RIGHT from its inception, Pakistan has been a wonderland of ‘gangdoms’ commonly called mafias. Apparently, it has something to do with the national psychology. While we apportion the biggest blame for feudalism — and, indeed, there are valid reasons for it — we tend to overlook the feudal mindset that seems to have permeated across the board. Let us try to examine the big picture.
Feudalism connotes a system of administration and jurisdiction of a piece of land based on relationship between a vassal and his superior, between the Hari and the Zamindar. A large portion of the profit ensuing from the cultivation of the crops goes to the latter. It is the relationship between a vassal and his master that defines feudalism for us.
Much before the arrival of the British in the subcontinent, the system of granting tracts of land in return for military service, territorial expansion, control of restive masses and the revenue administration was firmly in place. The Mughals introduced the system and it remained in place till the arrival of the British.
When the British built world’s largest canal system in 1931, to irrigate the barren land which only needed irrigation to become fertile, the undivided Punjab was the largest beneficiary of the venture. Punjab represented only 9.7pc of the total area controlled by the British, but it had 9.9 million acres of land irrigated by canals. The canal-irrigated area increased to 14 million acres by the end of British rule in 1947.
Like the losers adopt the traits of the victors, society at large seems to have adopted the attitude of the landed gentry.
Large tracts of land running into tens of thousands of acres were granted to the British lackeys who rendered military service and helped them controlling the rebellious masses, especially during the events of 1857.
Apart from bestowing large tracts of land, they granted their factotums another favour. Their income from agriculture was made exempt from income tax. Huge untaxed income gave the landlords inordinate power to dominate all spheres of life, particularly the dominance over the lives of their tenants. However, nearest to their heart’s desire was political dominance. With few exceptions, the landlords, their progeny and their relatives took active part in national politics.
The most popular party in the undivided Punjab was the Unionist Party, and it mainly represented the interest of the landlords, headed by the lord of landlords Sir Sikandar Hayat. After his death in 1942, Sir Khizar Hayat Tiwana replaced him at the helm. In the 1946 elections, the All-India Muslim League (AIML) won the largest number of seats – 73 in a house of 175 – but it did not have the majority to from its own government. The government was subsequently formed in coalition with the Unionist Party, and notwithstanding the fact that the AIML was the largest party, the chief ministership went to the Unionist Party. It is not too hard to imagine the power of the feudal lobby.
Tiwana was opposed to land reforms and even to the partition itself. AIML did not make land reforms a part of its manifesto here for the sake of winning support for the proposed partition. The strategy worked as many big landlords joined AIML overnight. As a result, no land reforms were implemented in West Pakistan, while the same were accomplished in East Pakistan through the East Bengal Land and Acquisition and Tenancy Act.
Some attempts were made towards effecting land reforms by Ayub in 1958 and Bhutto in 1972 and 1975. They were incommensurate with the required needs of the country, but at least, a beginning had been made. Unfortunately, even a minor dent on the privilege of the landed aristocracy could not be tolerated. After the 1977 coup, the reforms were quashed by the Federal Shariat Court, which ruled the reforms “un-Islamic”. No political party even mentioned land reforms till 2013 when the PTI talked about the need in its election manifesto. It did not win enough seats to form a government, and Jahangir Tareen, a senior party leader is on record as having explained in no uncertain terms that the party struggled as it had not awarded tickets to “the electables”. And by that he meant feudals. The situation changed in 2018; in came the feudals and the victory they brought with them, and out went the land reforms.
Other than the land reforms, the feudal have largely ensured their tax-free income from agricultural proceeds. We have had governments representing all forms of political and extra-political orientations, but taxation of agricultural income has remained beyond their capacity and intent. That is some power in the hands of the feudal and it is no wonder that it represents the mindset of the victor in the country.
Mindset is an enduring pattern of evaluated responses towards a person, object or issue. It is a more or less consistent pattern of cognitive (consciously held belief or opinion), affective (emotional tone or feelings), evaluative (negative or positive) and conative (disposition for action) concepts. The feudal mindset represents a strong belief that the feudal are a class above the hoi polloi, and this belief is emotionally-charged. This attitude has taken the form of what psychologists call psychoneurosis. It is defined as a personality or mental disturbance “not due to any neurological or organic dysfunction, but to the abnormal mental process”.
