The term which Indo-Persian sources of the Mughal period most frequently used to denote a peasant was raiyat or muzarian. In addition, we also encounter the terms kisan or asami.
Sources of the seventeenth century refer to two kinds of peasants – khud-kashta and pahi-kashta. The former were residents of the village in which they held their lands. The latter were non-resident cultivators who belonged to some other village, but cultivated lands elsewhere on a contractual basis.
People became pahi-kashta either out of choice – for example, when terms of revenue in a distant village were more favourable – or out of compulsion – for example, forced by economic distress after a famine.
Seldom did the average peasant of north India possess more than a pair of bullocks and two ploughs; most possessed even less. In Gujarat peasants possessing about six acres of land were considered to be affluent; in Bengal, on the other hand, five acres was the upper limit of an average peasant farm; 10 acres would make one a rich Assami.
Cultivation was based on the principle of individual ownership. Peasant lands were bought and sold in the same way as the lands of other property owners. This nineteenth-century description of peasant holdings in the Delhi-Agra region would apply equally to the seventeenth century:
Pahi-kasht peasants were basically outsiders but cultivated the rented land in a village either by staying in the same village (residential pahi-kasht) or by staying in the neighbouring villages (non-residential pahi-kasht).
In the Mughal official records the term Zamindar was used in a very wide sense. It covered petty landholders in the villages and descendants of old ruling families who retained small portions of their ancestral lands, as well as the Rajput and other chiefs who exercised autonomous administrative authority in their principalities.
The zamindars had hereditary rights of collecting land revenue from a number of villages which were called his talluqa or zamindari. For the collection of land revenue they used to get a share of revenues which could go up to 25 per cent of the revenue. In Bengal the zamindars paid the state a fixed sum as the revenue of a village, making collection from the individual peasants at rates fixed by custom or by himself. The difference between his collections and the amount he paid to the state was his personal income.
Where the state demand reached the maximum that the peasant could pay, a deduction of 10 per cent was made from the total amount of revenue and paid to the zamindars either in cash or in the form of revenue-free land.
The zamindar was not the owner of the land of his zamindari and peasants could not be dispossessed of land as long as they paid land revenue. The zamindars served the state as an agency for collection of revenue and exercised considerable local influence in administrative and social affairs.
They often commanded armed forces and had fortresses. According to Abul Fazl, their combined troops exceeded 44 lakhs. Sometimes the state had to use military force against recalcitrant zamindars for the realisation of revenue.
The general attitude of the Mughal ruling class towards zamindars was unfriendly, if not hostile. Writing in Aurangzeb’s reign, Munucci says: “Usually there is some rebellion of rajas and zamindars going on in the Moghul kingdom”. The zamindars were a very powerful class and were to be found all over the Mughal Empire under different names, such as deshmukhs, patils, nayaks, etc. In some respects of zamindars and the peasants were natural allies in any struggle against the Mughal government. The higher class of zamindars, i.e. tributary chiefs, also rendered military service to the Mughal government. Hereditary succession to zamindari was the general rule.
Zamindari was divisible among legal heirs and could also be freely bought and sold. Normally in the Mughal Empire, villages were divided into zamindari and raiyati areas.
The most important crops for the Mughal Empire were staple crops and cash crops. Staple crops were crops that were the basic staple of the Indian people, crops that were part of the everyday lives of the citizens of the Empire.
The Mughals had three basic staple crops: rice, wheat, and millet. Each of the crops were grown in specific regions or zones. Rice was grown in the Eastern and Southwestern portions of the Empire. Wheat was grown in the northern and central regions. And for millet, it was growing dried areas of the northwest and western zones.
Meanwhile, cash crops provided the empire goods to sell to foreigners in order to get silver from the westerners and also from other countries. Major cash crops included indigo, sugar, cotton, and opium. Other cash crops were soon grown astheyt was introduced by the westerners.
When the Portuguese established trading posts in India, such as Goa, they introduced tobacco and maize cultivation to the Indians.
Some cities at the riverside of the Ganges became wealthy because of cultivation of cash crops due to high European demands. Patna was an example of a center that developed because of high British demand for cotton and opium. The Bengali area also began to cultivate mulberry and entered into sericulture because of high orders for silk.
The agriculture of the Mughal Empire had the basic elements. There were peasants, infrastructure, tax collection, landownership, and agrarian issues. Peasants of the Mughals were few. Because of low numbers, peasants could occupy large tacks of lands, enough to produce crops to pay taxes, family sustenance, and surplus for selling. Some peasants were free to explore newlands to occupy and cultivate. For example, in Assam, jungles were decrease because of the arrival of settlers that wished to cultivate rice.
To enter into agriculture was easy. Agricultural infrastructure were sufficient to maintain farmlands. Irrigation canals exist across India and its numerous rivers. The Persian Wheel or Sakia were used to bring water from the river to high area for irrigation. The climate of India is based on the monsoons, thus if no rains came, the crops would fail. In order to prepare for such natural disaster, tanks, for water were built to provide the water for some time during drought.
Land ownership in the Mughal Empire was quite complicated. Peasants had control over their land. The government also placed a decree that peasants cannot leave their land. This was in placed to make the peasants settle in one land and to avoid fertile farmlands to become idle.
Tax collection was also imposed upon by the government to the peasants. The taxation imposed dates back from the time of Akbar the Great. 1/3 of the total production was to be paid to the government.