Breaking the feudal lords

Published: May 10, 2012
The writer is a final-year law student at the London School of Economics and tweets @AsadRahim

The writer is a final-year law student at the London School of Economics and tweets @AsadRahim

‘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.

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Reader Comments (55)

  • Moiz
    May 10, 2012 - 10:33PM

    brilliant, brilliant, brilliant piece. this needs to be heard.


  • Ahmed
    May 10, 2012 - 10:40PM

    Great article. We’ve been living under the scourge of feudal masters for the last 65 years. Lets hope things change soon.


  • Textual_Pervert
    May 10, 2012 - 10:49PM

    I don’t think you liberals live in the same Pakistan as the rest of us. How many landlords are there in the present cabinet? How many in the opposition? Hardly any.


  • Ali Wali
    May 10, 2012 - 10:57PM

    Land reform will finish off agriculture sector in Pakistan. In Pakistan cultivating crops on small patches is negative equity, think about exorbitant cost of tractors, diesel, fertilizers, seeds, drought, unwilling work force etc how do I know that, because I am myself a peasant.


  • Maryam
    May 10, 2012 - 10:57PM

    @Author: Though the point regarding Land Reforms is still valid in Pakistan but can the author tell us who ruled Pakistan most of the time ?


  • saadiddin
    May 10, 2012 - 11:08PM

    very interesting and is another apt piece on a menace that has plagued our society, there is a need for radical land reforms in pakistan and by land reforms i mean the genuine redistribution of land among landless peasents this will have dual impact: reshaping of power structure in our society and secondly the radical increase in the purchasing power of new landowners who were previously landless so by granting those people ownership of agriland will increase their spending capacity which would result in more demand for good and serices hence a stimulas for the economy.
    but this could only be done thru scientific analysis od land owning pattern and survey of landless peasents. all the previous land reforms have resulted in the distribution of just 10% of agri land (ref pakistan economy of the elitist by dr ishrat hussain)


  • Chohan
    May 10, 2012 - 11:12PM

    It doesn’t take a PhD to know this piece will come in for the most flak. Land reform has been badly, badly conducted, and anyone advocating the same is going to face the same wall of No, no, no, wrong, etc.
    Keep up the great work. We’re with you.


  • Sadiq
    May 10, 2012 - 11:29PM

    feudals arent here anymore?? they are your president, PM, foreign minister, parliamentarians, just look around man. they are everywhere you look, and no one will touch them. land reform needs to be done today!


  • Ali Akbar
    May 10, 2012 - 11:30PM

    All this is very good, but it really makes for boring discourse without any constructive thoughts that move the debate forward. Have you considered that in the absence of any social safety nets, the people are depedendent on this system? The de-facto justice system (or panchayats) and the dilapidated education and health care system reinforces inter-generationally inequality and inequities where distribution of land is concerned?

    Anyhow, what are your thoughts about policy and advocacy? where will you draw the line? what will be the threshold? how will you hold people accountable? who will hold people accountable? Will the solutions be imported or will the cultural context be taken into consideration? How can we move away from the politics-patronage system and loosen ties based on ethnic affiinities?


  • Nadir
    May 10, 2012 - 11:38PM

    The Army is the biggest land holder in the country and “feudal” by any definition. Whose going to reform it?


  • shaza
    May 10, 2012 - 11:41PM

    Very well written.So proud of you.


  • What The
    May 10, 2012 - 11:43PM

    Ahhhhhh another idealist. Go ahead then Mr. Asad Rahim Khan. Why don’t you talk to some feudal lords when you get back to Pakistan and get their opinions on re-distribution? The problem, is that they are so powerfully positioned in your political system that any re-distribution suggestions will be torn to shreds before they’re even heard, let alone entertained or deliberated upon. We have to work out something intermediate. Do read up on Operation Barga for some ideas. Jeez.Recommend

  • s.linganath
    May 10, 2012 - 11:43PM

    I believe, land reforms were held to be un-Islamic by the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1989/90.


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 11, 2012 - 12:07AM

    Yes now u talking Mr Asad K Khan these problems are bigger than we should know than Ranjheet Singh name to put in History Books… i love it your article today sir thank you. VM.


