Will We Ever Break Away from the Feudal System?
by Omar Sial
In 1953 India enacted a law called the Abolition of Zamindari Act. Nearly all land from the zamindars and the jagirdars was resumed by the Government. The positive impact this move had on the political, democratic and economic condition of India was witnessed in a short time.
In Pakistan the story has been different. In 1950 Liaquat Ali Khan urged all provinces to initiate land reforms. Only East Pakistan paid heed to his advice. As a consequence, in that region, winning elections on the basis of land holding finished and the middle class too was able to take part in politics. West Pakistan ignored the instructions and hence the feudal influence continued. Two further attempts were made at land reforms in Pakistan in 1959 and 1972 by Ayub Khan and Mr. Bhutto respectively. Both attempts due to a multitude of reasons failed to achieve the targets of such reforms.
In 1980 after the introduction of Zia ul Haq’s own breed of Islamic provisions in the laws of Pakistan, the question whether the State can take away land belonging to another and impose ceilings on land holdings was agitated in the Federal Shariat Court. The argument was that such a taking over and restriction was un-Islamic. The FSC concluded that imposing land ceilings was not un-Islamic. In 1990 the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the FSC and held that the taking over of land by the State and imposing land ceilings was un-Islamic. As a consequence, the legislation on land reforms was declared null and void.
Basically, land reform is the process through which land from big land holders is taken away by the State and re-distributed amongst the landless. A large school of thought – to which I belong – believes that such a re-distribution will end the monopoly of zamindars and jagirdars in the political, economic and social affairs of the country. It will lead to a more democratic state. Such a move will also improve the situation of availability of food to our people. Through land reforms the minority will gradually lose its position of monopolizing the majority. The breaking up of the large estates to destroy the power of the feudal landowners is a national necessity.
There is a view that after the decision of the Supreme Court the issue of land reforms cannot be agitated and that the same is now dead. I disagree with this view. It is true that the decision of the Supreme Court is a hurdle in the way of land reforms. However, it is not a hurdle that cannot be crossed. It is pertinent to note that the Supreme Court did not comment on the validity of ownership of lands currently held by zamindars and jagirdars. There is a strong argument to support the proposition that the land was never owned by these zamindars and jagirdars but that the same was taken over by them in dubious ways after the British gave them control for the purposes of revenue collection.
Justice (Rt.) Dr. Tanzilur-Rahman in his paper titled “Land Reforms & Absentee Landlordism” suggests that a commission should be formed to look into the ownership of lands. He concludes his essay by “the terms of reference for the above said commission may include to inquire into the legal position in the light of Shari‘ah, about the status of land on creation of Pakistan whether the land was Kharaji or Ushri? In case the commission gives a finding that on August 14, 1947, the status and nature of the agricultural lands, within the territory of Pakistan, was Kharaji, the land will be treated as State-owned, and the problem will stand solved. Only the necessary amendment in the Constitution will have to be made and new law shall have to be enacted accordingly.”
In other words, If we can prove that this was State land, then we can also justify that the State has the right to take it back. An investigation as to the mode of acquisition of the lands by the Zamindars/jagirdars and their predecessors-in-interest, whether valid or not in the eye of Shari‘ah must be conducted.
The crux of the above argument is that land reforms are indeed possible. Only a government which has the support of the masses can bring about such reforms. The problem which exists is that the main stream political parties rely on the support of zamindars/jagirdars and the civil and military bureaucracy for coming into and then staying in power. These parties will never be able to go against the people from whom they derive their oppressive strength. A political party presented a land reforms bill in parliament but then did not follow it up. The subsequent behavior of this political party revealed that it was also not genuinely interested in land reforms and that the bill moved was with certain ulterior motives. Smaller, leftist parties do support land reforms and I genuinely believe that it is these parties, which will one day have the support of the masses and who will lead Pakistan to progress.