Interior Sindh, referring to anything beyond Karachi and Hyderabad, is a caricature in the urban imaginary: the hinterland where landlords cruelly rule over their static dominions and kick their slaves for entertainment, while masses roiling in timeless subjugation vote for dead people in every election.
There is a debate over whether feudalism exists in Sindh or whether the term is now a catchphrase for the rural elite’s exploitation and impunity.
The landed elite did not evolve out of the economic or social imperatives of the province but in the service of broader regime requirements.
There are four distinct waves in the creation of zamindars in Sindh.
The first was a product of colonialism, where landholding revenue collectors were declared cultivators, and gifted land ownership in exchange for services for the empire.
The second set emerged after the construction of irrigation infrastructure starting from the Jamrao Canal to the Sukkur barrage in the 1930s where land was allocated to retired army men, civil servants and to settler cultivators.
The third wave that saw the strengthening of zamindars was during Gen Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship where small owners, indebted feudals and non-cultivators were granted land and allowed to keep armed militias in lieu of support for the regime and opposing the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy.
The fourth wave was during Gen Musharraf’s regime where local contests for power were erased through an equilibrium carved by the local bodies system, delineating niches for each.
Zamindars at different historical junctures had a transactional relationship with ruling regimes. They had an autonomous power base because of their role in the rural economy, wealth, prestige, the ability to implement decisions and the deference of locals. In return for patronage of gifts, titles and concessions, they promised delivery of land revenues, power and a workforce to get decisions executed, control of the rural population, and after the colonial exit, they guaranteed votes for elections.
Now, they pay little agricultural tax, cannot independently get their decisions executed, have no control over the immense social changes in the province; face protests and dissent and have periodically been defeated in elections.
Most zamindars, pirs and gaddi nashins have at some point lost in their home constituencies, voted out by those accused of blind slavery. The 1988 election was Sindh’s referendum against feudalism and witnessed some legendary defeats of feudal lords and tribal chiefs: Pir Pagara, Sardar Sultan Chandio, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Sardar Mahar, Nazar Shah were all defeated by middle-class PPP candidates, though they went on to become the new exploitative elite themselves.
But the landed elite no longer have a power base distinct from that of the state. They pilfer state power or refract it onto themselves. Even landlords holding large contiguous tracts of land (keti) have little ability to get decisions executed without utilising state institutions.
Whether using police to get people roughed up or ‘intiqaami karwai’ (revenge through registering fake legal cases) or getting FIRs quashed, making bureaucrats endorse a faislo or jirga in their favour, initiating development projects etc, it all requires access to officialdom. Local bureaucracies are subject to transfer/postings because landed elites fight for officers of their choice, often giving positions to bidders on one-year leases.
The landlord’s economic base is no longer exclusively tied to landholding. Now their presence and influence is there in the capillaries of the state, the petrol pumps, permits, real estate dealings and money from transfer/posting bids.
Others have changed their mode of operation — they no longer oppose schooling and education and try to ensure service delivery in their areas to get benefits for constituents even though that means lessening dependence on land-based livelihoods, albeit through systemic distortions.
The state is no longer peripheral. It is an intrinsic need in people’s lives, and they turn to the elites as a conduit. But the internal logic sustaining feudalism has ruptured; feudal culture exists without a feudal economic base and without feudal power.
The culture is also unravelling. Landlords used to field dalit labourers as candidates to insult their opponents who were contesting elections.
The rising number of court cases filed signal that the mechanism of landlord arbitration of conflicts is breaking down.
Broadcast media has created awareness that transcends literacy boundaries. There are numerous indicators of social change.
But state institutions are the impediment, not the catalyst.