Feudalism in Pakistan

Who's to blame for the prevalence of the feudal system in Pakistan? Natasha Shahid explores its historical roots

Feudalism in Pakistan
“The land-tenure system which Pakistan inherited at Independence represented in many ways a symbiosis of structural relationships that permitted economic and social exploitation of the tenant by the landlord. […] This system of land tenure was characterized by absentee landlordism, and led to the exploitation of tenants by the zamindars because of the highly uneven power structure inherent in the system.”

Syed Nawab Haider Naqvi, Mahmood Hasan Khan & M. Chaudhry Ghaffar, Land Reforms in Pakistan: a Historical Perspective

The Current Feudal System Prevalent in South Asia is a Legacy of the British

In the world of today – rather, the third-world of today – it is the norm to blame everything that goes amiss in a developing country on its faulty and corrupt government. In Pakistan, an essential part of this new vogue is to lament the country’s medieval system of land ownership that provides room for landlords to thrive – nay, even control the system to its very roots.

It must be said that in most cases this blame is justly placed. However, where we, Pakistanis, go wrong is in discovering the roots of this parasitical flaw in our system, sometimes mistakenly blaming the Muslim monarchs of medieval India for creating the intermediary landlords, particularly criticizing Akbar’s mansabdari system. But accurate research reveals that it was not in fact Akbar, but the British colonizers of the subcontinent who have left us with this parasitical curse that we have failed to get rid of to this day.

How were the British the true architects of the feudal system of the subcontinent? This article will seek to explain exactly how the ex-imperial colonizers of India managed to bless the region with one of its most persistent nuisances.

Farmers, also known as Hari in Sindh and Muzara in Punjab, at work on a feudal lord's land
Farmers, also known as Hari in Sindh and Muzara in Punjab, at work on a feudal lord's land

It was not Akbar but the British colonizers who left us this parasitical curse

Pre-British Land Revenue System

Mughal Mansabdari System

When the British first set foot on the subcontinent, the Mughals were in rule over most part of the region. As a part of their revenue administration was the mansabdari system through which they regulated control over the land revenue of the country. This system, introduced by Mughal Emperor Akbar, remained in place from the late 16th Century (dates vary between 1575 and 1595) till the fall of the Mughal Empire.

Difference from Modern Feudalism

Often criticized for being the root of our modern feudal system, the mansabdari system was in fact different in many essential ways. First and foremost, the system granted ownership on a non-hereditary transferable basis. The officials, mansabdars, who were granted the job of overseeing of the land, never owned their mansabs but were only granted a share of its earnings as a reward for their work. Thus, since they never owned the land, they did not have the right to pass it on to their offspring, either. This non-ownership of land is the essential difference between modern feudalism and the Mughal mansabdari system.

Mansabdars turn into Petty Chiefs

However, after the fall of the Mughal Empire, these mansabdars, turned into de facto hereditary landlords and petty chiefs of their mansabs. With the Mughal ruler gone, there was no one to stop them from doing so. But, sadly for them, soon enough, a new force was to gain control of their land – the British.

PTI's Shah Mehmood Qureshi is one of the most powerful feudal lords of Multan
PTI's Shah Mehmood Qureshi is one of the most powerful feudal lords of Multan

A Brief History of British Land Acquisition in India


1757 – Battle of Plassey, Company Rule in India effectively established

1764 – Battle of Buxar, defeat of Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II forces him to grant diwani (revenue collection) rights of Bengal and Bihar to the British

1793 – Cornwallis Code, Permanent Settlement Act introduced

1858 – British Raj Begins

1887 – Punjab Tenancy Act 1887

1901 – Land Alienation Act

As the chronology above shows, the acquisition of land by the British was a gradual process, dictated by their military conquests over the subcontinent. This acquisition of lands – and its pattern – determined the method of revenue collection that the colonial power opted for, beginning with the diwani, the first time the British gained the right to collect revenue off an Indian land. In due time, with the introduction of the British Raj, they would stamp their legal authority over the subcontinent by introducing a number of reforms that would systematically create a new breed of intermediaries in the revenue system.

