Feudalism alive and well in Pakistan

Landlords such as Jahangir Tareen (left), seen here with Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf leader Imran Khan, took control of thousands of hectares of land with the help of military dictatorships.

Large swathes of Pakistan are in the stranglehold of a caricatured feudalism.

Feudal relations in Pakistan are increasingly penetrated by finance capital as it imposes itself on social relations, politics and the economy. This has made the lives of millions miserable, deepening and brutalising class exploitation.

Rampant inequality and poverty remain chronic issues. Millions are still subjected to bonded labour. Such a harrowing situation is revealed by the fact that only 5% 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 the Asiatic mode of production, or as Karl Marx put it, “Asiatic despotism”. The land was not privately owned; there was common ownership of agricultural land. In this sense it was egalitarian.

Feudalism was imposed by British imperialists through the Permanent Settlements Act. “Classical” feudalism, of the sort that existed in Europe, never existed.

The Permanent Settlement Act was introduced first in Bengal and Bihar by the East India Company’s administrative head. It was extended in 1793 by Governor General Lord Cornwallis over northern India in a series of regulations.

The British colonialists bestowed vast tracts of land mainly to the revenue collectors to raise land revenue. This grafted native Indians onto the British structure, ensuring their loyalty.

After the partition of India in 1947 that created Pakistan, this class, along with the comprador capitalists, became Pakistan’s hybrid ruling class. In this way, Pakistan was suspended in a hybrid model of feudal and capitalist relations.

Military power

Over the past few decades, a new form of feudalism emerged, particularly during the periods of military dictatorship. With the help of the state machinery, poor, small landholders were forced to hand over their land to particular families for insignificant sums.

The new feudal owners, like Jahangir Tareen of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek Insaaf party, now own thousands of hectares of land. He has become a typical feudalist: a “well-educated” person who, with the help of military dictators, was able to also buy sugar mills. It is a vulgar combination of feudalism and capitalism.

The landlords’ power over local people takes place at every step. Debt bondage is passed down generations. Landlords control the distribution of water, fertilisers, tractor permits and agricultural credit. This in turn gives them influence over the revenue, police and judicial administration of local government.

Land ownership links feudal lords to various other patronage networks. They act as religious patron saints to thousands of peasants, who loyally vote for their lords in elections. The army is also deeply entrenched in this hybrid economy, particularly in the manufacturing and services sector.

The army’s top ranks are part of the landed aristocracy, amassing vast landed estates. Army officers are bequeathed agricultural lands for their service, which are often rented out to larger landowners. In Punjab alone, nearly 30,000 hectares of agricultural land are directly or indirectly occupied by the Military Farms administration.

The landed aristocracy, working with the state bureaucracy, managed to block attempts at land reform in the 1950s and ’70s.

When military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977 with his Islamisation agenda, he used religious edicts in the interests of landlords and capitalists. After he took control, federal Sharia courts were established to serve the interests of property owners. 

Urban solution?

A rising number of small and marginal farmers are migrating to urban areas to escape poverty. In fact, Pakistan is already the most highly urbanised country in South Asia. More migration from the rural areas will create more pressure on the already stretched infrastructure of urban metropolises.

As industrial growth in the country remains stunted, and much of the installed industrial base is already capital-intensive, most migrants will be forced to work in the services sector. Thus, most will probably end up working in the informal or black economy for very low wages and with atrocious working conditions, reinforcing the cycle of poverty and exclusion. 

Last year, agriculture contributed about 24% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and accounted for half of the employed labour force. Important crops are wheat, cotton, rice, sugarcane and maize. The full potential of crop production, however, is still a dream.

More than 60% of the population consists of small farmers, peasants and landless peasants, but there is not a single school or training centre for farmers. The knowledge gap is filled with the sales representatives of supply companies. Of course, their advice is to urge farmers to buy inputs, driving them into greater debt while lowering the quality of their produce and causing greater pollution.

The underground water level dropped an average of more than 24 metres in the past 20 years due to excessive pumping. This has caused wastage and salinity in the soil, reducing the land’s fertility. The quality and quantity of agricultural production are declining.

Industrial agriculture, introduced in the late 1960s, uses inorganic materials and genetically modified seeds.

Control over seeds

Despite opposition by peasant and civil society organisations, and small farmers, the Senate approved the Seed (Amendment) Act in early 2016. The amendment means that no unregistered person, whether farmers or institutions, will be allowed to stock, sell or exchange any seeds without official permission. To do so is a crime that may be punished with fines or imprisonment.

This is in contrast to the 1976 Seed Act, which was farmer-friendly. This act made citizens sovereign over their seeds and placed responsibility for seed development registration on the public sector alone.

In contrast, the new Seed Act allows multinational corporations to produce basic seeds for multiplication and certification. Further, the corporations are now in charge of accredited seed testing laboratories.

Industrial agriculture interrupts essential natural processes that sustain soil fertility. Instead of supplementing natural ecosystem dynamics, this kind of agriculture substitutes its inputs of energy and chemicals that disrupt and/or displace biological processes.

Agricultural productivity depends fundamentally on the sustained fertility of soil systems and on the sufficiency of productive resources — land, water, labour and capital. However, there are no mechanisms for helping small farmers and peasants. They are the real losers at the hands of the corporate seed and fertiliser companies.

The situation of rural labourers is even graver than for the peasantry. More than 80% of rural workers do not own their homes. They live under a semi-feudal system that does not grant them the right to shelter.

All human settlements located on state land held by any civil and non-civil government departments or institutions remain unregistered. Government policies are designed to support landowners and those who own agricultural processing.

Peasant struggles

One of the most daring examples of peasant resistance has come from the tenants of the Okara Military Farms. They have constantly fought for their land rights over the past 18 years. However, repression against them has continued.

Most of the leaders of Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (AMP) have been in jail since 2015. The main AMP leader, Mehar Abdul Sattar, is now locked up at the high security jail at Sahiwal, known as “Pakistan’s Guantanamo Bay” and is intended to hold convicted religious terrorists.

The AMP, part of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, has been advocating land rights at the Okara Military Farms. The tenants and their ancestors have been working on these lands — which comprise about 27,500 hectares — for the past 100 years. Successive civilian governments have promised them land rights, but have been unable to fulfil these promises due to pressure from the military.

The AMP was formed in 2000 when General Pervez Musharraf’s dictatorship tried to change the status of the tenants into leasees. This was a tactic to remove them from the land over the long term. The tenants revolted and refused to pay for the share of the crop they were expected to pay.

Severe state repression was unleashed. Eleven tenants have been killed in various incidents and hundreds arrested under anti-terrorist laws. Women are at the forefront of the movement and have also been subjected to arrests and physical beatings by the police and rangers.

The task of ending feudalism and attaining rights for poor peasants can be accomplished through a class struggle by workers and peasants. Such a struggle, by overthrowing this system through a socialist revolution, can ensure the basic rights and collective ownership of the land, means of production and democratic control of the state and society by the toiling masses.

[Abridged from Asian Marxist Review. Farooq Tariq is general secretary of the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee.]

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