Feudalism: Pakistan

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Is there feudalism in Pakistan?

By Haider Nizamani


FOR the MQM leader Altaf Hussain and Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘feudalism’ is alive and kicking in Pakistan. According to the MQM’s 2008 election manifesto “the prevalent feudal system of (sic) Pakistan is the main obstacle in the progress of the country and the prosperity of the people”.

The party would abolish ‘feudalism’ to turn Pakistan into an egalitarian society. Ayesha Siddiqa, writing in these pages on Feb 25, 2008, started on a circumspect note by acknowledging that if we use the classical features of feudalism then present-day Pakistani society cannot be called feudal. Then she asked a question and offered a categorical answer too: “But does this … mean that feudalism is no more? The answer is no.”

Why? Because, agricultural land still remains a potent symbol of power in today’s Pakistan. The urban elite’s penchant for farmhouses is mimicking landlords. Furthermore, the occupants of these farmhouses replicate “the decadent lifestyle of the old nawabs and the feudal elite” by holding “huge parties, mujrahs and … flaunting … money”.

Many members in the national and provincial legislatures have landed backgrounds. Rural Pakistan continues to languish under the yoke of ‘feudalism’. Honour killings occur there, hapless peasants are exploited by the mighty landlord. The electronic media has perpetuated this same image for years. In Punjab, it was Chaudhri Hashmat of the drama serial Waris who reigned supreme. Since land is a symbol of power and these are the kind of social practices we won’t associate with modernity, Pakistan is deemed a predominantly feudal society.

My submission is that there is no feudalism in Pakistan today because there was no feudalism even before British colonialism.

Eqbal Ahmed, also in these pages (‘Feudal culture and violence’, Feb 2, 1998) summarised it well: “Feudalism serves as the whipping boy of Pakistan’s intelligentsia. Yet, to my knowledge not one serious study exists on the nature and extent of feudal power in Pakistan, and none to my knowledge on the hegemony which feudal culture enjoys in this country.”

Observing that feudalism as an economic system was not ascendant, he referred to Karl Marx’s point that the cultural vestiges of dying systems continue long after economic collapse. Ahmed was dead right in mentioning ‘mastery over violence’ as one of the defining features of the feudal order. Rather than rigorously testing whether that was the case in Pakistan, Ahmed wandered off into discussion of various forms of violence in Pakistani society.

We, therefore, need to exercise utmost caution in naming a system on the basis of practices that could well be just the remnants of a pre-capitalist system but not necessarily the defining parameter of the existing political economy.

When the British colonised India, they took on many forms of the local aristocracy. That did not make British rule a feudal form of governance. The urbanites’ mimicry of the landed gentry’s power is neither a uniquely Pakistani trait nor a recent phenomenon. The irony of the ascendant moneyed form of power trying to copy the dying agrarian source of power is vividly portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s film Jalsaghar (‘The Music Room’) where a nouveau-riche merchant tries to adopt some aspects of an indebted landlord’s lifestyle.

The Pakistani privileged class trying to recreate the opulence of an aristocratic era is an expression of what Marx put eloquently: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But taking mujrahs in farmhouses for feudalism in Pakistan is mistaking appearances for substance.

Feudalism, according to Simon Bromley and William Brown, can be defined “politically as a personalised and geographically decentralised system of rule, and economically as the local and coercive extraction of surplus from a dependent peasantry, the two dimensions being fused in the institution of lordship and the feudal-vassal pyramid”. By 1999, 88 per cent of cultivated land in Pakistan was in farm sizes below 12.5 acres. Just over half the total farms in 1999 were less than five acres in size. This would hardly be the hallmark of a feudal society.

More important than haggling over whether contemporary Pakistan is a feudal society or not — because it would hardly qualify as a feudal society if judged by the characteristics of the feudal society provided by leading authorities on the issue — I want to share Harbans Mukhia’s argument that there never was feudalism even in medieval India. If this assertion is taken seriously, then it means that if there was no feudalism in medieval India how could we have it in 21st century Pakistan?

