The Dawn: 10th July, 2013

Retaining the power and the art of survival Part I

Mushtaq Soofi 

Historical evolution of human family, though complex and complicated, can be described in simple terms as a journey from group to joint family and from joint family to nuclear family of modern times. Joint family has a long history and still survives despite the tremendous social and economic pressure of multifaceted transformations. We do not know what compelled poet Ezra Pound to write; ‘how hideous it is to see three generations gathered together’. But if we ignore the judgmental content of the line, we get a good definition of joint family: ‘three generations gathered together’ .

The Punjab has more than five thousand years long history of organised society. For how long its joint family has been there is any body’s guess. The shell of joint family system with some fast appearing cracks, is still intact to a large extant, particularly in the rural areas. One can see the joint family among the land owning class (feudal) and peasantry which comprise the bulk of population. Mainstay of the feudal family is its property i.e. the land that it holds permanently. Permanent ownership of land is not old phenomenon. Land in legal terms was sovereign’s property till the end of Mughal period. Sovereign could dispense with it way he deemed fit. No land holder could claim his right over land nor could he transfer it to the next generation without royal approval. It was British colonial authorities that introduced the permanent legal rights over land after the canal colony settlements in Punjab in the second half of 19th century that consequently created the big land owners who are usually referred to as’ feudal’. Land invariably was the rock bed of power edifice even before the advent of colonialism. Remember legendry Ranjha? After the death of his father Mauju chaudhry, Ranjha became a whipping boy of the town. Why? Let us hear it from Waris Shah.

‘Brothers (of Ranjha) assembled the honourable Qadi and the elders and parceled the land / they bribed (the Qadi and the elders) and inherited the fertile portions and what was left for Ranjha was a barren chunk/ Ranjha suffered his tribesmen’s ridicule and his brothers made him a laughing stock’. No land, no power, no respect.

The colonial largesse created a whole new class of big land owners with wide ranging economic and political repercussions which still weigh on the Punjab like a dead weight of history. After the introduction of widespread canal system, the land became abundantly fertile and thus provided a launching pad for creating new class relations and power structure in the colonial framework. The yield and rent of freshly irrigated lands gave the new feudal family stable economic base that consequently enhanced its political clout. Revenue and police emerged as most effective tools in the colonial structure which rested on the appropriation of peasant’s economic surplus through incentive-oriented coercion. Social control was maintained and perpetuated through political manipulation of big land owners who were linguistically and culturally connected with peasantry.

Joint feudal family is usually large and prosperous with a horde of retainers, servants and punters. Head of the family owns the land but for social and political reasons makes it look like a collective family property. The feudal house is invariably divided into two sections i.e. male and female quarters. The hub of activities is ‘Dera’ detached from the female quarters where male members kill most of their time talking of things which can only be described as trivial and banal. Decadent to the core what they love most is hunting, boozing and womanizing that amply displays their predatory nature. The easy prey is poor peasant woman or young girl of their tenants. Social and political issues if and when come up, are discussed and settled to their advantage. No dissenting voice is entertained or tolerated despite all the shallow display of customs and traditions (Riwaj). Practice is simple: ‘either you are with us or against us’. Bush junior was not the first to articulate it. Poor peasant, tenant and village artisan have two tormentors; revenue officials and police who operate in tandem with the feudal family. All three are remnants of colonial legacy we inherited. These three still are the linchpin of power structure in the feudal dominated rural areas. Peasant, when in trouble, seeks the help of his lord as he is fully aware that all the legal remedies that constitution and law of the land provide are not worth the paper they are written on. So he is forced to employ the tried and tested strategy of survival in the face of lynch law prevalent in the countryside. And strategy is simple; go to the lord, stoop to genuflect at the cost of losing your self respect and reiterate your loyalty and beg for help.

Help, if and when, extended is always conditional i.e. accept the power structure as it is.

There is traditional division of work in the feudal family. One member, usually the bright one, would do the politics; another would take care of social life i.e. attending the marriages and funeral ceremonies in the areas and the third one would manage the agricultural lands. The family in order to retain the power, political, social and economic, works like a well oiled machine.

The family based on the principle of patriarchy enforces in its household the complete segregation of men and women. The women of the family literally seem to be invisible. They are overfed and over decked birds in a gilded cage kept out of public eye. They can flutter but cannot fly. Always surrounded by their maids, having nothing to do, they are reduced to vegetative existence. Ennui is their constant companion. They have no choice as far as the vital decisions of their lives are concerned. They are married against their will to nincompoops with large landholdings. At times unfortunate among them have to live the lives of spinsters in order to save the land from going out as dowry. But the courage to stand against the gender repression prevalent among the feudal families in the past produced spectacular characters such as Heer and Sahiban who became stuff of legends and have inspired many a poet generation after generation in Punjab. Should we wait for another Heer, another Sahiban challenging feudal structure? No! Times have changed. Different historical forces are already at work. The unstoppable penetrating thrust of intrusive consumer society and rapid migration of peasantry to towns and urban centers will dismantle the hollow feudal ensemble bit by bit in a decade or two.

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