The eclipse of feudalism in Pakistan
By Arif Hasan
16 November 2012
Rural Pakistan has been transformed over the last half-century, the people are more free; but the old values continue to extract a toll.
Feudalism was an integral part of the colonial system in what is today Pakistan. To understand the changing inter-community relations in Pakistan today, we must look at how the inherited colonial system has evolved. Every Pakistani will tell you how wonderful Pakistan used to be, what a peaceful country it was, with law and order and low levels of violence. And they tend to blame all that has gone wrong in Pakistan on the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. But that is only part of the truth. In my city, Karachi, anyone my age will similarly tell you how wonderful Karachi used to be – there were discotheques and night clubs, there was drama, and film festivals. Certainly we had all that, but when you really come to think of it, the calm that we enjoyed was really like the peace of the dead. It was a kind of peace made possible by the feudal system.
Let me introduce that feudal system through a story. In 1968, I was traveling in rural Sindh with a French diplomat, from a place called Sakht to Mohenjodaro. The road meant for vehicles was so bad that drivers preferred to travel along a canal embankment. We came upon a bullock cart, and my friend jumped out with his camera to take a picture. As the cart stopped, one of its two occupants, a young man, made off into the fields. His older companion came up, touched my feet, and said, “Sahib, please forgive us, we will never come in front of your car again.” This was in 1968, and that was the mindset of the villagers when they saw what they perceived to be a person of authority. Today, the highway from Sakht to Mohenjodaro is teeming with vehicles, but there is not a bullock cart in sight. And nobody will come to touch your feet and seek forgiveness for having come in front of your car. There are about 30 buses that ply between the two towns every day.
What was this system that made people touch your feet that late in the 20th century? And what has pushed the transformation in social relations? An explanation would help in the understanding of present-day Pakistan.
Sociology of Pakistan
The old society in the rural areas at the time of Partition was a caste society. You had basically three castes according to economic divisions: the landlords, artisans, and what are called the kami, or the ‘lesser’ castes. Before the arrival of the British colonials, this region actually did not have landlords. Land belonged to the chieftain, who appointed mansabdars to collect revenue from designated areas, and they were evaluated every year.
The British changed the revenue system. After their conquest, they converted all the pro-British mansabdars into hereditary landlords. This changed the earlier feudal system into one that was controlled by a network of landlords, and the peasants became serfs. This was a major departure, and under the British there developed a nexus between the bureaucracy, the deputy commissioner and the landlords. Governance was handed over to the landlords, who settled disputes, kept law and order, financed agricultural production, and maintained the rural infrastructure, including getting the peasantry to de-silt canals. The deputy commissioner would order the landlord to carry out the de-silting, and the latter would supply the labour, providing only rations (langar). Thus, it was done for free as far as the government was concerned. So the landlords maintained law and order, they financed agricultural production, they maintained the agricultural infrastructure, and they were subservient to the deputy commissioner.
The caste system was collapsing when the British came because of the rise of entrepreneurship. But with the feudal system that the British created, they re-enforced the caste system, and they re-enforced the castes as well. The classification of castes for the first time in India was done by the British. So you had agricultural castes, you had artisan castes, you had the merchant castes, and this was very rigid. This was our feudal system. Because of this feudal system, we could have wonderfully liberal constitutions, because the feudal vote would make those constitutions incorrigible. We would have military dictatorships because the feudals would support the dictatorships.
Understanding how this system of local governance and control has changed will allow us to analyse the eclipse of feudalism in Pakistan. Some transformation was already happening in the late 19th and early 20th century because of education, but the real push came with Partition. Indeed, I refer to ‘Partition’ rather than ‘Independence’ because it was the division of the Subcontinent that was the harbinger of change within what became Pakistan.
What had happened? According to the 1951 census of Pakistan, 48 percent of the urban population had origins in India, and for the whole population that figure was 17 percent. This massive influx affected the sociology of Pakistan, even as the migrants settled in the Punjab and Sindh; cities like Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad and others saw their populations more than double within half a decade. This was the beginning of the collapse of the caste system.
Another anecdote will help explain the change in social relations. In the mid-1990s, in a hamlet near Faisalabad, I asked a village elder how the political situation was in Punjab.
“Afra tafri,” he responded, meaning chaos and anarchy.
“How is there anarchy?”
He replied, “The daughter of the washerman has just married an agriculturalist.”
“But how has this happened?”
He said, “It’s all because of the refugees.”
“How is it because of the refugees?”
And he said, “They lost their caste by coming here. They lost their profession. The chamars [tanners] became agriculturalists, the agriculturalists became merchants, and the whole society was destroyed.”
“But that’s about the people who came! What about the people who are living here?”
He replied, “Kharbuja kharbhuje ko dekh kar rang badalta hain.” A melon changes colour just looking at the next melon, and the bad melons have been able to infect all the others.
