It is wrong to assume that throwing the landowners out and giving the land to the people is going to have the effect that people imagine. On the contrary, it will lead to violence and destruction. The feudals will be no more in a generation or two, and it will happen without anyone actually havingto do anythingabout it
I AM a member of a land-owning family in Sindh. Landowners often earn the label of ‘feudals’, but this is somewhat of a misnomer, for feudalism is a mindset more than an economic reality in a post-Ayub Pakistan where three land reforms took place and reduced most feudals’ holdings by thousands of acres in the 1960s and the ‘70s.
Most landowners in Sindh were born into a certain system and they worked within the system that was established at the time. But they have made huge efforts to step out of this system and bring modernity both to themselves and to the people of their areas. This essay is meant to bust a few myths and communicate a few home truths about ‘feudalism’ in this country, which many people in the urban centres of the country believe to be the reason for why things in Pakistan are so amiss.
This essay is based on my own personal knowledge of this world; it is the talk of an ‘insider’ and you may accept it or not as you please. I am being honest about my background, and naturally you may find me a bit biased. But I have nothing to gain by touting the wrongdoings of this segment of society and nothing to lose by talking openly about its good points.
Let’s start with a very important distinction: the one between landholders and ‘feudals’. The former are people who have been in the business of agriculture for more than one generation. They have inherited large tracts of land, thousands of acres in many instances, and their methods of land management are processes that have evolved over generations. On the other hand, Pakistan also sees landowners who possess farms on a much smaller scale: a holding of 50-150 acres is typical of such a setup.
In Punjab, the system for settling people on the lands works in such a manner that land is set aside for the development of the village, whereas in Sindh, no formal system exists, and people have settled on the lands in small hamlets that can grow into larger villages; the case for ownership is decidedly more ambiguous in this province. A landowner may own the land the village is settled on, but they do not ‘own’ the village and they certainly do now ‘own’ the people who work on their lands. One of the major accusations is that feudals exploit and mishandle the people who work for them. I agree that not every landowner is honest, but more than you would suspect actually care about their people and work hard to bring development to their areas of influence, cooperating with and guiding the government on how best to use the funds allocated by the Centre for rural uplift.
The question of mistreating any of their haris, or sharecroppers, does not even arise, nor does the question of them sanctioning or approving the rape of women. Although I have heard of cases where landowners have kept their haris in chains to keep them from running away with large advances of money before completing any of their contracted work, there is a very strict social code in place on these lands.
Still, there are miscreants and criminals who wish to break the rules of not just the law, but of decency and honour everywhere, and you will often hear of cases where the ancient codes of tribalism overtakes the rule of law, the considerations of Islam, or the feudal code of honour itself.
To elaborate further, feudal and tribal systems often overlap in the rural areas of Sindh, particularly those bordering Balochistan, because a lot of Balochs with Baloch tribal traditions have settled in these areas, assimilating within the earlier Sindh feudal social order. In the process, they have added a different dimension to the local ethos. This mixing of feudalism and tribalism has resulted in the very worst excesses that we see today in the rural areas: karo kari, bonded labour, the use of women to settle scores of honour, and so on. The influence of the tribal system, mixed with the high levels of illiteracy and ignorance in the rural areas are a dangerous mix indeed.
Still, when the people of the area — often poor, illiterate, and ignorant of their own rights — try to carry out these old customs (for example, trying to get their children married at the age of five or bringing the entire family, including the women, to the landowner’s doorstep to apologize for a slight), there are few landowners I know who would not unequivocally refuse to support or approve of these traditions. Unfortunately, the world of the interior is dreadfully harsh, but let me state categorically that I know of no man in my family or in those of other landowners who would ever encourage or permit the rape of a woman for any reason.