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 11, 2012 - 12:12AM

    Sir next time please light on why our beloved Army never tried to change the system and why
    Dictators even get attached to feudals.


  • Ali Tanoli
    May 11, 2012 - 12:29AM

    Its a funny thing we in pakistan put blame on United indian society but cant see we are free
    and dont wanna change the system our Mullahs in friday sermons allways bashing hindu india
    and west yahood but i never heard of any one ever said against army dictators or fuedal raj
    in sindh, south punjab, Balocistan or they never talked about ethanic politics and i tell u guys
    one more funny story in karachi where i used to lived we had lot transpoters were living and most of them have there trucks and buses on bank intrest so in the Mosque Mullah was stricklly told before hiring him that he will never talk about intrest other wise he will be fired.


  • ashar
    May 11, 2012 - 12:30AM

    But the question is Who will bell the cat? over the period of years Army General as well as Civil servants have joined the Feudal Party.


  • Falcon
    May 11, 2012 - 12:31AM

    I think feudalism and land reforms have become one of the cliches that get thrown around in intellectual discourses without knowing sufficient details about the issue. Pakistan’s agriculture is no more feudalism driven but has a very strong capitalistic component to it. Feudals exist but are in limited pockets in some parts of Sindh and Southern Punjab and their land holdings are not as huge for the most part. Akbar Zaidi has provided excellent analysis of the issue in his book pertaining to Pakistan’s Economics. Interestingly enough, many of the land reforms initiated decades ago have yet to be concluded as the govt. has not completed the re-distribution process.


  • Falcon
    May 11, 2012 - 12:33AM

    I have heard that as well. However, as per my understanding, one of the first four caliphs of Islam advocated land reforms. So there is a good probability religious politicians are protecting their own interests instead of narrating the religion’s view on the matter.


  • Parvez
    May 11, 2012 - 12:41AM

    The landed gentry which includes the armed forces control all the machinery necessary to do what you suggest. Why should they ?? The mistake we make is, now 65 years down the road we wish to reinvent the wheel instead of acknowledging that the tyre is flat and it should be filled with air if it’s to run smoothly. Doing even this, would be an achievement.


  • GM
    May 11, 2012 - 1:03AM

    Wait, is this not on Mansoor Ejaz? Contempt? Other little gimmicks we entertain ourselves with all day? This is actually about a structural problem?
    Kudos to the author. Its takes guts to do what he did here.


  • Pro Bono Publico
    May 11, 2012 - 2:03AM

    @Ali Tanoli:
    Gen Ayub was unfit for any reforms:he had let his sons free to loot and plunder. And ZA Bhutto was the last person to change feudalism, His power lay in support from feudals.A “democrat” who anointed himself as a martial law administrator was incapable of any public service except repeating the lie – roti, kapa, makan.


  • Sameer
    May 11, 2012 - 2:13AM

    Thank you for an excellent piece. Well-written and well-articulated. Reading other user comments above, I can agree that feudalism is not the only problem in Pakistan but I fully believe that it no doubt is the biggest problem and other problems such as lack of devolution of power to urban areas, unnecessary political meddling, instability across the country, lack of growth of new leadership and ideas, and to some extent ethnic discord, are a result of feudal political domination. Its naive to think that sincere land reforms will be brought by governments that are led by political parties whose core leadership belongs to feudal lords. The need of the hour is that the educated urban class across Pakistan reject political parties who cultivate feudal lords in their ranks.


  • faraz
    May 11, 2012 - 2:17AM

    You didn’t mention the impact of Jinnah Sikandar pact on feudalism in Pakistan. All feudals of Unionist party joined All India Muslim League because Congress had announced land reforms. Feudalism on the classic European pattern actually doesn’t exist anymore in Pakistan; there are very few large landholdings. Our real issue is the feudal mindset. Urban and rural political parties, jihadi groups, military, bureaucracy and every person with influence reflects this mindset. And land reforms have been declared un-Islamic by mullahs.


  • Whir
    May 11, 2012 - 3:00AM

    Sir, this is a good start to the debate. this is very much a big problem.


