Bengal Tenancy Act 1885 was an enactment of the Bengal government defining the natural rights and liabilities of zamindars and tenants in response to widespread peasant discontent threatening the stability of the colonial system of governance. The permanent settlement gave absolute proprietary rights to landholders but was silent about the rights of tenants, although it vaguely recognised their customary rights. With the increase of population and rise of prices of agricultural produce in the nineteenth century, demand for land increased. In consequence, zamindars tended to enhance rents. The raiyats (tenants) refused to accept the zamindari right to enhance rent beyond pargana nirikh (rate) established by custom. Zamindars, as absolute proprietors of land, were not inclined to recognise such customary rights.
Another very important factor that contributed to the deteriorating relationship between zamindars and tenants was the emergence of a landed intermediate class defying the rules of the Permanent Settlement. The madhyasvatvas or intermediate interests acquired their rights by purchase. In the statute book, the madhyasvatvas (Subinfeudation) did not exist. The law courts were giving conflicting judgments as regards the rights and liabilities of the intermediate classes and also of the peasants. The operation of the Permanent Settlement and the growth of commercial crops led to the rise of a rich peasantry which was quite close to the landed class in riches and social influence, but their rights over land were not very clear under the laws of the Permanent Settlement. The government tried to accommodate this class by enacting the Rent Act of 1859. But the discontents of the peasantry did not subside.
From the mid-nineteenth century, peasant resistance movements assumed alarming proportion. In the 1870s, the landlord-tenant relation deteriorated so much in almost all districts, particularly in the jute growing districts of eastern Bengal, that peasant jotes or combinations were formed to resist zemindari attempts to subvert their customary rights in land. To contain the situation and to adopt necessary measures to improve relations between landlord and tenants, a Rent Commission was set up in 1880.
In the light of the recommendations and observations of the Rent Commission, the Bengal Legislative Council enacted Act III of 1885. This Act is popularly known in legal circle as the Bengal Tenancy Act. The Act defined rights and obligations of intermediate tenancies and raiyati tenancies. However, inferior tenancies such as kurfa, barga, chakran, nankar, karsha and so on still remained undefined. The Act also enacted rules for undertaking a detailed Survey and Settlement Operation of all holdings and their holders so that a reliable record of rights could be prepared for different interests in land from zamindars to ordinary raiyats.’
Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Act, 1928 was enacted by the bengal legislative council in response to the demands of the under-raiyats. Though the rights of settled raiyats were clearly defined, yet the rights of under-raiyats remained vaguely defined by the Bengal Tenancy Act of 1885. The under-raiyats of various brands (bargadars, karshadars, kurfa and dhankarari raiyats) cultivated not on regular settlement, but on temporary and competitive basis. In view of the abundance of land at the time, they could cultivate land, on negotiation, at much lesser rent than the settled occupancy raiyats. This variety of competitive raiyats were generally known as under-raiyats and their relative position was not too bad until land-man ration was in favour of man. But with the growth of population, the pressure on land increased significantly by the end of the nineteenth century, particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century. The down turn trend of the economy of the under-raiyats was getting increasingly worse due to scarcity of land and phenomenal rise in rental demands on them.
With the introduction of electoral politics under the constitutional reforms Act of 1919, the elected representatives in the council became vocal about the rights of under-raiyats. Consequent upon the rise of communist movement in Bengal, public opinion became increasingly critical about the status of the under-raiyats, who constituted a major segment of the Bengal peasantry. In response to demands from various peasant organisations and political parties, the Bengal government introduced the Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Bill in the Council. It proposed to give rights in land to those under-raiyats who were in continuous possession of their land for more than twelve years. It also proposed to give rights to sharecropping tenants in long possession of lands.
The Bill was strongly opposed by the landed interests in the legislature, but was supported by pro-peasant parties including the Muslim members. The Council passed the Bill into an Act, with a number of amendments that practically defeated the purpose of the Bill. Under the Act, an under-raiyat in possession of the specified land for continuous twelve years got the right to possess the land on regular payment of competitive rent. The landholders reserved the right to enhance the rent of such raiyats as they wished and evict them for non-payment of dues. Consequently, the Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Act of 1928 remained on record merely as a political document without giving any material advantage to the under-raiyats. The Ministry of A.K. Fazlul Huq (1935-42) tried to redeem the weakness of the law by enacting the Bengal Tenancy (Amendment) Act of 1938. [Sirajul Islam]