Is there feudalism in Pakistan?

By: Haider Nizamani, Canada

FOR the MQM leader Altaf Hussain and Ayesha Siddiqa, ‘feudalism’ is alive and kicking in Pakistan. According to the MQM’s 2008 election manifesto “the prevalent feudal system of (sic) Pakistan is the main obstacle in the progress of the country and the prosperity of the people”.

The party would abolish ‘feudalism’ to turn Pakistan into an egalitarian society. Ayesha Siddiqa, writing in these pages on Feb 25, 2008, started on a circumspect note by acknowledging that if we use the classical features of feudalism then present-day Pakistani society cannot be called feudal. Then she asked a question and offered a categorical answer too: “But does this … mean that feudalism is no more? The answer is no.”

Why? Because, agricultural land still remains a potent symbol of power in today’s Pakistan. The urban elite’s penchant for farmhouses is mimicking landlords. Furthermore, the occupants of these farmhouses replicate “the decadent lifestyle of the old nawabs and the feudal elite” by holding “huge parties, mujrahs and … flaunting … money”.

Many members in the national and provincial legislatures have landed backgrounds. Rural Pakistan continues to languish under the yoke of ‘feudalism’. Honour killings occur there, hapless peasants are exploited by the mighty landlord. The electronic media has perpetuated this same image for years. In Punjab, it was Chaudhri Hashmat of the drama serial Waris who reigned supreme. Since land is a symbol of power and these are the kind of social practices we won’t associate with modernity, Pakistan is deemed a predominantly feudal society.

My submission is that there is no feudalism in Pakistan today because there was no feudalism even before British colonialism.

Eqbal Ahmed, also in these pages (‘Feudal culture and violence’, Feb 2, 1998) summarised it well: “Feudalism serves as the whipping boy of Pakistan’s intelligentsia. Yet, to my knowledge not one serious study exists on the nature and extent of feudal power in Pakistan, and none to my knowledge on the hegemony which feudal culture enjoys in this country.”

Observing that feudalism as an economic system was not ascendant, he referred to Karl Marx’s point that the cultural vestiges of dying systems continue long after economic collapse. Ahmed was dead right in mentioning ‘mastery over violence’ as one of the defining features of the feudal order. Rather than rigorously testing whether that was the case in Pakistan, Ahmed wandered off into discussion of various forms of violence in Pakistani society.

We, therefore, need to exercise utmost caution in naming a system on the basis of practices that could well be just the remnants of a pre-capitalist system but not necessarily the defining parameter of the existing political economy.

When the British colonised India, they took on many forms of the local aristocracy. That did not make British rule a feudal form of governance. The urbanites’ mimicry of the landed gentry’s power is neither a uniquely Pakistani trait nor a recent phenomenon. The irony of the ascendant moneyed form of power trying to copy the dying agrarian source of power is vividly portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s film Jalsaghar (‘The Music Room’) where a nouveau-riche merchant tries to adopt some aspects of an indebted landlord’s lifestyle.

The Pakistani privileged class trying to recreate the opulence of an aristocratic era is an expression of what Marx put eloquently: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” But taking mujrahs in farmhouses for feudalism in Pakistan is mistaking appearances for substance.

Feudalism, according to Simon Bromley and William Brown, can be defined “politically as a personalised and geographically decentralised system of rule, and economically as the local and coercive extraction of surplus from a dependent peasantry, the two dimensions being fused in the institution of lordship and the feudal-vassal pyramid”. By 1999, 88 per cent of cultivated land in Pakistan was in farm sizes below 12.5 acres. Just over half the total farms in 1999 were less than five acres in size. This would hardly be the hallmark of a feudal society.

More important than haggling over whether contemporary Pakistan is a feudal society or not — because it would hardly qualify as a feudal society if judged by the characteristics of the feudal society provided by leading authorities on the issue — I want to share Harbans Mukhia’s argument that there never was feudalism even in medieval India. If this assertion is taken seriously, then it means that if there was no feudalism in medieval India how could we have it in 21st century Pakistan?

