Monday, 5 November 2007

Our Feudal Lords

One thing I constantly hear from various members (or retired members) of the armed forces is the assertion that because of "feudalism", or the "feudal-system", democracy can never work in Pakistan and the army needs to run things in order to improve and uplift the people.

Of course, they conveniently ignore the fact that the army as an institution is the biggest feudal land-owner in Pakistan.

The history behind this is interesting, and one I would love to do more research about. But essentially, it goes back to the times when the Punjab was conquered by the British and brought into the imperial fold. At the time, the need to regularly pacify various parts of British India required the existence of a large standing army. Furthermore, it was judicious British policy to incorporate the armies of newly conquered areas into the British army as soon as possible, to prevent large bands of armed men wandering around without work (something the Americans could have learned from in Iraq, but that's another story).

The problem as was, how does one pay for all of this? Going through the expense and headache of a central treasury that collected taxes and then paid them out to the armies was a large undertaking, and one for which the British lacked the patience, manpower, and frankly, money, to do. It was far cheaper to simply allocate the revenues of various lands (the same lands from where soldiers were for the most part recruited) to the army, making the army, in essence the feudal landlords of those areas and the farmers who worked on them, their tennants. This procedure was extended so that there were certain areas which were to provide provisioning for the army, certain areas to provide cattle and horses for transport, etc. All in all, it was a way to maintain a large standing army on the cheap, while helping to integrate that area more firmly under British authority.

The pay off of the system was visible during the Mutiny (or civil war, call it what you may) in 1857 when the mutinying garrisons came almost exclusively from the eastern provinces in the Awadh and Bengal. The newly recruited Punjabi garrisons stayed loyal to the British and helped turn the tide against the mutineers. After the Mutiny, the British reduced recruitment from the eastern provinces and focused on recruitment from the Punjab and frontier peoples such as Pathans and Gurkhas.

After Independence this "feudal" relationship between the army as landlord and the farmers as tenants remained. However, in recent years the army started feeling that it could obtain better yields and profits by corporatizing farming on its lands, rather than retaining a large number of small tenant farmers.

As one gentleman who is a leading light in a large investment firm and an economic analyst enthusiastically assured me a few years ago, this process of corporatization of farming would be of great benefit to the economy. Of course, one wondered if it would be of great benefit for the thousands of farmers it would dispossess and throw off the land? It is this impulse, and the fight against it, that has led to incidents like this.

In a sense, I guess you could credit the army for trying to end feudalism. But not as it ended through land reform throughout Europe, but by simply translating the relationship between the army landlord and peasant tenant to a purely capitalist relationship, and throwing the farmers off the land.

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