Political feudalism in Sindh

Dawn, May 15, 2005
Political feudalism in Sindh
By Ameer Bhutto

A FEW months ago, the Baloch tribal sardars stood accused of acting like warlords and toying with the destinies of the poor and suppressed people by depriving them of development and other opportunities. The traditional tribal system of Sindh, maliciously portrayed in the press and media by cliched caricatures of waderas, has long been under siege from vested interests in the establishment who seek to discredit Sindh’s stand against Kalabagh Dam, Thal Canal and the unfair distribution of national wealth under the present NFC Award, among other issues.

Not only this, but Sindhi waderas have become easy targets on a plethora of issues for NGOs and organizations related to human rights, women’s rights, social welfare, etc. But all the evils associated with so-called tribal feudalism, whether real or concocted, pale into insignificance before the looming sceptre of a new brand of state-sponsored political feudalism that is being introduced in Sindh, which is likely to usher in a new era of pain and oppression for the suffering poor of this land.

Political mercenaries have made a living off sycophancy and pandering. Past governments, imposed upon us by the powers that be, through the facade of bogus rigged elections, have tried to sustain their fleeting hold on power with the backing of such bands of floating mercenaries who make it a point to be on the winning side, but inevitably demand their pound of flesh in return for their support.

It is an ideal marriage for them and the government of the day, as both feed off each other while they can. In the process, however, these mercenaries acquire enormous personal and political benefits from the government, not least by way of getting officers of their choice appointed at important government posts at all levels through ‘sifarish’, who then cater to their every whim and need. Unable to draw strength from the masses, with whom they have no nexus, successive governments are constrained to submit to their blackmail in order to survive.

The present government has gone farther than any government in the past in its effort to appease these mercenaries. Not being satisfied with giving them the customary perks and paraphernalia now deemed to be their God-given right by virtue of being ‘in power’, Sindh is now being carved up into private jagirs and fiefdoms for handpicked waderas, pirs, mirs and sardars associated with the ruling party, not to mention dominating alliance partners from the urban areas, to facilitate their return to power in the upcoming local elections as well as the 2007 general elections. Maps of entire districts, tehsils, union councils and even dehs are being redrawn on the sole criteria of personal and political interests of sycophants who survive and operate at the mercy of the government of the day and cannot win elections without manipulation and the backing of the administrative machinery.

Within the last few months, Larkana, Jacobabad and Dadu districts have been broken up into two districts each and Hyderabad district has been mutilated to create four ridiculously small districts. One of the districts carved out of Hyderabad, Matiari, is roughly based on just one tehsil and encompasses only 19 union councils. Furthermore, the creation of Shahdadkot district out of Larkana was highly controversial from the first day of its inception. This new district was initially named Kambar. Upon the insistence of a ruling party MPA from Shahdadkot, it was renamed Shahdadkot district.

This led to violent demonstrations in Kambar in which four people lost their lives. The government then announced that the district would be known as ‘Shahdadkot district at Kambar’. Similarly, Kashmore district, which was carved out of Jacobabad, is known as ‘Kashmore district at Kandh Kot’. Nothing can be more absurd than having district offices in one town while the district is named after another town. This ridiculous farce, apart from exposing the government’s weakness and inability to impose its writ, has also shown that appeasing the ruling party MNAs and MPAs takes precedence over the interests of the people.

There are a number of mercenaries still manoeuvring behind the scenes in an all-out effort to create more personal political jagirs for themselves. In the past, a few elite darbaris, who were privileged enough to be close to the real powers behind the scene, occasionally managed to have electoral constituencies of their own choice demarcated.

But now no one even blinks when whole districts, encompassing several National and Provincial assembly seats, are axed to bits on the basis of nepotism and political convenience. The ruling Muslim League-Q is stronger in Punjab than in Sindh, yet one does not hear about private jagirs being carved out for Punjab ministers, MNAs and MPAs. In Sindh, the urge to prove oneself to be more loyal than the king himself, it appears, is felt with greater urgency.

Even the enemies of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto will admit that he played a pivotal role in freeing the poor and suppressed masses from the stranglehold of waderas and sardars and made them appreciate the value and power of their vote when exercised by free will. The new current trend of making political jagirs in Sindh, however, is bound to set the clock back by at least four decades. The waderas and sardars never felt comfortable with the liberation of the masses from their grasp during Bhutto’s time. They have now finally found a government myopic enough to herd the flock back into their stockades.

Once the mercenaries have carved out political jagirs of their choice, administered by government officers of their choice, the consequences for the common citizen will be painful and disastrous. He can then bid farewell to any vestige of free will as he is bound to become totally dependent upon the master of the jagir and will have to toe his line.

For instance, an MPA from Shikarpur district is lobbying hard to have a bordering area of Larkana district included into his new proposed jagir. The area in question is inhabited by people who have refused to come under his influence and have established a trend of voting according to their conscience.

This is going to be the norm in every newly formed political jagir across Sindh. The people will be denied their right to exercise free will and will be thrown to the wolves. Instead of moving towards an era of enlightenment and progress by encouraging the exercise of free will, the government is stifling the political and social independence of the poor haris and labourers who already find the odds heavily stacked against them.

Given the low calibre of the mercenaries and the government’s helpless dependence upon them, is it any wonder that Sindh is in such a mess? While Punjab succeeds in attracting heavy foreign investment in the form of a hundred million dollars per year aid package from the World Bank for providing free education to 900,000 children, Sindh fails to emulate this achievement because the World Bank can find no one in Sindh capable of formulating and implementing a radical reform of the education department that the World Bank set as a pre-requisite for similar aid. While the project of canal lining, announced by the president, proceeds rapidly in all other provinces, no headway has been made in Sindh and the funds are about to lapse. Virtually all government departments in Sindh are in an advanced stage of atrophy and are, according to the chief minister himself, crippled by corruption and incompetence.

This is hardly surprising. When the government, as a matter of policy, sponsors and promotes the intellectually bankrupt rather than persons of calibre and ability, there can be no other logical outcome. The unfortunate trend in Pakistani politics is for politicians to distance themselves from the masses and rely entirely upon the establishment. The hollowness of the facade of democracy was exposed when the Sindh chief minister boasted proudly, as reported in a Sindhi newspaper, that he was made chief minister by a general and a colonel.

It would better serve the interests of the nation as well as the government if the right of the haris and labourers to exercise their free will is protected rather than sacrificed for narrow selfish interests, enabling truly representative and committed people to rise through the ballot box who are capable of steering us in the right direction. Allotting political jagirs to favourites is hardly going to achieve this end. Those who wield real power would do well to note that it is not the imaginary warlords or feudals who stand as an impediment to tangible positive change, but their own minions in government who value the acquisition and wielding of power more than the national or the public interest.


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