Pakistan clarified

Reviewed titles:

Nicolas Martin. 2016. Politics, Landlords and Islam in Pakistan. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138821880

Syed Mohammad Ali. 2015. Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan: The Impact of State and Donor Interventions on Farmers. London and New York: Routledge. ISBN 9781138804531

Once a failed state, forever a failed state. That, in a rough synopsis would apply to Pakistan over the last three quarters of a century, after its independence from British India. It actually was more a secession from British India than independence from England. The separation, on the eve of independence from India, was exerted under the slogan of Muslim autonomy and safety. Behind that movement with a religious call for action, to an extent in conjunction with the colonial administration, were the big feudal lords and the high brass in the military.

The state that emerged in 1947 was deficient and remained deficient in many respects. It continued to have all the ingredients of backwardness, such as low levels of industrialisation, stark poverty, mass illiteracy, a chaotic and deficient infrastructure, etc. In addition to the various interconnecting features of underdevelopment, it had two additional circumstances which would put a spanner on development and justice: the economic and political power of the landlord–military combine and the strategic role of Pakistan in the Cold War (against the Soviet Union and Afghanistan), and nowadays in the Coalition of the Willing. This Coalition induced the United States and an international consort to financially bail out and sustain the regime, however badly it managed its own affairs and its democracy. Such financial, political and military support have failed to provide the panacea  to either development or  a victory over ‘Muslim terrorism’.

Both features of landlord power and international connivance have been addressed in two recent books, which go a big way in accomplishing the analysis of Pakistan. Scholarly studies have been few, and quite a number of them have focussed on politicking and terrorism. Nicolas Martin has produced an anthropological study on how control over resources, particularly land, allows the landed elites to keep the impoverished rural population under their thumb and the country poor.  The result, he writes, after a careful study stretching over 25 months of field work, starting in 2001, is everyday violence and disempowerment which in turn creates a state of vulnerability and fear among the poor.

New forms in an old straightjacket

In the introduction, Martin writes: “It is a wold inhabited by absentee landlords with vast estates, large retinues of servants, peasants, cattle rustlers, criminals, peasant girl mistresses and unscrupulous farm managers, bureaucrats and politicians…. Their mansions in Lahore are staffed with valets, butlers, drivers, cooks, and maids, all brought from the villages on their estates. Here parties are hosted where high-ranking military officers, politicians, businessmen and civil servant gather and drink smuggled Black Label Scotch whisky. Their children study in prestigious universities in the United Kingdom and, increasingly, the United States.” After such an introduction, as the entire book written in a fluid style, one could be tempted to put the book aside, for is this not the old-fashioned stuff which characterised academic research in the 1970s? One would be advised to read on, for the various chapters offer such a detailed report of what rural life really looks like, that in the end, the bottom line of the introductory statement is validated. 

It is a book on the world behind the utter luxury. It questions theories such as by Anatol Lieven (Pakistan: A Hard Country, London: Allen Lane, 2001) that patronage mitigates poverty and exploitation and provides the impoverished population with the minimum basic needs of subsistence. It questions the benign broker status of the new rural lords whose position, rather than helping the poor getting access to the state institutions and thus contributing to democracy, impoverishes, disempowers and entangles.

The ethnography presented in the book looks at the functioning of various mechanisms, such as monopoly of resources, debt bondage, electoral politics, decentralisation of state institutions and the recourse to Islam, in the emergence of a new class of political and economic entrepreneurs from within the middle – and upper sections of the old landed class.

Doing research in such difficult, sensitive and inhospitable circumstances (in the green revolution Sargodha district, the grain ‘California of Pakistan’) requires the co-operation of the rich and powerful. Martin was in the lucky position that these gatekeepers provided him with all necessary support during two weekends in a month that they come down from their palaces in Lahore. The rest of the week, he could mingle with the various layers in the villages and learn the details of the local drug trading, bootlegging, buffalo theft, electricity theft, and the various forms of embezzlement of government funds. To obtain power and wealth, “people stole, killed, kidnapped, bribed, and sold adulterated goods, trafficked heroin, and engaged in bootlegging”. Interestingly, the moral disorder, perceived as degradation in comparison with the earlier days, was ascribed to the entry of western social values (which to an extent goes to explain the attraction of the jihadi movements). Another explanation for the resurgence of religious adherence is being provided in the last chapter: the political recourse to Islam by the regime (and its international backers) helped to deflect the attention of people away from issues of social justice. Islamisation brought issues of moral righteousness, rather than social justice and economic development, central on the agenda. It ultimately backfired by giving birth to radical movements. It once served as a shortcut for the regime, bent on stifling economic reforms which would affect the rich.

