The Twilight of the Waderas

Highway robberies; kidnappings; carrying of unlicensed guns in the streets; private armies; an impotent administration; closed universities; non-collection of revenue; failure to maintain canals, drainage channels and roads; migration of middle landlords and capitalists to the larger cities; fear, uncertainty and pessimism. This is the situation in the rural areas of Sind, and it cannot be explained away as a law and order problem, as it so often is.

Over the last fifteen years enormous social and economic changes have taken place in Sind, resulting in the emergence of a new Sindhi middle class, in both the rural and urban areas. These changes have also led to increased mobility of the population, introduced mechanisation in transport and agriculture, and made the traditional wadera-administration alliance unworkable. They have created a new awareness in the peasant and supplanted the feudal barter system with a thriving cash economy.
In the absence, under martial law, of a political dialogue for the last nine years, state institutions have failed to assimilate this change, or make necessary modifications in their functioning to accommodate it. As a result, they are disintegrating and the authority of the government exists no longer. This disintegration of the state is the real cause for the present anarchy in Sind.

Before the mid-sixties, rural society in Sind was entirely feudal and the system had vitality and viable institutions. The wadera and jagirdar controlled all agricultural lands. Independent peasants, as in the Punjab, were almost unknown. Carpenters, blacksmiths, barbers, mat makers, tanners, were paid in rice and wheat by the village population. Cloth was spun on the khaddi in the village or brought in by bullock carts from the smaller towns, and bartered for other goods. Shoes were rare and water was taken from open wells and canals.

The landlord’s word was law. He had the power of life and death over his serfs. He recruited them as labour, as and when he desired, without any emoluments and saw to it that they received only enough to exist. All surplus was taken by him and he handed out penalties and punishments to those who opposed him.

In addition to the landlord there were tribal sardars and religious pirs. The tribal sardars received a yearly tax from their clan members, and in exchange settled their disputes and quarrels, punishing the guilty party with a fine. This fine could take the form of anything from a maund of rice to appropriating the women of the party at fault. This clan system, however, gave the people a sense of belonging and protection, in an otherwise hostile social environment.

The pirs promoted and catered to the superstitions of the people, who made regular offerings to them, and sought their advice in all personal and religious affairs. Most of them, in addition to being spiritual leaders, were also big landlords and, as such, a formidable force, something that the people could not even think of challenging.

The complete control exercised by the feudal system over every aspect of life in the rural areas freed the administration from the burden of maintaining law and order. In all aspects of government, the advice and help of the local landlord was sought, and in the vast majority of cases the administration turned a blind eye to the violations of law carried out by the landlord – mostly relating to the eviction of peasants, the non-enforcement of haqi-shifa (right of preemption), the punishments imposed on the peasants by the wadera, and the violation of human rights as enshrined in the state laws and constitutions. In exchange, the landlord guaranteed safe roads and freedom from crime and dissent. Thus whole districts could be governed by a handful of policemen, and canals and drainage channels maintained by labour supplied by the feudals. In fact, it was not possible for the state line departments to recruit labour directly, and very often it had to be imported from other parts of the country: the landlord did not want his “hans” to be corrupted by working for cash payments, and under the control of outsiders.

The most important role played by the feudals, however, was political. They controlled the votes, and thus they were able to give the establishment the results it desired in any election. Dissent in the cities was swamped by the voting power of the rural areas, where no dissent was possible. Anyone who rebelled against the system was hounded out and forced to become a dacoit in the jungles.

There were no roads, except for the national highway, and the means of transportation was limited to the bullock cart and camel caravans. Thus the outreach of the “mandi” towns was small, and agricultural surpluses had no markets. For example, it was easier for Karachi to get grain from the Punjab, than from Dadu or Larkana. Cotton ginning and rice husking were done mechanically in the larger urban centres, and city-produced goods did not find their way into the rural markets. There were no schools, no hospitals or dispensaries, and telecommunications were poor.

These conditions made it difficult, if not impossible, for a middle class to emerge from the rural areas and establish links with the city economy, as had happened earlier in some other parts of Pakistan. The mohajir and Punjabi business class filled this void, and joined hands with the wadera and the establishment to keep things as they were.

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