Feudal culture has been an indispensable force in shaping the political arena of Pakistan. Feudalism, also known as feudality or feudal culture, is defined as a social, legislative, and economic system that flourished in medieval Europe between 9th to 15th centuries.
The feudal model in the 17th century implies an absence of a legislative body – where economy was run by lords who appointed vassals (slaves) and who were forged by lords’ grant of a piece of land known as “fief”. These ties required vassals to provide services to their lords (military duty, advice, and financial assistance), and lords protected and honoured them.
Conventionally, feudalism, what was known as the ‘wadera system’ in our part of the world, was a concept of labour class, serving the ruler’s piece of land, to get a fraction of land in return. In modern times, in Pakistan, feudalism is understood as exploitation of the less privileged by the privileged landed elite. Through the government bureaucracy, armed forces, and political elite, Pakistan’s feudal families have gained influence in national matters. It is complex to curate a sole understanding of the idea of feudalism in Pakistan today but it surely is a system of patronage, where members of the low-income class pay for increasing power of the rich. The feudal landowners have built states inside states in which they control their fiefs without fear of retaliation.
The two prime actors in the politics of Pakistan — military and clergy — are closely linked to feudal lords for the sake of their own interests, to get agricultural land in return. The ethos of feudalism lies in patronage.
The seed of feudalism was sowed in the colonial times through the doctrine of divide and rule. It has garnered its roots in Pakistan ever since. During the Indo-Pak partition, the caste system developed by British Raj was abolished which led to a transfer of greater power in hands of landlords, altering framework of the government.
The idea of feudal culture in Pakistan has evolved since the 19th century but the traditional values are not forgone. From Liaquat Ali Khan in 1945 to Shah Mahmood Qureshi in 2020, the feudal lords have influenced the political affairs of the nation since it was born.
In addition to land ownership, another feature of the feudal system is the ‘Gaddi Nasheens’, who are rulers without intuition to whom the power is transferred from one generation to another. It is also described as: “a patronage-based system that enforces illiteracy on adults who can vote while forcing manual labour on youngsters who can’t. It is a status attained by men whose primary qualification was ingratiation with British bureaucracy”. Feudal lords of the 21st century continue to extract the harsh counterparts of the former feudal culture rather than learning lessons from it to impact today’s political culture positively.
Feudal power is used as a tool by landlords to further their political agendas. The two prime actors in the politics of Pakistan — military and clergy — are closely linked to feudal lords for the sake of their own interests, to get agricultural land in return. The ethos of feudalism lies in patronage. The murder case of Shahzaib Khan, who was killed by the son of a feudal lord, and the murder of Mustafa Kanjo, son of former minister Siddiq Kanjo, force us to contemplate why the feudal class of the 21st century follows precedents set by the feudal class of the 20th century.
Responding to a globalised society, the feudal class has moved to diversify, investing in textile mills and sending children overseas to study and prepare for professional careers. Old habits, however, are difficult to break.
It can be concluded that feudalism has evolved over time and feudal landlords do not have the same power as they did 50 years ago. The passing of land from one generation to the next has diluted family land ownerships. Feudal economic dominance has been eroded by the advent of a new class of businessmen and commercial real estate barons. The modernizing forces of education and social media are perhaps the most crucial.
Responding to a globalised society, the feudal class has moved to diversify, investing in textile mills and sending children overseas to study and prepare for professional careers. Old habits, however, are difficult to break. The link between the feudal mentality and the authoritarian tendencies in Pakistan’s political life is easily observed. When feudal lords become political leaders, they tend to regard the state as their property and its people as their subjects.
In Pakistan, there are about 400 families that have influenced Pakistani politics for generations. Despite the fact that family wealth has been dispersed over generations, feudal families and their renowned surnames still hold influence in any constituency under the baradari system that has been reigning since the past 200 years.