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Government of Local Elite (Shurafa)

The task of the (Pakistani) government was to tend the flock of people in order to fleece them. The word ra’iyat means sheep, Ri’aya comes from the same root. This was the government that the British inherited. They did not change much the basis of power of the Mughal, government. They realised it very clearly and the 1919 Reforms Commission states explicitly what the basis of British power rested on. Unfortunately, the brilliant powerful lords in Pakistan, who have governed Pakistan and who have been educated in England, have mistaken the British fiction for the nature of government in Pakistan.

We may now take up the question of interest of the government in social reforms. Poverty alleviation is the latest term. In the 19th century it was called social reform or moral and material progress. It came from two sources in England. Either Christian missionaries who exerted pressure on East India Company to do something for the poor, largely to save their souls from damnation, or from socialists who were the secular Christians. And government was always hostile to such proposals and considered it a great nuisance. The situation remains the same today. In place of the missionaries or the socialists we have the UN agencies. Government remains totally disinterested in poverty alleviation and is always forced into considering any policy proposal for poverty alleviation only under threat or force. So, when we say “give me a policy proposal for the government of Pakistan to alleviate poverty,” we are deluding ourselves.

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How does the society see it? Why in the post-independence era, there is no motivation for the government to alleviate poverty? First, the evangelical and the socialists, who acted upon British colonial government after the Labour Party came to power following the World War I, have been removed. There is very careful apparatus to extract surplus from the country without over-fight of any civilising influence, either Christian or Islamic. So, after independence particularly the second generation that   was   educated in the postcolonial   system of education, has absolutely no moral commitment to the uplift of the masses.

Now, we turn to the component of society. Society has seen, over the course of last 500 years or more, governments acting with greater or lesser zeal in terms of extracting surplus from them, and have evolved very fine, resident and durable mechanisms within justice. Increasingly these mechanisms have been subverted, as under the pressure of modernisation the government has had to extend its reach further and further and down into the communities. The aspirations of the people derive from two sources, i.e. ‘aadat (custom) and Islam or in most cases a mixture of the two. Community-based organisations have always found very effective means of resisting the rapacious king. This was weakened by two very significant changes that were the part of the colonial heritage. First, Lord Camwallace, in trying to replicate the British system where government was run by the landed aristocracy, created in the Indo-Pak subcontinent the land-owning rights. Secondly, the ‘patwari’ who was a representative of the village in dealing with the demands of the king for revenue, was changed into an official of the state. This process which took place at the village level had now occurred at the national level. In the new global order, which is emerging, the government of Pakistan who was the ‘patwari’ and collected interest and principal from Pakistan and remitted it abroad, is no longer the representative of the people but is an agent of the interest recipients abroad. Not unlike the Mughal king, who always vacillated between (i) a zamindari system of collection of revenue, seeking from the landlord a certain share of the taxes and allowing him whatever extra for himself; and (ii) between the ra’iyatwari system in which the king attempted to settle directly with the peasant, which in modern language is called the NGO movement.

In terms of the global order, the remittance of tribute is now being vacillated between two systems. Either the government does it, or if the government fails to remit adequate amounts or if there is much popular discontent in the extraction of surplus, then the imperial global powers attempt to settle directly with the local communities through NGOs. How does the community act  in  this?  As  said  earlier,  the community’s view of poverty is very different from the view of either the imperial powers of day, who seek to alleviate poverty in order that revolutions may not interrupt the flow of proceeds abroad, or of the government who is a reluctant partner in all this affair. The community, either by custom or by commitment to Islamic values, vies poverty alleviation as something which is inherently good, a moral value which is internalised, in pursuit of the Hereafter, it does so by private means. The fundamental distinction between the Christian view of poverty, let us say in Europe, and the modern secular view of poverty, was the meaning that was given to poverty. The functional definition of poverty was never a problem.  Everybody can agree who is poor. But what does it mean to be a poor? Before the Christian West lost its faith in God, like the Muslim it believed that poverty could be a state for the attainment of salvation. Even monastic orders were set up by rich  people who sought poverty as a character-building process. And therefore in the Islamic scheme of things private arrangement for the alleviation of poverty were always more important. It said to the poor that if you are poor, do not ask anyone except God and if in this poverty you shall die then Allah will give you the greatest rewards of Paradise. Simultaneously, it said to his neighbour that if you are rich and have been given money and if in your neighbourhood a poor man dies protecting his dignity by not asking you for anything, then in the Hereafter you will receive the most severe punishment. This tripartite system of poverty was common to the moral imagination of early Christianity and Islam. When Europe lost its faith in God, contracts became bipartisan and the concept of human rights arose which said, if you are poor, unless you behead your king, nobody will look after you. And so Europe proceeded to behead kings, the motivations of European schemes of poverty alleviation became to quell discontent. In the Islamic view of poverty, let us just name the four aspects and not elaborate them: Firstly, the economic question here is of secondary importance; the primary question in human existence is the attainment of salvation in the Hereafter.

Secondly, property rights are conceived very differently, namely that all property is the creation of Allah, it belongs to Him and is a trust in our hands which we must dispense with according to the rules of Allah. We should give that which He commands to give and forbid that which He forbids. Similarly, the prohibition of interest, for a variety of reasons, is a topic unto itself. And then, the whole nizam (system) of zakah, ushr, sadqaat, nafaqaat, wirasah, khiraj and jizya. The fundamental point of poverty in the Islamic system was that poverty in Muslim moral imagination is the solution not the problem. The current environmental movement is coming around to the same view. Using the lingo of the modern times, if all the rich in the world were to disappear, development would still be sustainable. But if the poor were to disappear then the planet would collapse under the rapacious consumption of the highest income groups. This was long known to the Muslims, for in the face of troubles the Muslim moral imagination which is very much alive today, considered that the gift of the example of the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the greatest wealth and treasure. Faced with hardships, all of us can say what Hazrat Fatima (RA), whose four-line ruba‘ee on the passing of the Prophet (peace be upon him) is a summary of the wealth of Muslim ummah, said:

“On me were bode troubles which were so great that if they had been thrust upon the days, the days would have become nights. But what is it (she has asked) for someone who have smelt the aroma of the earth of Ahmad’s (peace be upon him) grave. If ages pass and he does not benefit from the fragrance of the most expensive perfumes.”


In this she has described the Islamic attitude towards poverty. And the scheme for poverty alleviation which the Muslim ummah is waiting for, not from this government, not from the postcolonial government — not to mean party ‘X’ or party ‘Y’ but the structure — is for a government that will be prepared to undertake personal sacrifice and will ask for sacrifice. Who will say, “we will have a simple life, we will wear coarse clothes but we will live up to the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him). That scheme for poverty alleviation, which is the only scheme, will work. At the moment, the congruence of the forces is not such that it can be implemented.


Source: Poverty Alleviation in Pakistan: Present Scenario and Future Strategy, Mohibul Haq Sahibzada. Republished with permission.