Land ownership in Pakistan remains a complex subject dating back to the era of the People’s Party government (1971-7) under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (Kennedy, 1993). During this time, large landlords that held tracks of agricultural lands in excess of 150 acres2 were to lose such lands without compensation from the government.
The Land Reform Regulation of 1972 proposed that the government was to give such lands to the landless as a way of reducing poverty levels among the rural population (Kennedy, 1993). This land reform came to be known as the Martial Law Regulation – MLR 115. A significant provision of the MLR – 115 was section 25 that gave tenants the first right to purchase such tracks of land from their landlords.
With high number of large tracks of lands on the hands of a few wealthy individuals, Bhutto went on to sponsor a bill, the Land Reform Act, 1977, which reduced the maximum allowable land size from 150 to 100 acres2. Markedly, the 1977 Act provided for compensation to landlords whose lands had to be taken for distribution to the landless.
The land question remained contentious that the move was intended to reduce power and dominance of the Pakistan’s wealthy class, transform the Pakistan’s agricultural production to modern efficient agricultural entrepreneurship, and enhance equality in the rural regions (Kennedy, 1993).
With high political interests and opposition during the same period, implementation of the Land Reform Regulation, 1972 (Martial Law Regulation – MLR 115) took a political direction. Bhutto’s government fully implemented the reforms more in opposition strongholds of NWFP and Balochistan than in their strongholds of Punjab and Sindh (Kennedy, 1993).
With numerous political opposition from different quarters on the introduced land reforms, a military coup deposed Bhutto’s government in July 1977. So controversial was the land issue that landlords viewed the idea as meant to ‘snatch’ them their long-standing control in politics the rural areas of Pakistan. Bhutto held that such reforms on land would create a democratic Islamic state that practices socialism (Kennedy, 1993).
However, critics argued that the Prime Minister used the land reforms to punish his political enemies since he concentrated the implementation in their strongholds of NWFP and Balochistan. In addition to the unjust policy administration, critics argued that such reforms of denying people their rights to own land were un-Islamic; therefore, it ought to be discarded.
So conflicting was the land issue that most landlords went to court to challenge the provisions of the acts, such as tenants’ right to pre-emption. Haji Niamatullah held that not even the Holy Quran gives tenants’ right to pre-emption; therefore, the reforms were going against the Islamic culture (Kennedy, 1993). Additionally, such rights are not mentioned in reports of the prophet’s actions and sayings.
The Shariat benches of the high court found that the provisions were repugnant to Islam, thus should not be applied in their situations. In a twist of events, the benches formed the Federal Shariat Court (FSC) in 1980 to continue handling land cases, but with limited constitutional guidelines (Kennedy, 1993). Landlords claimed that the provision gave tenants excess powers in deciding the sales of land from them.
At the same time, the ceilings on agricultural holdings that the regulations had placed on land were discriminatory according to landlords who formed the feudal class. Of the cases that FSC handled between 1979 and 1987, half of them were on land ownership and repossession for public gain (Kennedy, 1993).
Notably, the cases became more complicated given that FSC had limited jurisdiction to reverse rulings that the earlier courts had made, as well as constitutional protection of some of the land acts. Still judges went on to give contradicting views on the contentious issue of state regulation on land.
Islamic culture favours holiness of personal property and wealth; therefore, such moves to deny landlords their possession rights and hand to the landless results in disrespect to the Islamic culture (Kennedy, 1993). However, Justice Aftab Hussain held that Islam recognises poverty alleviation and wealth distribution for public good.
From this perspective, the state can enforce limits to ownership of personal property to improve the lives of its citizens. Such limits include establishing pre-emption rights for tenants. Decisions by the legal system plunged Pakistan into confusions on the way forward.
This prompted the emergence of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), which went on to back the earlier decision by the Peshawar High Court to revoke the provisions of the land reforms of giving tenants the first priority to purchase such lands (Kennedy, 1993). According to CII proposal, tenants have no right of pre-emption.
The proposal also outlined three crucial steps that claimants have to follow in order to file their pre-emption cases. The land question had attracted little attention from key government offices like the Ministry of Law and the Attorney General’s Office and other offices in President Zia’s administration. These offices were reluctant to introduce regulations that could succinctly address the land problem.
Additionally, the government expanded the jurisdiction of FSC to have the power to reverse decisions made by high courts and to consider constitutional matters. After lengthy formalities and procedural delays, the Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court (SAB) decided to let the ruling in Niamatullah’s case stand.
The Court held that since the issue of tenants’ pre-emption is not wholly prohibited in the Holy Quran, the move is not repulsive to Islamic teachings and beliefs (Kennedy, 1993). Moreover, granting such rights to tenants should be in the interest of the public.
Fear by the government and the Supreme Court to reverse the law led to delays given that such move would have resulted in judicial chaos since over 5000 land cases were pending before the provincial courts (Kennedy, 1993). There was more confusion in regions of Punjab and NWFP given the different positions that they had held concerning land reforms and pre-emption rights.
The pre-emption act went through several promulgations in Punjab and NWFP in order to enhance uniformity. A common agreement was the suspension of tenants’ pre-emption rights since both the FSC and the SAB had declared it un-Islamic. Further, the declaration of the ceiling on landholdings as repulsive to Islamic culture resulted in its lifting.
Islamic Economics considers land as a major factor of production. Those who occupy it become more powerful, and can even employ the landless to earn wages in their holdings (Islamic Economics & Issues in Labor Economics, n.d.). This has seen the wealthy hire workers in their agricultural and industrial undertakings. Land is not like labour that has a diminishing marginal productivity.
In most cases, the value of land keeps appreciating, and those owning large tracks of lands form the feudal class as in the case of Pakistan. In comparing the two articles, the landless in Pakistan work for the wealthy landlords who own large tracks of lands. In most cases, land owners do not compensate workers depending on their production output, but on the level of expected output (Islamic Economics & Issues in Labor Economics, n.d.).
In this case, inequality became common; this increased the gap between the rich and the poor in Pakistan. The move by Bhutto’s administration to give land to the landless was a positive gesture of ending inequality. Even though government agencies in Pakistan had been trying to streamline the land reforms and pre-emption rights, the political interests had made some landlords view the idea as punishment for political opponents.
The move by Bhutto’s government to ensure equality to its citizens was clearly one way of reducing the poverty gap between the wealthy and the poor in society. However, the 1972 Land Reform Act that did not support compensation of the original land owners represented a barbaric move to deny landlords their rights to own property (Khan, 2010).
The provision also made people view excess land ownership as an evil act given that there was no compensation after the government had reposed such lands. On the other hand, the different opinions and interpretations which judicial officials had on the land regulation act brought more problems to the whole issue. Land ownership by a few individuals makes the landless politically weak, thus creating a stratified society based on land ownership.
Khan’s article argues that even though the wealthy land owners had the machineries to use in producing more agricultural products than the poor landless, it does not warrant land to be concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. Such land ownership style increases social and economic inequality.
Bhutto’s land reforms of 1972 and 1977 benefited a paltry 272,000 out of the 10 million rural residents that were targeted in the plan (Khan, 2010). With the new reforms that intended to address the contentious land ownership style in Pakistan, Bhutto’s administration failed to create full changes in the system.
“Islamic Economics & Issues in Labor Economics” Chapter 4. PP slides. Kennedy, C. H. (1993). Islamization of Real Estate: Pre-emption and Land Reforms in Pakistan, 1978-1992. Journal of Islamic Studies, 4(1), 71-83.
Khan, S. S. (2010, September 23). Land Reforms – History, Legal challenges and how Shariat Courts abolished them. Secular Pakistan. Web.