Let me paraphrase Mukhia’s reasons for reaching the above conclusion. Mukhia argues that “in Europe, feudalism arose as a result of a crisis of the production relations based on slavery on the one hand and changes resulting from growing stratification among the Germanic tribes on the other”. In India “owing to the natural richness of the soil and the relatively efficient tools and techniques, agricultural productivity was high, the subsistence level of the peasant was very low — thanks to climatic conditions”. Due to the combination of the above features, the production process in India “did not create an acute scarcity of labour”, therefore “enserfment of the peasant … was hardly necessary”.

This does not mean there was no stratification and exploitation in medieval India, just as there is no denying the stratification in contemporary Pakistan’s countryside. But using feudalism as a blanket term for sundry processes in the agrarian sector and evading “critical considerations such as production processes, social organisation of labour and concrete forms of non-economic coercion” will lead to anecdotal observations or politically expedient statements passing as historical analyses.

Pakistani society is part of the world capitalist system where a major share of agricultural produce is meant for selling in the market. Additionally, there is no causal link between land ownership and political power in today’s Pakistan. The land-owning classes, especially absentee landlords, rank high in the pecking order of rural Pakistan. But that ‘rural gentry’, to use Satish Chandra’s appropriate term for the class of people popularly called ‘feudal’ in Pakistan, is a junior partner in the state where those having mastery over violence have much closer ties with metropolitan power centres like Washington and London.

Exchanges in these pages are valuable but we need to rise up to the challenge Eqbal Ahmed threw at us. Let those among us who are serious about understanding issues concerning the exercise of power in our society undertake rigorous studies on these questions. Reputable historians like Mubarak Ali and other social scientists should be invited to share their insights and arguments on whether there is ‘feudalism’ in Pakistan.

The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada


Feudalism II

Revisiting feudalism

By Ayesha Siddiqa


IT is always a good sign when debate is generated in society and among peers. So, it was great to see Haider Nizamani’s April 30 article on these pages with regard to feudalism.

The writer could not find any evidence of the existence of feudalism in Pakistan except in my mind or that of MQM’s Altaf Hussain.

One hopes that Mr Nizamani took the trouble of going through the ANP’s election manifesto which calls for land reforms in the country. The problem might have appeared on the writer’s radar screen had he been living in Pakistan and not in British Columbia.

But the more substantive point is his citation of Indian economist Harbans Mukhia and Pakistani scholar Eqbal Ahmed on the subject. While Mukhia argued that feudalism did not exist in India even during medieval times, Eqbal Ahmed was of the view that feudalism is just the whipping boy of the Pakistani intelligentsia. So, Mr Nizamani’s conclusion was that feudalism does not exist in Pakistan, and in fact that this is a capitalist society where the exploiters were not the landed gentry but the civil and military bureaucracy with close links to Washington and London.

He used the term ‘metropolitan power centres’ which I assume is an indirect reference to the thesis of Hamza Alavi who talked about the class of feudal landowners in Pakistan. But Mr Nizamani’s thesis is that Pakistan no longer suffers from feudalism even if it existed at all in the past.

Whether Indian and Pakistani societies are capitalist or feudal is a never-ending debate. Probably Mr Nizamani did not get a chance to see Indian author R.J. Sharma’s work on the subject. He has argued that feudalism did and continues to exist in certain parts of India. American historians such as Elizabeth A.R. Brown and Susan Reynolds have also debated the issue with reference to medieval times. However, other historians challenge their assumption.

Clearly, as far as Pakistan is concerned the definition of the term has undergone a change. Most scholars are not willing to move beyond the Marxian definition of the word feudalism. Since Marx conceptualised it mainly in economic terms and as a step towards capitalism and then a classless society, most people are not willing to re-conceptualise the term.

According to the Marxian definition, the three elements which characterise feudalism are: lords, vassals and fiefs. Marx defined the concept thus: “the power of the ruling class (the aristocracy) rested on their control of arable land, leading to a class society based upon the exploitation of the peasants who farm these lands, typically under serfdom”.

However, for those not familiar with political economy, feudalism is not just about the economic mode of production, it is also about the power structure. One need not stop at Marx and not consider the evolution of an institution.

