Saeen

Ever since Ali Gul Pir made the hysterical video “Wadera Ka Beta” (Son of Feudal), there’s been an increase in the popularity of the Sindhi phrase “Saeen tau saeen” (saeen is an honorific or title of respect that Sindhi men use for each other, denoting that the person is a gentleman, but has been mistaken as synonymous with feudals, the social class of landowners in the rural areas of Sindh, or even crudely, a king) in the country.

The Sindhis say the phrase “Saeen Tau Saeen” as an in-joke; this phrase is used when someone’s acting high and mighty and you want to jokingly call attention to their high-handedness or delusions of grandeur. But ever since the video came out, non-Sindhis have become familiar with it too, and are using it with much glee to express their dislike for Sindhi feudals and their ways.

On Twitter,  I’ve noticed that people are using the phrase with me when they don’t like what I have to say, the implication being that because I’m from a Sindhi feudal family, I refuse to brook any argument.

I’ve also been called “Wadera Ki Beti” (daughter of feudal) but anyone who knows my background knows that this is no insult to me.

I believe that while the video of Wadea Ka Beta is hilarious and clever (Ali Gul Pir was a student of mine at SZABIST, and also Sindhi, although not a feudal), it’s opened the doors for a lot of people to channel their class hatred and in some cases their anti-Sindhi racism in a socially palatable way.

Class hatred is a worldwide phenomenon. It exists in Pakistan, in India, in the UK, in any society where there is a division of classes and little social mobility between them. In Pakistan, it plays out as hatred of “elites”. (Read Ayesha Siddiqua’s excellent column, “What is Pakistan’s Elite” for more background on this subject). People in Pakistan have good reason to hate their “elites”. But some “elites” are more hated than others, and the Sindhi feudal definitely falls into that category.

When I said as much yesterday on Twitter, making it clear that I wasn’t ashamed of my Sindhi landowning background or my own “feudal” family, I was met with a barrage of tweets attacking me for “defending” feudalism. My jaw dropped as I saw the depth of people’s ignorance and misinformation coming alive. “Are you in favor of marriage to the Quran?” “Why do you make haris (sharecroppers) sit at your feet?” “What’s your stance on karo-kari (honor killing)?” “Why do you keep your haris so poor and uneducated?”

My stance on all these issues has been clear for years. You can read my thoughts on feudalism here. And my stance on honor killings here. As for “making haris sit at your feet”, whoever thinks that has never been to the interior, where waderas and haris alike sit on the floor at occasions such as funerals.

What are we talking about when we talk about feudalism? The agricultural system of Sindh, or the culture of excess and abuse of power that has sprung up around it over the decades? Every class and every subclass of Pakistan’s society has a culture, an attitude, a behavior. Sindhi feudalism’s culture isn’t exemplary. Abuses of the poor take particular iterations in the interior, such as bonded labor, village girls being kidnapped and raped, honor killing, and blood feuds (you can easily think of the equivalent of these abuses happening in a factory in Faisalabad, or a tribal village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan, or even on the streets of Karachi, I’m sorry to say).

Its scions do commit excess, therefore Wadera Ka Beta. The Sindhi feudals need to face up to those realities, and do some soul-searching about whether this is really the legacy they want to hand down to their children. It’s definitely a system that thrives on ignorance and illiteracy.  Education and industrialization, when and if it happens in Pakistan, will reduce the influence and power of the feudals as has happened in other countries around the world. Yet this particular system sprung up out of the vacuum that successive governments left in Sindh by refusing to allocate funds for its development or to provide the services of education and healthcare that were Sindh’s due for the last 60 years.

But I’ve found that the worst of the stereotypes against the Sindhi landowning classes have been spread for decades by a sensationalist media, and that people remain willfully ignorant of both the business of agriculture as practiced in the interior, and any of the strong cultural traditions of the interior, besides a very superficial acquaintance with Sufism as imagined by Salman Ahmad and Rumi. I directed one of my Indian Twitter detractors to read my article on feudalism but he said he “stopped reading” when he got to the part about the feudal code of honor. It’s closed-mindedness like this that allows the hatred and misunderstanding to flourish.

I was asked why, for example, haris touch the feet of the zamindars. I explained that there were many Hindu traditions that have continued in Sindh. Namaste is one of them, pau-pheri is another. “But why don’t the feudals touch the feet of the haris?” I was asked. I couldn’t decide whether this was real naivete or faux naivete, but I answered it on face value. “Because it’s like when a child touches his mother or father’s feet in the Hindu culture. Does your mother or father touch your feet? The zamindar is like mother and father to his people.”

(This symbolic comparison, I’m afraid, was taken out of context and bandied about on Twitter as proof that I’m defending feudalism. I’m familiar with this sort of smearing. It happened before, when at the first Karachi Literature Festival that quote “I’ve been in a rickshaw” was used for months afterwards as proof of my elitism and disregard for the poor.)

And yet, YES, the zamindar is like a parent to the villagers on his land, because he provides them with protection against the larger forces in the interior: people from rival tribes, the police, dacoits (bandits), so on and so forth. Anyone who doesn’t believe this doesn’t understand much about what a wilderness the interior really is. They continue to harbor dreams about the farms being like some kind of Bollywood movie, where if only the poor villagers were liberated from their evil landlord, everyone would sing and dance in the fields and the hero and heroine would be free to love without fear…

People don’t want to hear much about any good qualities or practices or traditions Sindhi landowners might have. They don’t want to hear about the hospitals, schools, jobs, operations, scholarships that landowners have provided to their people, without fanfare or advertising. That’s just dismissed as “noblesse oblige” or exaggerated benevolence. They want to stick to their imaginings of feudals as bloodthirsty bastards who beat and abuse their haris and steal land and are worshipped as false gods by their poor, ignorant villagers.

In short, they only want a monolithic monster that they can hate with a clear conscience, a combination of Darth Vader and Don Corleone with cartoon-like mustaches and a gaggle of daughters married to the Quran.

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