Landed Aristocracy and Peasantry in Pakistan (1947—1977):
A Case Study of Punjab
South Asia in general and Pakistan in particular are still largely in the hands of landed aristocrats. In addition to generating unearned income, land is also a source of political power and social control for the landed aristocrats in Pakistan. Due to unequal distribution of land, especially in a predominantly rural society, landed elite has been affecting development, provision of public goods, electoral competition, and balance of political power, and most importantly controlling and influencing the peasantry through different tactics like favours and patronage, and threat or coercion. A study of historical evolution of the institutions in Pakistan explores that unequal distribution of land traces the roots of dominant role of landed aristocrats in the political structure and exploitation—economic, political, and social—of the peasants at their hands (mainly due to the economic dependence of peasants on the landed aristocrats) at the hands of landed elite, from the colonial rule.
The shift from a colonial to an indigenous ruling class in 1947, coupled with other socio-political and economic changes allowed the landowning elite to keep playing a dominating role in the politics of the country. The landed class successfully reproduced their power through different mechanisms of reproduction of landed power like electoral mechanism, bureaucratic mechanism, legislative mechanism, economic mechanism, and ideological mechanism, and panchayat/local politics—access of the people to state (police, revenue officials, bureaucracy and judiciary) through landowning classes of rural areas. This is noteworthy because aspects like Islamic law of inheritance, and several land reforms could be expected to change in the power structure at national and provincial level. But apparently, they could do only a little to change the patterns of landownership but couldn’t curtail the economic power and socio-political influence of the landed aristocrats.
Pakistan has experienced recurrent military regimes. Military rulers always tried to legitimize their rule through non-party based elections. Subsequently, traditional powerful political tycoons remained dominant figures at different levels of the national politics in Pakistan. Muhammad Waseem holds that non-party-based election and almost 65 to 70 per cent rural population provided best possible base for the inclusion of the landed class into politics. In the former case, military dictators depended upon the landed gentry for their non-party-based elections; however, in the latter case, political parties allocated tickets to the landed class in order to garner maximum seats in the assembly.
Even under purely democratic rule, leadership of Pakistan’s most powerful political parties remained firmly in the hands of the propertied classes, with the landed elite being the single largest group within this category. A large part of winning parties in the elections of the National Assemblies of Pakistan (1956, 1962, 1966 and 1970) came from landed aristocracy-majority from the Punjab.
A large number of researcher have given due importance to the study of landed aristocracy. However, the nature and extent of relationship between landed aristocracy and peasantry in post partition West Punjab—especially Kisan Tehreek (Farmers’ Movement)—remains less researched from historical point of view. This project addresses the question ‘how has the landed aristocracy managed to maintain its position, while peasants were unsuccessful in their attempts to limit their exploitation at the hands of landed aristocrats in Punjab during 1947—1977?
Project researcher: Mazhar Abbas.