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Oppression of Pakistan’s caricatured feudalism

Wednesday 23 May 2018, by Farooq Tariq

Large swathes of Pakistan are in the stranglehold of caricatured feudalism. These feudal relations are increasingly penetrated by finance capital as it imposes itself on social relations, politics and the economy itself. It has made the lives of millions miserable, deepening and brutalizing class exploitation. Rampant inequality and poverty remain chronic issues as millions can still be considered bonded labour. Such a harrowing situation is revealed by the fact that only five per cent of agricultural households in Pakistan own nearly two thirds of the farmland.

In the Indian subcontinent, the system prevailing before the advent of the British was known as Asiatic Mode of Production, or as Karl Marx put it, “Asiatic despotism.” The land was not privately owned but a common ownership of agricultural land. In this sense it was egalitarian. Feudalism was imposed by British imperialists through the Permanent Settlements Act. “Classical” feudalism, as described within the European context, never existed.

The Permanent Settlement Act was introduced first in Bengal and Bihar by the East India Company’s administrative head and later extended by Governor General, Lord Cornwallis over northern India in a series of regulations dated 1 May 1793. With it the British colonialists bestowed vast tracts of land mainly to the revenue collectors (zemindars) in order to raise land revenue. This grafted native Indians onto the British structure, insuring their loyalty to British authority.

After partition this class, along with the comprador bourgeoisie, became Pakistan’s hybrid ruling class. In their failure to carry out a national democratic revolution as the European bourgeois did in the 18th and 19th centuries Pakistan’s capitalists failed to abolish feudalism. Thus Pakistan was suspended in a hybrid model of feudal and capitalist relations.

Over the last few decades, a new form of feudalism emerged particularly during the periods of military dictatorship. With the help of the state machinery, the poor, small landholders are forced to hand over their land to a particular family for insignificant sums. New feudal owners like Jahangir Tareen of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf now own thousands of acres of land. He has become a typical Pakistani feudalist: a “well-educated” person who, with the help of military dictators, was able to buy sugar mills along with thousands of acres of land. It’s a vulgar combination of feudalism and capitalism.

The landlords’ base of power over local people is takes place at every step. Debt bondage is passed down “generation after generation” and the landlord controls the “distribution of water, fertilizers, tractor permits and agricultural credit.” This in turn gives them influence over the “revenue, police and judicial administration” of local government and its officials. In recent times, particularly harsh feudalism has existed in rural Sindh, Baluchistan and some parts of Southern Punjab. It is a form of slavery in 21st century Pakistan.

The feudal system is not confined to the political arena. Land ownership links feudal lords to Pakistan’s various other patronage networks. Landlords, such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi, act as religious patron saints to thousands of peasant as their disciples, who loyally vote for their feudal lords in elections.

The Pakistani army is also deeply entrenched in this hybrid economy. It is an important action particularly in the industry and services sector as well as in the parallel economy.

However its elite layers are also part of the landed aristocracy, amassing vast landed estates. Army officers are bequeathed agricultural lands for serving in the army, an