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Pakistan’s fixation with feudalism


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-Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro.
-Illustration by Khuda Bux Abro.

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

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.

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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (42) Closed

G.A. Jan 03, 2013 07:08pm
There has been a greater outcry in Shahzeb's case because he comes from an educated, urban middle class family where his social media-literate friends and family could easily use it to call for action against the culprits. Used to killing innocent illiterate farmers perhaps these feudals were not expecting such a reaction hence their retreat to the safety of their 'fiefdoms' with their tails between their legs. What is more revolting is that Shahzeb was killed on the night of his sister's wedding reception.
Srini (Dallas,TX) Jan 03, 2013 07:00pm
@Usman - very informative. thank you.
Lajwar Jan 03, 2013 06:56pm
I really appreciate the author for trying to comprehend Pakistan's complicated scenario. Pakistanis are a curios lot. They hail Bilawal Zardari as their savior, knowing his foreign and privileged upbringing. They worshiped Benazir, daughter of a fuedal and a sponsor of many others. They also support military rulers imposed on them via 'bloodless coups'. They have their hopes on Imran, Tahir, Altaf, Nawaz or Shahbaz, all figures chanting hollow slogans. In short Pakistanis are a bunch praying for a miracle to be brought by some knight in shining armor. They want things to straighten up; become perfect in a blink of an eye. In this Pakistani world of dog eat dog; its a division between 'haves' and 'have nots'. The 'haves' are those who can access all the things which dreams are made of. No work, lots of money, respect, guns and nuisance value. 'Have nots' are those whose lives are 'stuck in the the second gear' since like forever. So its this divide which this agitation is about. Combine this with social and economic frustration and you can piece together the puzzle of Pakistan.
Masood Baig Jan 03, 2013 08:43pm
Few feudal lords,who are the products of British Raj,had been intermediary rulers. Their support was sought by Jinnah at time of partition(for financial help). They wielded political influence in government affairs, national elections,impeded agricultural reforms,educational reforms(turned schools into ghost schools),ruled upon their subjects in a state within a state defied centre.
Riaz Jan 04, 2013 01:31am
Land reforms will not only take care of the feudal lords, millions of poor, long suffering under their yoke will be set free, their poverty will also be reduced. Not only will it lead to reduction in corruption, it will enable new players from ordinary society to join the political club.
Magister Ludi Jan 03, 2013 02:19pm
If feudalism is so fantatasic why not bring it back in England, France or Denmark.
Tariq Jan 03, 2013 09:04pm
Owning land more than 20 -30 acres should be made illegal, if Pakistan is to prosper!
areeha Jan 04, 2013 04:32am
good observation...
Akram Jan 03, 2013 06:51pm
india still has no shortage of feudals, there was a recent report that not a single member of the indian assembly under the age of 40 was from a non feudal background. This is not a problem that we have only in Pakistan, its widespread globally in the under developed world.
observer Jan 04, 2013 03:41am
Is this the same person who wrote a scathing article about Bhutto in an another newspaper's internet edition a few days ago? I don't know if this comment will reach you but I must say your article was in bad taste and attempted to distort history by blaming ZAB for dismemberment of Pakistan. ZAB was a player but even if he had not been there, East Pakistan was well on the road for breaking up. You definitely served someone's vested agenda by penning a dihonest article. I am sure it was a deliberate move from you.
caramelizedonion Jan 04, 2013 01:40am
Well said, completely agree.
Ahmed Ali Jan 04, 2013 05:01am
Wow. how did dawn let this piece get published. its so immature; this whole article. no facts and lack of research by the Mr. Kugleman
Ali Hayat Jan 04, 2013 01:39pm
I wonder what Mr. Kugelman thinks about someone making the following statement about pre civil war America: "Slave owners are part of the problem in the United States of America, yet they are also part of the solution."
caramelizedonion Jan 04, 2013 01:39am
Mate, how can you expect feudals to be part of the solution when it will mean in a clear cut manner reduced influence, reduced power and reduced money through illegal means for them? They need to forced to be part of the solution, not politely asked. And that force shall come when people elect truly democratic parties, and not parties with big feudal families. That force shall come when feudals are stood in front of the supreme court, stripped naked of their influence and made to answer to the law. In short, lets not hold our breath for the feudals to take the initiative, we need to force them.
