By Arif Hasan
Rural Pakistan has been transformed over the last half-century, the people are more free; but the old values continue to extract a toll.
Mechanisation and middlemen: A customised tractor with a trailer full of harvested sugarcane, in Pakistan.
flickr / tpmartins
Feudalism was an integral part of the colonial system in what is today Pakistan. To understand the changing inter-community relations in Pakistan today, we must look at how the inherited colonial system has evolved. Every Pakistani will tell you how wonderful Pakistan used to be, what a peaceful country it was, with law and order and low levels of violence. And they tend to blame all that has gone wrong in Pakistan on the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan. But that is only part of the truth. In my city, Karachi, anyone my age will similarly tell you how wonderful Karachi used to be – there were discotheques and night clubs, there was drama, and film festivals. Certainly we had all that, but when you really come to think of it, the calm that we enjoyed was really like the peace of the dead. It was a kind of peace made possible by the feudal system.Let me introduce that feudal system through a story. In 1968, I was traveling in rural Sindh with a French diplomat, from a place called Sakht to Mohenjodaro. The road meant for vehicles was so bad that drivers preferred to travel along a canal embankment. We came upon a bullock cart, and my friend jumped out with his camera to take a picture. As the cart stopped, one of its two occupants, a young man, made off into the fields. His older companion came up, touched my feet, and said, “Sahib, please forgive us, we will never come in front of your car again.” This was in 1968, and that was the mindset of the villagers when they saw what they perceived to be a person of authority. Today, the highway from Sakht to Mohenjodaro is teeming with vehicles, but there is not a bullock cart in sight. And nobody will come to touch your feet and seek forgiveness for having come in front of your car. There are about 30 buses that ply between the two towns every day.What was this system that made people touch your feet that late in the 20th century? And what has pushed the transformation in social relations? An explanation would help in the understanding of present-day Pakistan.Sociology of Pakistan
The old society in the rural areas at the time of Partition was a caste society. You had basically three castes according to economic divisions: the landlords, artisans, and what are called the kami, or the ‘lesser’castes. Before the arrival of the British colonials, this region actually did not have landlords. Land belonged to the chieftain, who appointed mansabdarsto collect revenue from designated areas, and they were evaluated every year.The British changed the revenue system. After their conquest, they converted all the pro-British mansabdars into hereditary landlords. This changed the earlier feudal system into one that was controlled by a network of landlords, and the peasants became serfs. This was a major departure, and under the British there developed a nexus between the bureaucracy, the deputy commissioner and the landlords. Governance was handed over to the landlords, who settled disputes, kept law and order, financed agricultural production, and maintained the rural infrastructure, including getting the peasantry to de-silt canals. The deputy commissioner would order the landlord to carry out the de-silting, and the latter would supply the labour, providing only rations (langar). Thus, it was done for free as far as the government was concerned. So the landlords maintained law and order, they financed agricultural production, they maintained the agricultural infrastructure, and they were subservient to the deputy commissioner.The caste system was collapsing when the British came because of the rise of entrepreneurship. But with the feudal system that the British created, they re-enforced the caste system, and they re-enforced the castes as well. The classification of castes for the first time in India was done by the British. So you had agricultural castes, you had artisan castes, you had the merchant castes, and this was very rigid. This was our feudal system. Because of this feudal system, we could have wonderfully liberal constitutions, because the feudal vote would make those constitutions incorrigible. We would have military dictatorships because the feudals would support the dictatorships.Understanding how this system of local governance and control has changed will allow us to analyse the eclipse of feudalism in Pakistan. Some transformation was already happening in the late 19th and early 20th century because of education, but the real push came with Partition. Indeed, I refer to‘Partition’ rather than ‘Independence’ because it was the division of the Subcontinent that was the harbinger of change within what became Pakistan.What had happened? According to the 1951 census of Pakistan, 48 percent of the urban population had origins in India, and for the whole population that figure was 17 percent. This massive influx affected the sociology of Pakistan, even as the migrants settled in the Punjab and Sindh; cities like Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad and others saw their populations more than double within half a decade. This was the beginning of the collapse of the caste system.Another anecdote will help explain the change in social relations. In the mid-1990s, in a hamlet near Faisalabad, I asked a village elder how the political situation was in Punjab.“Afra tafri,” he responded, meaning chaos and anarchy.“How is there anarchy?”He replied, “The daughter of the washerman has just married an agriculturalist.”“But how has this happened?”He said, “It’s all because of the refugees.”“How is it because of the refugees?”And he said, “They lost their caste by coming here. They lost their profession. The chamars [tanners] became agriculturalists, the agriculturalists became merchants, and the whole society was destroyed.”“But that’s about the people who came! What about the people who are living here?”He replied, “Kharbuja kharbhuje ko dekh kar rang badalta hain.” A melon changes colour just looking at the next melon, and the bad melons have been able to infect all the others.I will tell you another story, because it makes it easier to explain. This is in another village, a rather backward area of southern Punjab province. I asked a village elder, “Do you still decide disputes?”He replied, “Yes, I do!”“That means you are a bigger leader than the MLAs and MPs, because they cannot take such decisions.”Addressing me – a much younger man – as ‘Kakke’ in Punjabi, he said,“You don’t understand anything. If I give a judgement in favour of one side, they bring me sweets. Those that I decide against file a FIR and go to the courts!”This transformation was the result of migration. A PhD student of mine studied two mohallas of Lahore, one where the Hindus had left and Muslims had come and settled, and the other which had not seen such a drastic demographic change. In the latter neighbourhood, you had a panchayat with its old system of maintaining community relations through caste. The mohalla with the new Muslim arrivals had no caste system.Revolutionary green
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