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I've never been able to clarify this question.

From what I can tell, the land that the British occupied in India was either "owned" (if this is the right term) by the Company during the time of its tenure, or by the Crown once the Company was no longer the controlling power in the British-Indian territories.

Notwithstanding this, was it possible for a private British citizen (or any other nationality for that matter) to actually own land in India for themselves?

I don't think it was -- but can anyone here confirm this?

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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The concept of "Ownership" as in the right to sell (dispose) was a concept from the west that did not exist in India before the arrival of the Europeans. Land was plentiful, so there was no need to buy land. The "tenant" or cultivator had rights, but paid taxes to the crown. The king/monarch could evict the cultivator for not paying taxes. But the land that he cultivated passed on to his descendants naturally under most circumstances. So this does imply a dual ownership pattern, even if unwritten. When the British came they adopted the land revenue system largely from the Mughals. They also tried the Zerat, Zamindari, Ryotwari and Mahalwari systems, which are all in a sense, ways to help the administration collect taxes, without actually conferring disposition rights. So that largely points towards a "non-ownership" pattern. However, the British "person" was often engaged in business, outside the "Company". There are instances of Manors in which they lived. Such as say "Morgan House" in Kalimpong, and certainly many more. Who "owned" them? Possibly in legal terms, there were no disposition rights held by them because there was no legal framework to accommodate such an entity.

EDIT: Here are some references:

Traditionally there were two parties, and only two, to be taken into account ; these parties were the ruler and the subject, and if a subject occupied land, he was required to pay a share of its gross produce to the ruler in return for the protection he was entitled to receive. It will be observed that under this system the question of ownership of land does not arise ; the system is in fact antecedent to that process of disentangling the conception of private right from political allegiance which has made so much progress during the last century, but is not even now fully accomplished.

From India at the Death of Akbar - an Economic Study by W. H. Moreland (1920)

The power of the Emperor was theoretically absolute. The property, the liberty, the lives of his subjects were at his unconditional disposal. According to the received courtly doctrine, he was the exclusive owner of the whole soil of the Empire.

From India on the Eve of British Conquest by SIDNEY OWEN, (1872)

Even more interesting though, is that the East India company may not have "acquired" land - here is an oblique reference to that:

It has been, in other days, the boast,—the unintelligible boast—of the partisans of the East-India Company,—that we had conquered India, and had not possessed ourselves of one foot of the territory. What more than the nett rental of the soil, the Company could appropriate to itself, nobody has undertaken to show.


I think the interesting question that emerges is : How did disposition rights in India come to be, in the first place, and when?

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Great explanation, Rajib. I've ticked the question as answered because in my opinion it provides a lot of context. – EndlessLoop Feb 8 '14 at 3:53
@EndlessLoop Thanks. Your question made me look up a few things. I'll try and provide links. – Rajib Feb 8 '14 at 3:55
@EndlessLoop- Added some quotes. – Rajib Feb 8 '14 at 16:40
How wonderful that your references were all so old! That made them out of copyright, and thus available online. :-) – T.E.D. Feb 8 '14 at 18:05
@T.E.D. Thanks for linking. – Rajib Feb 8 '14 at 18:07

Many Britishers in eighteenth and nineteenth century India purchased land from private sellers, including native sellers, for a variety of purposes including agriculture, construction of factories, go-downs etc.

In addition they could bid for leases- sometimes very large ones- from either the East India Company or a Native Raja.

Indian law was not fundamentally different from English law. Notionally, the Queen owns all land and a 'freehold' is a thousand year lease. Land ownership can give rise to a tax liability in England. However, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the Queen owns all the land and that one can only acquire land from her by paying a tax. 'Eminent Domain', of course, applies but, in general, the Govt. does not interfere in commercial transactions in realty.

Elementary Economic theory states that even if there is a large amount of uncultivated land- as happened in America as the nation expanded Westward- still, some land more conveniently located or boasting a particular amenity will command a premium accruing to the seller.

Mention of the purchase of land can be found in the Jatakas and other early literature showing that the same laws of Economics as applied in Europe also applied in India.

Divergence between European and Indian practice did not arise because of any legal difference but tracked either localized demonetization consequent upon an external shock or else, a strategic disintermediation of the tax-farmer. The state of historical scholarship on the topic of tenure was quite appalling (deliberately so, in some cases) and the work of people like Moreland or Sir Atul Chatterjee has long been superseded.

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