A Rule of Property for Bengal
is a classic work on the history of colonial India. First published in 1963, and long unavailable in this country, it is an essential text in the areas of colonial and postcolonial studies. In this book, Ranajit Guha examines the British establishment of the Permanent Settlement of Bengal—the first major administrative intervention by the British in the region and an effort to impose a western notion of private property on the Bengal countryside. Guha’s study of the intellectual origins, goals, and implementation of this policy provides an in-depth view of the dynamics of colonialism and reflects on the lasting effect of that dynamic following the formal termination of colonial rule.
By proclaiming the Permanent Settlement in 1793, the British hoped to promote a prosperous capitalist agriculture of the kind that had developed in England. The act renounced for all time the state’s right to raise the assessment already made upon landowners and thus sought to establish a system of property that was, in the British view, necessary for the creation of a stable government. Guha traces the origins of the Permanent Settlement to the anti-feudal ideas of Phillip Francis and the critique of feudalism provided by physiocratic thought, the precursor of political economy. The central question the book asks is how the Permanent Settlement, founded in anti-feudalism and grafted onto India by the most advanced capitalist power of the day became instrumental in the development of a neo-feudal organization of landed property and in the absorption and reproduction of precapitalist elements in a colonial regime.
Guha’s examination of the British attempt to mold Bengal to the contours of its own society without an understanding of the traditions and obligations upon which the Indian agrarian system was based is a truly pioneering work. The implications of A Rule of Property for Bengal
remain rich for the current discussions from the postcolonialist perspective on the meaning of modernity and enlightenment.