The destructive feudal factor
11 February, 2011
By Mohammad Jamil
Pakistan today faces a multifaceted crisis of governance. Perhaps, one of the main reasons for such a deplorable state of affairs is decadent feudalism, which engenders ignorance, poverty, hunger and disease. It is also responsible for intolerance, obscurantism and repression in society; feudalism by its very nature is anti-democratic and negates the concept of human rights. Last but not least, it is a major hurdle to industrialisation of the country.
Barring some honourable exceptions, especially of those who purchased land out of their hard-earned money, this was the class of feudal lords, who joined the Muslim League only when they were sure that Pakistan was to become a reality. They inherited power in 1947, and till today many of them keep the landless peasants in bonded labour; grant them a mere pittance to eke out a living; maintain private jails; and preside over private courts. Even though the batia system entitles the peasants to 50 percent of the produce, they are somehow duped, since the feudal is a pir or a sardar, and is also a local member of the National or Provincial Assembly, who exercises control over the district administration and local police.
It was in this backdrop that the founder of the nation, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, maintained: “These feudalists are a breed apart who perpetuate the wicked and pernicious system that enslaves the peasants, who remain at the mercy of the landlord and are denied any social, economic or human rights.” History bears testimony to the fact that democracy could only be established in Europe once feudalism had been abolished. Under feudalism, be it structural or a mindset, there is no concept of human rights, supremacy of Parliament, or the rule of law.
Anyhow, within two years after the partition, India had abolished the jagirdari (feudal) system. In Pakistan, the first government review of land and tenure reforms was undertaken in the province of Sindh. In March 1947, the Hari Enquiry Committee declared: “The problems of the haris (peasants) were of the their own creation or natural problems or government neglect; the landlord (jagirdar, zamindar, and sardar) was in fact a friend of the hari”, and land reforms were deemed undesirable and even a loss for the hari. However, a member of the committee, Muhammad Masud, an ICS officer, disagreed and wrote: “The condition of the haris was deplorable…and therefore land reforms were necessary.” In his note, he recommended the abolishment of jagirdari system, expropriation of land from the landlords with minimum compensation, and that absolute ownership of the land be vested in the state.
The Pakistan Muslim League had constituted a five-member committee, in February 1949, to recommend the necessary actions that must be taken in order to bring drastic changes to the existing system of land tenure. It proposed short-term measures, but the salient feature was the “security of tenure.”
In early 1950s, the provincial governments attempted to eliminate some of the absentee landlords or rent collectors, but they had little success in the face of a strong opposition. The security of tenancy was legislated in the provinces, but because of their dependent position the tenant farmers benefited slightly.
In January 1959, accepting the recommendations of a special commission on the subject, General Muhammad Ayub Khan`s government introduced land reforms to boost agricultural output, promote social justice, and ensure security of tenure, but to no avail.
According to 1959 reforms, ceiling was fixed for irrigated land holdings at 500 acre, and non-irrigated land holdings at 1,000 acres. But the concept of the reforms was negated, as the landlords were given the option to convert the excess land to farms, or game reserves. There was also provision to gift the land in excess of the limit to their near and dear ones. However, out of the 2.4 million acres that was surrendered to the government, a major portion was uncultivable land. And about 0.6 million acres (25 percent of the surrendered land) was sold to the tenants.
In March 1972, land reforms were announced by the Bhutto government fixing the limit at 150 and 300 acres for irrigated and non-irrigated (rain-irrigated) land holdings. The reforms became meaningless when the ruling class (or landed aristocracy) transferred their lands in the names of their friends and relatives in collaboration with the patwaris. This is borne out by the fact that late Ghulam Muhammad Mehr, then member of the National Assembly from Sakkar, and Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi owned 100,000 acres and 80,000 acres respectively. However, the official statistics showed that by 1977 only about 1.3 million acres had been surrendered, while nearly 0.7 million acres had been redistributed by the owners to about 71,000 farmers.
But the question is: How were these large land holdings established in the first place? Unlike the practice in the Mughal era, where the king was the owner of all the land, and had authorised his mansabdars to collect land revenue from the cultivators, the British created the feudal system by granting land to their supporters, especially those who helped maintain their rule in India. In 1765, Shah Alam had granted diwani (right to collect revenues) to the East India Company, which tried to collect land revenues, but the system did not work. And in 1772, diwani was auctioned and those who were granted the contract were called Diwans.
In 1793, Lord Cornwallis introduced Bandobast Diwani, in which the collectors were given the share of 1/11 of the land revenue, while 10/11 went to the crown. Those who cooperated with the British in the 1857 liberation movement were given the ownership rights for their treacherous role. Nevertheless, those who have bought land out of their legitimate income, and also those who were rewarded land for their meritorious services rendered in the defence of the motherland, have the right to own the land, as there is a great difference between the traitors and saviours of the nation.
Coming back to the subject: In 1977, the Bhutto government further reduced ceilings on private ownership of farmland to about 100 acres of irrigated and about 200 acres of non-irrigated land. But General Muhammad Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation created the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) for the first time; its aim was to review whether the law was repugnant to the injunctions of Islam. Thus, petitions were filed in the Shariat Appellate Bench against the judgment of the Shariat Court stating that “the reforms were legal.” The bench comprised Mufti Taqi Usmani, Mufti Pir Karam Shah, Justice Afzal Zullah, Justice Nasim Hassan Shah and Justice Shafiur Rehman. Mufti Taqi Usmani wrote the lead judgment declaring that land reform legislations were repugnant to Islam.
However, Justice Nasim Hassan Shah and Justice Shafiur Rehman put up a dissenting note stated: “The limit on land holdings was necessary to reform the society and alleviate poverty.” Unfortunately, the verdict sealed the fate of land reforms, as majority of the lawmakers had and still pursue vested interest; they are not willing to pay taxes which is applicable to their incomes - of course, taxable income. The argument that the jagirdars or zamidars pay land revenues and abiana, and therefore, they are not liable to pay any other taxes is absolutely absurd, as industrialists also pay electricity and water charges, in addition to the countless other taxes. It is a pity that feudalism is still present in Pakistan!