Pakistan’s fixation with feudalism
On December 25, a young man named Shahzeb Khan was murdered in Karachi.
The killing was just one of more than 2,500 homicides in Karachi last year. Yet Khan’s tragedy stood out — because of the extraordinary response it generated.
News of Khan’s death rippled through social media. His name was trending on Twitter within hours, and a Facebook memorial page garnered more than 80,000 “likes” just days after his passing. High-profile figures — Imran Khan, AQ Khan, Salman Ahmad — expressed their outrage. PTI leaders visited Khan’s grieving family, and the MQM issued a press release. On December 30, according to one participant, “scores” gathered at a vigil outside the Karachi Press Club.
Finally, earlier this week, Pakistan’s chief justice took suo motu notice of the case.
Why has Khan’s death triggered such a response? After all, murder occurs with tragic frequency in Pakistan — with an average of 8 to 10 daily in Karachi alone. Most killings are quickly forgotten, with the exception of political assassinations. Khan, while reportedly a popular young man, was neither a celebrity nor a well-known public figure.
The circumstances surrounding the murder provide the answer. After his sister was harassed by a servant, Khan argued with the servant’s master — Nawab Siraj Talpur, the scion of an influential landowning family. Later, Talpur and his friend, Shahrukh Jatoi, tracked Khan down, and Jatoi shot him in his car. The headline of a local daily article breaking the story said it all: “Murdered in Cold Blood: For Sindh’s Feudals, Karachi Lives Come Cheap.”
Pakistanis have a fixation with feudalism. Civil society and politicians skewer it with a vengeance, and even those with presumed feudal qualifications issue denunciations (Shahbaz Sharif recently declared that “feudal lords have ruined” the country).
Such vitriol may lead some to hide their feudal bonafides. A long-time South Asia-based foreign correspondent once quipped that when Pakistanis insist they aren’t feudals, then they must be feudals.
The Khan tragedy prompted me to reflect on the notion of “feudal” in Pakistan. The term is so often invoked, usually as an epithet, without being properly defined (much like “liberal”).
In its most basic context, it appears to refer to rich and politically influential families owning immense expanses of rural land. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this; across the world, powerful people own large properties.
However, in a poor, developing country like Pakistan, land inequality is problematic. One expert estimates that about 2 per cent of Pakistani households own nearly 50 per cent of land; a more precise PILER estimate concludes that 5 per cent of agricultural households own nearly two thirds of Pakistan’s farmland. In effect, millions of poor people depend on wealthy landowners for livelihoods, natural resources, and patronage.
These class-based disparities have troubling security implications — because such fissures are adeptly exploited by the TTP. This strategy helped engineer the Taliban’s takeover of Swat several years back.
It’s the ugly mindset of feudalism, however, that comes in for the heaviest criticism. Many feudals thrive on corruption, demand impunity, and jealously guard their vested interests. They steal precious irrigation water meant for poor farmers, and divert floodwaters away from their crops and into vulnerable villages. They obstruct the implementation of necessary new policies, from agricultural taxation to land reform. And they commit crimes while expecting legal protection — protection often granted, as evidenced by the “police insiders” allegedly helping prevent the arrests of Talpur and Jatoi.
However, this isn’t the full story.
Any casual observer of Pakistan — or reader of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s short stories — will recognise that not all feudals are evil. Many are industrialists who sustain Pakistan’s economy; others are philanthropists; and still others are quiet benefactors to their impoverished tenants. Feudals successfully co-exist with non-feudals; in the words of author Bina Shah — who herself comes from a feudal family — “Sindhis, feudal and non-feudal alike, have been a peaceful part of Karachi’s social fabric for decades.”
That said, the feudal mindset — an embrace of impunity, brutality, and corruption that’s also manifested by plenty of non-feudals — is deeply troubling. So are the power asymmetries under girding the institution of feudalism. Ideally both dimensions would be eliminated, or at least reformed. Realistically, however, I fear that won’t happen anytime soon. The feudal structure is simply too ingrained, and its chief players too powerful.
To be sure, urbanisation may eventually reduce rural populations and diminish the sway of feudals in the countryside. However, their influence will simply be reasserted in urban settings.
The takeaway? Fighting feudalism may well be futile.
Still, here’s a thought. If Pakistan is to experience consequential and lasting change for the better — whether attained through visionary new leadership or, more likely, gradual institutional reform — buy-in from the influential feudal class will be essential.
So, in other words, feudalism is part of the problem in Pakistan. Yet it’s also part of the solution.
The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.