Time for meaningful land reform

Published: May 21, 2012

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group najma.sadeque@tribune.com.pk

Land reforms in Pakistan took turns at being Islamic and un-Islamic, depending on who was in power. Earlier, in the 1960s, Pakistani peasants’ hopes were dashed, yet again with the coming of the not-so-Green Revolution. It simply bolstered the feudal landowner both economically and politically. In the 1980s, religion became the stranglehold of the few including the state, even though most did not adhere to the interpretation imposed on the rest.

The Qazalbash clan is said to have originally been mercenaries who migrated from Turkestan, settling in the Indian plains in the last two or three centuries. Some became big landowners, some saints and one of them established a waqf (or trust) on several hundred acres of land near Lahore.

In 1980, the Federal Shariat Court found the land reforms of 1972 and 1977 to be in accordance with Islamic injunctions. But when General Ziaul Haq imposed his own brand of Islam, the clan resuscitated its case that land reforms were un-Islamic. In 1986, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, tenants’ right of pre-emption was declared un-Islamic. Tenants would no longer be the first entitled to possession of land being sold or transferred. Landlords continued to rule the roost.

In 1989, through the Qazalbash verdict, 10 years after land reforms were declared Islamic, any ceiling on landholding was declared un-Islamic. One could be a monopolist, depriving all peasants of sustenance and that was still fine!

Maulana Taqi Usmani, who wrote the judgment against land reforms, himself gave the strongest arguments for reapportion of land, which could have been used against the Shariat decision. But no one seized the opportunity. He stated that protection of private property applied only if it was obtained, in the first place, through legitimate means.

But can the ‘gift’ of land by a coloniser, whose land it was not to give in the first place, be considered legitimate means? Such a gift was essentially nothing more than a bribe or reward to powerful locals to suppress their own people on the coloniser’s behalf.

Maulana Usmani went further: he wrote that if acquired by illegitimate means, it was the government’s duty to take back the land and either restore it to the original owners or give it to the needy! He also wrote that the protection enjoyed by property owners should not be looked at in isolation from duty to God and community. This leaves the door wide open for land reforms.

They were the views of the highly influential Maulana Maududi, who was stubbornly in favour of unqualified private land ownership, which created the deadlock. Quite possibly, as an urbanite, the dependence of economies on agriculture never occurred to him. He never addressed the evils of land concentration even theoretically. Unfortunately, he can no longer be asked about his opinion on whether gifting land to retiring military officers — but not peasants who keep entire populations fed — could be considered Islamic; or about leasing to untaxed foreign corporate investors and allowing them to repatriate all output and profits leaving nothing for the locals. The Qazalbash ruling turned out to be a windfall for landed politicians and reason enough never to bring up the land reform issue in parliament.

The weakest argument came from the then JUP chief who claimed that Islam has not fixed a limit on land holdings as personal property, nor calls for seizing property; and, therefore, the government cannot do it either. This is faulty logic. Just because Islam remained silent on a matter, it does not automatically follow that it is in its favour. The JUP chief was referring not to the Holy Quran but to claimed history and Traditions of the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Circumstances 1,400 years ago were different and kept changing.

The free gifts of nature start with land and water and include all that grows on it and the minerals that lie underground. Their use and exchange create economies and livelihoods. They translate into farms, factories, cities, technologies, transportation and communication networks, and much else. People and livestock have to eat. Ultimately, entire populations and economies rely on small farms.

For 10-15,000 years, most farms everywhere were no more than a few acres each. Farmers discovered through generations of observation of nature and experimentation that small-scale mixed-cropping maintained nature’s cycle best and guaranteed sustainability. But in the modern era, overdone corporate technology and acquisitive human nature upset the balance.

At a time when chronic hunger and abject poverty prevail and productivity from misguided agricultural technologies is dropping, the tillers on whom the entire country is dependent have to be given their rights. Overturning the last court decision has become urgent. A few acres for every rural family would overnight bring livelihoods to all and harvests far beyond what poisonous industrial agriculture can achieve, corporate propaganda notwithstanding. Over the past years, contrived political conflict and non-issues have consistently diverted attention away from development and justice to maintaining the status quo for unrepresentative politicians.

The Qazalbash verdict was not unanimous and the supposedly religious justifications were based on a single individual’s opinion and, therefore, highly debatable. According to one of the greatest Islamic jurists, Hazrat Imam Abu Hanifa, when a landlord takes crop produce from a tenant in return for his labour without the landlord himself also working in its cultivation, such an act is haram.

The Qazalbash Waqf case will have to be re-addressed and land reform in the public interest brought about. The origins of the institution of waqf itself may have to be re-examined. Do any laws govern them? Are their account books audited? If not, trust lands could become an easy cover for far less religious purposes and a convenient tool for political ends.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2012. 

