‘Feudalism’, as a term, has evolved over the ages. In much of the world, it is a system that is discussed only in the past tense, a warped social order that had to be cut down before individual human progress could be made. In Pakistan, though, feudalism cannot be viewed in retrospect simply because there is no historical distance to view it through. It is a disease that very much afflicts us today.
Landowners have run the country since it was born. They monopolise 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 inherent 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 to have 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 primitive. By denying its tenants primary education, basic roads and luxuries, the feudal family thrives on a culture of dependency. Sharecroppers continue to cultivate the feudal family’s land, vote as it says and pray that they will not be evicted from their homesteads. 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, watta satta, rape and ritual humiliation, but why root for law and order in our villages, if it is arbitrary and imposed by animals?
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.
For our legal and political representatives to take notice, our social consciousness has to change first. The government can start by pledging money towards rural infrastructure as well as installment packages that allow smaller farmers to buy freed land. The legislature must go further than the previous acts of the 1950s and 1970s, by advocating comprehensive family ceilings rather than individual ones to prevent abuse and a muscular redistribution initiative. For vanguard political parties, there can be no higher calling than the eradication of feudalism. The political parties, religious and higher courts must revisit their previous rulings and decide with more holistic goals of Islamic social justice in mind. Having deadened our nerves for 64 years, the idea of even the most basic land reform seems as revolutionary to us as curing cancer.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.