Eclipse of Feudalism

WITHIN Pakistani intellectuals and academia, it is agreed that Pakistani society has changed. However, there is little articulation of the fundamental nature and processes of change and how public policy should address it.

The most powerful change is the demise of feudal institutions of local self-governance through which the system managed to maintain an oppressive status quo. These institutions were, among others, the panchayat, the choudhari, mukkhi, patel, the ‘bara’ and the jirga. They all settled disputes and handed out punishments. Even where these institutions exist today, they have coercive but no moral authority. As such, they are increasingly challenged by those forced to seek justice from them.

Village society has also changed. The green revolution, its technology and financial systems have introduced cash as a means of acquiring services, and neo-liberalism is rapidly changing cropping and marketing patterns. Previously, services to the village population were provided by ‘lower-caste’ artisans against payment of grain. These artisans have mostly migrated to urban areas. Thus, the caste injustices that made village self-sufficiency possible is now no more than a romantic myth. The village today is completely dependent on urban-produced goods which it cannot afford. So, an increasing number of family members of village households are forced to migrate and send money home. This and the change of profession due to migration further weaken clan relations and undermine the extended family’s patriarchal nature.

The above changes have made social and economic mobility possible and created, along with the mechanisation of agricultural production and marketing, a huge, growing and undocumented transport sector whose political power and social investments have yet to be recognised.

The village depends on urban-produced goods.

Since the traditional manner of solving disputes and maintaining the status quo are no longer available (or questioned where they still exist) new methods of seeking justice have emerged. Protest is one such method. In Sindh alone, since 2010, 72 protests have been reported in the rural areas in the English press alone and many more in the Sindhi press. Most of these protests have been led by village women who previously couldn’t venture out of their neighbourhoods except for work in the fields. The most popular form of protest is blocking intercity roads. Some blockages have lasted for more than two days and on the National Highway between four to 11 hours. Reasons for the protests are police excesses, political and bureaucratic corruption and indifference, wadera oppression, kidnappings, tribal feuds, karo-kari excesses, and demand for energy.

There are other indications of change too. Since 2000, 21 universities have opened in Pakistan’s small towns (population 200,000 to 500,000 as per the 1998 census). It is claimed by some of these universities that over 30pc of their student population is women and that the majority of the student population is from the rural areas. There’s also evidence that women’s hostels are mushrooming across Pakistan and that there’s a growing demand for them. In addition, 11 KFCs, four Pizza Huts, and hundreds of banks, complete with ATMs have opened in these towns, the majority of which now have shopping plazas and a fast-expanding real-estate sector.

Discussions with women who have lived in these hostels show their lives have changed and their ‘minds have opened’. They feel that in their villages, gender relations and family structures are becoming more ‘liberal’ because of their education.

But, there’s another side to these developments. There are large groups which believe in economic progress and education and support it. However, they would like to preserve their traditional values and clan and family structures. They see some of the changes that are taking place as Western and corrupt. These groups are represented by shopkeepers, transporters and ‘artis’ organisations and neighbourhood groups where traditional structures still survive. It is these groups that generously fund religious charities, maintain Islamic bank accounts and insist on the hijab.

There are others that seek to suppress this change altogether and push the clock back. These are the land-owning groups who promote tribal conflicts to divide populations and then through jirgas, resolve their disputes so as to remain relevant. Then, there are extremist religious groups who do the same by promoting religious divisions.

There are many overlaps between these groups and fast-disappearing grey areas. To understand and help policy address what is happening, social science has yet to look into the causes and repercussions of the changes mentioned here and identify the actors and their relationships with each other. Disconnected anecdotal evidence, surveys to prove a point and journalistic analysis are not going to help us understand the new world that is painfully struggling to be born. Social science will also have to divest itself of the tyranny of theory and the use of a vocabulary that promotes a conventional and divisive manner of looking at society.

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