Feudalism in Pakistan?
Nisar Ahmed Zuberi
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 summarized 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…