Jun 092008

By Haider Nizamani

 SEVERAL writers, including myself, have argued in these pages whether or not there is ‘feudalism’ in Pakistan.
Rather than personalise the debate, I wish to make four points. Firstly, draw a difference between ‘feudalism’ as an analytical category and a metaphor.
Secondly, list some of the vernacular terms that convey more appropriately and accurately the nuanced nature of the social world of contemporary Pakistan rather than the misleading and blanket category of ‘feudalism’.

Thirdly, situate the figure of the so-called feudal lord on the continuum of ruling elites with the help of Syed Ali Mohammed Shah Rashdi and Nasim Kharal, the two men who knew a thing or two about the dynamics of power relations in Sindhi society.

Lastly, point out the contradictory logic of the argument of those analysts who are proposing the abolition of ‘feudalism’ as a necessary step towards making the changes they desire in society.

Even proponents of the view that Pakistani society is feudal acknowledge that it is mainly so in attitudes rather than in essence, and they accept that feudalism, as commonly employed by social scientists, doesn’t exist in Pakistan. In other words, they are using ‘feudalism’ more as a metaphor or an umbrella term to refer to assorted forms of power and practices as prevalent in much of rural Pakistan.

Using ‘feudalism’ as a catch-all word for all such practices may be intellectually convenient but quite misleading; therefore, I suggest and offer some examples for vernacular words commonly dumped in the ‘feudal’ bag.

‘Jagirdari nizam’ is the term that comes close to what is described as feudalism. Travel the length and breadth of today’s rural Pakistan and one would be told that jagirs and jagirdars are a thing of the past. While discussing Sindhi agrarian power relations, terms like ‘wadera’, ‘rais’ and ‘pir’ are all conveniently, but incorrectly, translated as feudal.

Being a wadera, rais or pir does not necessarily imply ownership of large tracts of land. ‘Wadero’ and ‘rais’ are honorific male titles used for Sindh’s non-Baloch and Baloch communities respectively. Thus, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi is addressed as ‘rais’ and Shah Nawaz Junejo as ‘wadero’. Their title has little to do with how much land they have as there are a number of landless men in my native village addressed as ‘wadero’ or ‘rais’ simply by virtue of their community background.

In the complex social world of the village, these people discharge many functions including serving as arbitrators in dispute-settlement processes. This is also the case with the notion of jirga in Pakhtun society. Jirga has evolved to serve as the forum of taking up concerns of a given community through collective (albeit mainly male in composition) means and is a far cry from feudalism. The dynamics that sustain the biradari system in central Punjab cannot be reduced to landlords or to the sterile and obsolete term ‘feudalism’.

Let’s turn to the introductory chapter in Pir Ali Mohammed Shah Rashdi’s book Uhay Dheenhan, Uhay Sheenhan (roughly translated “Those were the days!”) titled ‘Waderay ji Autaq’ (‘Inn of the elder’); and Nasim Kharal’s, who by some is considered the equivalent of Manto in Sindhi, short story titled Paras (a stone with the Midas touch).

One situates a Sindhi wadero on the continuum of the power bar during the colonial period and the other during the postcolonial period. Rashdi shows our over-zealous ‘feudal lord’ busy ordering people at his command to put up the best marquee for the visiting angrez bahadur (English officer) who is expected to arrive in the evening. The pomp and language of this man has the trappings of power and reveal a tint of superiority vis-à-vis neighbouring zamindars because the angrez bahadur has consented to stay overnight at our host’s.

As the day draws to a close, the waiting zamindar becomes anxious. We hear galloping horses. The excited host walks up to the horses to welcome the Englishman but is disappointed to find native functionaries of the Raj who have come to convey that the angrez bahadur had changed his plans and would not be visiting our host. The landlord is left behind literally biting the dust of the horses racing off.

Nasim Kharal’s story is set in post-1947 Sindh. A local zamindar’s son leaves his village for the city in pursuit of education. During a visit to the village, he tells his father that he has decided to marry a city girl who studies with him. The father throws a huge fit and gives a long lecture saying he can’t allow his family honour to be compromised by his son’s rash action and so forth. The story ends when in his rage the father asks the son about the profession of the girl’s father. The son in a nonchalant manner says something like ‘deputy commissioner’.

The answer drains the landlord’s anger and is followed by a question that any compassionate father would ask: “What is her name, son?” “Paras,” answers the son. “Her arrival in the family would certainly make us all gold.” That is how the father joyously approves of his son’s match.

Lastly, some among those who argue there is feudalism in Pakistan in the socio-political realm – even though the economic characteristics deeming a particular social organisation as feudal have either disappeared or are in a state of decline – also say that to put an end to feudalistic cultural and political practices the land should be expropriated from big landowners. The logic of the argument does not hold. If existing practices have little to do with the social organisation of labour and the material bases of the economy then, logically, making changes in property relations would be no guarantee that the people’s culture would change as desired by some analysts.

The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada.


Source: Daily Dawn, 9th June, 2008

 Posted by at 12:53 pm

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