Many years ago, during the mid-1980s, I remember a conversation with the great Urdu writer Ashfaq Ahmed. He was then the director-general of the Urdu Science Board in Lahore and had begun his journey towards religion and Sufism. I was keen to know what young people could do when public intellectual icons had sold their souls to dictatorial regimes. Perhaps I sought to understand how, intellectually, a society was prepared for greater and deeper feudalism/tribalism. What I am referring to here is a normative issue rather than a structural problem.
More recently I sat through a long monologue by a senior bureaucrat lambasting the country’s feudal culture. The crux of his argument was that this was the main problem with Pakistan’s politics. Removing landed feudals from politics and inserting educated professionals was the only recipe. Somehow, I was reminded of the conversation I had with Ashfaq Sahib. In my mind, whether we would become a better, law-abiding society through eliminating structures identified with feudalism was a moot point. Talk to many educated people in the cities and they are sure to tell you that Pakistan has not progressed because of its feudal/tribal culture.
Indeed, feudalism continues to thrive in the country if not as a mode of production then definitely as the dominant culture. However, it is vital to contextualise the debate and understand the features and dynamics of the said culture. I recall the debate that some of us had in this paper regarding feudalism. There were economists and political scientists who were of the view that feudalism was a thing of the past. Of course, this means feudalism as a mode of production. The farm sizes in Punjab are no longer what feudal landowners in this country had 50 years ago.
A glance at the data shows that the number of smaller farms (around five to 10 acres) has increased as compared to larger farms. Big land holdings, or jagirs, continue to exist only in Sindh. Despite the archaic cultural norms of denying inheritance rights to women of the family in Punjab and Sindh, farm sizes have grown relatively smaller. The main problem with the Marxian definition of feudalism is that it is confined to the concept in terms of mode of production with no attention given to the concept as a norm. This means that people with lesser acreage would continue to display the same authoritarian attitudes.
But then if we begin to look at the term in a normative fashion we would realise that the concept has evolved over the years. In fact, now the concept has taken on newer shapes and brought into its fold societal groups that were not associated with this behaviour. From a theoretical standpoint, there are those who have a problem with calling this ‘feudalism’. They believe that this can be called ‘authoritarianism’. However, the authoritarianism of the ruling elite has a specific historical context and cannot be interpreted separately from cultural norms, especially those pertaining to the power structure of the land.
This means three things. First, more than representing a mode of production the concepts of feudalism and tribalism represent a normative structure which is averse to the rule of law. Second, this particular norm is meant to facilitate a particular formula for the redistribution of resources, which, in turn, is based on the exercise of power in a certain manner. Third, this also means that other groups, which do not necessarily draw their power from land ownership and are not part of the hereditary tribalism and feudalism, could follow the norm to gain and exercise power in a certain way. This also means that those claiming to replace feudalism as a redundant and negative social norm might be following the same pattern without identifying their own behaviour as a replication of what they hope to replace.
This applies to the urban, educated upper-middle class in the country. People who belong to different professions and have risen from the lower-middle class or the middle class tend to consciously or unconsciously behave in the same manner as the traditional feudal/tribal elite. In most cases they even tend to acquire symbols of feudal/tribal power. This certainly pertains to the acquisition and management of agricultural land. Hence, the procurement of farmland in rural areas or at the periphery of big towns and cities is less about finding a post-retirement occupation and more about expressing personal power. Interestingly, we can observe senior military officers, civil bureaucrats and even professionals and entrepreneurs following this behaviour pattern.
Since the acquisition of land is linked to personal power, technological advancement in agriculture is not one of the by-products, despite the fact that it is comparatively educated people who are the new owners of land. Even individuals, who are basically the products of urban life and are exposed to the international environment, fall prey to feudalism/tribalism as a prevalent norm. Associations and groups are then formed and managed along the lines of feudal patronage as was done in the past. The military, the civil bureaucracy and political parties like the PML-N or the MQM fall into this pattern. Most recently, even professional groups like the media, lawyers and medical practitioners have shown similar tendencies. The various patronage groups are meant to provide security to their members and save them from the law and the process of accountability.
More importantly, the path for normative feudalism was prepared intellectually as well. A large portion of literature, especially in Urdu, which was read in the largest province, did not challenge the feudal authoritarianism particularly exercised by the new feudals, such as the military in power. In fact, numerous intellectuals became conduits for military regimes trading their souls for land, money or cushy positions. Some of them even manipulated religion and converted the discourse to the advantage of authoritarian military rulers. So, most tragically youngsters at that time like me saw the edifice of neo-feudalism being built through encouraging intellectual dishonesty.
The Zia years were among the darkest in our national history. Personally I saw Lahore, a city I was born and grew up in, and which was known for its intellectual shine, capitulate to dictatorial rule. Things would never be the same again. Although both civilian and military regimes in Pakistan have used religion for their power games, none can surpass the Zia years in morphing the intellectual discourse. As for my conversation with Ashfaq Ahmed, I still recall telling him about the pain of burning dreams — the only option left for youngsters fed to feudalism and militarism by pretentious intellectuals.
The writer is an independent strategic and political analyst.