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Pakistanis Criticize Influence of Feudal Families

Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, has looked increasingly unstable in recent weeks, with discontent over President Gen. Pervez Musharraf's rule spilling into the streets.

Musharraf's move to sack the country's chief justice has sparked a series of rallies that are perhaps the biggest political challenge the army general has faced since he seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Nowhere have the anti-Musharraf protests been more vociferous than in the city of Lahore, regarded as Pakistan's cultural and intellectual heartland.

However, a close look at the social undercurrents in Lahore reveals that unrest in Pakistan is fueled not only by religion and politics, but also by an ancient system of feudalism and privilege.

Sardar Tufail Ahmed Shamim comes from a family that owns hundreds of acres of farmland a few dozen miles outside of Lahore.

By Pakistan's standards, his is considered a feudal family. Although feudalism has dwindled over the years, many believe it still exerts a worrying influence over the way their country is run. Despite his privileged background, Shamim readily agreed.

Feudal families "exploit the situation that you are related to me, you are this and that, we are from the same clan, and I will get our son nominated as a police officer, and I will get your son nominated in the revenue department," he said.

But Shamim is an exception. It's unusual for someone to be so frank about his place in the social hierarchy.

He said it's alarmingly easy for a feudal family in Pakistan to secure political power. If a feudal landowner wants a seat in parliament, he simply orders the locals to vote for him.

"He has got gunslingers with him," Shamim explained. "They are all inter-related also. Anybody who opposes him, they can just write him off, so he still holds the power."

Once inside the political system, feudals find it easy to get what they want.

"They get 10 or 12 or 20 people together, and then we go and bluff the chief minister or the prime minister that you do this thing, you do that thing, otherwise we will leave your party and go to the opposition," Shamim said.

Crowds of demonstrators have flooded the streets of Lahore in recent months to protest Musharraf's attempt to get rid of Pakistan's Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry for alleged misconduct. Many see the move as a ham-fisted ploy by the president to clear the way for his continued unelected tenure.

The demonstrations began as a campaign by many of the nation's lawyers for an independent judiciary. But they have widened.

The protesters want an end to military rule, and they're demanding democracy. But what kind of democracy would it be?

"One of the weaknesses of the struggle for democracy in Pakistan has been precisely that we have not done away with feudalism," said Rashid Rahman, executive editor for The Post newspaper and a staunch critic of Musharraf.

Feudalism exists largely in Pakistan's southern Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Rahman said over the years, governments have introduced land reforms intended to reduce the power of the feudals but without much effect.

"Land is the source of power still for the overwhelming majority of our legislators," he said. "They are therefore large landowners with very strong, vested interests in retaining that system and keeping millions and millions of the peasantry enslaved economically, politically, socially and in every other way."

Among those playing a leading role in the anti-Musharraf protests are political parties led by two previous prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. Yet corruption thrived when those two leaders held power in Pakistan, and they didn't manage to end the undemocratic grip that feudalism has on Pakistani politics.

Syed Faroz Shah, a laywer in Lahore, said Musharraf should stay in office, though not in military uniform. Shah shares concerns about the influence of feudalism over Pakistani politics.

"This is a system where money and muscle matters," he said. "If you are not financially sound, you will not be elected. And if you do not have the backing of the police and the administration, again you will not be elected, because they will see to it that they help the man who has power and money. They will rig the elections for him, and you will be defeated."

Shah and Shamim are leading lights in an organization campaigning for political change. They believe Pakistan's four provinces should be divided into smaller units, and they want Pakistan to have a presidential system like that in the United States.

At the moment, feudals hold a disproportionate number of seats in Pakistan's legislatures, according to Shamim.

"About 30 to 35 percent of people are from the feudal class," he said. "The other class that's come into politics is the industrialist. Now, you cannot fight elections unless you can spend 5 million rupees or 10 million rupees, because the constituencies are so big."

Shamim said it would be a lot easier for ordinary Pakistanis — the emerging middle class, for example — to get into parliament if the constituencies were much smaller.

But until change takes place, it'll be business as usual for Pakistan's feudals.

Shamim described the links between a typical Pakistani feudal and the military.

"My brother is in the army, my son is in the army, my uncle is in the army, and my daughter is getting married with a major or colonel. So, we are all interlinked," Shamim said. "Army is not coming by parachutes from the skies and getting down. They are one of us."

When it's time for a change of leadership, particularly when civilians are in charge, Shamim said, the feudal lords of Pakistan know precisely what to do.

"We go and request the army to come and save us from the people who are in power," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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