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Reader Comments (22)

  • Ali tanoli
    May 22, 2012 - 12:07AM

    Very nice write thank u maam…

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  • John B
    May 22, 2012 - 12:23AM

    Yes, land reform is needed in PAK but the author dilutes her piece by arguing against modern farming practices. What PAK needs is a land reform act with practical and mutually beneficial land lord -tenant agreement and practice with modern agricultural methods and technologies.

    By the authors logic on land reform Based on legally acquired land versus gifted land, how far back she is willing go? All lands in Present day PAK belongs to Indian families in India and some in Sindh and Punjab of PAK actually, and moguls have kept an excellent record.

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  • May 22, 2012 - 5:14AM

    Pakistan needs a courageous leader who is compatriot enough to change the status quo and take a bold decision to take away gifted lands by the British occupiers to those who betrayed their countrymen and helped the conquerors. Nawabs, Sardars and Feuals were created by the colonizers. It all should have been rolled back after independence.

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  • Ch Allah Daad
    May 22, 2012 - 5:40AM

    Writing about land reforms is very popular but in reality its one of the most complex issues. The crop of present day political leaders cannot impose agricultural tax, asking them land reforms is asking for moon.

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  • Mirza
    May 22, 2012 - 7:21AM

    At one time most wealth in Pakistan was owned by 22 families and they were industrialists including retired generals. How about making that sector more equitable and just? I am not opposed to land reforms but it should not be either/or but both.

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  • amir
    May 22, 2012 - 8:41AM

    More than Land reforms – Pakistan has to have a minimum wage standard enforced at factories and homes. Agri sector is the most “free market system” of all sectors in Pakistan. Perhaps there is a need for putting a ceiling on the no. of acres held by one person. It should be around 100 to 200 acres. Likewise there should be a ceiling on no of factories held by families under the present system.

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  • May 22, 2012 - 8:49AM

    The writer talks about the History of land owners, yet fails to mention the most crucial part during the partition of India.

    Jinnah gave refuge to Feudals and big landowners, who were fleeing the Congress shadows, which had already declared land reforms in its manifesto. Nehru had said so as far back in 1929 that one of his first acts in newly independent India is land reforms(He walked the talk in 1951, just 3 years after Independence). These Feudals went on to occupy crucial positions in Pakistan. Jinnah, unlike Nehru, never uttered a word against Feudalism.

    Now, you come and talk about lack of land reforms in Pakistan, but fail to mention Jinnah’s role in it, is very unfair, don’t you think?

    Jinnah is created a Pakistan for the Feudals, gave shelter to them in his Muslim League and now you don’t even take his name when talking against Feudalism. Very fine indeed.

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  • asim
    May 22, 2012 - 8:51AM

    Instead of landreforms the Number one Task should be “Political reforms”.
    No one can rule in the western democracy who is convicted & a criminal.
    The whole lot of pakistani leadership has serious allegatios/cases/Jails ….
    But who cares this is pakistani democracy?

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  • Ali Wali
    May 22, 2012 - 10:05AM

    I am a peasant and I know from my own experience(not text books) that so called land reform will finish off agri sector in Pakistan. After finishing wheat harvest, I can assure you agriculture is not worth it. My family and me are committed to it because it is our lifestyle and patrimony, making a living out of it is absured, I work as an engineer and my brother as a lawyer and property consultant, that is why we can afford agri as hobby. Here is a simple break down for a small farmer, one time machinery cost = 1000,000 rupees, seasonal fertilizers 40,000, Diesel = 30,000, labour = 50,000. Now output 80,000 for chaff and 120,000 for grains and the money we will get after 6 months, by the way this was an estimate for 10 acres, now how come normal agri related family live on that, except that some people do not sell their produce and use it as animal feed, animals serve as currency. So called high educated class will not sit on tractor under 55C for no money, will they! but for us it is simple and honest lifestyle that matters. In mine village only few people can afford to till their lands. Some over educated people will kill our food security with their computer models. To people who are dying for agri tax, this tax will increase food prices thus inflation, staffing your saving in few months.

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  • sharifL
    May 22, 2012 - 11:01AM

    Big landlords treat their workers like cattle and slaves, without any rights. That is shameful. This system must change. On the other hand, landlords, when in politics are more secular than than others. I wonder why.

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  • May 22, 2012 - 12:23PM

    Private property rights thrive on the principle of absence of coercion. If it can be argued, and proven, that a specific piece of land was grabbed from an individual and legitimate owner, then certainly it merits the case of taking back the land and returning it to the original owner. Mere award by a state authority does not constitute coercion. Seen this way, the argument in favor of land reforms on the pretext of land ownership alone is weak and in-substantiated. Moreover, state involvement in such transactions would increase the demonstrations of patronage, and will not automatically result into justice.