  • Pollack
    May 11, 2012 - 3:16AM

    One of the driving forces behind the Pakistan movement were some very rich feudals from Punjab and sindh who wouldhave lost a lot of their land and power if the indian congress parties stated policy of land reforms we’re implemented in their regions. Formation of Pakistan was the trump card they played to preserve their land and power.


  • gv
    May 11, 2012 - 3:45AM

    i think you’ve been reading a tad bit too much marx and webb at the lse..

    feudal politics in pakistan died 20 years ago… what’s left are just mere vestiges..

    Pakistan’s feudal families are few and far between and most of them have a rapidly dwindling power base….

    industrial barons wield more power politically and economically than any feudal

    land reform is indeed necessary to protect the smallholder but is not the panacea to resolve all our ills..

    a piece of advice – get your nose out your books and your feet back on the ground (preferably in pakistan)Recommend

  • Fayaz
    May 11, 2012 - 5:00AM

    It is shame Pakistan is still under feudal lords very much in twenty first century. The landlords supported Jinnah in 1947 only on this count their lands will not be snatched. India did land reforms but Sheikh Abdullah was imprisoned by Nehru for this “crime” as the hindus in Kashmir lost the land they never owned.
    Reform in Pakistan will create a middle class which is not there.


  • curious
    May 11, 2012 - 5:05AM

    Yes need to get rid of all feudal lords. It is the nation’s property! And most of these feudal lords have foreign passports and large mansions abroad.


  • Usman
    May 11, 2012 - 5:39AM


    Umm, how about more than 70% of our parliament are landowners/children of landowning families who have exploited our land resources to get their kids into Oxford and them come back to Pakistan and rule.


  • Ch Allah Daad
    May 11, 2012 - 5:42AM

    This article should have been written 64 years ago. Now 8 Kannals in Defence are more expensive than 100 acres of agriculture land. Very misleading article.


  • SecularPakThinker
    May 11, 2012 - 6:49AM

    As Marx said “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. We await a Pakistani Lenin or Ataturk.


  • History_Teacher
    May 11, 2012 - 7:24AM


    You didn’t mention the impact of
    Jinnah Sikandar pact on feudalism in
    Pakistan. All feudals of Unionist
    party joined All India Muslim League
    because Congress had announced land

    My dear befuddled little friend, Pandit Nehru announced his intention to implement land reforms in 1959, long after independence. The Unionists landlords switched sides only after their party was decimated by the Muslim League in the 1946 Punjab elections


  • May 11, 2012 - 7:48AM

    “For our legal and political representatives to take notice, our social consciousness has to change first. The government can start -“

    You were doing so well there, Mr. Khan, but then you talked about the government taking the first step. Now you are being ridiculous. From being a worthy goal you’ve downgraded land reform to just another slogan or at best trade chip between the elites. Sorry, you’re going to have to do this the hard way and stir up the masses; then you might actually be able to do something.


  • Mirza
    May 11, 2012 - 8:40AM

    The real power in Pakistan is the army, which ruled for better part of its history with full dictatorial powers and no accountability or fear. They could hang elected PM ZAB, and bomb Akbar Bugti but never did anything to change the system for better. Everybody blames landlords and tribal leaders for all the social evils but who kept them intact. The only time a dictator did anything against them was when they raised their voice against the dictatorial rule.


  • Yasir
    May 11, 2012 - 9:41AM

    @Ali Wali: Are you kidding me? That will increase competition which creates productivity. If proper reforms are implemented to raise the yield per acre to that of developed nations, we could not only overcome local food necessities but feed an entire continent.


  • anwar
    May 11, 2012 - 9:58AM

    Lets start small -distribute the factories equitably


  • SMNE
    May 11, 2012 - 12:06PM

    there is not even anything feudal-related in the Related Articles on this piece because no one actually has written on the subject. this is the start. and if next generation is thinking this way, it can only do us good. this is a great article, but the odds are too many. that still means we should try.


