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Global Watch | Pakistan’s neo-feudalism: The rise of entitled economic elite in Pakistani military

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Global Watch | Pakistan’s neo-feudalism: The rise of entitled economic elite in Pakistani military

The actions of the Pakistani Army have revealed a pervasive culture of corruption, marked by Machiavellian strategies that empowers it to wield excessive influence over the country's political landscape, which seems to be beyond anyone's restraint

Arun Anand Last Updated:October 18, 2023 12:20:04 IST Global Watch | Pakistan’s neo-feudalism: The rise of entitled economic elite in Pakistani military

(File) Pakistan Army soldiers march during a Pakistan Defence Day parade in Karachi, Pakistan, on 6 September, 2018. AP

Pakistan is a land of unequals, with a deep divide between the Awam and the rich elites, with a large gap between haves and have-nots. As the country teeters on the edge of financial ruin, its citizens face an everyday battle for survival, exacerbated by the relentless surge in retail inflation and currency devaluation. However, even in this dire scenario, the traditional feudal class, along with the emerging neo-feudal elite of military officers and bureaucrats continue to thrive furthering the inequality that plagues the nation.

In the seven-decade existence of the country since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has consistently failed to implement effective measures to rectify its historical feudal system, which has seen 5 per cent of its population controlling 64 per cent of its land resources while rendering 80 per cent of its rural workforce as landless peasants. Rather than getting reformed, Pakistan’s 21st-century feudality has seen an institutional push to create a neo-feudal class by securing its national resources for a privileged minority while consigning the majority of the population to the annals of perpetual poverty.

The all-powerful Pakistani military has devised a complex culture of entitlements meticulously detailed in Shuja Nawaz’s Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within. This system of privileges serves to redistribute wealth among the officers of the armed forces, effectively moulding them into a new feudal class. If we take a look at the lifestyle of the army generals, which is replete with rewarding themselves with extensive landholdings, luxurious housings, and plum post-retirement positions within the defence commercial enterprises, it rivals those of the traditional aristocrats and in some instances puts them to shame. Aside from being invested in making personal fortunes through corrupt means and exploiting the military’s vast economic empire, the army has established a system of rewards for sustaining the opulent lifestyle of its officer cadre.

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In a country where 80 per cent of rural peasants are marginalised, homeless and bonded to the feudal system, the Pakistani army retains absolute control over 11.58 million acres of land, which constitutes 12 per cent of the state’s land. Furthermore, it continued to grab more and more private land through its various subsidiaries, invoking the Colonisation of Land Act 1912. This permits the Pakistani military to have the authority to acquire 10 per cent of the land in any region of the country, with the power to alter its character as they see fit, including putting it to private use. Consequently, it has established a mechanism to reward the officer class with land holdings, resulting in almost 6.8 million acres owned by individual military personnel. This process is managed exclusively by the military headquarters, which effectively rules out any government oversight or accountability.

The rewards granted for land allocation are structured by rank, with Major Generals and above rank holders receiving 240 acres. Likewise, Brigadiers and Colonels, Lt. Colonels, Lieutenants to Majors, Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) are entitled to 150, 124, 100, 64, and 32 acres of land, respectively. As Pakistan’s preeminent military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa asserts, by the time an officer reaches the rank of Lt. General, the value of their accumulated property on average exceeds PKR 1 billion. Further, Pakistan’s military also rewards its officers with luxurious free housing through its Defence Housing Authority (DHA), which has established a vast network of residential colonies across the length and breadth of the country. Additionally, the DHA colonies have been opened to the country’s upper middle class to further profit from the pockets of the crony army elite.

The culture of entitlement is sustained by the Pakistan Army’s foray into the economic ventures of the country. As of 2016, Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence acknowledged the operation of 50 commercial establishments across various sectors, a number that has since grown to over 100. These encompass “shopping malls, cinema halls, marriage halls,” farms, dairies, and other entities that generate substantial profits. These gains are distributed among the military officer class, while simultaneously providing a means for the military elite to misappropriate the funds. As Irfan Hussain, a political analyst, argues, the Pakistani Army has “also benefited from vast tracts of agricultural land” across the country.

Even as the corruption of the army is public knowledge, the popular calls for its accountability have hardly ever been heeded and have instead invited scorn from various secret agencies of the armed forces. Therefore, when investigative portal FactFocus exposed the “disproportionate assets” of the former Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa, unsurprisingly, instead of raising questions of accountability, the Pakistani Army pressurised the Pakistani government to reject the report, book the journalists under the Official Secrets Act and even had Tariq Malik, the chairman of Pakistan’s statistical organisation, National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), sacked. However, such exposure of the accumulation of disproportionate wealth by military officers is hardly new. In 2022, when one of the largest private Swiss banks, Credit Suisse, suffered a massive data leak and exposed the black money hoarders from 128 countries, the list included 1400 Pakistanis, including a number of serving and retired armed forces officers, including its former intelligence chief General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan. The Pakistani account holders maintained an “average maximum balance” of PKR 841 million (4.42 million Swiss francs).

Likewise, the former Director General of its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), Lt General Asim Munir Bajwa, the most prominent face of the Pakistan Army in recent years, was exposed to have exploited his official status to establish his family’s transnational business empire, Bajco Group, which comprises of “99 companies, 133 pizza joints, some 13 commercial properties in the US including two shopping malls.” Lt. Gen Bajwa, who was also strategically appointed to the position of the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting to manage Imran Khan, was never investigated for these damning corruption charges and was instead rewarded with the post of the Chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority.

The Pakistani military elite has skilfully shielded its defence commercial establishments from governmental scrutiny and accountability. As such, when military dictator President General Parvez Musharaf established the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in 1999 following his coup, the conduct of army officers was carefully kept out of its ambit, which has offered the military elite the bandwidth to accumulate disproportionate assets. Instead, NAB has been used by the Army to control the political class and ensure any voice, political or civil or media, challenging the writ of the military is managed and forced into silence. Even the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court, has failed to reign in this corrupt cabal of Pakistan, to the extent that many high-level judges are either forced into silence or rewarded for their acquiescence.

It is pertinent to mention that the conduct of the Pakistani Army has thus demonstrated a deeply rooted culture of corruption, driven by Machiavellian tactics, enabling it to exert undue influence over the nation’s political affairs which is beyond anyone’s control. It is highly unlikely that the Pakistan Army will allow anyone to challenge this status quo and alter the dynamics as it feeds on profit-making commercial enterprises churning out billions of dollars while the common people suffer the brunt of its perilous economic crisis.

The writer is an author and columnist and has written several books. He tweets @ArunAnandLive. Views expressed in the above piece are personal and solely that of the author. They do not necessarily reflect Firstpost’s views.

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