Pakistan is one of the leading regions where slavery is still functional - thanks in much part to feudalism
Pakistan is one of the leading regions where slavery is still functional - thanks in much part to feudalism

The acquisition of land by the British was a gradual process

Basic Land Tenure Structure introduced by the British Colonizers

As already mentioned, the British colonizers of India imposed different systems of land revenue collection in different regions, depending upon when they acquired it. Generally, they introduced one of three land revenue systems in their jurisdiction: landlord based system, which is also known as zamindari or malguzari; systems organized on the basis of individual cultivators, also known as raiyatwari/ryotwari; and village-based systems, also known as mahalwari.

The Zamindari System: The Zamindari system was introduced by the British in the Eastern provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa – the ones that the British annexed the earliest. In this system of land regulation, the landlord – the person who was awarded a piece of land by the British – was solely in charge of revenue collection. This meant that the British administration had no direct dealings with the cultivating peasants. Therefore, in this system, the landlords were in effect given all property rights, though, in later years, the British did introduce some measures for protecting the rights of tenants and sub-proprietors.

The Ryotwari System: The Ryotwari system was introduced mainly in the South Indian region, in modern Indian states like in Maharashtra, Karnataka, etc. In this system, the British awarded peasants with ownership of their land, making this is a system of peasant-proprietorship. Hence, all land revenue collection was made directly from the peasants who worked on and owned the land they cultivated.

Mahalwari System: In the west of the Subcontinent – the region making up modern-day Pakistan – the British introduced the mahalwari system. In this system, the British developed groups of villagers – most certainly the more prominent members – and assigned to them the task of collecting land revenue from all the farmers.

The mansabdari system was different in many essential ways

British Mahalwari System – the father of Modern Pakistani Feudalism

As stated above, during British occupation of the subcontinent, modern-day Pakistan was regulated by the Mahalwari revenue system. In this system, village bodies that were joint “owners” of the village were responsible for collecting land revenue. It isn’t said what the basis of selection for this body of authoritative villagers was, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to understand whom the British would have liked to reward with the ownership of a piece of land: only their faithfuls.

The composition of this village body varied from place to place. In some areas, the lucky few were a family, or even a single person – very much like the Bengali landlord system, zamindari. In other areas, the village bodies were larger, including a much larger variety of people. The share of each member was either determined by ancestry – known as pattidari – or his (definitely not her) possession of land, known as bhaichara system. The latter of the two was closer to the raiyatwari system.

Furthermore, the state fixed the revenue for a limited period of 30 years at some places. The revenue rates in these areas were determined on fairly ad-hoc grounds, based on a diverse set of factors.

Many of Pakistan's most renowned politicians were feudal lords, including the
Many of Pakistan's most renowned politicians were feudal lords, including the "socialist" Zulfikar Ali Bhutto


As any system that takes away proprietorship from the peasants, the Mahalwari System had an array of drawbacks. Essentially, the land revenue system brought low benefit for the cultivators; much like zamindari or permanent settlement, the mahalwari system benefited only the upper class of villages.

Reforms over the Years

Since the implementation of their various systems of land revenue, beginning with the Permanent Settlements Act of 1793, the British, time and again, introduced a number of land reforms in their Raj, attempting to tinker with the existing system but effectively attaining little. The Acts that most affected modern-day Pakistan – particularly the Punjab – included:

Punjab Tenancy Act, 1887

Punjab Tenancy Act of 1887 awarded tenants of certain categories occupancy rights. According to Chapter II of the act: “A tenant who at the commencement of this Act has, for more than two generations in the male line of descent through a grandfather or grand uncle and for a period of not less than twenty years, been occupying land paying no rent” and other similar types of tenants who have owned land for a certain period of time, were awarded the right of occupancy to that land. What meaning of “occupancy” the lawmakers were using has not been stated in the Act. The Act further included measures to protect tenants from extortion and eviction, such as regulation of rent, etc.