  • faraz
    May 11, 2012 - 12:17PM

    @ History_Teacher

    Land reforms were proposed by the Congress ministries before partition. Nehru strongly believed in Socialism. In 1937, Congress initiated land reforms in UP. Muslim league was comprehensively defeated in 1937 elections, so Jinnah signed Jinnah-Sikandar pact (Sikandar was leader of Unionist party) in 1937 which allowed feudal of Unionist party to enter the Muslim league. The same feudal that won elections in 1937 from the platform of Unionist party, later won elections from the platform of Muslim league in 1946.

    I hope history teacher is just your nick name.


  • Zoaib
    May 11, 2012 - 12:39PM

    I think land re-distribution is one of the many reforms that we need in Pakistan especially for the rural areas in some parts of the country, but it will hardly solve ALL our problems. There are feudals enslaving the local villagers yes, but there are also “land grabbers” and other criminals and industrialists and those not holding any land who due to the control of the “thana” and political patronage are doing the same in many areas of the country. We need to have a more comprehensive framework which involves empowering villages at the grassroots by giving them authority and responsibility for their lives. In this respect, PTI’s rural empowerment plan gives good ideas which could (by also including land reforms) turn out to be a good way forward in empowering people at the grassroots…


  • S
    May 11, 2012 - 12:54PM

    @ gv: Should I list down some of the major political players in pakistan who have feaudal back grounds. The only reason the PPP is in power is due to their feudal roots. All these politicians have secured there vote banks through feudalism


  • BADurrani
    May 11, 2012 - 3:09PM

    Lets start by distributing land that is currently being held by the government of Pakistan and the Pakistan armed forces it will be sufficient enough to provide small farms to a large majority of landless peasants in the rural areas of Pakistan. Another option could be to combine government and military land into collective farms similar to the model of the Soviet Union.


  • Razi Kazmi
    May 11, 2012 - 3:45PM

    The article is a good reminder for the job to be done. As pointed out in the articles Ayub Khan and ZAB did bring in the reforms but failed to implement as the people who had to implement them were not sincere to the cause. We are still in the clutches of those unscrupulous politicians who have been the major impediment for these reforms. What to talk of these reforms they have not been able to streamline the revenue procedure for land ownership which keeps the 80% of the judiciary busy in resolving the disputes arising because of these anomalies. May God help us all.


  • ukmuslim
    May 11, 2012 - 3:51PM

    also, 5000 words of research paper was presented in 1974 comparing India and Pakistan land reforms. if you happen to get a copy read it. it gives a snapshot fundamental differences in the approaches of two countries. here is the link


  • Ch Allah Daad
    May 11, 2012 - 5:12PM

    Army has rules Pakistan for more than four decades and majority of army generals belonged to middle and lower middle classes. They could have done land reforms easily, instead they grabbed land where ever it was found and became landlords themselves. In present social and economic structure, land lords, media lords, generals, industrialists and other ruling classes have mingled with each other in such a way that its impossible to seperate one group from others.

  • Hassan
    May 11, 2012 - 5:30PM

    I personally think a way forward can be to tax these big guns big time. and educate all the poor people who work on these lands…Have something like RTE law as in India where its compulsory for the private Schools to have something like 15% student free of charge.

    Since these big land lords always carry big presence in Parliament so they will not let any law be made which is against there interests. Since Pakistan is already quit disintegrated so going full throttle with lang reforms will create further issues and it can all be mess once again. So lets start with some Village empowerment etc.


  • Ali Wali
    May 11, 2012 - 6:15PM

    @Yasir: No I am not kidding we just finished wheat harvest, and I know what I am talking about, mind you farming is my patrimony. PS I am not a feudal nore I respect/vote for anyone just because they own lots of lands.


