The “House Tax Hartal” of 1810–11

The following account comes from James Mill’s and Horace Hayman Wilson’s The History of British India, , and concerns a mass tax-resistance strike that started 199 years ago this week.

In order to extend the public resources of the Government, it was thought advisable to impose a tax upon houses in the several towns and cities of Bengal, Behar, Orissa, and Benares: religious buildings were exempted. Such a tax had been levied for some years without any difficulty or obstruction in Calcutta, and it was not expected that any serious opposition would be offered to it in other cities. The Government was mistaken. The measure was regarded as an innovation, and was vehemently opposed. At Benares especially the resistance was most violent, and was curiously characteristic of the peculiarities both of the place and the people.

As soon as the intentions of the Government became known, great excitement prevailed throughout the city, and meetings of the different castes and trades were held to determine upon the course to be pursued. No obstruction was offered to the persons employed to assess the houses; but the shops were closed, every kind of occupation was abandoned, and such numerous crowds assembled on the outskirts of the town, that it was judged expedient by the magistrate to call to the assistance of the police a detachment of troops from the neighbouring cantonments. Their services were not needed, as the people quietly dispersed; but on the same day a solemn engagement was taken by all the inhabitants to carry on no manner of work or business until the tax was repealed. Everything was at a stand: the dead bodies were cast unceremoniously into the river, because there were none to perform the obsequial rites; and the very thieves refrained from the exercise of their vocation, although the shops and houses were left without protection, — the people deserting the city in a body, and taking up their station halfway between Benares and Secrole, the residence of the European functionaries, about three miles distant. A petition was presented to the magistrate, praying him to withdraw the odious impost, and declaring that the petitioners would never return to their homes until their application was complied with: a reference to Calcutta was all that was in the magistrate’s power.

Whilst awaiting for a reply from the Government, the people of Benares continued assembled, and were joined by many persons from the surrounding districts: the number was computed at more than two hundred thousand, comprehending the aged and infirm, women and children. They were supplied with food regularly at the expense of the opulent classes, and were actively enjoined to unanimity and perseverance by their religious guides and teachers. Their conduct was uniformly peaceable; passive resistance was the only weapon to which they trusted. They continued in the open air throughout the day, but many returned at night to their homes.

In this manner . The Government somewhat misconceiving the character of the assemblage, and at any rate deeming it impolitic to yield to any semblance of intimidation, ordered the enforcement of the tax, and the dispersion of the multitude, if necessary, by force. A sufficient strength had been collected for the purpose; but, before the receipt of the orders, time, reflexion, and discomfort had enfeebled the vigour of the opposition, and the people had for the most part returned to their dwellings. The determination of the Government caused them to reassemble, with the avowed determination of marching in a body to Calcutta to petition the Governor-General personally for redress; but this was a much more arduous undertaking than a bivouac in the immediate vicinity of Benares, and could not be prosecuted with the same unity of purpose. Every householder engaged, indeed, either to go himself, to send a representative, or contribute his quota to the expense of the journey; and a number of persons met, and made one march towards Calcutta: but the defaulters were so numerous, and so many of those who had set out deserted by the way, that the leaders were sensible of the futility of the scheme, and wanted only a decent excuse for its relinquishment. This was furnished by the interposition of the Raja of Benares, who, at the desire of the Government officers, repaired to the party, overtook them, and counselled them to turn back, and rest contented with with the renewed representation of their grievances through the usual official channel in a quiet and respectful manner. His advice was followed, and a second petition was presented, to which in due time attention was paid.

In consequence of this opposition, and the universal unpopularity of the tax, it was repealed. In the following year it was revived in a modified form, and limited in its application to the cities of Dacca, Patna, and Murshedabad. In those towns it was to be applied to the payment of a municipal police, to be appointed and maintained by a committee of natives chosen by the inhabitants of each ward in the presence of the magistrate: to these committees also was intrusted the office of assessing the different shops and dwellings of their respective wards, the whole not to exceed a maximum average rate. Some opposition was made to the arrangement at Dacca, but it was finally carried into operation.

