Feudalism or jagirdari?

Weekly Bang-e-sahar karachi Saturday, May 24—–30, 2008
By Mubarak Ali
OUR society is not a monolith but a mixture of various cultures and systems with different traditions and values. There is tribalism in the NWFP and Balochistan while in central Punjab there are landholdings and the burgeoning towns of small industry.At the same time, strong centres of the jagirdari system exist in southern Punjab and in Sindh.Some of the big and powerful landlords have acquired spiritual as well as social and political clout in their areas by virtue of their saintly lineage. These landlords, in spite of living in an age of mechanisation and technological development, are keeping their relations with the peasants strictly based on old traditions. This class of present landlords is the product of the colonial era and continues to exist in spite of the challenges of modern life.Against this backdrop, we should not confuse the term ‘feudalism’ with our jagirdari system. Feudalism as an institution developed in Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire in conditions that were quite different from those of today. When the central power of the Roman emperors disintegrated, the cities became barren and trade routes unsafe. This resulted in the emergence of small feudal units independent of the sovereign power. Feudal lords had total control over their peasants. In the absence of any centralised power, the lords acquired judicial and political authority to administer their units. They also assumed the role of defenders and protectors.Though the Carolingian and Merovingian empires attempted to crush the power of the feudals, they failed because these empires themselves were on the decline. Feudal lords continued to challenge the absolute power of monarchs and enjoyed independence on their estates.In 1215, they forced King John, the ruler of England, to sign the Magna Carta which delegated the right of levying taxes to parliament. One of the features of English history is the continuous conflict between the king and parliament which was dominated by lords.To keep the feudal estate from fragmenting as a result of inheritance, the law of primogeniture was enforced. According to this law, the elder son inherited the estate and the other children were forced to seek jobs either in the army or in church or to make efforts to acquire properties through their own resources.The feudal institution declined in Europe in different ways. In England, the Industrial Revolution gradually transformed society from feudal to industrial. In France, after the 1789 revolution, the national assembly passed an act to abolish feudalism. In Prussia, the government ended feudalism when it realised that the role of the Junker class in society was diminishing. It relegated the responsibility of collecting revenues to its subordinates who were also entrusted with the task of maintaining law and order.A change occurred in India during the Sultanate period when landed property was assigned to military officers in lieu of salary. In return, they were obliged to supply cannon fodder to the ruler in case of military campaigns. This system was known as iqta which was first implemented by the Buwahids in Baghdad. The holders of landed property were known as iqtadars.The term jagir was introduced in India in the 16th century and continued to be used by the Mughals.The Mughal mansabdars were assigned jagirs in exchange for cash payments. There was no concept of private property. A mansabdar was transferred from one place to another quite frequently.That is why Bernier, the French traveller who visited India during Shah Jehan’s rule, criticised the jagirdars for not taking care of the peasants’ welfare or increasing agricultural output. Their main concern was to extract as much revenue as possible during their tenures. In the later Mughal period, there was a crisis in the jagirdari system which led to the decline of the Mughal Empire.When the British established their power in India, they found European feudalism to be different from Indian jagirdari. To them private property was sacrosanct and important for agricultural production and political stability. Hence, after 1857, they arrived at the conclusion that a class of landlords was essential to serve as collaborators to help the government control the masses and stabilise its rule.They strengthened those landlords who supported them during the uprising and created new ones who promised to be loyal to them. To strengthen this system the British government started allotting land to army officers after their retirement in recognition of their services, thus creating a new class which was loyal to the Raj.The British government declared the jagir as private property. To protect it, the Alienation Act of 1900 was passed in Punjab disallowing the purchase of rural property by urban residents. The system of ‘court of ward’ was established to manage the administration of the estate. Those estates which were mismanaged were reformed by the colonial officials.Educational institutions such as Aitchison College (Lahore), Mayo College (Ajmer) and Talluqdar College (Awadh) were created for the modern education of future generations of the landlords. Throughout the colonial period the jagirdar class remained loyal to the government and helped it in times of political crisis.During the First and Second World Wars it also recruited soldiers for the British army. Till the end of colonial rule, the jagirdars opposed any movement for independence and favoured continuity of the Raj. It was only when independence became unavoidable that the landlords of Punjab and Sindh joined the Muslim League in order to protect their privileges and properties. This strategy paid them handsome dividends, as we all know.The current jagirdars of Pakistan belong to the class which was created and nurtured by the British for their advantage. They have continued to dominate the country by monopolising political parties and by using democratic institutions for the perpetuation of their jagirdari system.Whenever martial law was imposed in Pakistan – and that happened frequently – they readily played an active role as the generals’ surrogates. In rural Sindh and southern Punjab, their havelis, armies of toughs and packs of dogs symbolise their power. They continue treating their peasants as slaves and even have private jails to punish those who dare to disobey them. They hold their private courts to decide cases on the basis of their own brand of justice and remain beyond the reach of the law of the land. As the political and financial position of the jagirdars remains strong, local administrations are totally subserviant to them.If any change has come about in this situation, its pace has been painfully slow and hardly perceptible, making it difficult for historians to determine with precision whether the jagirdari system has ended in our country, if at all.—Dawn


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