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  • A J Khan
    May 22, 2012 - 12:43PM

    All those who imigrated from India wants land reforms because they want more lands after digesting the evacuee property. They never talk of industrial reforms, the share of labor in the industry, though most of the industry has been installed through public bank loans.
    Land Reforms and Industrial Reforms should go hand in hand.

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  • unbeliever
    May 22, 2012 - 12:47PM

    @Ali Wali:
    whatever you have written is plausible, but providing free electricity for agriculture is responsibility of govt., so 30,000 on diesel is saved, n increased subsidy on fertilizer can help you a bit.
    this so called land reform alone can not help you in the long run. it should be linked to providing further assistance to peasents for a few more years, you will also witness a lot of turbulence in society because of changed circumstances. but it’s a long term investment. and the benefits are numerous, not only in terms of crop production but also in terms of human development.
    YOU HAVE TO BITE THE BULLET, the alternatives do not exist atleast in our society.

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  • Hella
    May 22, 2012 - 2:31PM

    When Pakistan was formed for those who were opposed to land reforms, asking for land reforms is going against the raison d’etre of Pakistan.

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  • kanwal
    May 22, 2012 - 2:58PM

    Another barbarian use of religion. My Islam, the Islam where the caliphs got just as much from the treasury as any peasant, does not bear that we gift the land of the people to retired military officials. Neither does it allow to leave the people hungry while the colonial servants enjoy all the perks gifted to them by the masters. This law is blasphemous. My Prophet (pbuh) would never allow this.

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  • Salim
    May 22, 2012 - 5:03PM

    The golden opportunity for land reforms was 60 years ago. With population growth the benefits from land reform have been diluted.
    A very good point – and rarely discussed – many of the landlords are foreigners not “sons of the soil”. This is just another subtle form of colonialism. If we could overthrow the Britishers why not the Uzbeks or Turkmenistanis. This “hidden” colonialism has gone for over five hundred years.

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  • ashar
    May 22, 2012 - 6:26PM

    Who will bell the cat, Madam

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  • Ali Wali
    May 22, 2012 - 6:40PM

    @unbeliever: I can assure you, land reform is a dream and may it be so. We need land aggregation not division, I am not sure if you can understand me, because you may not be a peasant yourself. By the way Mulla’s qoutes in the article made me laugh, when was the last time that lot worked in the fields, I wish they did though that will make them less hateful for sure!! By the way no one is holding anyone from distributing their lands, they can do that anytime, but dividing others land is none of their business.Recommend

  • observer
    May 22, 2012 - 8:54PM

    A. The Constitution of Pakistan mandates that all laws will conform to Islam.

    B. In the Qazalbash case any ceiling on landholding was declared un-Islamic.

    C. That to my mind settles the question. All demands of ‘land reforms’ are un-Islamic.

    D. Does Saudi Arabia have land reforms?

    I rest my case.

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  • May 22, 2012 - 9:56PM

    @Ali Wali: Can’t high capital and machinery costs be shared by forming a cooperative with your neighbors?

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  • Ali Wali
    May 22, 2012 - 10:25PM

    @Solomon2: Again a fantastic idea on the paper, wish real humans were computers but I am sorry it can’t work like that, village politics, lazy or crooked neighbors, and simply getting along under 55C are the least obstacles.Recommend

  • geeko
    May 22, 2012 - 11:28PM

    @John B:

    By the authors logic on land reform Based on legally acquired land versus gifted land, how far back she is willing go? All lands in Present day PAK belongs to Indian families in India and some in Sindh and Punjab of PAK actually, and moguls have kept an excellent record.

    Another trick of your daily comic show : I don’t know how all the lands in Pakistan belong to “Indian families”. There wasn’t Pakistani families before Pakistan nor Indian families before India in 1948, so I don’t know how Pakistans took “Indian lands” when there was no legal framework to encompass such terms of contract – and in Punjab the landowners were mainly Muslims (the Unionist Party with Sikandar Hayat Khan & co who were against the Partition for that particular reason, loosing their lands in today’s India) or Sikh Jatts (in East Punjab.)
    So, even if you admit that Pakistanis “stole” these lands, it doesn’t concern “India” but one State of India, Punjab.
    In fact, you should more complain to Bangladesh, as in Bengal the situation was different, the landowners mainly being Hindus from today’s West Bengal.

    To be honest it’s quite annoying and pitiful to try to turn a legitimate debate about the land reforms into some Pakistan vs India historical fight.

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