I will tell you another story, because it makes it easier to explain. This is in another village, a rather backward area of southern Punjab province. I asked a village elder, “Do you still decide disputes?”
He replied, “Yes, I do!”
“That means you are a bigger leader than the MLAs and MPs, because they cannot take such decisions.”
Addressing me – a much younger man – as ‘Kakke’ in Punjabi, he said, “You don’t understand anything. If I give a judgement in favour of one side, they bring me sweets. Those that I decide against file a FIR and go to the courts!”
This transformation was the result of migration. A PhD student of mine studied two mohallas of Lahore, one where the Hindus had left and Muslims had come and settled, and the other which had not seen such a drastic demographic change. In the latter neighbourhood, you had a panchayat with its old system of maintaining community relations through caste. The mohalla with the new Muslim arrivals had no caste system.
Besides Partition, the other great force that shifted local governance structures was the Green Revolution. After the 1950s, the introduction of new technologies brought not only wheat and rice, but also fertilisers, pesticides, pumps, tractors, harvesters, tube wells and piped-water schemes. The rural economy was pushed into a whole new dimension, which finished off whatever remnants of the caste relationships had survived.
The agricultural planners of the newborn country pushed both irrigation and mechanisation. To use the new technology, you needed money. This required loans and other transactions, and so a whole set of financial institutions grew up to provide services, including cooperative banks and agricultural banks. Cash finally replaced barter, but then it was pumped back into industrialisation and for the first time village self-sufficiency was lost. Under the old system, it was the sunar [goldsmith] who would pawn the gold, cut it into pieces depending on who owns how much and how much credit he needs. All this was replaced by cheques and bonds.
Industrially manufactured goods arrived in the village. So the cobbler lost his calling as footwear came from the city; the weaver lost his profession with cloth coming from the factories; the potter became an anachronism as plastic and aluminium replaced mud. The piped water schemes made the water carriers redundant, as they did the animals which carried the water. For this and other reasons, we saw the disappearance of donkeys and camels. The horses disappeared completely. I have often wondered where these animals went.
Then another player entered the equation at the village level – the middleman. Formal credit was very difficult for small farmers to access, and the middlemen slipped in to fill the gap, creating a new layer in the rural economy. When local body elections were organised under Zia ul-Haq, these middlemen ran for office and beat the feudal candidates. Partition, the Green Revolution, mechanisation, financing – these were all harbingers of shifts in rural livelihoods which we hardly sought to document or understand as they occurred. Personally, I sought to do so through my work, The Unplanned Revolution. The scale of transformation was enormous, and by the 1970s the whole system of feudal relationships in rural Pakistan had collapsed.
It was not long before an even more transformative revolution took place, and that was the introduction of the Suzuki pickup. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto decided to give new loans for rural transport. Before long, Suzuki pickups were carrying agricultural products. This is how the bullock carts and the camel caravans were replaced by mechanised transport. With this, all of a sudden, the small market towns vanished, since the Suzuki could cover longer distances. Together with this, the power of the landlord to control the market also disappeared, and the keys went into the hands of the middleman and transporter.
A new game entered the rural marketplace as the middleman-transporter nexus developed. It made it impossible for the peasant or the landlord to enter the mandi, or marketplace. It was no longer possible for a landlord to simply place his produce in a van and take it to market. It would not be allowed to enter. The goods had to arrive through the transporter, who was linked to the middleman.
Then there was another factor at work – urbanisation. In the study of censuses, the most important age group in society is that between 15 and 24. In the 1981 census, in the data for Karachi, we noted that 39 percent of women in this age bracket were married, as were 16 percent of the men. Today, the figure for married women in this bracket is less than 20 percent, and for married men 7 percent. For the first time in the history of our city, we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents. For this same 15-24 age group in Karachi, 67 percent of the men were literate in 1981, as were 63 percent of the women. Today, we have 84 percent literacy among men and 85 percent literacy among women.
As any sociologist will tell you, this data indicates the possibility of great shifts in family structures. All my studies show that the extended family, which has been under enormous pressure over the decades, has been dying a slow death. By now, 89 percent of the households of Karachi are made up of nuclear families, whereas in 1989 it was 58 percent. This is not only an indication of a great demographic shift, it is also indicates a crisis of values.
Women of Karachi
In recent years, you will have heard of a lot of honour killings in Pakistan, and they have been blamed on the Taliban. I would like to present my case through another anecdote. In 1983, I worked in a taluka in rural Sindh, a province that had suffered under the Pakistan Army because of the movement for democracy. I had not returned to the district since, but read in a newspaper report in 2006 that honour killings were taking place there with regularity. So I went over to study the phenomenon.
I asked an elder from the taluka whom I had met in 1983, now much older, “Sahib, did you have honour killings before?”