The problem in today’s Pakistan is that a number of people find it hard to concede the continuation of feudalism due to their fear of the urban style fascism of the jihadis and the MQM. Compared to the terror that these two institutions inspire, the landlords appear benign. But one would like to draw Mr Nizamani’s attention to the fact that it is not lowly analysts like me but the feudals of this country who go and shake hands with the MQM and its leadership.

Moreover, the civil and military bureaucracy is not the only entity that does the bidding of foreign powers. In fact, politicians, who are part of the ruling elite, are equally comfortable in making deals with Washington and London or at their behest.

Furthermore, the opinion of elite scholars is divided as to the object of their support: the authoritarian military, which dominates the country’s politics and institutions and does not let anyone breath, or the political elite that provides the only credible forum for democracy in the country. The answer might be easier to seek if both categories are considered as one instead of two. Pakistan’s tragedy, as pointed out by Hamza Alavi, is that the military and civil bureaucracy serves the interest of the ruling elite and is a part of it.

But back to the issue of feudalism which Mr Akbar Zaidi and Mr Haider Nizamani cannot find in the country, believing my perception to be driven by visits to my village rather than based on any concrete evidence.

There are two points that I would like to raise. First, feudalism is not just about the means of production but also about how power is distributed and exercised. As I had mentioned in my earlier article, the majority of traditional landowners today have become industrialists. Since Pakistan’s ruling elite was historically the landowners, new classes such as the civil and military bureaucracy also tend to invest in land as a symbol of power. Interestingly, even the new capital such as ‘bazaaris’ or traders tend to acquire land to express their power within the social system.

What is peculiar about a pre-capitalist structure like Pakistan’s is that an asset such as land is held not just as a source of income but because it is a symbol of power.

Surely, the institution has morphed. The vassal no longer serves the landlord’s military and pays taxes in return for land grant, but the ordinary people are beholden to the landlord for opportunities. Today, the landlord has many faces. He is a general, a powerful civilian bureaucrat, politician, etc.

Second, the emphasis on feudalism is not about a personal fixation on ‘isms’ but the fact that there is a difference between feudalism and other kinds of authoritarianism. Surely, as Mr Akbar Zaidi argued in his article, there is authoritarianism all over the world including in the US which boasts of democracy. However, there is a difference between the American and Pakistani societies. In the US, for instance, a woman who gets raped does not face a problem registering her case with the police.

Is it that these wonderful scholars cannot tell the difference between neo-imperialism and feudalism? Are we forgetting the presence of Pir Pagara, Ghulam Mustafa Khar and Sardar Farooq Leghari and many others? Not to forget the time when the Pir of Pagara and then Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo could not sit in the same assembly because the latter was a follower of the former? Mr Nizamani argues that today most landholdings are small. However, the manner in which water and farm-to-market roads, two resources which can make or break a farmer, are manipulated by the bigger landowners says something about the skewed distribution of power.

It would be great if Dr Mubarak Ali or other historians could investigate the issue. But it is time that we started searching for socio-political evidence to see whether or not the institution of feudalism continues to thrive.

The writer is an independent military and security analyst


Feudalism III

Feudalism still survives in Pakistan

By M. Abul Fazl


To democratise the villages without altering property relationships is simply absurd. —Barrington Moore

Prof Haider Nizamani of Simon Fraser University of Canada has inspired a very interesting debate in Pakistan on whether the agrarian social structure in modern Pakistan can be termed feudal, as the term is generally understood. (Dawn, April 30, 2008).

He denies that there is or ever was feudalism in Pakistan. Since modern Pakistan, according to him, is part of the world capitalist market and, since most of the country’s agricultural production is sold in the market, nay produced for it, it can be said that the capitalist mode of production prevails here.

This would imply that the Pakistani workers are subject to capitalist and not feudal exploitation. Any pre-capitalist exploitation or non-economic coercion seen here is only a marginal left-over of some previous mode, long since extinct and forgotten. He reinforces his argument against the existence of feudalism here with: “By 1999, 88 per cent of the cultivated land in Pakistan was in farm sizes below 12.5 acres. Just over half the total farms in 1999 were less than five acres in size.”

