The province of Sindh in southern Pakistan is a rural region of dusty mudbrick villages, of white-domed blue-tiled Sufi shrines, and of salty desert scrublands broken, quite suddenly, by floodplains of wonderful fecundity. These thin, fertile belts of green—cotton fields, rice paddies, cane breaks, and miles of checkerboard mango orchards—snake along the banks of the Indus River as it meanders its sluggish, silted, café-au-lait way through the plains of Pakistan down to the shores of the Arabian Sea.
In many ways the landscape here with its harsh juxtaposition of dry horizons of sand and narrow strips of intensely fertile cultivation more closely resembles upper Egypt than the well-irrigated Punjab to its north. But it is poorer than either—in fact, it is one of the most backward areas in all of Asia. Whatever index of development you choose to dwell on—literacy, health care provision, daily income, or numbers living below the poverty line—rural Sindh comes bumping along close to the bottom. Here landlords still rule with guns and private armies over vast tracts of country; bonded labor—a form of debt slavery—leaves tens of thousands shackled to their places of work. It is also, in parts, lawless and dangerous to move around in, especially at night.
I first learned about the dacoits—or highwaymen—when I attempted to leave the provincial market town of Sukkur after dark a week before the recent elections.1 It was a tense time everywhere, and violence was widely expected. But in Sindh the tension had resolved itself into an outbreak of rural brigandage. We left Sukkur asking for directions to Larkana, the home village of the Bhutto family, only to be warned by people huddled in tea stalls shrouded under thick shawls that we should not try to continue until first light the following morning. They said there had been ten or fifteen robberies on the road in the last fortnight alone.
If it is dangerous to travel here at night, it is much more dangerous to declare openly for the candidates you support in the elections. The big landlords here—the zamindars—expect electoral loyalty from their tenants. As the Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid put it, “In some constituencies if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with ninety-nine per cent of the vote.” Such loyalty can be enforced. In the more remote and lawless areas the zamindars and their thugs often bribe or threaten the polling agents, then simply stuff the ballot boxes with thousands of votes for themselves. This is sufficiently common for the practice to have its own descriptive term: “booth capturing.”
Democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning has traditionally been the social base from which most politicians emerge, especially in rural areas. Here Pakistan is quite different from India, where the urban middle class quickly gained control in 1947. That class has been largely excluded from Pakistan’s political process, as, even more so, has the rural peasantry. There are no Pakistani equivalents of Indian…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.