He said, “Yes, we used to have one in perhaps ten years. It was a rare occurrence, and we would discuss one for ten years until another happened.”
“Then why it is happening now with such regularity?”
He said, “Now, everyone has become shameless, without honour, so honour killings are taking place.”
I asked, “Why is there no honour today?”
He responded, “The young people, they’ve gone to the city, and they’ve done all the wrong things. The girls have learned how to read and write, they’ve gone to school, some of them have gone to university as well. They have no morals left, so this is bound to happen.”
“You mean this is going to continue like this forever?”
“No, no, it will stop!”
“How and when will it stop?”
His reply was educative: “The honour killings will stop when everyone becomes shameless, then it will end.” Then he added, “But I hope that I die before that day.”
He was a man of the old, feudal rural culture, with its own pattern of behaviour and way of thinking. He was part of it, and it was dying, so he wished to die with it.
In 1992, the applications for court marriages in Karachi amounted to about 10 or 15, mainly applications from couples who were seeking the protection of the court for wedlock without familial consent. By 2006, we were seeing more than 250 applications for court marriages per day in Karachi. Significantly, more than half of the couples seeking court recognition of their betrothal came from rural areas of Sindh. This is yet another indication of how the entire feudal system and its values are in rapid collapse.
- This collapse is also heralded by the advances in women’s education. According to 2006 figures, fully 72 percent of the University of Karachi student body is today female. Among medical students, 87 percent are women, and the figure for architecture and planning is as high as 92 percent. In fact, our vice chancellor was so concerned that he suggested a quota for men. I used to teach a class with one boy and 15 girls. That has changed a little now as we have tried to even it out. But the reason is simply that women do better on the entrance tests. There’s no other reason for it.
In 1971, I started working in low-income settlements in Karachi, and a decade later I joined the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). The settlements that we worked in at that time were primarily working-class, and when we went over we were met by older men who were mostly illiterate. They spoke to us in very formal, feudal language – janaab, huzoor, sahib, miyan, “We are all your children and need your protection,” and all that. At that time, in the 1980s, the women hardly worked. Things are entirely different when you go to the OPP today; it’s not what you would call a shanty settlement. It’s mostly the younger generation who will meet you, and they will address you as ‘uncle’ rather than ‘sahib’. The people you meet are bank managers, school teachers, professionals working in the service sector of Karachi.
The additional phenomenon of the past decade has been the growing anarchy linked to the Afghan war, and the further demise of feudal institutions. Spending a week in northern Sindh earlier this year, I was struck by three elements. Firstly, I noticed the immense physical mobility women have gained from the end of feudalism. Nothing can control them or contain them anymore. Secondly, there are protests against the excesses both of the landlords and of the establishment. If the landlord has been harsh, or if the state has not delivered on some demand, the men come out and block the highway. Often it is women who carry out the blockade because the police action against them is not so harsh. Thirdly, the nature of landlord-ship has changed. The landlord is now married to a modern, urban woman, and that heralds significant shifts. When I asked villagers about the difference between the old landlords and the new, the reply was, “The young landlord has married into the city and stays in Karachi. His children never come here either, so we are alright.” The result is that sharecropping has given way to contracting, and this has transformed the society of rural Sindh.
Afghan warPakistani society continues in its state of flux, and the Afghan war has escalated this. The normal evolution of society has been stopped by the militancy in Pakistan linked to the war in Afghanistan. If you remove these militants – which you won’t, by the way – then a whole new world emerges in Pakistan, a transformation in a society trying to define itself. The recent shooting of Malala Yusufzhai has shown what Pakistani society really feels and how it thinks on issues. For the first time the Pakistani establishment – the army as well as the three major political parties – have all condemned the Taliban for the shooting. The people have spoken in the huge rallies, in Karachi and elsewhere. Earlier, this never happened because people were scared of being shot, kidnapped, and having bombs thrown at them. This is the first time that there has been such a huge public outpouring.
But even as people find a voice, we do need the inculcation of new societal values. The problem is, how do you promote these values and through whom? It is too much to ask media, and academia is busy in consultancies for the donor institutions. The literature is all about the struggle between fundamentalism and liberalism, but that is not where the problem lies. The challenge is for Pakistani society to consolidate itself in the post-feudal era. The society has freed itself from the shackles of feudalism, but our values still remain very much the same. There are very big changes that are taking place – how do you support them, how do you institutionalise them, how do you give the people a voice? I leave you with these questions, rather than try and provide the answers.***This article is a summarised version of a presentation made by Arif Hasan in Kathmandu on 15 October 2012, organised by Himal Southasian.
~ Arif Hasan is an award-winning architect, urban planner, social researcher, teacher and writer. He has been involved with the Orangi Pilot Project since its inception in 1982, and has been founding Chairman of the Urban Resource Centre.