Sinai Jan 04, 2013 02:11am
Sindhi haters take refuge in feudels bashing. It is crystal clear that people living in urban areas of Sindh hate Sindh and Sindhis. They even to take away right of franchise from Sindhi people. Shame on you all. Still you wonder why there a separatist movements in Pakistan.
RudeMentally Jan 04, 2013 06:31pm
I suggest you nationalize factories too or take away huge plazas and residential buildings. Only then would Pakistan truly prosper. 20-30 acres ? right that in its total is not even worth a 1 Kanal house in Defence. Do you know that the REAL feudal lords or Jagirdars have moved on to industry and lets add to that the fact that majority of Industrialist have either Millions in low interest loans and still fail to pay their Gas and Electricity bills. Nationalize all Industry, redistribute residential property and bring in rural land reforms. Why should one group suffers while others get a free pass. Please keep your naivety to yourself lest it infects other sane people.
RudeMentally Jan 04, 2013 06:53pm
I love to see all these special cases, who live in cities have not spent a day in rural Sindh or Punjab and claim to be the all knowing problem solvers ready with a quick-fix for all of Pakistan. I ask what it is and they all chant the same thing, feudalism feudalism!! So let me help you swallow this pill, whether you like it or not this system will not change until those in cities don't stop looking down on those from rural background. If you continue to fail at understanding why Bhutto gained so much popularity with the down trodden rural peasantry it will remain your fate to be ruled by their votes(67% of the population). I have 3 friends who are doctors all born and raised lahoris, they would according to them die before they go and work in a village, i say nice sentiment the village people will reply in kind!!
Mo Jan 04, 2013 07:34pm
It is not Pakistan's fixation with feudalism.... it is pakistan's government of the feudals for the feudals that ails us. As long as we have benevolent feudals we shall remain respectful slaves.
Sultan Khan Jan 04, 2013 10:59am
Follow in the footsteps of Nehru and Patel who wiped out feudalism in India within a short span of time after independence.
Cyrus Howell Jan 03, 2013 05:40pm
Agree, Usman. Thumbs up 150% - I have three thumbs. They are the pampered and perfumed princes and princesses. They have given the bakery workers in Pakistan a black eye. Maybe two.
MANSOOR Jan 03, 2013 04:43pm
Esay said than done.Who is going to do this? Only organisation with potential is the partner in chief in this crime. Reform Pindi, Islamabad reforms itself
Minal Jan 03, 2013 04:40pm
This is so strange to see that death of an indiviual is blamed on entire Sindhi community while the killings done by MQM in Karachi on everyday basis, no body dares to name them, or probably should blame all the urdu speaking community. Shame on all of us Karachiites, shame on us.
Minal Jan 03, 2013 04:36pm
Because there is monarchy
g.a.shirazi Jan 03, 2013 04:36pm
I agree with your assessment. The author needs to spent sometime in rural Pakistan than "rural" USA.
MANSOOR Jan 03, 2013 04:29pm
Enlighten me. HOW?
abbastoronto Jan 03, 2013 03:33pm
In late 1980s and early 1990s I was a regular at the
K Nini (@kal_nini) Jan 03, 2013 10:10am
What utter nonsense! A defense of feudalism? We haven't been able to get savage feudals to buy in for 65 years...where does this American get the audacity to talk to us about accepting it as part of a solution? Stick to the fiscal cliff discussion are way off!
huma Jan 03, 2013 11:11am
Michael is naive,there is no such thing as a benevolent feudal lord,there maybe one ,like a needle in a haystack
chishti Jan 04, 2013 01:21pm
To survive a much needed land reform is essential in Pakistan. Land must be taken away from all feudal lords and leased to the people who clutivate or work on the land. This will florish economy, create a viable independent middle class. To keep feudal influence (the class), the entire population in rular Pakistan is deprived of much needed education, health and basic human development. Is it a dream? How could it be fulfilled?
Nasir Jan 03, 2013 04:17pm
Also Feudals with fight to their bone with every improvement action that will take power away from their hands, that is just the fact it is their survival instinct, so I don't see any change coming from their side, and so it would have to be imposed upon them for the betterment of millions of poor peasants that are mere slaves of these pharoahs. Just like in China or on a milder scale in India.
Dawar Naqvi Jan 03, 2013 02:55pm
We need to finish feudalism before election otherwise same wadera, chowadries will rule us again.
Nasir Jan 03, 2013 04:14pm
I agree, that article from Bina Shah was an attempt to put a good face on the cancerous existance of feudals in the society in general. The lowest point in that article was blaming the urbanites (Karchiites) for discriminating against them. When truth is feudal majority in Katachi have always maintained their "royal ways" while living in city keeping them away from the urban way of life.
Usman Jan 03, 2013 02:50pm