Assertions that ‘feudals’ get fancy educations only for the sake of ostentation are really not very accurate; first of all, a good education is something not every feudal can actually afford these days. Every person that I know from this background who has been educated has worked hard to contribute back to the people of their areas. In Sindh, people have not always appreciated the value of a good education; many simply see it as a waste of time since zamindari or agriculture requires very little in the way of formal education or training. Many landowners of my father’s generation broke with this way of thinking and pursued education in the United States or the Great Britain. Most returned to Pakistan to run their farms not because of the tremendous financial opportunities offered — in fact quite the opposite — but because their fathers did it before them and theirs before that, and something that is in your blood, well, you can’t turn your back on it so easily.
The landowners of my father’s generation continued to place a strong emphasis on education by sending their children — the people of my generation — to universities abroad (the older female members of my family hardly went to school because of conservative traditions, so you can imagine what a revolutionary step this was in my case). Those of us who chose to return to Pakistan after our studies did so because we realized how much our parents sacrifised to educate us, and we felt an obligation to them and to our people to help others, rather than just ourselves. We had no notions of coming back to ‘lord it’ over the poorer members of our society. However misplaced the ‘feudals’ may seem, a strong tradition of social responsibility has been bred into them for generations, and they take it very seriously indeed.
Many people, when arguing for the demise of feudalism, labour under the delusion that haris are somehow prevented by landowners from owning their own land, as if they are slaves or indentured servants. What they don’t seem to understand is that the prevailing system of agriculture is the sharecropping system: the haris work the land and share a percentage of the profits — between 25 and 50 per cent — with the landowner. The hari provides the manual labour; the landowner puts in the resources, including the land itself and the water (and it is treacherously difficult and expensive to get a proper irrigation system going in Sindh today, due to conflicts over water allocation throughout the provinces). The haris and the landowners do share the cost of land preparation: the crops, the fertilizer, the maintenance, the costs of harvesting, and so on.
This way, the hari is able to make money while benefiting from the protection of the landowner. If there are losses, the landowner and the hari both suffer, but the landowner absorbs more of the loss because he can afford to. That kind of responsibility and cooperation is prevalent everywhere in the Pakistani landowning system generally, and particularly in Sindh.
Many people are probably not aware of this, but in recent years the World Bank has formulated a policy under the influence of ‘globalization’ in which they envision that Pakistan stops being an agricultural country. Instead they want us to industrialize and for us to become dependent on food imports, as are quite a few developing nations now. Just recently the Pakistani government has approved the import of sugar in order to reduce local prices. Is that what we want for our nation? Do we want to see Pakistan having to import its sugar and wheat and rice, rather than producing its own?
The World Bank and other powers have their own agenda, one which does not include the people of Pakistan successfully farming these lands. Already the landowning system involves many more small landowners than gigantic holdings of a thousand acres or more (ironically, the world’s biggest food producers, including the US, Australia and Canada, rely on very large landownings of thousands of acres), but they would like nothing better than splitting up even medium-sized landholdings of Pakistan into lots of little, ineffective plots of land that poor people can do little more than barely eke out a subsistence level existence.
While those not of this class seem to think that it is a system that will last in perpetuity, people of the ‘feudal’ class do recognize that this existing system of landowning may not last very much longer than a generation or two. To this end, some landowners decided to establish industrial projects in their areas, such as sugar, cotton and textile mills, and such other facilities. These projects have brought vast economic improvement to their areas. They have created jobs, brought development, created infrastructure, and brought a huge sense of pride and excitement to hundreds of families in the area.
Do recognize, however, that these industrial projects are tied to agricultural production, because they use the byproducts of sugar or cotton to operate. So any attempts on our part to industrialize cannot be separated from the agricultural base from which 65 per cent of our economy nationwide is actually linked; not to mention the 145 million Pakistanis that are fed and clothed through this system.
Many people think that affluence has come very easily to this stratum of society. It has not. The affluence that you see today in the landowning class has been the result of twenty or thirty or even fifty years of hard work across generations. Not everyone was born rolling in money — many people lost their positions or their lands or their holdings after Ayub’s land reforms. This set the landowners back many years. Whatever they have built themselves up to is the result of a hell of a lot of hard work.
