Breaking the feudal lords

Published in The Express Tribune

‘Feudalism’, as a term, has evolved over the ages. In much of the world, it’s a system that’s discussed only in the past tense, a warped social order that had to be cut down before individual human progress could be made. In Europe, it’s become a byword for a lost medievalism – when the world was less just, when the land was tilled by slaves, and when vassals would offer oaths of fealty to their feudal masters.

In Pakistan, however, feudalism can’t be viewed in retrospect, simply because there’s no historical distance to view it through. It’s a disease that afflicts us today.

Landowners (of decreasing intelligence) have run the country since it was born. They monopolize its agriculture, sit in its parliament, and feed on its resources. They are hereditary princes without pedigree, barons without class, capitalists without enterprise, and, as their long romance with politics has now proven, statesmen without vision.

To expect more is to not understand the degeneracy that comes with this ethos. It is a system that perpetuates itself through patronage, that forces illiteracy on adults that can vote, and manual labour on children that cannot. It is a status acquired by men whose sole qualification was having ingratiated themselves to British bureaucrats. And the reward for co-opting the colonialists – vast landholdings and generations of serfs – has outlasted the Raj itself.

It should come as no surprise then that Pakistan’s rural areas remain so underdeveloped: said development is repulsive to the landed gentry. By denying their tenants primary education, basic roads and related luxuries, the feudal family thrives on a culture of dependency. Sharecroppers continue to cultivate their land, vote as they say, and pray they won’t be evicted from their homesteads. Landlessness is rising and, for the rural poor, makes for even greater poverty. And there are so many among us that applaud this regression. We praise these benevolent men, with their panchayats and private prisons, for dispensing justice where the state fails to. Often implicit in that justice is karo kari, wata sata, rape and ritual humiliation, but why not root for law and order in our villages, even if arbitrary and imposed by animals?

While average landholdings have dwindled over the years in Punjab, landowners in the south of the province continue to exert remarkable influence over the country’s politics. They emerge every once in a while to stomp on the nightmare that is agricultural tax, one that would actually generate revenue had they not co-opted patwaris and provincial revenue departments. Meanwhile, the sardars of Balochistan twist the genuine grievances of the Baloch people into rallying cries that prolong their dominance. And even these defenders of the realm look like kittens when compared to the Sindhi wadera, medieval trappings and all, whose omnipotence has rendered interior Sindh comatose. 

Reform is necessary, and land redistribution is the only way to do it. But Pakistan’s ‘land reforms’ of 1959, 1972 and 1977 never actually happened. Legislation for ceilings on landholdings was badly conceived, and the ceilings themselves circumvented. While Vallabhbhai Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, and K.B. Sahay might forever be hailed as the men that broke India’s princely states, Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto can only be footnoted across the border as reformers that lost heart halfway through. The others didn’t even try.

Landholdings went untouched both by civilians requiring the feudals’ electoral muscle, and by generals that were real estate kings in their own right.

But then reform has been most frustrated by our legal sphere, and that in deference to our clergy. With the much-cited Qazalbash Waqf v. Chief Land Commissioner case in 1989, the Shariat Appellate Bench dealt a casual death blow to the very notion of land redistribution, declaring quantitative ceilings on private property un-Islamic (though it should be mentioned that of the 5-member bench, the two dissenting judges wrote that the Islamic precept of social equality may afford ceilings on land to alleviate poverty).

For our legal and political representatives to take notice, our social consciousness has to change first. It must bring the idea of land reforms out of cold storage, and return it to the national discussion. The government can start by pledging money towards rural infrastructure, as well as instalment packages that allow smaller farmers to buy freed land. The legislature must go further than even the previous acts of the ‘50s and ‘70s, by advocating comprehensive family ceilings rather than individual ones to prevent abuse, and a muscular redistribution initiative.

But the Appellate Bench’s ruling obstructs any such progress, even if the intent was lain down. The religious and higher courts must be made to revisit their previous rulings, and decide with more holistic goals of Islamic social justice in mind. For vanguard political parties, there can be no higher calling than the eradication of feudalism. Whether it’s the A.N.P.’s long-dead Marxism or even the J.I.’s dystopian dreams, our representatives would do well to take the M.Q.M.’s lead (if just in this case).

Having deadened our nerves for 64 years, the idea of the most basic land reforms seems as revolutionary as curing cancer. Yet the alternative has only been to spread it.