In sum, then, Punjab Tenancy Act, 1887, was a means of strengthening the tenant and protecting him from the landlord’s exploitation – at least on paper.

The concept of feudalism aptly illustrated: farmers work while the feudal lord reaps the reward
The concept of feudalism aptly illustrated: farmers work while the feudal lord reaps the reward

Punjab Tenancy Act of 1887 awarded tenants of certain categories occupancy rights

Land Alienation Act 1901

This act – a very important one in the economic life of the Punjab during the British Raj – impacted many spheres of its financial existence from money lending to revenue collection. The Act provided protection to small cultivating owners from loss of their land to money lenders, i.e. non-cultivating owners. It also prevented the transfer of land from cultivating owners – i.e. the landlords – to non-cultivating owners.

It can be said that this act effectively sealed the fate of the farmers in our part of the world, creating for good the idle intermediary of the absentee landlord, whose only job was to live off the cultivation of his tenant. Much of the subcontinent, especially Pakistan, employs this system to this very day.

British vs. Mughals: Who is Responsible for Creating the Absentee Landlord?

In light of these facts, we can observe that it was in fact the British and their land revenue system that created the zamindars of the subcontinent, making them the parasitical existence that they are today. It was their gradual restructuring of the land-tenure system – from the 1793 introduction of Permanent Settlement to the 1901 Land Alienation Act – that saw to it that the peasants of the region falling under the zamindari and mahalwari systems could not gain ownership of the land they themselves tilled. It was their doing that the cultivators of the land were reduced to mere tenants of the “landlords”, who refused them the right to live off their own hard work. Instead, they – the landlords – lived off the tenants’ hard work while doing nothing themselves. Therefore, it is about time we started laying the blame where it’s due, and whenever we choose to lament our unshakable feudal tradition, not forget to blame our ex-British masters for blessing us with this deep-rooted curse we the Pakistanis have not been able to get rid of even after six-and-a-half decades of independence.

Muttahida Qaumi Movement is one of the few political parties who openly oppose feudal lords and feudalism
Muttahida Qaumi Movement is one of the few political parties who openly oppose feudal lords and feudalism

After the British: What Has Pakistan Done About It

M. Masud wrote in his famous Minute of Dissent, a report that he compiled for the Hari Enquiry Committee in 1949: “The hari and the zamindar represent two extremes of mankind; one lives in the height of depravity and misery, the other in the height of luxury and extravagance. The population of haris is roughly 20 lacs and that of the big zamindars owning land over 500 acres is about seven thousands. The luxurious life of a small section of zamindars has created a very great misery for the majority of human beings living in Sind, namely the haris. The hari is degraded to the lowest level because the land on which he depends for his existence is under the absolute control of the zamindar who can evict him at any time.”

M. Masud wrote these words in 1949, but they are equally true, today. In 2010, MQM’s Mustafa Kamal echoed Masud’s words when he said on a local TV channel:

“Our entire society has cancer. It has developed a tumour… the tumor of the Jagirdar and Wadera system. And we need to get rid of it. […] The body which is Pakistan is in the ICU, we need to decide whether we have to get the tumour of the feudal system out of this body or let it collapse. Who will make the laws? Those who are breaking the law themselves? How will someone who takes a loan and doesn’t pay it off, make a law against himself? The flour hoarder, its price inflator, its smuggler is sitting in the parliament, the sugar price inflator is sitting in the parliament, how will he make the laws? Those who bury women alive are sitting in the parliament, how will they make laws for the poor?”

To this day, MQM remains the only party in Pakistan to include the abolition of the feudal system in its chief objectives. Meanwhile parties like Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf – the self-proclaimed providers of public justice, and initiators of change – lend help from feudal lords like Shah Mehmood Qureshi and stay mum on the ill-effects of the system that gave rise to Qureshi and many other of his peers – pun unintended.