S. Akbar Zaidi too finds the term “feudal” unnecessary. (Dawn, May 3, 2008). But he does point out that only 2.5 per cent of the households account for 48 per cent of all land and that only 37 per cent of the rural households own any land. He also sees a connection between the level of poverty and the degree of access to land.

Ayesha Siddiqa insists that feudalism exists in Pakistan and that the civil and military bureaucracies, whom Nizamani sees as the real exploiting “class” of the country, aspire to fuse with the feudal class. (Dawn, May 9, 2008). She says that even the bourgeoisie accepts the feudals’ cultural hegemony. Siddiqa makes the important point that feudalism is not just an economic relationship. It is also about the structure of power, about its distribution and exercise. Land is not only a source of income but a symbol of power too.

Among the responses to Nizamani, I found that of Dr Mahnaz Fatima the most scientific. (Dawn, May 19, 2008). She makes the excellent point that not only is the bulk of our agricultural sector still subject to the feudal sway — unfree labour power, extra-economic coercion, fusion of political and economic power, subsistence economy, simple reproduction of the economy — but even our modern industry is governed by feudal norms. She says “… mere deployment of capital, technology and ill-equipped communities is not all that it takes to make a process and/or mode of production free from feudal characteristics.”

In short, a change in the means of production does not change the society. After all there was industry in the feudal period. It was feudal industry. Social change requires a change in the organisation (or the relations in Marxist terminology) of production, a change in the workers’ relations with the conditions of production.

She says that feudal relations still pervade our industry, where the workers do not enjoy the equilibrium of satisfaction-contribution, where their trade union rights are curtailed or even denied and where there is a fusion of economic and political power.

Except for the wage theory here, there could be no objection from the point of view of historical materialism to her thesis.

Professors Mubarak Ali and Harbans Mukhia appear to have heard Ayesha Siddiqa’s prayers and both found time to contribute to the debate. Mukhia says (Dawn, May 16, 2008) that the modern concept of feudalism came long after the actual economic formation came to an end. So it is not exact.

Mubarak Ali advises us not to confuse the term “feudalism” with our jagirdari system.(Dawn, May 22, 2008) Jagirdari was introduced by the Mughals in the sixteenth century, whereby the right to collect revenue was given to higher officials in lieu of cash salaries. The British turned those lands into private property in the nineteenth century thus creating a powerful class loyal to them and opposed to independence.

He adds that, in Pakistan, the land-ownership is often combined with a claim to saintliness. Thus, while living in the modern world with all its claims to modern amenities, these landlord-saints maintain old relations with the peasants. Their financial position is strong, as is their local political power and this position shows no sign of weakening.

Nizamani, like many before him, notably Dr Hamida Khuhro, denies that what is known as feudalism exists in Pakistan. Actually there are two aspects to the situation, form and content. It is true that the agrarian social structure of modern Pakistan is not the same as the one that existed in medieval northern France, which is taken as the model of feudalism. However it does not follow, as Nizamani appears to imply, that, consequently, the Pakistani peasants are not, in the main, subject to pre-capitalist exploitation and to domination by the land-owning class.

The widespread use of the term “feudalism” to describe all pre-capitalist socio-economic formations is the result of the communist propaganda. The Communist Manifesto (1848), in illustrating its thesis that all history is a history of class struggle, enumerated the modes of production which had preceded capitalism, as primitive community, slavery and feudalism. Later, Marx and Engels clarified that, here, they were drawing upon Europe’s historical experience. Other regions could have had other modes and different sequences.

However, Stalin, a trained (but not ordained) priest of the Orthodox Church, reduced everything to a dogma. Every term had to be defined with precision and in only one way. Thus the “mode of production,” which had not been defined by Marx, was explained to be a combination of the forces and relations of production. Because the Manifesto had used the phrase “history of all hitherto existing society”, it was decided that the whole humanity, regardless of all specific regional features, had to pass through a fixed sequence of material and social development.

And since South Asia was not a capitalist formation, it had to be feudal. However, the South Asian socio-economic formation had so many specific features that the post-Stalin Soviet historians began to call it “Indian Feudalism”. (Histoire de l’Inde, Antonova, Bougarde-Levine, Kotovoski. Editions du Progres, Moscou, 1979, p.207) They even had to discover slave relations of production in some place in South Asia, in order to complete the sequence of formations in the orthodox theory but were sensible enough not to press the point.

