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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