Social change through land reforms

Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) chief Altaf Hussain’s controversial statement regarding a martial law-like intervention by ‘patriotic generals’ took the country by storm. With the exception of opportunist politicians like Imran Khan and Pir Pagara, all other political parties came out strongly against Mr Hussain’s appeal to the military. It seems that in order to redeem himself, the MQM chief has asked his party to table a land reforms bill in parliament. “We believe that Pakistan and feudalism cannot exist together and the only formula to save Pakistan is to abolish the feudal system, which is against the spirit of democracy,” said Mr Hussain. It is incontestable that in a democratic system, feudalism has no space but what the MQM is proposing – limiting land holdings and distributing the rest of the land among poor farmers – is not any different from General Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s failed bid for land reforms. Either the MQM does not understand that the redistribution of land through such a process has not been successful or it is merely indulging in populist rhetoric.

Speaking to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on August 11, 1947, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah said: “If we want to make this great state of Pakistan happy and prosperous we should wholly and solely concentrate on the well-being of the people, and especially of the masses and the poor...” What we see today in Pakistan is the exact opposite of what our founding father envisioned. The feudal lords have used this country’s land as their fiefdom while the landless peasantry is treated like animals. Nothing much has ever been done for the poverty-stricken people. Neither have we adopted a poor-friendly economic policy nor have there been any proper land reforms. During General Ziaul Haq’s regime, the Federal Shariat Court declared land reforms against Islamic injunctions, hence slogans like “jairra vahvay, ohi khaavay” (he who tills should get the reward) have remained mere slogans and never materialised in reality. The unequal relationship between the peasants and the landlords goes back to colonial times. During the Mughal rule, the peasantry paid rent to the state through a class of revenue collectors (mansabdars). As long as the peasantry paid rent on the land they cultivated, land tenure was relatively secure but the landless peasantry did not own these lands. When the British came to power in the Indian subcontinent, they instituted private property in land and gave absolute ownership rights to a new, manufactured class of landlords, reducing the peasants to tenants, with inadequate land tenure. This made the landlords very powerful. This reversal of Mughal policy is still practiced in Pakistan because of our colonial hangover. The propertied class is always wary of the peasantry. Thus, in order to protect its own interests, the feudal landowning class not only entered politics but also penetrated the bureaucracy and the military. Now there is a strong nexus of the landlords with all the powerful institutions of the state.

If the MQM wants to bring about real land reforms, it has to understand that unless the landless peasantry is mobilised, nothing will really change. We have been down this road before and know from experience that the military and bureaucracy will never allow a revolutionary transformation of fortunes from the top. Instead of latching on to empty rhetoric, the MQM should move the bill keeping this in mind. The only way we can have a successful democratic system in Pakistan is by breaking the chains of the feudal class structure, arguably from below.

(my editorial in Daily Times)


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