Monday, October 18, 2010

The Debate on Feudalism

In the past few months there have been a lot of comments about feudalism in Pakistan. The general drift of the argument presented by many is that feudalism does not exist in the country any more.
There are others who argue that given the rise of capitalism in the country, feudalism is no longer a problem or a prevalent institution. So, have we now rid ourselves of the menace?
A couple of days ago, I had a chance to watch an old recording of a programme in which Makhdoom Amin Fahim of Hala talked to the famous Begum Nawazish Ali and claimed that feudalism in Pakistan was a thing of the past. He had a point, especially if we look at the concept from the perspective of the historical and textbook definition of the term. The term was first used in the 16th century referring to an institution which was distinguishable due to three elements: (a) the feudal lord, (b) the vassal and (c) fiefs.

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The feudal lord exercised power based on land which he would grant to the vassal who, in turn, would pay a certain amount to the lord or serve in his military force. Here was an issue of concentration of power, capital and labour. The lord of the manor had the power and the capital in the form of land and was also the master of the people who served under him. The vassal entered into a contract with the lord to serve in his military and pay dues in exchange for the latter’s patronage. The term itself was coined by 16th century British and French lawyers to describe certain traditions and norms which prevailed amongst the aristocracy.
From this perspective, the term cannot be used in Pakistan. Landholdings in most of the country are no longer what they used to be before the country came into being in 1947. The landholding in Punjab, for example, is much smaller than what one would find in some parts of Sindh or Balochistan. Again, most land owners do not maintain private armies. Neither do they have vassals who would fight wars for them.
In any case, according to Akbar Zaidi’s research, the larger landholdings have shrunk. For instance, in 1939, 2.4 per cent owners controlled 38 per cent of the agricultural land which changed later. Between 1950-55, 1.1 per cent owners controlled 15.8 per cent of land with farm sizes varying from 100 to 500 acres; 0.1 per cent of landlords owned 15.4 per cent land with a farm size of 500 acres and above. This seems to have changed within years, with farm sizes being reduced. This development is attributable to problematic land reforms and laws of inheritance which distributed land.
Another important development relates to the fact that most major landowners have become industrialists or successful entrepreneurs. They no longer have private armies. Instead, they run large industrial units such as sugar, ginning and textile mills. But does this data mean that feudalism is no more? The answer is no. In fact, the issue is that as the institution of feudalism was diluted it led to two separate but interdependent developments.
First, the landlords diversified in terms of their capital-generating capabilities and became industrialists and entrepreneurs. The logic was that since agriculture did not ensure greater profit margins, business and industry were selected as the new course. These big landlords also had the advantage of being in politics which was essential for negotiating loans and manipulating the state bureaucracy.
So, in this respect the feudal landlord diversified the source of capital formation. He either did it himself or in partnership with other elites. The land was not just an asset but it also became a source to provide the collateral against which loans were obtained from banks.
However, land continued to have its symbolic worth in the form of expression of power. Resultantly, other elite groups also started to mimic the landowning class and began acquiring land. The wonderful farmhouses around Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore are not just an expression of individual economic strength but a symbol of the political influence of an individual as part of the extended elite.
Hence, it is not surprising that other elite groups such as those comprising industrialists, generals, senior bureaucrats and educated professionals who acquired capital were inclined to buy farmland. During the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s, the elite of the civil and military bureaucracy were not interested in retaining or exercising control of the agricultural land which they got from the government. Most would either sell the land to local landowners or neglect it.
After the 1980s, especially after the value of land increased and the bureaucracy started to institutionalise its role in the state, the owners became interested in actively becoming farmers. Those who had the institutional support used it in one form or the other to establish better control. Thus, a new class of agriculturists was born. It had no links with the soil but willingly became an influential factor in far-flung areas.
Many generals and senior bureaucrats, for instance, became numberdars of their villages. While they were not performing the role of collecting taxes, which a numberdar is supposed to do, they enjoyed the authority which comes with the office.
Land ownership also had an impact on elite culture and ethos. The culture of farmhouses was not about having large houses but in many ways replicating the decadent lifestyle of the old nawabs and the feudal elite. For instance, the huge parties, mujrahs and the flaunting of money which takes place in these new settlements reflected the desire of the inhabitants for copying the traditional landowning elite. They were not rejecting a redundant culture but accepting it as a superior norm. The culture also portrayed a negative development.
Second, the new economic groups and non-landowning elite acquired the attitudes of landowning feudals in the form of the exercise of authority. In a traditional feudal culture, there is an essential relationship between the lord of the manor and the vassals.
In modern terms, the new elite started to behave like the lord of the manor with those in subordinate positions being treated as vassals or minions. There was, hence, the proliferation of a certain kind of attitude which permeated different vocational groups. As long as an elite group dominated an organisation or profession, the attitude could be replicated. New feudals were created from amongst the entrepreneurs, industrialists, the military and civil bureaucracy and professional groups. The late Hamza Alavi defined the professional group as part of the Muslim ashraf (elite) of pre-Partition India.
These new groups also represented the diversification of methods of capital formation which was no longer tied to agriculture. However, such diversification did not necessarily create a capitalist society but resulted in a hybrid form of feudalism which one could categorise as pre-capitalism in which the seeds of capitalism were sown in a solid base of feudalism.
The results have been damning. The feudal attitude and the culture of power have proliferated and entered all institutions. The key, of course, is the concentration of power and the subservience of groups of people under a central authority. Resultantly, the MQM is as feudal as the lord of the manor who operates from interior Sindh or other parts of the country.