Landlord power

Martin’s book deals with some of the very essentials of village life. It explains how, despite the rapid transition to capitalist farm management, debt bondage continued to play a pivotal role in keeping labour unfree. The debt relationship binds the nominally independent workforce. Martin argues that the use of kinship ties in the servicing of debts displaces the potential class conflict onto the kinship groups and keeps the labourers divided. A minority of the poor has benefitted from post-feudalism, but the controlled access by the wealthy to public services, such as health care, housing and education, keeps the common family disempowered. The forms of patronage, it could be added, have helped the selected retinue of poor but disenfranchise the majority of poor. Landlord power is bent on blocking the emergence of impersonal governance, the rule by the canon of modern state management. This, as Max Weber had argued in the 19th century, is the prerequisite for development.

The last chapter in Martin’s book brings us close to the subject matter of the other book under review – the study of Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan by Syed Mohammad Ali. It deals with market development and with devolution, designed in consultation with a variety of international aid agencies. It is considered to be the answer to the authoritarian (and failed) state from above: democratize the institutions of state by bringing them closer to the people in the localities and increase transparency, participation and accountability.

Ali also is an anthropologist but his book has many cross-linkages with political science and political economy. Chapter Three actually is political economy. It provides a short but solid brief on the changing ownership relations and the abysmally stark inequality, especially in the lower Sindh province. On the basis of macro-data, it argues along the same lines as Martin has done with his quantitative data:  a nexus of dependency characterised by debt bondage and insecurity which keeps poor peasants and agricultural labourers in poverty and the country in underdevelopment.

A powerful nexus, including NGOs

Although capitalism has pervaded Pakistan, it operates through pre-capitalist forms of social organisation and state functioning. The problems which face Pakistan, Ali argues, emanate from the uneven landholding patterns which also allows a disproportionate control over state resources: “The Pakistani’s state patronage of the landed rural elite not only helps them capture state resources, but to also avert reforming major causes of prevailing rural inequalities…. Since donor agencies have not directly contended with altering power relations associated with landownership in rural areas, they have further enabled the capture of state-led and donor supported agricultural schemes by large landowners” (p. 22).

The book indeed addresses the question as to why – despite all the fantastic programmes that have been developed, the financial resources that went with it and the good intentions which probably many of the (international) bureaucrats in the official NGOs must have had –  the results in the field have been close to null and void. The many golden bullets of the recent past, the much trumpeted Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers of the World Bank being one of them, seemingly have underwritten the golden luxury of the wealthy.

It is a grim picture of the nexus of international agencies, state institutions and NGOs. Some would argue that it is too grim a picture. It possibly is, but in that case, which other explanatory model do we have to explain for the failure as a developmental state with some measure of justice for around 200 million people?

Ali has done well in looking for some hope in the instances of resistance by Pakistan farmers. He devotes an entire chapter to it. Movements have been a frequent occurrence, but also this chapter ends in a grim mood. The only successful movements, one may add, have been the extremist Islamic organisations, but it is not quite improbable that they have some kind of commonality of interests with the elite. The Taliban anyway had been created by the United States and the then military rulers of Pakistan as the battle troops in the battle with the communist regime in Afghanistan.


Both anthropological studies are robust specimens done by scholars with their feet on the ground. Whereas Ali has interviewed a few hundred men and women over large tracts in Pakistan, Martin has been hovering around in a small area, collecting bits and pieces. Unfortunately Martin has not talked to women. He had been told that approaching them would have been “a threat to the modesty”. That is very unfortunate, because Punjabi women are very outspoken and knowledgeable about gender-specific aspects. My own experience, doing field work in the area, has been that these women are very much accessible. Martin was inhibited by the fear that it would lead to gossiping, but the main reason for not talking to women independently may have been the gate keepers, the gatekeepers who, as stated earlier, had provided him magnificent channels into rural society, but who, on the other hand, obliged him not to approach the women folk.

Nevertheless, Martin’s book remains a great study on the ground of a failed state. Ali’s study, on the other hand, clarifies why large international aid programmes do not work.

Kristoffel Lieten, University of Amsterdam. (g.c.m.lieten@uva.nl)

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