By Ali Mustafa
Aug 21, 2014
On a hot afternoon in July, 10-year-old Tabassum Iqbal went for a swim in the well of a local landlord in the village of Chak Bhola, in Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab.
Tabassum and his family had been living on a small parcel of land under a feudal lord’s jurisdiction. In exchange for labour, the landowner, Ghulam Ghous, provided his workers, like Tabassum's father, and their families with housing, utilities, and financial loans.
That day, unbeknown to Tabassum, by engaging in the simple act of bathing in the landlord’s well, he had crossed a deeply ingrained, yet unapparent cultural fault line: He had indulged in leisure as part of the serf class. While the act may have provoked reprimand on any other day, it was his father’s transgression that would lead to a brutal attack on the boy.
A few days earlier, Tabassum’s father had dared to argue with the landlord’s son, Ghulam Mustafa, over an electricity bill. Mustafa decided to punish the boy in retribution. After torturing Tabassum, Mustafa severed the 10-year-old's arms.
"I hid in the fields after he beat me," Tabassum told reporters from his hospital bed. "I tried to run, but he caught me and threw me in the wheat thresher."
The 10-year-old’s arms were shredded by the rotating spikes of the threshing machine.
When he realised the gravity of what had happened, Mustafa took the boy to a local hospital, where Tabassum was presented as a "nephew who had had an accident". Mustafa donated blood and left.
Upon learning of his son’s condition, Nasir rushed to the police station to file charges against Ghulam Mustafa.
"The police refused to open a case without a medical report. A case wasn’t even opened after the report was presented," Nasir told reporters.
This refusal of local police to pursue charges against an influential landowning family is not unique, and highlights the deep ties between feudalism and justice in rural Pakistani society.
"The landlord ensures a system of very cruel slavery by creating dependencies for peasants," says Pakistani author Shaukat Qadir. "[Farm workers] and their families are subservient to the system."
The landowner uses this local influence to further his political ambitions by fostering a system dominated by feudal power. In this sense rural police officials, local bureaucrats and religious leaders all represent the feudal lord’s interests..
"Political office is inherited in Pakistan," says political economist and author Manzur Ejaz. "The provincial and national assemblies are dominated by feudal landowners." At least 75 percent of the Pakistani government's legislative branch is composed of landowners.
The feudal system is not confined to the political arena. Land ownership links feudal lords to Pakistan’s various other patronage networks. Landlords, such as Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, act as religious patron saints to thousands of peasant followers, who loyally vote for their feudal lord during election time.
"Local religious figures and feudal landlords compliment each other’s authority and enable the further spread of feudalism," said Ejaz.
Children like Tabassum attend religious schools established on feudal lands where they are taught religious principles and are told to follow the landlord’s commands.
"Landlords are beneficiaries of a broken system that exploits the poor and empowers the rich," says Shaukat Qadir. "Consequently, their desire to do away with this [system] is very limited, and their primitive beliefs of dominance, such as suppression of women, continue to exist."
The Pakistani army is also deeply entrenched in the feudal system, ensuring its longevity.
"The army also contributes to and benefits from feudalism, unconsciously. One of the benefits army officers get for their service is agricultural land, which they then rent out to larger landowners," Qadir told Al Jazeera. The army taps into the feudal system to get the resources it needs, and so "the feudal system is indirectly fostered".
Challenging Cycle of Impunity
Once the story of Tabassum's brutal attack was picked up by the Pakistani media, the police finally opened a case against the landlord's son. Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the Punjab province, visited the boy in the hospital and suspended the officials who had delayed the investigation process.
"The person who incapacitated this child is a criminal and deserves the maximum possible punishment," said Sharif. The chief minister subsequently gave Tabassum’s parents a cheque for $10,000 and promised to help get the child prosthetic arms.
As Ghulam Mustafa awaits his day in court, he can take solace from the experience of other feudal lords accused and convicted of egregious crimes. Shahrukh Jatoi, the son of a large landowner from Sindh province was convicted and then pardoned for the 2012 murder of twenty-year-old Shahzeb Khan in Karachi.
The victim’s family, however, ultimately forgave the murderer, an outcome acceptable under Pakistan’s often-abused clemency laws.
Friends of the victim say Shahzeb's family faced "immense political pressure" to pardon Jatoi.
"Feudalism is a crime against humanity," said author Qadir. According to the author, what was a 17th century construct for social and economic organisation has turned into a form of slavery in 21st century Pakistan.
It is difficult to say if acts of cruelty against serfs in Pakistan are increasing, or whether they are simply receiving more public attention, just as it is difficult to determine if some landlords’ cruelty is harsh resistance to an increasing demand that conditions for rural Pakistani serfs be more in line with international labour standards.
Currently, 65 percent of Pakistan’s 200m people are below 30 years of age. Nearly 50 percent of the country’s population lives in towns with at least 5,000 people; an increase from 30 percent a decade ago. A young, urbanising population is starting to challenge the status quo by demanding more rights.
"The increasing urban middle class is trying to break the grip of the old feudal order," says economist Ejaz. "Pakistan is witnessing a classic class struggle."
"The next generation of Pakistanis is more educated and more desirous of change," says Qadir. Cases like Tabassum’s would previously go unheard, but a young population armed with a freer media is beginning to raise human rights issues. "The enormity of what is happening is becoming glaringly clear."
But Pakistan still has a long way to go before the feudal system is dismantled, Ejaz tells Al Jazeera.
"The grip of a narrow-minded and backward feudal class does not allow the development of a modern state. And no outdated class dies without putting up a fight."