The rise of a peasant village

How a village beat the odds and made progress

Several reasons account for the global agenda for agrarian reforms whose purpose and implementation schemes have varied within and between countries. While some countries pursued those reforms for economic reasons – for example, redistribution of land to increase agricultural productivity – the others exacted them for social and political reasons.

Modernisation of agriculture and dealing with rural unrest were the driving forces behind the agricultural reforms in Pakistan. The peasant resistance had been gaining momentum at that time. On the ideological front, these reforms might have been the beginning of the end of feudal lords. On an operational level, flawed legislation, poor planning, and programming, as well as weak enforcement were bound to make them a failure.

The proponents of reforms, shunned radical transformation (a ‘land to the tiller’ policy, for example) and preferred milder measures like tenancy reform and ceiling redistribution. In this way, agrarian reforms, to a great extent, maintained the normal relations between landlords and the tenants. However, there were some instances where these reforms helped the peasants break the shackles of their exploitation at the hands of landlords.

One such example were the peasants of Nali Mohal – a village in Pindi Bhattian tehsil of Hafizabad district, which is located around 100 kilometres north-west of Lahore – who outshone landed elites as a result of the 1972 land reforms ordered by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

According to oral history, the village was founded by Baghoo Machi (machi, water carrier, is one of the groups of artisan class, commonly known as kammis, in Punjabi villages) when he and his family, settled in the lands of Bungseenke Bhattis (a Rajput tribe) of Dohatta Azmat village in the 1940s. The village came to be known as Nali Baghoo Machi Di (Nali refers to a drain that runs around half a kilometre from the village). Some other Jatt families such as Mohal, Cheema, and Mutmal, and kammis such as kumhar (potters) arrived and settled in the village in the 1960s and started working as sharecroppers on the lands of Bhatti landlords.

The village was renamed and registered as Nali Mohal by Muhammad Yaqoob, the eldest son of Noor Muhammad Mohal in the late 1970s, after the family of Baghoo Machi left the place.

Bhattis owned around 4,800 acres of land that was cultivated mainly through sharecropping. Noor Muhammad Mohal, Khan Muhammad Cheema, Chanan Mutmal, and Rehmat Kumhar were the leading members of the landowning families that migrated to the village in the 1960s and started working as sharecroppers. They were later joined by other immigrant families — Chaddhars (Jatts) and Musallis (a caste of agricultural wage labourers falling into the category of kammis).

It is important to note that they owned neither agricultural land nor houses; they had to perform begaar (corvée — unpaid labour) for the landlords and pay exactions to the landlords in addition to their share of the crop. Further, they had to vote either for the Bhattis or their favourite candidates in the elections. Those who dared to resist the landlords were punished. The punishment ranged from fines to beating and ejection from the lands. If needed, the police were used to punish or suppress the resisters.

Bhutto’s land reforms proved a game-changerfor the peasants in this village. Mutmals, Cheemas, Chaddharrs, Kumhars and Mohals were allotted cultivable lands that were acquired from the landlords as a result of the land reforms of 1972. In addition, they were given the right to ownership of the houses they were living in. Subsequently, these reforms eradicated their economic dependence on the landlords.

These peasant families started sending their children, both boys and girls, to schools. While land reforms liberated them from economic dependence, the education freed them from socio-political dependence. For example, Yaqoob Mohal, the eldest son of Noor Muhammad Mohal, received a law degree and started working as a lawyer. His younger brother graduated from a professional college and started working as an overseer in the federal government. His sisters did not lag behind and graduated from colleges and nursing schools and joined government services — as nurses in hospitals and teachers in schools. Other families, too, followed suit.

There are currently around 600 people living in the village in nearly 150 households. Nearly 50 percent of the village’s inhabitants are Jatts. The remaining are kammis. The vast majority of the villagers, around 70 percent, are educated. The village’s economy centres on agriculture, government and private jobs, and small- as well as large-scale businesses. Many of the Jatts and some of the kammis do not only own agricultural lands, they also have jobs in both public and private sectors (from low profile such as sweepers to high profile such as judges, bureaucrats, police officers, university professors, etc), and are running businesses. Some of them have settled abroad and are sending remittances to their families. Almost all the villagers live in houses they own.

The economic and socio-political power of the peasants of Nali Mohal village has increased at the expense of the landlords of Dohatta Azmat village. The landlords lost not only some of their hardworking tenants but also the income that they used to get from them to maintain their luxurious lifestyles. In order to meet the cost for their luxuries, the landlords started selling their lands to the very peasants of Nali Mohal village who now had various sources of income — agricultural lands, government jobs, businesses and remittances. Also, unlike the peasants, the landlords did not value education.

To conclude, the agrarian reforms of the Bhutto era proved a catalyst for shifting power from the landlords to the peasants. The trend is clearly manifested in the rise of the peasant village — NaliMohal — and decline of the landlord village — Dohatta Azmat. Further agrarian reforms in the country could lead to many such precedents and ultimate eradication of landlordism from the country.

The writer has a PhD in history from Shanghai University and is a lecturer at GCU, Faisalabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The rise of a peasant village