YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Spiritual Leader : Power Is the Pir's in Sind Province

September 25, 1986|RONE TEMPEST | Times Staff Writer

PIR JO GOTH, Pakistan — When Prime Minister Mohammed Khan Junejo comes to this village to visit his spiritual master, the Pir of Pagaro, he must sleep on the ground. His head may never be raised above that of the man he worships as the "visible symbol of Allah."

Like all of the followers of this pir, one of the most powerful of the several hundred hereditary rulers, living saints and feudal landlords in Pakistan, he must greet his master with an obsequious bow that ends with his forehead touching the ground in front of his master's feet.

If the pir--the word means "spiritual guide" in Sindhi, the local language--sits on a chair, the prime minister must sit on the floor. He must never wear shoes in the pir's presence. And if the pir asks him to perform any task, no matter how loathsome or dangerous, Junejo must do it unhesitatingly. That is the law of the Brotherhood of the Pir of Pagaro.

Practiced Only in Village

In practice, this kind of slavish devotion is reserved for this village near the Indus River, where the main mosque and shrine of the followers of the Pir of Pagaro are situated. There is no bowing and scraping by the prime minister in the National Assembly, where both men are members. As the Pir of Pagaro, 58-year-old Sikander Ali Shah, explained in a recent interview: "When he comes to my house, he is my follower. When I go to his office, I go to see the prime minister."

Pakistan is a place where one man's serf is another man's master. Junejo himself is a wadera, or feudal landlord, in the Sanghar district of Sind province, the southern state that straddles the Indus. There, he has his own followers and subjects.

Democratic institutions have never taken root as they have in neighboring India. Life in Pakistan continues to be dominated by feudal, tribal and religious orders.

Along Family Lines

For example, when Junejo ordered the arrest of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Karachi on Aug. 14, demonstrations for and against the arrest followed traditional feudal and family lines in Sind province.

Followers of the pir, in their strongholds near Sukkur and in the Sanghar district, supported the government. On several occasions, they attacked Bhutto's supporters with axes. During most of the weeklong disturbances, in which as many as 29 people died, the pir's men acted as a paramilitary force on the side of police and the army.

Bhutto, meanwhile, gained strong support from the right bank of the Indus River near Larkana, site of her own family's feudal homestead. The most violent demonstrations on her behalf took place in Hala, north of Hyderabad, where she has the support of another traditional ruler, the Makhdun of Hala, a powerful rival of the Pir of Pagaro.

The president of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in Sind is Khalique Zaman, son of the Makhdun of Hala.

"Benazir likes to present herself as the beacon of democracy, yet she draws on the same traditional power bases as the other politicians," Hamida Khurro, a political scientist in Karachi, said.

One experienced political officer at a Western embassy said:

"Pakistan is a very conservative country whose rural traditions have changed the least in all of South Asia. It is a country where great landlords and traditional religious leaders exercise considerable influence and hold large percentages of the wealth.

Factor in Politics

"Politics in this country cannot be understood independently of how these people choose to exercise their influence and interact with each other. It is a throwback to the politics of a century or more ago in other parts of the world."

Obedience to some traditional ruler or tribal chieftain is common in most of Pakistan. Only in the relatively affluent, well-educated, urban centers of Punjab province such as Lahore and Rawalpindi is the phenomenon of the independent voter a significant factor in Pakistan political life.

Pakistanis who live in the rugged desert province of Baluchistan usually owe fealty to their tribal chiefs, the sardars. In the untamed North-West Frontier province on the border with Afghanistan, it is the fiercest of all the tribal leaders, the ruthless khans, who hold sway. But it is in the rural reaches of steamy Sind province, the land that hugs the Indus river on its route to the Arabian Sea, where the traditional social orders seem most pervasive and cruel.

Can Dictate Marriage

A poor man here in Sind province may drive a tractor. But he remains a virtual slave to the powerful feudal landlords, the waderas, who still thrive here. The wadera may tell the man whom he may marry and even dictate the names of his children. He may beat the man or even kill him.

Prime Minister Junejo, named to his office in 1985 after nearly eight years of martial law, is one of the best examples of a man straddling the ancient and modern orders of Pakistan.

Los Angeles Times Articles