Oct 24, 2010

Feudalism is dead, long live the feudal lord

Does the feudal class retain its economic and political clout?

By Farah Zia

About two months back, The New York Times carried an interesting piece on Jamshed Dasti that turned out to be more of an analysis of how feudal power is waning in a fast urbanising Pakistan. Dasti, a "mongerel" and a "scrappy son of an amateur wrestler", managed to defeat the wealthy feudal classes to win the parliamentary seat on the strength of his personal clout, not once but many times over. Local residents, writes NYT, like to call him "Rescue One-Five, a reference to an emergency hot line number and his feverish work habits."

The strength of his performance in the constituency was such that a virulent media campaign against him for carrying a fake degree could not discourage his voters and Dasti won the byelection once again.

But, are feudals indeed a dying breed?

It appears there is no middle ground as an answer. Those who think feudals have lost their political and economic clout are convinced this has been achieved conclusively and we are currently living in an industrial age that mixes perfectly with capitalism. Or that capitalism dominates agriculture, too. Others differ radically. Feudal class still dominates, they think.

There are, of course, conflicting developments that mar each of these analyses to suggest that the truth may lie somewhere in between. One, feudals do not alone carry the mantle of wealth and influence because mercantile, business, industrialist and trader classes have come to share it with them. Two, we are seeing neo-feudals in industrialists who are buying agricultural land to achieve some kind of 'social power' which is impossible to enjoy in urban centres. And finally many of the landowners of yore now have industries alongside.

Political analyst and academic Rasul Baksh Rais thinks the economic clout of the feudal class did get fragmented because of the inheritance law but the social powers of the family did not. "The dominance of the feudal class sustains because of various reasons. The British gave land to people who were caste or tribal leaders. Earlier, the Mughals gave them land because they wanted to subcontract authority to influentials."

According to Rais, their social base already existed because of their capacity to extract revenue, control population etc. "The land settlement in the late 19th century under the British rule changed the land tenure system of the Mughals. The Mughals did not distribute land on hereditary grounds. They gave land according to the social capacity and role of individuals in the Mughal Empire. The British, on the other hand, gave permanent settlements."

Feudalism has not sustained because of their wealth or land or even their social base, says Rais. "It has sustained because of the landowners' control over district administration, transfers, appointments and development funds. It has sustained because of state patronage. The industrialist sits in the urban areas and gets his work done by paying money. The feudal, on the other hand, keeps the state subordinate."

For journalist Suhail Warraich, feudalism is a thing of the past. "Feudalism was the name of a social structure when feudals could influence the police and the jirga etc. There was no bureaucracy or judiciary. But today we have these institutions and people have become more rebellious."

Warraich holds that no one wants to retain feudalism. "It was a system of the past and it had to end. As the lands continued to be divided, the stature and power of the feudals also dwindled."

Rais, on the contrary, thinks the feudal class still dominates "because now even the mid-level landowner in Punjab and Sindh is quite powerful, not because of the quantity of acreage but because of the increase in the price of agricultural commodities." Their wealth has increased manifold because of their orchards and cash crops, he thinks.

An interesting juxtaposition of this view may be made with the landowners' claim how they have been impoverished over the years. The entire country blames them for not paying the agriculture tax but they say that the markets forces and the middlemen take all the money.

While the veracity of this claim may be difficult to ascertain, Rais is adamant that feudalism thrives because of the way our parliamentary system is structured. It depends on legislatures and the legislature influences the executive. "This is the reason why feudals are still effective and as a consequence the bureaucracy has been weakened."

But is parliament indeed the decision-making body, considering the powers enjoyed by some other pillars peculiar to our state? Rais thinks indeed it is, though the problem is that "party bosses take decisions instead of legislators."

In Suhail Warraich's view "it is important to understand who is doing the decision-making in Pakistan. There is no feudal in the military or judiciary or bureaucracy."

The truth, says Warraich, is that the only meaningful land reforms in this country were effected by "a feudal Zulfikar Ali Bhutto himself and not the military or an industrialist".

If we have already seen the end of feudalism, who are these neo-feudals in the garb of industrialists and why is it important for servicemen to get agricultural land at the end of their careers? "You see, agriculture involves an element of pleasure. Industrialists want to have agricultural land and horses and cows and there's nothing wrong with it and this is happening elsewhere in the world. Whoever has money wants to relax," says Warraich.

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