Source: DAWN

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Software Industry Overview in Pakistan

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The burka debate

NOW a draft bill is under consideration in the French parlia ment to impose a fine of 700 euros on any woman wearing a burka covering her whole body in any public place, and her husband twice as much if he forces her to wear the burka.

This is for the first time that women would be penalised for wearing the burka. Earlier France banned Muslim girls from wearing the hijab in schools. It argued that these religious symbols interfered with the state’s commitment to secularism and the French culture. In fact nothing happens without political ideology behind it. This measure is being championed by rightwing politicians who are exploiting anti-Islam feelings in France among a section of the people under the cover of secularism.

However socialists are opposed to any ban on the burka though they are not in favour of women wearing the burka. They feel women should be discouraged rather than banning the burka (which includes covering the face). Socialist spokesman Benoit Hamon announced that wearing the burka was not desirable but he did not favour a ban which would amount to an inconsistent ad hoc measure. “We are totally opposed to the burka. The burka is a prison for women and has no place in the French Republic,” he said. “But an ad hoc law would not have the anticipated effect.” The stand taken by the socialists appears to be quite logical. One cannot stop women from wearing the burka through a ban. It is quite undemocratic to punish one for wearing a certain type of dress. It is anti-democratic and anti-secular for a multicultural society. Let it be very clear that to cover the entire body, including the face, is not necessarily an Islamic way.

The Al-Azhar in Cairo has banned such a cover under an Islamic edict.

The ulema hold different views on the subject. A majority of them hold that covering the face and hands is not prescribed by the Quran or Sunnah. Only very few theologians and jurists want women to be fully covered. To compel women to so cover their bodies and face is indeed against women’s rights and dignity.

And a woman should be a free agent to decide for herself what to wear within decent limits and the cultural ethos.

However, this freedom also includes the right of women to cover their face, if they so desire and if they think it is a requirement of their religion. When I was lecturing at Bukhara University in a class of women students all of whom were wearing skirts with their heads uncovered, two women came fully covered including their faces. All other women demanded that these two burka-clad women be thrown out.

I told them to imagine that the burka-clad women were in a majority and two women had come wearing skirts with their heads uncovered, and the majority of the burka-clad women had demanded that those two women be thrown out — how would they feel? I, therefore, argued against getting violent just because someone dresses unlike us. We should have a dialogue with them and persuade them, if we can.

There could be a number of reasons why one prefers to wear a certain kind of dress. Maybe there is coercion by parents or husband which is undesirable. Or maybe one thinks it is a religious requirement or one tries to assert one’s right. Or maybe one is trying to fight cultural alienation. Certain dresses also become identity markers. Many Muslims who migrate from Asia and Africa experience a cultural shock when they see French or other European women wearing scanty dresses like bikinis. Thus they feel all the more compelled to wear their traditional dress.

Also, in France and several other European countries migrants are marginalised and feel alienated which pushes them into practising their own cultural norms. And then it is also to be remembered that all Muslim women in France do not wear such dress covering themselves fully. In fact many Muslim women have integrated themselves in French society by taking to western dressing.

A ban will only build up resistance among traditional Muslim women and they would try to defy the law resulting in social tension. It would be far better to resort to persuasive ways to discourage the more traditional women from wearing the all-covering burka.

Persuasion alone will not work unless backed by other measures, economic as well as social, to fight the alienation of religious and cultural minorities.

Thus, one needs multi-pronged measures to contain this problem. The Muslim ulema and intellectuals living in France also have to adopt creative ways to interpret Islamic traditional sources to address emerging conditions. It is necessary to revisit traditional sources which were rooted in a medieval, tribal/feudal culture.

Source: DAWN

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Cellphone revolution

IN the early hours of New Year’s Day 1985, Michael Harrison phoned his father, Sir Ernest, to wish him a happy new year. There may appear nothing remarkable in such a filial affection, but Sir Ernest was chairman of Racal Electronics and his son was making the first-ever mobile (cell) phone call in Britain, using the network built by its newest investment.
Later that morning, comedian Ernie Wise made a very public mobile phone call from St Katharine Docks, east London, to announce the very same network was now open for business. At the time, mobile phones were barely portable, weighing in at almost a kilogram, costing several thousand pounds and, in some cases, with little more than 20 minutes talktime.
The networks themselves were small; Vodafone had a dozen masts covering London and west along the M4 motorway corridor while Cellnet launched with a single mast, stuck on the BT Tower. Neither company had any inkling of the huge potential of wireless communications and the dramatic impact mobile phones would have on society over the next quarter century.

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The first generation of handsets quickly became synon ymous with the yuppie excesses of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain in the mid-1980s. But hardly anyone believed mobile phones would be so popular that there would be more phones in the UK than there are people.
For the first decade the predictions that mobile communications would not be mass market seemed correct. “In 1995, 10 years into the history of mobile phones, penetration in the UK was just seven per cent,” according to Professor Nigel Linge, of the Computer Networking and Telecommunications Research Centre, at the University of Salford, England. “In 1998, it was about 25 per cent, but by 1999, it was 46 per cent, that was the tipping point. In 1999, one mobile phone was sold in the UK every four seconds.” By 2004, mobile phones in Britain reached a penetration level of more than 100 per cent. The boom was a consequence of increased competition which pushed prices lower.
The industry has spent the later part of the past decade trying to persuade people to do more with their phones than just call and text, culminating in the fight between the iPhone and a succession of touchscreen rivals — soon to include Google’s Nexus One. ¦ — The Guardian, London

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