And that's one of the reasons that India is ahead of us. They carried out land reforms shortly after independence and managed to reduce the influence of these parasites for the development of their country.
Shahzad Kazi Jan 07, 2013 11:03pm
Land should not be taxed, but it is income that should be taxed.
Aamir Jan 03, 2013 11:43am
Feudalism is main reason which strict Pakistan in the 3rd world country. Whole Baluchistan, rural Sindh and Punjab are the main areas of the victims of feudalism. All electoral bank in the hands of these feudal lords because they are holding powers of District administrations. According to an honest District administration officer, these feudal are the today's Firaoon's./Ramses. These Feudal Lords grips so tightly on the administration system of Pakistan,and make it very weaker. This weakness also described by some extremists elements in Pakistan which are now a very direct risk of Pakistan's security. People of Pakistan now looking toward Imran Khan (PTI) and somehow toward MQM for taking some steps and frame policies toward the feudalism which is very dangerous for the development of New Pakistan.
Usman Jan 03, 2013 02:47pm
I read the piece by Ms. Bina Shah on feudalism. It wasn't surprising that she chose to put a positive spin on it, considering that she's from a feudal background herself; what was surprising, though, was the way she cleverly managed to inject the false notions of 'racism' and ethnic prejudice against Sindhis by Karachiites in her arguments. The truth is, most educated Pakistanis, especially in the urban areas (including those in provinces other than Sindh) are against feudalism and the feudalist mindset, be it in the form of Waderas of Sindh, the Sardars of Baluchistan, the Chaudhrys of Punjab, etc. Pakistan simply cannot expect to survive in the 21st Century with large swathes of it living in 18th and 19th Century Russian conditions (for those more interested in that, please look up the conditions of the serfs in pre-Soviet Russia on the internet and compare them to our poor rural folk). Michael, normally I respect your opinions even if I don't agree with them but this time you're simply being naive and I think you need to look beyond 'sources' which have their own personal interests in perpetuating the feudal system
bkt Jan 03, 2013 09:58am
Feudals - part of the solution? What rubbish. Feudalism is a curse on every citizen of Pakistan. In Japan they got rid of Feudalism first by forcing the feudals to accept govt bonds under duress in exchnage for land and privilege and then they devalued the monetary worth of the bonds, happily striking the feudals from history. True some strains of feudalism remain but the vast majority were wiped off. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto pretended to wipe out large landholdings but only for those not in his party. His own partymen remain the largest feudals in Pakistan. What is needed is to implement the land reform of the PPP on the PPP. That will be the end of feudalism once and for all.
Saeed Jan 04, 2013 10:48pm
You are right . I never see so many angry people. They were not furious when little helpless girl drag from her house in the name of blasphemy !thousand people killed in the name of religion. Pakistan law have no provision which protect influential people, individual are the one who protect them . Hate of other kind is just tattoo in our DNA . Our hate divided India , than Pakistan and exactly how far we go in this division no one know. But we all nuturing our hate for other well
Khanm Jan 05, 2013 12:17pm
Really like your comment. It is up to the masses they can achieve any thing once they set their mind to it. .look for instance MQM have no feudal lord in their party. Mostly people are from middle class families. May be the other parties can follow suite. Nothing wrong in accepting well from any party as long as it is for the betterment of the country.... Aye Zuzba-e- dil gar may choun,her cheese mukabil aajaey.
saj Jan 05, 2013 12:37pm
the problem is not owning large amounts of land in prosperous countries people own thousands of acres, the soloution is to tax land so that some of the benefits from owning the land trickle down to the poor in the form of goverment services if you can only own a small farm it is inefficient and will make the country less productive. Taxing land wlll mean people will have to make the land work for them thus making emplyment goods and prosperity
Michael Kugelman Jan 05, 2013 04:17pm
Thanks to all, as always, for the feedback. To clarify: This piece does not endorse feudalism (believe me, I'm not that naive!). In the piece, I say that ideally both the institution and mindset of feudalism would be eliminated. But this is unrealistic, given how powerful feudalism is in the country. I see feudalism as part of the solution because it has to be, not because it should be.
abbastoronto Jan 05, 2013 10:57pm
Michael. You can not eliminate feudalism by decree. The State has no levers to pull. Feudalism automatically disappears when the over 50% of the economy turns to urban/industrial from rural/agrarian, because it becomes inefficient.