In a debate article in the Dawn of April 30, 2008, Haider Nizamani seeks to dispel the widely held view that feudalism exists in Pakistan. His asserts that feudalism never existed in South Asia. To consider honour killings and exploitation of peasants by mighty landlords as indicative of feudalism he finds untenable because according to him, by 1999, 88 percent of cultivated land in Pakistan was in farm sizes below 12.5 acres. Just over half the total farms were less than five acres in size. “This would hardly be the hallmark of a feudal society,” he asserts.
This economistic argument is a legitimate one, but too narrow, mechanical and formalistic, because it presupposes that if the economic base changes cultural and ideological changes follow suit. In reality there is never a perfect fit between a mode of production and cultural and ideological forms, otherwise the thoroughly capitalised economies of the Middle East would have no place for tribal norms and behaviour patterns. Marx was acutely aware of the far more complex relationship between the economic base and the superstructure. He famously observed that Christian theology remained the reigning ideology much after classical feudalism had disintegrated and dissolved.
Classical feudalism emerged in Western Europe when the old city-based high cultures of the Greeks and the Romans disintegrated and the locus of social activity moved into local units headed by tiered nobility, which controlled their serfs through a range of economic and extra-economic coercions. The feudal vassals, in turn, rendered services to the superior lords, and that chain of services finally connected to the king, who was named as the “first among the lords.” He claimed a tribute or levy from the lesser nobles, who also provided him with soldiers.
The above description is, of course, an ideal one in the tradition of Max Weber. In reality no two feudalisms anywhere in Europe were the same, except in the essential sense of an agrarian economy providing much of the surplus, as well as the soldiers upon which the ruling classes built their leisured lifestyle.
Christian theology justified social hierarchy, and people knew their place in society – the rule was that the superiors were chosen by God and obeying them was a duty and obligation. Professions and roles in society were inherited from father to son. Feudal society was fatalistic, superstitious and static in relative terms.
Now, in the case of South Asia, striking parallels can be found in the power structure that prevailed during the pre-colonial period. A maharaja or emperor at the apex of that order received tribute from a descending but segmented hierarchy comprising smaller rajas and nawabs, mansabdars and zamindars and village headmen. They also provided him with soldiers.
The incumbents of land grants under the mansabdari system (military-feudal order) held their fiefs during the pleasure of the emperor. Original rights to a fief were largely absent and the king could in principle expropriate an incumbent at any time. That is why Indian feudalism was more of an oriental despotism because in Western feudalism even absolute kings were in principle bound by the law. The mansabdars ruthlessly exploited the peasants and the other agrarian workforce to extract as much wealth as possible before their estate was taken away from them. When the Mogul Empire weakened and the hold of the central government loosened, the lesser rajas and nawabs asserted their independence, while the mansabdars became hereditary owners of their estates.
The caste system and the elitist Islam of the Muslim ruling class – both sanctioned strict hierarchy. The Muslim ruling class, comprising descendants of Turkish, Afghan, Persian and Arabic origin, until the 19th century did not start associating with the bulk of the local converts. The threat they perceived from the rising Hindu middle class that had taken to education, trade and commerce, forced them to evolve the novel idea of a Muslim nation comprising all Muslims.
The British perpetuated the dependency of princes, nawabs, rajas and so on, on the colonial state, but with ample latitude to continue to exploit the peasants, artisans and other poor working on their estates. In fact the British most skilfully used land grants to create landlords that would see to it that protests and rebellion among the people in their areas of influence were effectively crushed.
At the same time, with regard to Punjab and the NWFP the landlords compelled their peasants to join the British Indian Army. With the exception of Pir Sabghatullah Pagaro and some others from Sindh, almost all other pirs (spiritual leaders) were solid supporters of the British Raj.
Sindhi, Punjabi and Pakhtun Muslims lagged behind the Hindus and Sikhs because while the latter opened schools the Muslim landlords did not allow schools to be be established in their domains. Ayub Khuhro and many other Sindhi leaders were educated in schools established by Hindus. In the late 1960s, when I was associated with the Mazdoor-Kissan Party of Major Ishaq, some of our comrades tried to provide free literacy classes to peasants in the stronghold of the Mazaris and Legharis in southern Punjab. They were harassed out of those areas.
The land reforms introduced by Ayub Khan and followed by a series of radical land reforms by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto weakened that class but did not abolish it. Even now in southern Punjab and interior Sindh that decadent class exercises considerable political clout and upholds a culture that is oppressive of women, and the poor in general.
I was horrified when a landlord told me some years ago that all the young women that came to work on his farm had to provide him with sexual gratification, otherwise they would not be employed. Bonded labour still exists, notwithstanding a ban imposed on it by the Supreme Court.
Feudalism in the strict Western sense may never have existed, but its subcontinental forms during the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial periods were no less harsh and oppressive. Pakistani feudalism may now be in its death throes, but that is no reason to exonerate it from continuing to wreck the lives of vast numbers of the rural poor in this region of peripheral capitalism.
As a cultural and ideological system Pakistani feudalism is a bastion of conservative values and moribund ideas. The sooner its remaining vestiges are abolished and a healthy class of peasant proprietors is created, the better it would be for all of us. In the years ahead we would need to radically modernise our agricultural sector so that a smaller number of farmers can produce many times more the food we will need.
The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Email: email@example.com
Source: The News, 10/5/2008