Here, the author notes that “The public petitions proceeding from native communities in India which are much intermixed with Europeans are rarely of a genuine native character. They betray more or less European, and particularly professional, prompting. At Benares there were few Europeans, no lawyers; and the petition of the inhabitants was, most probably, of their own unaided dictation. It is a document not without interest, as it not only expresses the sentiments of the people on the occasion on which it was presented, but shows that they were well informed of the proceedings and views of their rulers.” He includes the following translation of the petition in an appendix:

The Petition of all the Inhabitants of the City of Benares, etc., etc., Sheweth, That we, your humble petitioners, have been nourished from our infancy by the fostering care of the British Government, and have been protected from every evil. During the government of Mr. Hastings especially we enjoyed ease and tranquillity, when, by the abolition of the tax on pilgrims, the fame of the Government was extended from one end of India to the other. In like manner, in the time of the Marquis Cornwallis, we enjoyed various advantages: the Sayer and town duties, and other descriptions of oppressive duties, were abolished. The affairs of this province were committed to the administration of Mr. Duncan; and such was the indulgence extended to us, that, for the first time, Vakeels were appointed in the courts of justice on the part of Government, and the claims of Government were henceforward judged and determined in common with the claims of other people. A considerable sum of money was also appropriated for the expense of the Hindoo college, and hundreds of people obtained Jageers, pensions, and donations; the people of all descriptions were secured in the enjoyment of their laws and their religion, together with the customs and usages to which they had been long habituated. The fame of the Government extended itself throughout the world; everything submitted to its will, and the population of the country increased with its prosperity.

When the court of justice was originally established at Benares, the fees payable on the institution of suits were fixed at the rate of five per cent.; but the people claimed the interposition of the Governor-General’s agent at this place, and the fees were reduced in consequence to the rate of one per cent. We fully expected that in a short time these also would be abolished; but after that gentleman went away, they were again increased; and by the introduction of the stamp duties, transit and town duties, by the Phatuckbundee and other new institutions, your petitioners were reduced to distress and wretchedness.

During the last five years, the seasons have proved unfavourable; the harvests have been injured by drought, hail, and frost; and the price of every article of consumption has increased two-fold. In this state of things, Regulation ⅹⅴ., , is introduced; and the tax it imposes, by affecting all ranks of people, has thrown the subjects of your Government into consternation. Accordingly, a number of people, in the confident expectation of obtaining that indulgence which Government has always been accustomed to extend to its subjects, exposed themselves to the inclemency of the season; and, with nothing to cover them but the heavens, bowed their faces to the earth in supplication; in this state ot calamity, several of them perished. We presented some petitions, setting forth our distresses, to the magistrate; and, as we did not obtain our object, we petitioned the provincial court; but, from our untoward fate, we were again unsuccessful. In this state of trouble, the proclamation of , was issued, under the impression that your petitioners were in a state of disobedience to the Government; which we humbly represent was never even within our imagination. In implicit obedience to this proclamation, as to the decree of fate, we got up, and returned to our homes, in full dependence upon the indulgence of the Government. We set forth our distresses as below stated: we hope that you, under the authority vested by Government in its officers, upon the exercise of which the welfaie of the country depends, will be pleased to translate this our petition, and forward it to the Right Honourable the Governor-General in Council, that, under the provision contained in clause 1st, Regulation ⅹⅼⅰ., , we may obtain relief. The indulgent disposition which is invariably manifested by the Government, induces us to entertain a confident hope that the petition of its afflicted subjects will be complied with.

[The following representation relates to Regulation ⅹⅴ., , and the proclamation of .]

First. By Regulation ⅹⅹⅲ., , the expense of the police establishments was to be defrayed by a tax levied from the merchants, traders, and shopkeepers, who were considered one of the most opulent classes of the people; but, by the rules in Regulation ⅵ., , the Regulation above mentioned was rescinded, and it was declared that the tax was a source of vexation to the contributors. The Vice-President in Council accordingly resolved to abolish this tax, and to substitute the duties on stamp paper in the room of it. Sire, when the vexations to which the people were exposed by being subjected to the tax, are so fully known to you, there can be no necessity for us to employ much detail in representing them; and let it be understood, that the persons who then were affected by Regulation ⅹⅹⅲ., , are not now in a condition better calculated to submit to it. In the new Regulation, the tax includes every one; thousands who have not wherewithal to subsist, are affected by it; hence, to extend the tax to everybody, will be the cause of general ruin.

Secondly. The protection of the people is the duty of the Government. The Governments to which we were formerly subjected, established the transit and other duties upon traders to defray the expenses of protecting us; in other words, for the support of the police. Expenses of other descriptions were defrayed by the produce of the Baitoolmaul; and, although these duties still continue to be levied in Benares, the expense of the roads and the general protection of the country, such as the establishment of police, and so forth, was also provided for at the settlement of the province; besides this, the stamp duties were established to defray the expense of the police, as well as the Phatuckbundee, which has, however, been abolished by the proclamation of . These various resources for the support of the police, well merit the attention of the Government.