Let me paraphrase Mukhia’s reasons for reaching the above conclusion. Mukhia argues that “in Europe, feudalism arose as a result of a crisis of the production relations based on slavery on the one hand and changes resulting from growing stratification among the Germanic tribes on the other”. In India “owing to the natural richness of the soil and the relatively efficient tools and techniques, agricultural productivity was high, the subsistence level of the peasant was very low — thanks to climatic conditions”. Due to the combination of the above features, the production process in India “did not create an acute scarcity of labour”, therefore “enserfment of the peasant … was hardly necessary”.

This does not mean there was no stratification and exploitation in medieval India, just as there is no denying the stratification in contemporary Pakistan’s countryside. But using feudalism as a blanket term for sundry processes in the agrarian sector and evading “critical considerations such as production processes, social organisation of labour and concrete forms of non-economic coercion” will lead to anecdotal observations or politically expedient statements passing as historical analyses.

Pakistani society is part of the world capitalist system where a major share of agricultural produce is meant for selling in the market. Additionally, there is no causal link between land ownership and political power in today’s Pakistan. The land-owning classes, especially absentee landlords, rank high in the pecking order of rural Pakistan. But that ‘rural gentry’, to use Satish Chandra’s appropriate term for the class of people popularly called ‘feudal’ in Pakistan, is a junior partner in the state where those having mastery over violence have much closer ties with metropolitan power centres like Washington and London.

Exchanges in these pages are valuable but we need to rise up to the challenge Eqbal Ahmed threw at us. Let those among us who are serious about understanding issues concerning the exercise of power in our society undertake rigorous studies on these questions. Reputable historians like Mubarak Ali and other social scientists should be invited to share their insights and arguments on whether there is ‘feudalism’ in Pakistan.

The writer teaches at the School of International Studies, Simon Fraser University, Canada. He can be reached at

Courtesy: Daily Dawn, April 30, 2008

7 thoughts on “Is there feudalism in Pakistan?”

  1. A family (of 5 members) should keep only 12.5 acres of land to their ownership. In case a family buys additional land from a Bhumidhar, the same should
    be conferred to the State Govt.

  2. WHERE ABOUTS OF FATIMA BHUTTO. ? It’s the common concern of every Pakistani that where is Fatima Bhutto now a days ? Because she is a possible leader of Pakistan. Yes, FATIMA is the only hope for Pakistan from Bhutto family- she is the real Bhutto by blood and intellect. I am a regular reader of her articles and it’s hard to believe that she can have this oservation and intellect to write these articles in a young age. Her writings are based on very facts and her concern of the welfare of masses is remarkable. But before she walks in to the real field of politics, she has a lot of challenges to face. Intellectual politician like Dr. Mubasher Hasan could be a very dependable guide but do not have enogh votes which counts in democracy and the people who have votes are not dependable at all.Let the young educated people come forward and join hand with this talented young lady who has vision and charisma to lead a nation. So please Fatima, take care of yourself first and then politics. We do not want to lose you for nothing. You can lead but lead the nation carefully and wisely. All the best, An unknown founder of PPP and a former PRO, Iranian Embassy, Saudi Arabia.

  3. Who says there is no feudal in Pakistan. Rural Pakistan is control by the feudal, even in urban areas one can see the people who work hard and other exploit the situation and make money in the name of religion or family lands. Our ruling class of so called politicians is from feudal and then industrialist follow them for power in authoritarian society. Law making body-the Majlish Shora, parliament -the senate , national assembly, provincial assembly and district council , every where the members are feudal, indusrialists, drug barons and /or Rtd. corrupt police officers with few Rtd, army officers as well. The writer of the this article and a leading scholar Dr. Aisha Siddiqa is also from feudal class with extra ordinary intelligence. I agree with some people that one should do some thing instead of suggestions. I have done some thing by leaving my home land as it’s hopeless there; unless there is rule of law not the law of ruler and we should follow the rule accordingly. Very simple law of inheritance can change our country’s future. What ever law we follow, Islamic or British- Muslim personal law, the property should be divided accordingly after the death of a person in a reasonable time but what happen in our country- this is the basic problem. If division of property is done by the law, there will be no feudal and if there is no feudal: the country will flourish. See rest of the world specially the developed world where majority people from under developed countries want to come. All the best for the rest of the people all over the world.
    KHWAJA AFTAB ALI, Advocate &
    I.P. Attorney in Pakistan, presently living in Florida, USA

  4. Feudalism is not leaving Pakistan irrespective of the Tall Promises made in many a manifesto. The sad fact is that the lure of power is so great that leaving aside the claims in manifesto and the principles MQM is based on this dynamic urban party has desperately jumped on the power bandwagon and tied the knot with PPP that won on a very wide feudal wicket with a large amount of its votes coming from the rural areas of Pakistan and then to show its true colours it gave wholehearted support to PPP’s PM candidate Yousaf R Gillanni, Speaker and Dp Speaker and subsequently the CM and rest in Sindh.