The delineation of the evaluative aspect of this phenomenon is alarming. Granted that there are some benevolent landlords, but a great majority falls in an unworthy category.
The mess starts with the practice of heirship. In most cases, it is the eldest son who inherits the mantle of authority of being a landlord after the death or incapacity of his father. The inheritor’s only qualification is his accident of birth with merit, talent, competence or any such thing having no weightage. Much before the attainment of this largesse, the eldest son is conscious that one day he is going to acquire this position. This fact generates in him arrogance, narcissism and delusion of grandeur early in life. Under the circumstances, he becoming a vainglorious nincompoop is not surprising at all. He becomes hedonistic, and is given to myriad physical pleasures with little concern for his cerebral growth.
He considers himself above the law and enjoys complete impunity. His vassals turn into yes-men and he comes to believe that he can do no wrong and is blessed with sublime wisdom. And he is the one who will become the political leader of the country sooner or later.
Now he can indulge in any amount of corruption. He will not be found out, much less punished because he enjoys immunity. He will be framing laws, along with the legislators of the same ilk, which would favour the elite, granting them concessions, monetary or otherwise, at the cost of the masses. This mindset equally applies to the politicians.
The unfortunate reality of our national life is the feudal mindset is not confined to feudals alone. This has impacted seemingly unrelated factions of society. For convenience of reference, let us call this phenomenon a ‘Spillover Effect’.
The force with which this mindset operates in different factions of society depends on the strength of their respective powers. The more powerful a particular faction is, the greater leeway it has to accomplish its whim and vice versa.
Let’s touch, say, the military. With the demise of Mughal rule in India, the East India Company conquered the country in bits and pieces. Military was made solely responsible for the internal and external security of the country.
The generals enjoyed enormous powers, prestige, and fair amount of autonomy. The distance between London and Calcutta and the slow means of communication gave them additional reason for being autonomous. Some of the haughty generals acted against the policy of the Crown in London. The commander-in-chief of the British forces in India, Sir Hugh Gough, decided to invade Punjab against the advice of the Governor General. Similarly, Charles Napier annexed Sindh in violation of a solemn agreement between Queen Victoria and the Mirs of Sindh.
The Indian Civil Service (ICS) was another case in point. To counter the unchecked powers of the military, the ICS was formed in 1850, giving its officers executive authority and unrestrained powers. When the British left, we inherited the two groups with their delusions intact. They treated the masses of the newly independent country the same way as they treated the colonised Indians.
While the Quaid-i-Azam firmly believed in civilian supremacy in political affairs, and fairness and integrity in administrative affairs, the military and the bureaucracy have shown their great fascination with the feudal mindset. A look over the last more than seven decades would suggest that even the judiciary is not far behind in this context.
Moving on, the industrial and business classes are no exception. The feudal mindset is deeply ingrained in the psyche of these elite. They have formed associations and enjoy immense powers, while portraying themselves as the victims of governmental policies. Simultaneously, they love to flaunt what they have and never feel the need to explain this dichotomy because the relevant departments never ask them to. We have a rich elite class and a very poor government burdened with enormous debt. Under the influence of streaks reflective of their own feudal mindset, the industrial and business classes just do not care beyond their nose.
On its part, the clergy has assumed celestial authority for itself. It has enough power and influence over the masses to get itself counted among the power-wielders and strikes deals with various power centres among the ruling elite.
And, finally, is the common man unaffected by the feudal mindset? An ounce of influence brings the feudal inside most of us. A peon outside the office of a bureaucrat or corporate boss can be, and often is, as arrogant as the boss himself; a motorcyclist driving on the wrong side, when admonished, can be as insolent as a landlord; a hawker, even a sanitary worker can be disrespectful if he assumes that he is in relatively stronger position. Another manifestation of this mindset is our misogyny, which makes us undertake what is erroneously called honour killing. These are all vignettes from everyday life in Pakistan, indicating that most of us – if not all – have a feudal mindset.
Some serious and honest self-reflection is the need of the hour. Each one of us should look deep into our minds and souls to rectify and redress the wrongs we have been doing to our country knowingly or unknowingly.
The writer is a retired civil servant and author of two books; the latest being ‘Zulfikar Ali Bhutto: Psychodynamics of His Rise and Fall’.