Reading Land and Reform in Pakistan

A number of activists from the South Asia Solidarity Initiative (SASI) in New York have initiated a reading group on South Asia.  The notes below are the first in a series of commentaries following reading discussions that some members of the reading group hope to post on Kafila.  This is an attempt to broaden the discussions and in the process make it a productive dialogue to understand developments in the region and deepen our solidarity.

Reading Land and Reform in Pakistan

— Svati Shah, Prachi Patankar and Ahilan Kadirgamar

“…any strategy to stem the tide of Taliban-Al Qaida led militancy cannot ignore the issue of land rights…. Any reforms that revalue and formally recognize the local management of common property resources, therefore, will elevate the authority of tribal leaders over religious clerics or TAQ militants.”
Haris Gazdar, ‘The Fourth Round, And Why They Fight On: An Essay on the History of Land and Reform in Pakistan’

Given the escalation of a multifaceted war in Pakistan, and given our own commitment to a peace with justice in South Asia, we have started reading and discussing issues of importance in Pakistan and South Asia more broadly.  This inquiry is informed by the alarming and rapidly changing situation in Pakistan, and by an interest in interrogating the category ‘South Asia’ itself.  While all are agreed that the term ‘South Asia’ is indispensable, we wonder how ‘South Asia’ could be used to describe more than a region or a set of places outlined by shared borders. We wonder how we can move beyond the limitations of finding historical unity in South Asia primarily through the lens of British colonialism?  We wonder how we could describe the political unities and potential solidarities of ‘South Asia’ in this moment?  We find it particularly helpful to approach these questions by seeing common issues in the region relating to labour, land and the role of the state in societies in South Asia.  At the same time, we want to move away from the received notions of South Asia, whether they be the statist conceptions of SAARC, South Asia as seen by the US State Department or, for that matter, as a region defined by area studies.

On this occasion we chose to read and discuss the history of land and reform in Pakistan and found many similarities with other regions of South Asia that we are more familiar.  The reasons why we, who are of Indian and Sri Lankan origin, are more familiar with some of the politics and histories of South Asia than others, and why Pakistan exists in the relative gap in our knowledge, can and must be elaborated.  While the reasons may be fairly straightforward, individual, and experiential, we also know that these parameters do not serve to fully explain the politics of the gap to which we refer, a gap that describes the ways in which South Asian peoples have been systematically been kept apart from one another, as much as we have sequestered ourselves.  In aiming to bridge this gap, we have found similarities of the legacy of colonial land policy between Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the changes to the concept of land over time, the failed attempts at land reform by the post-colonial states and the impact of neoliberalism on the transformation of the politics of land.  We are conscious of land in Pakistan and South Asia as much more than a geographical category and see it more importantly as a political category, wherein the politics of land help to elaborate the materialist struggles that South Asian peoples share.  Furthermore, we are aware that land reform or land distribution, or, for that matter, dispossession and resistance, are not just about land and its relationship to agriculture and irrigation.  Land has come to mean much more than agriculture, even as we recognize the continuing importance of land for farmers – the relationship of land to people, capital and the state has different economic and political implications over time and space.

In Pakistan, we find not only the relationship of the land owning political elite, but also the bureaucracy and the military and its relationship to land and its people to be of great importance.  Land, we read, is at the centre of civil-military relations, which has brought about repression in many forms.  Land in Pakistan, as in many other states in South Asia has been at the centre of debates around devolution of power to the regions; it has become central to ethnic mobilizations and conflicts.  We are conscious that the people’s real and perceived relationship to land often influences the ability of different powerful actors, whether it be those aligned with the state or opposed to it in the form armed non-state actors, to mobilize in different ways depending on the social relations that have developed over time in different parts of Pakistan.

In what later became Pakistan, British colonial powers further entrenched an already existing systems of caste and class hierarchies within the society.  The monopoly of the landlords installed during the Mughal rule to collect revenues from the peasants was solidified through British colonization. As the colonial government did throughout the continent, they maintained the elite class of loyal landowners across all the areas of Pakistan, who came to dominate local politics in Pakistan after independence.  Creating this loyal elite landowning class was a necessary step in the politics of securing the colonial empire. After independence, the domination of the same elite landlords continued in the local politics in the years following independence.  We see no real attempts being made today to transform the basic social structures that contributed to the inequality in land policies. In the post-independence moment, colonial land reforms did little for the peasants who actually cultivated the land.

For those of us residing in the US, the imperative to understand the escalation of the war in Pakistan is made more urgent when we realize that reportage of the conflict there is ahistorical, at best, and participates in a banal and dangerous exercise in substituting ethnicity and religion for an explanation of how and why the current situation came to be.  Reading about land and peoples relationships to land are also attempts to understand the escalation of war and violence beyond how the armed and powerful actors see the war, US imperialist intervention, the role of the Pakistani state and ambitions of the Taliban. In other words it is an attempt to understand the bedrock of social relations.  It is an attempt to understand the history of peoples’ concerns and their resistance and the kind of movements that have shaped history.

Reading about land is an attempt to look at the ongoing militarization and war in the broader historical context and with a political economic framing, whereas the dominant discourse in the US is shaped so much around security and ideology; security in the context of the War on Terror and ideology in terms of a superficial understanding of Political Islam.  We want to understand politics in Pakistan including the alternatives for a different future from the point of view of the peoples of Pakistan and through the visions put forward by social movements.  From the perspectives of those who have struggled over the decades and from the interests of the people who will have to endure the consequences of the war and political developments in Pakistan

The stories of resistance by indigenous people who fought against the British for their collective ownership of land, by the civilian farmers who opposed the coercive tenant contracts of military authorities or by the Balochistan mobilization against the dispossession and marginalization of local working caste and class communities in the name of infrastructure development, give us sources of hope.  It is our responsibility to highlight such stories and find ways of being in solidarity with people’s resistance movements in Pakistan as we do the necessary task of resisting the ongoing wars in the region.

One thought on “Reading Land and Reform in Pakistan”

  1. M.J. Akbar makes a similar point in
    “The Taliban revolt has not emerged merely out of sentiment for religion. It is also a struggle for a reorientation of the oppressive economic relations in Pakistan, the worst of which is the land-peasant equation. Muhammad Sufi and Baitullah Mehsud found support because they challenged the landlords who have enslaved the Swat valley and so much else of Pakistan. After over six decades of independence, Pakistan still has not had land reforms. Independence has not translated into freedom for the peasant. Islamabad, like the Bourbons, seems to have forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. Now that the Army has taken control of many parts of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) Islamabad is inviting back the landlords who were driven out by the Taliban. “


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