Pre-Emption & Land Reforms: 1978-92

Land reforms were at the center of the plans of the People’s Party government (1971-77) to transform Pakistan into a “democratic,” “Islamic socialist” state. The Land Reform Regulation, 1972 (Martial Law Regulation - MLR 115), promulgat- ed by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was designed to place ceilings on the agricultural holdings of Pakistan’s large landlords. Under the terms of MLR 115 land in excess of a ceiling of 150 acres1 was to be seized by the state without compensation and distributed to the landless. Another provision of MLR 115, Section 25, gave first right of pre-emption (right of first refusal to buy) to the existing tenants. In 1977, Bhutto shepherded a bill through the National Assembly, the Land Reform Act, 1977, which re- duced the ceiling still further, to 100 acres, although the latter act provided for compensation to affected landlords.

The rationale for the adoption of such policies was threefold. First, the redistribution of lands to the landless would alleviate poverty in the state and would result in greater equality in the rural areas. Second, such land reforms would weaken the power and dominance of Pakistan’s “feudal class,” the large landlords •(zamindars). Third, the reforms were crafted to make Pakistan’s agricultural production more efficient. It was asserted that the dissolution of Pakistan’s large agricultural holdings would foster a transformation from “traditional, inefficient absentee landlordism” to “modern, efficient agricultural entrepreneurship.”

Analysts agree that the implementation of Bhutto’s land reforms left much to be desired. The amount of land actually seized by the state and redistributed to the peasants was modest Further, the reforms were not administered equitably. There is compelling evidence to suggest that the administration implemented the land reforms much more enthusiastically in the NWFP and Balochistan, the locus of opposition to Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), than in the more politically friendly Sindh and Punjab. The 1977 land reforms, moreover, did not have time to work, as the government was deposed by a military coup in July 1977.

Despite such sketchy implementation, the introduction of land reforms generated significant political opposition. Most notably, many of Pakistan’s large landlords perceived the reforms as a direct challenge to their long-standing interest in maintaining political control in Pakistan’s rural areas. This was particularly true among relevant landlords in the NWFP, a National Awami Party (NAP) stronghold, wherein Bhutto had targeted his reforms. The newly installed military regime was also eager to discredit the policies of its predecessor. Accordingly, the White Papers, written in part to legitimize the military coup, emphasized Bhutto’s alleged cynical manipulation of the land reforms which had been utilized ostensibly to punish his political enemies. Such attempts to discredit the previous regime dovetailed neatly with General Zia’s interest in Islamizing Pakistan’s polity. Indeed, Bhutto’s land reforms were vulnerable from two directions: as unjustly administered; and as inherently un-Islamic.

This chapter traces the fate of Bhutto’s land reforms as they encountered his successor’s newly introduced and rapidly evolving Islamic order.


Source: Islamization of Laws and Economy: Case Studies on Pakistan, Charles Kennedy. Republished with permission.
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