  • Ofmoria
    May 11, 2012 - 7:05PM

    How do you even justify land reforms? Does Pakistan not follow capitalist economic system? And does that system not allow an individual to invest and earn as much as he can in a competitive market? Do you stop an industrialist from owning more than one factory? Do you stop Engro from becoming bigger?. You, sir, need to realise the reality of today’s world and come down to fair judgement and not just keep blattering popular sentiment in the media. Suggested land ceiling is mostly 100 acre and that is not even worth 10 million, however a shopkeeper in clifton is free to own shops of over 70 million! Why this bias on the part of liberals?
    You rightly state that those with British land distribution should be targetted and have no right over that land. But let me ask you how many of those remain. The distribution was done over a century ago and generations have come and pass. All of that land is already divided among sons, grandsons, greatgrandsons and so on. Also, this blanket ceiling also stops an honest agriculturist who started from scratch to be limited in growth. What justifies that?
    it is easy to criticise the system in the villages when you hear of atrocities committed there. But let me tell you that Feudalism is a mindset and not simply land holdings. Even an industrialist can be Feudal because of his atrocious policies. But the media today would only so easily criticise the agriculturists because their voice is remote and hardly ever heard.
    Please come out of these unnatural biases and come down to facts of situation. Pakistan’s problem does not lie in land holdings. It lies in the feudal mind set that everyone shares. From a shopkeeper to a landowner. So stop with this nonsense criticism!Recommend

  • Khalq e Khuda
    May 11, 2012 - 7:52PM

    Most factually inaccurate article I have ever read on ET.

    The feudals have not ruled this country for most of its years Sir but the military and bureaucracy
    Also the land reforms were not entirely unsuccessful particularly those of 1977 the only problem is that the judiciary over turned them during military rul of Zia ul Haq.

    An elected parliament of feudal lords gave this country its Constitution and land reforms, it gave provincial autonomy and is about to give the recognition they have long demanded in form of new provinces so clearly the problem lies elsewhere.Recommend

  • Ali Wali
    May 11, 2012 - 10:41PM

    The solution to our food insecurity is integration of land owners not the otherway around.


  • Prince
    May 12, 2012 - 12:49AM

    Quite an interesting article and topic to touch with a lot of finger pointing. Problem here is the typical blame game; a Pakistani MUST have someone to blame and conceal the denial they themselves are in. I might have even agreed to a fraction of your opinion had you not mentioned with your name the London School of Economics part, did you not think twice about the poor people you could have fed with that tuition fee had you opted to study in your mother land? But ofcourse we must blame the British system and their suck-ups and yet be affiliated with London or rather ‘qualified’ by the British. My dear lets stop looking for equality before we can accept it ourselves.
    On a micro level you just might have the same mind set as a feudal lord but in denial. Im pretty sure you dont intend on splitting your land with the poor or even give a portion of your humble home with the servants presumably working for you. Yes I may sound arrogant but this is the bitter reality behind the hidden masks everyone wears with great pride and jealousy. Does a family on a motorbike in the heat while you enjoy the airconditioned car not feel the same bitterness as you do towards the people you point fingers at?
    I do not want to copy paste your article and discuss point by point but there is some serious work that needs to be done on your end; a true heart and acceptance comes before the strong command in English language. Try spending time with the feudal lords (educated ones) and see the sacrifices they have made for your land and culture before you embark on this journey of voicing your opinion against them. I by no means speak for those who steal to get rich but for those who you think should lose.

    Pakistan Zindabad!


  • Lord
    May 12, 2012 - 3:23AM

    Please tell me what exactly you do to help the poor farming families. Or do you ever wonder had you sacrificed your education how many students would have had the opportunity? Let’s start from home first before pointing fingers at the land owners hundreds of years before Pakistan.Recommend

  • Babar
    May 12, 2012 - 8:09AM

    Totally agree. Once we are done with that, shouldn’t we redistribute factories, corporations and banks as well? Anyone for that or is this just another piece depicting middle class hypocrisy?


  • alicia
    May 12, 2012 - 1:25PM

    You are kidding me right? Pakistan’s parliament is dominated by feudal lords. Bhutto, Jatoi, Laghari, Khosa, Chaudhry bro’s, Pagara’s, are some of the most common one’s. That’s why they don’t pass the agricultural tax. Seriously u need to research about your country before making such comments.


  • Ariaz
    May 12, 2012 - 11:01PM

    @ History_Teacher

    Kindly inform us all the bases of all these elections (1937, 1946 et al). Were they based on Universal Adult Franchise or on pre-selected voter list (landed gentry, education levels etc.) before quoting them.



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