Thirdly. In Regulation ⅹⅴ., , it is stated, that, as the tax had been introduced in Calcutta, it should be also introduced into Benares. Sire, the ground of Calcutta is the particular property of Government; it was originally Government property, and became inhabited according to the usages established in England; all consented to pay the tax on the same principle as if it were a ground-rent; and every one, according to his means or pleasure, took ground, and built upon it. But it is otherwise in Benares, where the ground is the property of its inhabitants, who have held it by purchase or other means from time immemorial.

Fourthly. In Regulation ⅹⅴ., , it is declared, that all places of worship are to be exempted from the tax; and the whole extent of the city of Benares as contained within the Punchkos is, in fact, a place of worship; there positively is not a point of ground within it which is otherwise. Let this be ascertained by a reference to the Shaster. Besides this, former Governments, on all occasions of exercising their authority, treated this city with peculiar indulgence; and the British Government also has done the same, as is instanced in the exemption of Brahmins from capital punishment; hence, the city of Benares should be especially exempted from the tax on houses.

Fifthly. The means of procuring subsistence in these times, such as they are, are well known to Government. From the annihilation of the profits of our labour, from the increase of the taxes, from calamities which have raised the price of every article of consumption, from the abolition of the Tehseeldarry system, and from the bankruptcy of the merchants, your petitioners are reduced to such a state, that multitudes are unable to clothe and feed themselves, or support and educate their families: hence numbers, who supported themselves in a respectable manner, have been robbed of their respectability by distress. Had it not been for the native colleges of Calcutta and Benares, there would not have been an educated or well-bred man to be found throughout the country. How, then, is it possible to pay the tax?

Sixthly. Thousands of people in these times have not a kouree in the world; and if, in order to realise the tax, their household property shall be sold, as is prescribed in the Regulation, to what extremities will they not be reduced?

Seventhly. Since the commencement of the English Government, the rules contained in the Shera and Shaster, together with the customs of Hindostan, have invariably been observed: it will be found in the Shera and Shaster, that houses are reckoned one of the principal necessaries of life, and are not accounted disposable property. Even creditors cannot claim them from us in satisfaction of their dues; and in this country, in the times of the Mohammedan and Hindoo princes, houses were never rendered liable to contributions for the service of the state.

Eighthly. Men of business possess no ostensible property but their houses. Houses are the foundation of all worldly affairs, whether in the collector’s office, or in courts, or in mercantile transactions. If the tax is enforced, what with providing the means of paying it on the one hand, and what with the apprehension of future innovations from the interference of Government on the other, such general distrust will be excited, that there will no longer be any reliance on the security of property: all mercantile transactions, all worldly affairs, will be overturned, and the public at large will become distracted.

Ninthly. By the usages of this country, the rights of the Government as they were exercised in the times of the Mohammedan and Hindoo princes, do not weigh heavy upon its subjects: hence it is, that under the English Government, in the sale of estates to realise the public revenue, the houses of the landholders are exempted. If the tax is enforced, the public mind will, for many reasons, be filled with apprehensions.

Tenthly. Although Government certainly devotes particular care and expense to the protection of the inhabitants of the cities, yet the town and transit duties, the mint and stamp duties, the registry of deeds, the duties arising from the quarries and the Abkaree, &c., &c., all of which multiply in proportion to the extent of the population, are levied in a greater degree from the inhabitants of cities than from those who live in the interior.

Eleventhly. If the tax is enforced, the rent of houses will increase; and many of the people, who are come from distant places to reside in this city and rent the houses they occupy, will no longer continue to remain in it. People will build no more stone houses; and in that case, many classes of workmen, such as carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, &c., will be left without employment, and the city will be depopulated.

Twelfthly. Those who, from the fame of the justice and protection to be found under the English Government, are come from distant countries to reside in the city of Benares, and whose residence in it adds to the population of the place, and benefits thousands, will by the introduction of the tax be disheartened. They will go away, and multitudes will be ruined.

Thirteenthly. The Regulations enacted by the Marquis Cornwallis were extended to Benares, and we, your petitioners, satisfied with those Regulations, lived happy and contented; the whole country increased in fertility and population, and the resources of Government were improved, at least so it appeared to us, though we know not if it appears so to the wisdom of the Government.

