Land reform: a tragedy

Published in The Express Tribune

When it comes to leftists – especially of the flaming variety – Ghulam Ishaq Khan may be the last man in mind. Sober, staid, and perpetually dressed in greys and navies, GIK was the must-have grand vizier of all our generalissimos. Schoolkids will learn about this man from Bannu and wonder whether we made him up – a gent that sacked elected governments in less the time it takes to read this sentence.

Which is what makes GIK’s take on land reform so surprising. As head of Ayub Khan’s Land Reforms Commission, GIK wasn’t upset the reforms were happening – he grumbled they didn’t go far enough. Ayub’s redistribution scheme set the land ceiling as high as 500 acres; Ghulam Ishaq pleaded 150, as well as fresh ceilings for families.

Ayub may have felt contempt for feudal types and their moustache-twirling ways, but this was the Cold War – no comrade was he. Soon enough, GIK’s advice began grating on the field marshal.

In an alternate universe (i.e. a narration by Roedad Khan), just such a cabinet meeting turned ugly. A young Zulfi Bhutto ranted and raved against GIK’s radical theories, defending the feudal order until he ‘almost broke down.’ This fantastically weird story ends with Ayub calming the sobbing Zulfi down, by having drinks served.

Mr. Bhutto would go on to become president and attempt reforms exactly along GIK’s lines – GIK would go on to become president and dismiss Mr. Bhutto’s daughter. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

The GIK-ZAB binary is a symptom of what we face with land reform: it’s all quite complicated, the old ideas don’t apply anymore, and the hurdles are enormous.

But they must be overcome.

Yes, land reform has its share of critics, from jaded liberals to the JUI. But that doesn’t take away from hard fact: landlessness is directly linked to poverty, and illiteracy is linked to landlessness. It follows that redistribution of land is empirically proven to alleviate both. And, according to Anti-Slavery International, 1.8 million people still labour on large landholdings for no pay.

Also, the pretty theory that large landholdings are decreasing across Pakistan of their own accord goes against all new surveys pointing otherwise. Finally, feudalism is often a catalyst for related diseases: from not selling property outside of caste to suppressing the rights of women and non-Muslim tenants.

There’s also an aspect more repulsive: that the landed gentry still overlaps with the ruling class in this country, having ingratiated themselves to British bureaucrats centuries ago. Today, these princes without pedigree spend most of the day stalling agri-tax bills.

Now that it’s established that feudalism is a horror house, and that redistribution is the best way to bulldoze it, we start hitting hurdles.

As we all know, the reforms we had just didn’t cut it. Ayub’s were too soft on ceilings: while they altered formal land ownership, control stayed with the same old waderas (whom famously ‘gifted’ parcels of land to cousins, servants, and satraps). Mr. Bhutto’s ideas were harsher, but soon crashed on the rocks.

Even taken together, the field marshal and his favourite nephew’s reforms affected 0.02 percent of eligible small farmers – and that was back when land reforms were legal.

Which brings us, ultimately, to the gents that poisoned the well: the Supreme Court. It all began when the Qazalbash Waqf, a landed concern with rolling estates, jumped up and down over Mr. Bhutto’s Maoist ways – but no relief was to be had.

With General Zia’s entry on the scene (and, with him, the Federal Shariat Court’s) the waqf woke up again: now crying the very concept of land reform was unIslamic. Even the general’s FSC sent them home – but the Qazalbash boys were fighters extraordinaire, and filed a review petition.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Some of it superbly written – in an article that deserves everyone’s attention, Umer Gilani’s paper on Qazalbash Waqf v. Chief Land Commissioner (PLD 1990 SC 99) sets the case in context: ‘By 1990, when the Shariat Appellate Bench (of the Supreme Court) finally proclaimed its judgment…the world had changed. A wall had been pulled down somewhere in Berlin…(and socialism’s) soldiers were retreating, if not deserting.’

That the SC decided against redistribution is an understatement; more like the judges ritually slaughtered and buried land reform once and for all. The Shariat Appellate Bench comprised two FSC ulema (Maulana Taqi Usmani and Pir Karam Shah), and three SC regulars (Shafi-ur-Rehman, Nasim Hasan Shah, and Afzal Zullah).

The man with the meat-cleaver, Maulana Usmani, wrote a systematic, hyper-capitalist interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence that envisioned no limits on landholdings. Agreeing with Mr. Taqi was fellow alim Pir Karam.

But, as with the 44-year-old GIK, dissent came from unlikely quarters: Justice Nasim Hasan Shah, who’d sent Islamic socialism to hang 11 years ago. And concurring with Justice Shah was Justice Shafi.

A 2-2- tie: that made Afzal Zullah the man of the moment, on his shoulders rested the fate of every landless tenant enslaved six generations yore. Of course, Justice Zullah sided with the ulema, and gave land reform a thrashing.

Yes, powdered wigs do not progressives make, but Qazalbash was a shameful decision – one the JUI gleefully points to today whenever anyone tries tabling a half-decent land bill. Which begs the question: what now?

First, land reform must be brought back to the national conversation – the press seems to have closed the file. Second, our political parties might want to do something about it: as it stands, Mr. Sharif is indifferent, Mr. Zardari oozes feudalism, and pro-reform Mr. Khan is inducting feudal fatties as his right-hand men. Third, when they do, it’s time we called for tougher reform than we’ve seen previously, with lower ceilings and actual implementation.

Fourth and most important, the courts must revisit their decision, perhaps via Abid Hassan Minto’s undecided petition. As offered by Mr. Gilani, landlordism’s sketchy origins – to do with the British expropriating land to their chosen servants – would be unIslamic itself, and right of title flimsy. It’s not unimaginable, then, that the courts declare such title void ab initio, or that the state redistribute land according to predetermined legality of title.

In 1990, Justice Zullah sided with the wrong – a quarter century later, it’s high time the courts do what’s right. The state will follow.