Soon after independence, one of the questions that attracted the attention of legislators was whether ownership of lands could be limited to a certain level or should there be no limit at all. The legislation was implemented but later failed.
Meanwhile, India achieved substantial success by abolishing the zamindari system. Following such reforms, 2.3 million acres were declared as surplus, and through this process, 1.3m acres were redistributed all over India.
Later, in 1959, reformative laws regarding the limitation of land ownership were introduced by Ayub Khan. Regarding irrigated and non-irrigated lands, 500 and 1,000 acres were set as the limit. The main issue with the proportionate application of these reforms was that their numbers were ordained for individuals rather than families.
This, in turn, facilitated the interests of landlords who distributed their ownership of lands to their real and factious family members and servants. It also enabled the landlords to retain their ceiling up to 36,000 Produce Index Units (PIUs).
PIU were introduced in the colonial era as a parameter to measure the gross value of output per acre. The problem with this parameter was the low gross value of output per acre, and that was because of the higher labour intensity and lack of machinery and technology in that era.
The religious-political economy of the country has led to the wealth and influence of the zamindars
As a result, the average area per declarant reached 11,810 and 7,028 acres in Punjab and Pakistan, respectively, in the 1959 reform. Through this process, the government could only collect an area of 1.9m acres (35 per cent of farmland). The government had to pay Rs89.2 million for the uncultivated land the landlords were not using.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto announced his land reforms on March 1, 1972. The reform was regulated under the Martial Law Regulation Act 115. According to the reform, 150 and 300 acres were set as limits for irrigated and non-irrigated lands, respectively. Later in his updated Land Reforms Ordinance, these limits were further reduced to 100 and 300 acres in 1977.
Its equivalent amount on the parameter was up to 12,000 PIUs. An additional bonus of 2,000 PIUs was granted to the owners of tractors and tube wells which enabled a de facto ceiling for landlords’ properties. Due to outdated PIUs, the actual limits of Bhutto’s reform were 466 and 560 acres for Punjab and Sindh, respectively.
Thus, the government could only collect an area of 0.6m acres. This collection was even lesser than the summed-up collection of government-owned land area under the 1959 reforms. Moreover, in the case of Punjab, 59pc of the area collected by the government was uncultivated.
The mutual romance of the religious and political elite reached its epoch soon after the announcement of land reform. The first coalition emerged in the form of Anjuman Tahafuz Haqooq-e-Zamindara Tahat-al-Shariah. This coalition launched a nationwide campaign to oppose land reforms. This movement was led by Pir Aminul Hasanat, known as Pir Sahib of Manki Sharif.
Maulana Maududi also wrote a book “Masala e Milkiyat Zameen” published in 1950. In this book, he constructed a separate narrative against the land reforms and gave it an Islamic touch by associating its principles with the principles of socialism. Considering land reforms as a tool for spreading socialism, the state of Pakistan always maintained its anti-socialist policies.
For example, Pakistan was a key member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, which was formed to counter the expansion of Soviet influence in the region. Thus, it can be said that the state policies could not support the socialist nature of reforms.
On the political front, Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was among the leading political figures to show strong resistance against reforms. He organised rallies and mobilised the zamindar community to fight for their rights. He organised a famous ‘Zamindar Convention’ attended by thousands of zamindars from all over Pakistan.
Regarding anti-reform sentiments, the powerful coalition of religious and political leaders showed its true colours in the 1980s. Qazalbash Waqf filed an appeal against these reforms in the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court in 1989. The Bench consisting of Justice Nasim Hassan Shah, Justice Shafiur Rahman and Justice Afzal Zullah, Mufti Taqi Usmani and Pir Karam Shah gave its verdict after nine years against land reforms by declaring them “unIslamic”.
According to Mufti Taqi, Shariah law has not put any limits on legitimate ownership. It allows any individual to own an indefinite number of lands and properties acquired through legitimate means.
This verdict gives rise to the two most burning questions about how the awarding of lands by the British government could be considered as the ones acquired through legitimate means and on what grounds huge chunks of land were granted to specific individuals.
The implementation of the decision of the Bench started on March 23, 1990. Through this verdict, the land elite regained their uncultivated lands (more than 1.5m acres) in cultivated forms from the hard-working farmers without paying back the million rupees to the government, which were earned against the land reform.
This productive development of events made them more powerful on political fronts. It also reopened several venues for the aristocracy in terms of dynastic politics, wealth accumulation through real estate and reinforcement of their position as powerful political players who continue to derive their power from land ownership.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 20th, 2023
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