Contrary to popular opinion, landowners do not sit around, drinking lassi (or more potent substances) and eating mangoes all day. They travel to the lands for days, away from their families and the comforts of home, standing in the fields in 110F heat, driving for hours and sometimes days, meeting all day and night with the people of the area, supervising the planting or the harvesting of the various crops. They do this week in and week out, in the heat, in the cold, whether or not they’re sick, whether or not there are riots or the danger of kidnapping (feudals are seen to be obsessed with weapons but these negative circumstances have necessitated their use for protection, rather than just hunting). They do this because they have to, in order to survive; survival is as much an issue for the landowners as it is for anyone else who needs to make a living in the rapidly changing social order prevalent in our province.
I have seen ‘feudals’ stay up nights going over their accounts, making sure that everything is up to date and in order. I have seen Sindhi landowners in despair over terrible water policies, the problems of dacoity and kidnappings, political manipulation, pestilence that has destroyed half the cotton crop, a storm that threatens the survival of an entire fruit orchard.
One of my uncles had to himself destroy an entire orchard of mango trees that were at least thirty years old because there wasn’t enough water in the canals to keep them alive (he decided to hold a very public funeral for the orchard and even sent out invitation cards to the event, in a fit of creativity that most people deem beyond the average feudal’s mental capacity). Let me tell you that landowning is not a hobby. It is more than a job. It is, in all cases, a lifetime’s vocation and dedication and something that is back-breaking and heartless more than it is rewarding in any financial or social or emotional sense.
But they continue to do this because they are trapped; they were not equipped by their parents, for the most part, to know how to do anything else, but to tend the land. Those zamindars who could afford to do so would send their sons — and now daughters — to expensive schools, but far more in numbers were those who couldn’t, and some who even pulled their children out of school because they didn’t see why an education might ever be a necessary means to survive beyond the lands within the existing social order. This lack of farsightedness has proven to be their downfall in many more ways than one.
One of the things that seem to rankle the people quite often is the fact that landowners enjoy tremendous positions of influence in their areas. This is true. It is also true that they have alliances with politicians and with the army for reasons that include a base instinct for survival, a hunger for financial gain, and great political greed, creating a nexus of power that is very hard to break into for the ordinary man in Pakistan. It has been a stranglehold in the past, but it is a system that is fragile in the present; it is going to continue in some ways and change in many others. But it is certainly on its way to becoming history.
People in the cities of Pakistan advocate a violent revolution or a sudden change in order to put an end to what they see as one of the greatest evils in the nation, but perhaps they don’t realize that this would be the most detrimental thing to happen to Pakistan — apart from a war with India. It would cause the sudden collapse of a system that has provided a sort of stability and a delicate balance of power to the majority of our population over centuries. Do you think our people could really deal with that?
More importantly, do you think they need that kind of turmoil in their already difficult lives? Destroying the feudal system suddenly will bring about a power vacuum into which any opportunists — tribal warlords, an overenthusiastic police force, or unchecked government agencies — could step in and wreak havoc over the people of the interior. Surely neither you nor I, no matter which side of the fence we are on, want that for our country.
Instead, let the slow process of change take its course. Education is spreading everywhere in the interior. Industrialization will follow. It isn’t an easy process, but it will happen. Don’t think that landowners or ‘feudals’ — and there is a vast difference between the two — don’t see their own demise coming. The smart ones are making the adaptations now; the stupid ones stick their heads in the sand and continue to exercise their petty influences over an already disenfranchized people.
Don’t assume that throwing the landowners out and giving the land to the people is going to have the effect that you imagine. In fact, you will open a Pandora’s Box that will dismay you with the violence and destructiveness of its power. And, make no mistake, I am not arguing for any status quo. The status quo is dying in front of our eyes. The feudals will be no more in a generation or two, and it will happen without anyone actually having to do anything about it.