Khaskhelis: victims of feudalism

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

AN Afghan proverb holds that zar, zan and zameen (gold, woman and land) are linked to a man`s honour. It is no different in Pakistan`s tribal and feudal tradition.

While women are fighting back and wealth is no longer the exclusive preserve of a handful, land continues to be the most coveted element in the lexicon of male honour. Land hunger lies at the root of many evils. Civilised societies have another perspective. They regard housing, “the crucible for human well-being”, as the fundamental right of man to enable him to live in peace and dignity. For that he needs land.

A demonstration of this conflict between the rich man`s greed and the poor man`s needs has been taking place outside the Karachi Press Club since mid-March. On display is the confrontation between the evils of avarice, violence, corruption and brute power, and the children of a lesser god who are backed by civil society. Nearly 40 — the number rises and falls — men, women and children, residents of Goth Mohammad Essa Khaskheli (Sanghar district), have encamped on the pavement to draw public attention to their plight.

Theirs is a story quite familiar in Pakistan. It is said to be the usual tale of the powerful out to grab land and evict the weak from their homes. The scene of action is a small goth spread over 12 acres. The 150 families who claim to have been settled there for over 40 years now fear for their lives.

They say their powerful neighbour, landlord Waryam Faqir, who reportedly owns 10,000 acres (a big jump from the 100 he possessed in 1985) has been eyeing the little goth. He has all that is required here to have things going his way — political muscle, economic clout and connections. (He was convicted of corruption by the accountability court in 2002 and sentenced to seven years` rigorous imprisonment with a fine of Rs2m.

But he managed to procure his release much before he completed his term.)

As is not unusual, the landlord appears to have drawn on the might of the state to promote his designs. A tacit alliance with others of his class and that cuts across party lines may have helped. The conventional strategy adopted is to get state land transferred illegally to fictitious names. If there are people living there, too bad. They can be evicted since they are poor and their title to the land is at best tenuous.

Take the case of Mr Waryam Faqir`s tussle with the Khaskhelis. The 250 acres of fertile land where the village is located belongs to the irrigation department. The Khaskhelis have been trying to get their 12 acres regularised but in vain. Mr Faqir has apparently enlisted the cooperation of friends in the right places in his bid to gain control over these 12 acres. In October 2007, he got the mukhtiarkar to certify “no any (sic) village in the name of Muhammad Essa Khaskheli is located in Deh Bitoor”.

All this happened at a time when the residents of the goth were in possession of documents to prove that they have been settled there for decades — their welfare society was registered with the Directorate of Social Welfare in 1987, they have had electricity connections for 25 years and telephone facilities since 2000. A number of residents hold NICs, PRCs and other documents giving their address in the goth. On the Sindh High Court`s instructions the deputy district officer Sinjhoro ordered an enquiry in July 2008 which verified the existence of the village.

The latest round has indeed become vicious. It is alleged that the village has come under attack, false FIRs have been registered and other methods of intimidation have been resorted to. Despairing of obtaining justice, Walidad, the elder of the clan, decided to come to Karachi to make his voice heard.

Initially the Khaskhelis` presence remained unnoticed until they discovered a benefactor in Najma Sadeque of Shirkat Gah who mobilised support to provide the villagers food for sustenance and shelter for the night. They could not be left to starve to death. The turning point came on April 12 when Walidad under severe stress because of the threats he was receiving had a heart attack and passed away. He accomplished in his death the mission that had brought him to Karachi. Piler, the Labour Party and Justice (retd) Rashid Rizvi also came to the rescue of the villagers.

The scene changed dramatically. Eight dignitaries, including ministers, advisers and parliamentarians, visited the protesting villagers promising them police protection, financial compensation and justice. The Khaskhelis returned home to bury Walidad. But the promises remain unfulfilled. A week later, they have returned to the Press Club.

Meanwhile, there are reports that fresh efforts are afoot to show the Khaskhelis as encroachers. In a desperate bid, they have faxed an appeal for help to Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. This is no more just a tussle for land. At stake also is human dignity and the integrity of a few. Walidad`s wife wept bitterly pleading for mercy not knowing that this was her right. A revenue officer who has proved to be a friend of the Khaskhelis because of his honesty now faces a case filed by Waryam Faqir.

Sixty years ago, Masud Khadarposh, an ICS officer and deputy commissioner Karachi, penned his famous `Note of Dissent` in the Hari Committee report. In it he wrote, “Peasant proprietorship should replace zamindari” with the goal of “creating a class of independent self-respecting farmers with sufficient land to enable them … to better their standards of living”. These words carry no meaning for a state and society as feudalistic in its mindset as ours.

Repeated half-hearted attempts at land reforms in 1959, 1972 and 1977 failed to alleviate the agony of the Khaskhelis and their ilk.

The situation continues to be exactly as described several decades ago by that great peasant leader of Sindh, Hyder Bakhsh Jatoi. He wrote, “The hari fears the zamindar`s punishment more than he fears the torture of hell, because he frequently sees the zamindar`s `bully` in action.”

Who says feudalism is dead?