Fourteenthly. As a number of persons continued for some time assembled together to complain, Government conceived there was a disturbance, and it was so declared in the proclamation of . Sire, if an order be passed, relating particularly to one individual, and other persons combine to support him, it might in that case be denominated a disturbance. As the introduction of the tax affected every individual of every class, every one presented himself to obtain justice. Thousands of men and women, all the old and the infirm, Brahmins, devotees, and Pundits, who have no occupation but prayer and penance, abandoned their houses and were among them. None were armed, even with a stick. The manner and custom in this country, from time immemorial, is this: that, whenever any act affecting every one generally, is committed by the Government, the poor, the aged, the infirm, the women, all forsake their families and their homes, expose themselves to the inclemency of the seasons and to other kinds of inconveniencies, and make known their affliction and distress, that the Government, which is more considerate than our parents, may observe their condition and extend indulgence to its subjects. Besides this, when the Brahmins in general are involved in distress, it is incumbent on all Hindoos to abstain from receiving sustenance, and any one who presumes to deviate from this custom, must incur general opprobrium. If your petitioners, by assembling together in this manner, can be considered to have created a disturbance, it is our misfortune.

[The next representation respects the houses of Benares.]

First. Many Mohullahs are upon ground which pays revenue to Government, and ought accordingly to be exempted.

Secondly. Many houses and several parts of the city are held by grants from the native princes and from the Honourable East India Company, and these are of the same nature as Ultumgah; besides which, thousands of people subsist on the bounty of Government.

Thirdly. Many of the Seraies and other public places were built by the Mohammedan princes or by their principal officers, and ought to be exempted.

Fourthly. There are hundreds of houses in this city, the proprietors of which pay rent for the ground they are built upon, while the owner of the ground receives the rent as his right; which right has never been disputed by any Government. The house having been built by its proprietor, he holds it, like household furniture, exempt from taxation; the materials of which it is built are liable to town and transit duties, and to the quarry duties, which are, of course, paid upon requisition. Many pieces of ground, and several of the houses above mentioned, are let to Government by the proprietors, and such proprietors cannot in consequence be called upon to pay the tax.

Fifthly. Many houses have been purchased by their present proprietors at public auction, with the permission of Government.

Sixthly. Many houses which belonged to the Baitoolmaul, have been purchased by their present proprietors from the Government, who, on paying the value of them to Government, were put into possession.

Seventhly. Many houses are still in the Baitoolmaul, and the occupants pay rent for them to Government.

Eighthly. Many houses have been bestowed upon Brahmins and Fucqueers; and these houses, like Kishnapun, and, according to established rules, must be exempted.

Ninthly. Many benevolent and humane people lend their houses for the accommodation of pilgrims and travellers, in the hope by so doing to obtain the blessing of Providence; many lend them out of civility to their friends. If the tax is enforced, civility and benevolence will be excluded from the world.

Tenthly. Many houses have been built by persons of rank in former times; these houses are deserted and fallen to ruin. Those to whom these houses have lineally descended, are unable to repair them; they inhabit, perhaps, but one room, without even the means of subsistence: such persons surely deserve indulgence.

Eleventhly. Many houses are mortgaged, and in the possession of the mortgagee. The tax cannot be paid by the mortgager, because he is without the means of paying it; nor can it be paid by the mortgagee without diminishing the legal profit derivable from the established rate of interest.

Twelfthly. Many houses belong to the Nawaub Vizier and other persons of distinction, such as Manmundil and Raujmundil.

Thirteenthly. Several men of rank, such as the Moghul princes, reside in Benares by order of Government; they have either received their houses from Government, or have built them themselves.

Fourteenthly. Many of the buildings of this city are either Hindoo or Mohammedan places of worship, or pious bequests. After exempting buildings of these descriptions and the houses above mentioned, it will appear, upon inquiry, that the produce of the tax will not be worth the consideration of Government, which expends lakhs of rupees for the welfare of its subjects and for the general prosperity of the country.

Our existence and everything we possess have been bestowed upon us by the liberality of Government. Your humble petitioners feel themselves totally unable to contend, even in litigation, with a Government so powerful; but perceiving that the Government is always disposed to be kind and indulgent, we have presumed to represent what our imperfect understandings have suggested to us. The indulgence of Government has given us the power to make this our representation; and, at all events, we hope for its indulgence and the forgiveness of our offences.

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