My feudal lord, again

It’s often that we come across the argument that feudalism does not exist in Pakistan anymore. Institutionally, this may be correct because land holdings have indeed shrunk and the rural structure in most of Pakistan is not what we equate with feudalism. Also, feudalism has morphed into many shapes and forms even penetrating the urban upper-middle class, which means that the attitude is no longer restricted to rural areas. We have political parties and institutions that behave the same way as traditional feudal landowners.

But such distinctions may not matter to people like Shahnawaz Khar, a man of docile and soft disposition, known to the world for his contribution to journalism rather than his connection with the notorious Khar clan. Reportedly, on March 5th this year, Shahnawaz Khar was forcibly hauled in front of the main doada (word used in Muzaffargarh Saraiki for chief landlord) of the Khar tribe, Malik Ghulam Mustafa by the latter’s four sons, and beaten and humiliated. All of this happened when Shahnawaz raised objection to the fact that Ghulam Mustafa Khar could not hold a jirga and decide matters pertaining to the former’s property matters since the latter had personal interest in buying him out. Shahnawaz Khar’s father Ghulam Arabi Khar had died last year in 2013 leaving behind two sons and a wife to wrangle on property matters. Since March 5th, Shahnawaz has been beaten twice and forced to leave his father’s inheritance. What’s more, his mother and younger brother also seem to be on the other side of the family divide.

To many this may appear to be just another family matter which will probably settle in favor of whoever can coerce the state machinery in his favor. Shahnawaz Khar’s FIR, which is his legal right, was registered after considerable effort. If the political government and the courts do not intervene, there is also the fear that doada saeen may also intervene and force revenue officials to change details regarding possession of land. Saeen tu saeen, saeen ka patwari bhee saeen!

But is it just another family matter? Or is it a personal story that tells us about the nature of our post-colonial state that allows personal power, be that of the militant or the doada, to dictate its terms? I would probably not have even bothered to hear Shahnawaz’s story had I not gone and spent a few days in Muaffargarh, or been at the receiving end of the rural feudal system myself. Lest we forget, this is also a person’s story from the same district which also witnessed the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai and is known for highest number of acid attacks on women. One of the acid attack victims was no other but Fakhra Yunis who was once married to Ghulam Mustafa Khar’s son Bilal. According to Fakhra, Bilal carried out the heinous act in front of her five years old son from another husband. As Shahnawaz lay on the floor being kicked brutally, his two year old girl Sakina ran away and hid herself at the site of her father being gagged mercilessly.

Ghulam Sakina, mother of Jamshed Dasti, speaks to a reporter at her home
Ghulam Sakina, mother of Jamshed Dasti, speaks to a reporter at her home

To those for whom feudalism doesn’t exist, the face of feudalism as an institution might have changed but not the mindset of those who consider brutal exercise of power a part of cultural norms that cannot be challenged. I remember once talking to a seemingly enlightened lady from a feudal landowning background and heard her justify the jirga’s decision that condemned Mukhtaran Mai to gang rape. It is frightful to see all that is often peddled in the name of cultural norms and traditions. So, the Kot Addu tradition did not allow men from ordinary households to seek Hina Rabbani Khar for help while she was minister of state for economic affairs. Imran Panwar’s sin was that he was young and enthused by the fact that a prominent woman from his area was at a prominent position. Panwar, who was then a student at the Quaid-e-Azam University, made the mistake of seeking an appointment with Ms Khar. Others that committed the same mistake included a not so young a man from Kot Addu Abdur Rehman Daha, and a social activist Zafar Gurmani. These men were picked up on the orders of Hina Khar’s father and physically thrashed to encourage all and sundry to respect traditions of not approaching a saeen. Those who wonder how Jamshed Dasti got created must traverse the road that goes past eight huge gates of the Rabbani Khar’s (Hina Khar’s father) property to reach his house to understand the sense of frustration and revulsion. Dasti himself suffers from a lot of issues that may seem little to the people in Kot Addu as compared to the skewed attitudes and politics of the doadas.

In Mukhtaran Mai’s case, most of the judges did not sympathize with her and based their judgment on what was presented as evidence. They didn’t even think about how in such areas the state machinery, which includes law enforcement and local district administration, is the first to collapse in face of those who can commit violence. I remember spending my childhood and adolescence facing spurious court cases after my father’s death in 1979. And I am talking district Bahawalpur, where the landowners are not half as criminal as those in Muzaffargarh. This is mainly because majority are not feudal landowners, which means that their lands are not a grant from the state, a reward that is accompanied with the authority to commit violence on behalf of the state. But the absence of physical violence is often replaced with mental and emotional torture that takes place in the form of endless court cases and manipulation of state machinery.

[quote]I was no longer just a 23-year-old girl who could be thrown around[/quote]

No wonder my late mother advised me to take my civil service exams. Once when I resisted the idea, her explanation was that in order to survive in a male-feudal-oriented environment I needed to stand on my own two feet, which in Pakistan’s context meant having contacts. According to her, the two options for me were either to make a name for myself through writing so that it became imperative for people to recognize me, or to do my CSS. Her advice worked for me, as qualifying my civil service exams soon after her death in January 1988 provided me sufficient breathing space. I remember the then DC of Bahawalpur, who was known for greeting people according to their social and political status, became more open-minded towards me as I was now part of the fraternity. Had it not been for the help and cooperation of the then DG CSA AZ Faruqi, who allowed me to make my own group and go to Bahawalpur on district attachment, the climate might not have changed in my favor. The field trip to the local police station, revenue circle and a constant presence in the DC’s office for fifteen days sent the right signals in the area. I was no longer just a 23-year-old girl who could be thrown around.

In Pakistan, being part of the civil or military bureaucracy or the judiciary or all those groups that form part of the ruling elite is essential to negotiating survival. In the past decade or so, we have the media, especially the top cadre, as a full-blown member of the ruling elite. It has become even more important to carry yourself as part of the elite circle. The right attitude matters – which means keeping contacts, not necessarily trying to stand up for rights or any substantive values, a willingness to compromise for maximizing power, and to appear super rich even if one had not started out so well. It is worth remembering that the rich and powerful in Pakistan punish or abandon those who defy their class.

[quote]The rich and powerful in Pakistan punish or abandon those who defy their class[/quote]

Perhaps Shahnawaz Khar is unable to act his class. There are no takers for soft disposition or inability to manipulate and mold the state apparatus to your own end. The state machinery and local judiciary (in particular) responds to you only if you are powerful enough to twist a few arms. Notwithstanding merits of Shahnawaz Khar’s case, he probably has little chance to win the legal battle especially if it is fought on Ghulam Mustafa Khar’s turf. It is normal and imaginable for the doada to influence Shahnawaz’s close family. Even if that is not the case and Shahnawaz’s mother is genuinely unhappy with her son and has turned against him, the influence of the powerful Khar lords does not provide a fair space for all parties to maneuver and contest for their rights. Or is it that even the largest province of Punjab has turned like the tribal areas beyond KPK where the writ of the state does not apply?

Moreover, the personal tragedies created by absence of the writ of the state and presence of perverse feudal-authoritarianism are intense. It is also about wasted years and dreams, the pain of which other people cannot fathom, least of all those who think the feudal system does not exist.

Note: This article originally published here.