A leaf from history: Shikargahs and waqf holdings
Bhutto was well aware of the power the landed aristocracy wielded in politics. Landlords and feudal lords joined politics to protect their ‘rights’. Although Ayub Khan did not discuss even the preliminaries of Land Reforms with him, Bhutto had intended to raise the standard of living of the peasants and landless tillers. It was his main constituency. He was honest in his intention, but there were many impediments he could foresee. He appeared prepared to face them.
In his first speech announcing Land Reforms on March 1, 1972, he made his decision very explicit. “All state lands will be reserved exclusively for landless tenants and owners of below subsistence holding, preferably in the same deh, or village in which the land is located.
Arbitrary or capricious evictions shall stop forthwith. In future, evictions will be allowed only if the tenant fails to pay the batai share or rent or meet the requirements of cultivation.”
In his decision he announced many benefits for the peasants. “The liability of payment of water rate shall be shifted from the tenants to the landowner throughout the country. Moreover, all agricultural taxes shall hereafter be paid exclusively by the landowner. Similarly, the present practice of tenant meeting the cost of seed shall cease and in future the landowners will be responsible for providing and paying for the seed. The cost of the remaining inputs shall be shared equally by the landowner and the tenant.”
He lowered the ceiling of irrigated land from 500 acres to 150 acres and of un-irrigated land from 1,000 acres to 300 acres. Although all shikargahs, stud farms and livestock farms were ordered to be taken over by the government and distributed among the tillers, a clause was added sparing historical shikargahs. A Martial Law Regulation No 115 was promulgated on March 11, 1972 repealing Ayub Khan’s MLR 64 and implementing the new reforms.
However, the bureaucracy knew how to escape the applications of law. They applied the 150 acres of land rule to individual landlords, not the entire family. Moreover, in case of a tube well or tractor, the owner was allowed extra land equivalent to 3,000 produce units.
Historical shikagahs were exempt from being reallocated to peasants. This provided refuge to a number of landlords associated with the party who till now retain shikargahs. The concession on tube well and tractor ownership also benefited a number of landlords.
“I know the power of the landed aristocracy, the overriding authority of the tribal sardars, waderas and maliks. They will stop at nothing to frustrate and circumvent these land reforms. Let me declare that this will not be permitted,” Bhutto sent a word of warning assuming that this would make the agrarian economy flourish overnight — a difficult proposition.
Ayub’s reforms had been a complete failure as everyone knew; Bhutto believed his reforms would be implemented in the spirit they were conceived. However, the expected results did not materialise. Being a man of resolute will he decided to bring further reforms five years later.
Now aware of the loopholes that could defeat the reforms, on January 5, 1977 he promulgated an ordinance, the Land Reforms Ordinance, 1977, in which he intended to bring the land ceiling down to 100 acres of irrigated and 200 acres of un-irrigated land. In the proposed law it was suggested to abolish all orchards and stud farms and the like. Exemptions for religious holding (waqf lands) were also abolished. Income tax on produce was introduced except for those who held small holdings.
The withdrawal from exemption of waqf holding created a commotion in two segments: the landowners, specially the big ones, and secondly the religious groups. When the Federal Shariat Court was established in 1980 by the army dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, cases were initiated challenging the veracity of the land reforms claiming that imposing a maximum limit on landholdings was against the injunctions of Islam. It was claimed that like other articles, an individual can buy as much land as they desire, provided that it is acquired through legitimate means. The claimants argued that Islamic laws do not restrict landholding to any limit, and in one case in 1989, the Shariat Appelate bench of the Supreme Court gave the verdict that land reform legislations were repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.
When this verdict was delivered Bhutto was no longer in this world.