords and cultivators.

Rise of the Big Monarchical States in the Ganges Valley

With the formation of monarchical states and their capital cities which were the hub of mercantile activities, there emerged a class of absentee landlords who largely lived in the cities but had vast landed properties in rural areas.. These absentee landlords had landholdings relatively near the monarchical states of the Ganges valley. These states were mainly Koshala and Magadha. As these landlords came under the sovereignty of the kings of Koshala and Magadha their landholdings came to be integrated with the prospering mercantile economy of these kingdoms. Pali texts of Buddha’s time mention such landlord-merchants like Anathapindaka and Kossiyagotta. The state in whose territory these landlord-merchants lived also gained in the form of increasing collection of taxes and the general prosperity.

In these monarchical states, the landlord-merchants played the role of intermediaries between the state and the actual tillers of the soil. Thus a nexus was established between the state and the landed aristocracy. But in the foothills of the Himalayan range which were outside the Gangetic monarchical states of Magadha and Koshala, the landed aristocracy was not under the sovereignty of any outside king. The landlords were their own rulers and had conglomorates of oligarchies. Such oligarchies of the Mallas, Lichavvis, Koliyas, etc. are mentioned in the Pali texts.

The Struggle Between the Tribal Oligarchies and the Monarchs

These landholding oligarchs were different from the absentee landlords of the plains as they did not have any significant mercantile contacts with the outside world and above all did not owe loyalty to any King. These landlords were bound to one another in a tribal oligarchy which refused to yield taxes to the monarchies from the Ganges Valley nor did they acknowledge any sort of sovereignty. Herein lay the seeds of the struggle between the tribal oligarchies and the monarchical states. Right from Ajatashatru who ruled Magadha in the 6th Century B.C.E. during Buddha's time up to the Nandas of the 4th century B.C.E, there was a running struggle between these two groups.

This struggle brought about the destruction of the independent tribal oligarchies as the monarchies were more advanced and organized economy. But as a result of this struggle, land the primary factor of production came under state supervision. While the state did not deny the right to private property, it nevertheless adopted measures to siphon off a large segment of the produce as revenue tax. This further increased the strength of the monarchical states. Thus, in the Ganges valley and in the Himalayan foothills, the administrative suzerainty of the Magadhan King came to be absolute. The nexus between the state and the large landholders came to be firmly established. But the regions to the south of the Ganges valley viz., Madhya-desha and Dakshina-patha i.e. Central and Southern India, were still outside the pale of Magadhan imperialism.


  • Sudheer Birodkar, "A Hindu History: A Search for our Present History". Reprinted with permission.