Troublesome Legacies

Tariq Amin Khan | 25 October 2022
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FOR much of Pakistan’s 75 years of existence, a ruling bloc has held the reins of state power. The bloc’s composition has been from mainly two elite political families and a set of military rulers, while the civil bureaucracy and the judiciary have stage-managed the proceedings with lesser or greater autonomy since 1958. I briefly examine the culture of feudalism and other colonial legacies and identify their damaging impact on the structure of the state and society.

Feudal cultural values are rooted in patriarchal control and have a strong authoritarian character. These values have been embraced by almost all of the players that make up the ruling bloc, which denies democracy a nurturing environment in Pakistan.

As a legacy of British colonialism, feudalism has had an extended afterlife in post-colonial Pakistan. One would have expected that because class interests of ruling bloc members diverge, conflict would be inevitable among them. But feudal landholders hold sway, and even the emerging class of capitalists in the bloc shares many aspects of the feudal culture, such as autocratic decision-making. Thus, disparate groups in the bloc have coexisted to safeguard their mutual interests.

In the push to enlarge their economic interests, the feudal landholders rely on the land tenure system, another legacy of colonialism, to increase land concentration by taking back lands from landless tenants.

This can be gleaned from the agricultural census data between 1960 and 2010, when the share of owner-run farms increased by more than 41 per cent, while 45pc of farms worked by landless tenants disappeared during the same period. This displacement of millions of landless people over decades has forced them to migrate to urban centres and has resulted in the rise of the urban informal economy while informal settlements have ballooned.

Feudal values have been embraced by the ruling bloc.

Feudal cultural values and their oppressive authoritarian impulse have come down hard on women, haris and rural workers to enforce their submission. Feudal culture also actively discourages access to meaningful education for children of the rural poor.

So, is it any surprise that according to Unicef 22.8 million children of the five- to 16-years age group, most of whom are from rural areas, remain out of school. And, given the relationship between illiteracy and poverty, data from the Borgen Project shows that rural poverty in Pakistan is at a disturbing 54.6pc compared to urban poverty, which is at 9.3pc.

This neglect of millions of rural inhabitants goes on with the complicity of the state alongside the pillage of the state’s resources by feudals and others in the ruling bloc. As a result, a culture of corruption has become normalised and legitimated in society.

One of the reasons feudalism has such a strong purchase in Pakistan is that feudal cultural values have proliferated in society. The feudal elite in Pakistan is not merely an antiquated remnant of the colonial era; instead, feudal lords have maintained a powerful influence on culture and politics.

Bound within the culture of feudalism is the ostentatious display of wealth and privilege, making it into a conspicuous consumption spectacle. However, this crass display of wealth is no longer just the domain of feudals; it has spread through much of society — becoming an aspirational goal for many young people. Even television serials reproduce this feudal spectacle in the production of TV dramas.

That said, authoritarianism is the glue that binds the Pakistani state with the culture of feudalism. The authoritarian structure of the Pakistani state and its bureaucracy is yet another colonial legacy. The consequence is that just as the colonial state’s bureaucracy enforced control and did not govern a colonised people, the Pakistani state acts in a similar manner and actively suppresses dissent.

Further, the colonial state’s judicial system inherited by Pakistan remains intact with colonial-era laws, legal codes and a justice system meant to serve the privileged. Besides, just as the colonised bureaucrats and feudal elite collaborated with colonial rulers for the privileges they received, the current ruling bloc similarly obliges the present imperial overlord by reinforcing the patron-client relationship.

I have identified here a number of harmful structural barriers to attaining a democratic Pakistan. The country is isolated on the world stage based on the politics of the ruling bloc, and its most vulnerable citizens are in desperate need of social uplift. But the state remains inattentive on these matters.

The restructuring of Pakistan’s state, society and economy is urgent. But this work is beyond the capacity of the current ruling bloc. Perhaps, a political leadership outside the bloc is needed to provide its vision of change and how to restructure state and society.

The writer is associate professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration, Toronto Metropolitan University.

This article was originally published on Dawn
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.