This dogmatism ran in the face of Marx’s emphasis that his analyses of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe with the necessary expropriation of the cultivators could not be metamorphosed into a “historico-philosophic theory of a general course imposed by destiny on every people whatever the historical circumstances in which they find themselves (as quoted in Sur les Societes Pre-Capitalistes, Editions Sociales, Paris,1978, p82).

It is a measure of the intellectual influence of the communist movement that most historians accepted the Stalinist view and began to routinely refer to the pre-capitalist social formation in South Asia as feudal, i.e. where the feudal mode of production was the dominant one.

Nizamani is right that the feudal formation, which existed in Western Europe between the fall of the Roman Empire and the fifteenth century, does not obtain in Pakistan. However, it does not follow that the relationship between the landlord and the hari is bourgeois due to Pakistan being part of the world capitalist market and the relations here being pre-dominantly money relations. Every socio-economic formation, except the very advanced ones, has a number of modes of production, one of which is dominant, imparting its orientation to the whole formation. As Harbans Mukhia says, “In fact capitalism can combine all kinds of pre-capitalist labour uses. It can have many non-capitalist characteristics.”

The agricultural produce sold in the market can be and is produced under pre-capitalist relations, existing within the generally capitalist formation in Pakistan. This means that the surplus produced through pre-capitalist labour is realised in the capitalist market. And there is no contradiction here, since the value can be created only in the process of production, not in exchange.

There is a sleight of hand in Nizamani’s talk of most of the farms being below 12.5 acres. The important thing is not the size of a farm. It is the ownership of the farm and the relationship, economic and non-economic, in which the cultivator stands to the land-owner.

The situation in Sindh and southern Panjab is basically the same today as it was described in Mohammad Masud’s dissenting note to the Hari Report of 1947-48, except that the level of technology has risen since then, without, however, modifying the relations of production or ameliorating the condition of the Hari.

The land reforms under Ayub Khan were mild, while those of Z. A. Bhutto were an exercise in deceit. Less than 10 per cent of the cultivable lands was resumed under the former and a little over half of it, or 3.5 million acres, were distributed among 288,000 peasants. Bhutto’s “reforms” actually increased the holdings of the waderas. While Ayub had fixed the land-holding ceiling at 36,000 units per family, Bhutto put it at 15,000 units per person. So if a land-owner has even one child, his land-holding ceiling will be at least 45,000 units.

Actually the two reforms did not make the slightest dent either in the landowner’s holdings or in his power, because, as Ayesha Siddiqa says, direct coercion is much more central to feudalism than it is to capitalism, where the economic instance is the principal one.

With the fusion of the economic and political power at the local level, the debt-bondage, the bonded labour and the private prisons are not memories but present-day realities, as much as are the deserted government-built school buildings in the villages.

In this context, S. Akbar Zaidi’s statement that “ownership of land has little to do with the relations of production” may be true on a purely theoretical level. But exploitation is the basis of class differentiation. And that becomes possible, in both the feudal and the capitalist modes, when one class can deny another access to the means of production, except upon the condition of the latter surrendering the surplus value to the former. So the ownership or control of the means of production, in this case of the land, has the determining role in defining the mode of production. As Engels says “It is always the exercise of social functions which is at the basis of political supremacy.”(ibid, p123)

Whether Pakistan’s primitive agrarian social structure, with its big landed properties, is feudal or can be better described as “jagirdari” is a theoretical question. In practice, it keeps Pakistan in thrall to backwardness by posing a barrier to the development of capitalism and industrialisation.

To conclude, Pakistan is a capitalist socio-economic formation of the periphery. Its ruling class is composed of pre-capitalist land-owners, the local fusion of whose political and economic power, being backed, at the national level, by the army and supported by the clergy, is so strong that it is unchallenged by any peasant movement.

And its sway over the urban industrial economy, where it fuses with the weak bourgeoisie, has ensured the practical destruction of the workers’ organisations. It may be recalled that, after the last elections, the contest for the premiership of the country was among a handful of Makhdums. What can this ruling class be called if not feudal?

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