    This ulti qalabazi by MQM is hard to understand and perhaps not so difficult to understand at the same time. It all ends up on Bandar Baat of MINISTRIES. Sooner or later MQM will join in Centre to fill vacume left by PML N and then one will be entertained by the likes of Babar Gujjar Gauri , Jam Adil Siddiqui etc.

    MQM has a lot of potential and some verey promising faces that need to come forward and claim thier rightful place from the Lucha Lafangas that have permeated its leadership and made it a source of Aurhna Bichona.

    Honorably the MQM could have been part of coalition without accepting Ministries and this would have eradicated most of the Khanchadar and Jugaroo tabqa in MQM and would only have left the Mukhlas and Honest members and workers in the party. The other honorable option was to sit in opposition and as promised earlier by Bhai (Altaf Hussain) to give unconditional and whole hearted support to PPP in both NA & PA.

    Feudalism was abolished in India in 1949 with a stroke of pen that had the backing of the entire Congress which had the mandate from all over India and then there was sincerity of action not just few tall claims in manifesto.

    Jin ko Ministriyoun Ka Chaska Lag Jayee Woh Bhala Kia Khak Kam Karain Gay

    Aray Yeh Tou Luchay Lafangay Hain Hamaree Party Ko Badnam Karain Gay

  5. “But taking mujrahs in farmhouses for feudalism in Pakistan is mistaking appearances for substance.”

    I missed the above in first reading, but, I mean, say what?

    I don’t know where Mr. Nizamani hails from and what education level he may have, but since the article was published by Dawn, I know that he article was published because he knew someone at Dawn. Dawn never publishes articles which are seriously critical of Army and feudal elite. The newspaper is for “intellectual” entertainment.

    The enlightened citizens of Karachi don’t give hoot about how many mujrahs these people may be watching. What we don’t want is the loot of the city, and harassment of its citizens, by the feudal and Army collaborators. The comprehensive solution is to get rid of feudalism from the Pakistan so that the rest of the population of Pakistan can enjoy civic life like Karachiites enjoy when they are not harassed by the feudal and Army backed mafias.

    One does not need to go to a farm house to see a mujrah. All kinds silly mujrahs exist on You Tube.

  6. Now, the real question is: Is there “Intelligentsia” in Pakistan?

    The question is a big NO.

    The true Intelligentsia CANNOT prevail in any geography where fear of persecution exists, whether it is in the guise of treason or blasphemy.

    Pakistan has intellectual masturbators of ArmyIntelligentsia, Punjab-entsia, Bigot-entsia, Mullah-entsia, etc., kinds, but no Intelligentsia.

  7. Pakistan is a cross between a feudalism and military dictatorship. The rural land is organized as feudal fiefdoms and the urban land is organized as Army contonmentdoms.

    Questioning the existence of feudalism in Pakistan is tantamount to asking, “Is there air in Pakistan?”

    The feudal corruption is based on non-development. A feudal must stun development in order to continue his rule. An interesting phenomenon exists in Pakistan, that is, smart feudal have found use for their local troublemakers. They send them to Karachi to fight “Indian agents”, that is Mohajirs.

    “Intellectuals” like Ayesha Siddiqa will have to stop wagging their tails by talking about Army corruption which definitely exists but is not as bad as the feudal corruption.

    Army must carry out development, regardless of how corrupt that process is. That generates products and employment for significant number of people.

    The question people should be asking is, “Who is the most capable of getting rid of the feudalism in Pakistan?”

    The answer is: The MQM and the Army.

    MQM has been doing whatever it can, in its civilian capacity, to eradicate feudalism. It will need the Army to kill the beast of feudalism, once for all.

    Is the Army ready?

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