Land and Forest Governance in Swat

Review of book ‘‘Land and forest governance in Swat; transition from tribal system to State to Pakistan’. by Dr. Sultan-i-Rome

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Swat has a long history blended with rich cultural heritage and occupation by foreign forces. It used to be one of the great seats of the Buddhism, Daradas and Indo-Greek influence.

When Swat was invaded by Mahmood of Ghazna in the early eleventh century it was ruled by Darada kings who had, by then, converted to Hinduism.

Mahmood of Ghazna seems to have abandoned it afterwards till it was occupied by the Yousafzai Pukhtuns in the sixteenth century. At that time too the Darada dwellings existed in Swat. The Darada or Dardic communities were known as Kafirs because of their indigenous worldview, like that of the present day Kalasha community in Chitral.

In the aftermath of the Yousafzai occupation of Swat the big question was how to distribute the occupied lands among the Yousafzais as all lands were not of the same kind with the same fertility and watercourses. In order to meet the challenge a learned man, Shaikh Mali, devised a distribution system known as wesh. This system was not a permanent settlement. Under the wesh the lands were rotated (re-allotted, interchanged) among various families and clans for tenures of fixed terms of five, ten, fifteen or twenty years.

The wesh system had paved the way for future settlement of the lands and forests in Swat; and also created many feuds related to land distribution. This also rendered great damage to land and forest conservancy in Swat. It was like Hardin’s tragedy of the commons.

Later, the permanent settlement of land and forests in Swat were placed under Mali’s ‘daftar’ [revenue record], afterwards became dawtar by usage. Many people were deprived of their land ownership rights, whereas, many others were bestowed upon larger chunks of lands for political reasons. This further strengthened the feudal system in the valley and provided local impetus during the Taliban insurgency.

When Swat became a princely state under the Walis of Swat, this ‘riwaj’ [tradition] was enacted as permanent re-allotment of lands and forests.

It is often held that during the Swat State era the Islamic law, Sharia, was the law of the State. Sharia was never imposed in Swat. Bacha Sahib, Mian Gul Abdul Wadud, has himself stated that during the state era it was riwaj rather than Sharia that prevailed in the State.

Women were not given their inheritance rights to own land and nor were they allowed to participate in the politics of the valley.

A number of writers on Swat have praised the wesh and the State era but this seems misleading. The wesh system was romanticized, like communism, but these writers forget that, in Swat, the lands were not equally distributed among the families and clans.

Here, too, the precious lands and forests of Swat were exploited for political reasons. Even religious lineage was used for this end. Timber contactors from Ziarat Kaka Sahib in Nowshera were favoured and allowed to exploit the forests of Swat, particularly of the Bahrain and Kalam valleys, without the least consideration of conservancy and management. These contractors were apparently favoured because of their relation to the Akhund of Swat alias Saidu Baba.

A Swat based historian, Sultan-i-Rome, rendered these analyses in a book. The book was published by the Oxford University Press this year. It is titled: ‘Land and forest governance in Swat; transition from tribal system to State to Pakistan’.

Land and forest governance in Swat

The forests are thick and shady, the fruits and flowers abundant. “Wrote Xuan Zang, the Chinese pilgrim, who visited Swat in 629 CE, quoted by Sultan-i-Rome in his recently published book.

Deodar forest in Kalam

Unfortunately, Swat has lately been known for the Taliban insurgency. Swat is, however, home to both ethnic and cultural diversity. It is one of the most cherished tourists destinations in Pakistan. In summer thousands of domestic tourists visit the valley. Prior to the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, foreigners visited it in large numbers. Because of its rich Buddhist heritage, Swat used to be visited by Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, especially from the Southeast and Far East Asian regions.

In addition to its ancient heritage, Swat is also famous for its natural beauty and weather. This is because of the forests, especially in the upper highlands. This terrain is known as Swat-Kohistan, the non-Pukhtun valleys of Bahrain and Kalam.

Because of the Taliban takeover and insurgency in 2007-09, the Swat Valley became a flashpoint the world over. Both Pakistani as well as foreign commentators and writers wrote about the reasons behind the Taliban insurgency in Swat. Many assert that as the people of Swat were used to the effective system of Sharia during the Swat State era—from 1915 – when the Swat State was established – to 1969, when the Swat State was merged with Pakistan, therefore, they rose against the Pakistani governance of neglect, inefficiency and corruption.

Many other writers, who look at Swat insurgency in isolation from what has been going on in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas(FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, see the insurgency in Swat as a class-war between the landowners and landless: the haves and haves-not.

Rome’s book – though primarily written on forest and land management in Swat, Dir, Shangla, Indus Kohistan and Buner – also helps us understand the land and Sharia dimension in the recent upheaval.

The first chapter of the book is a summary of the political history of Swat from the Buddhist period to date. It is the setting of the book.

The second chapter, land dimension, details how land and forests were distributed in the valley after the Yousafzai occupation of the valley in the sixteenth century. The next chapter focuses on forest conservancy, prior, during and after the Swat State, till 2014.

Mahmood of Ghazna invaded Swat in the early eleventh century but it seems, as elsewhere in India during his expeditions, he abandoned it before the Yousafzai Pukhtuns captured it in the sixteenth century.

With the occupation of Swat, the challenge regarding the distribution of the spoils of war, especially the fertile land, among the various clans and families within the Yousafzai Pukhtuns arose.

To meet the challenge an expert known as Shaikh Mali devised his ‘daftar’ [revenue record] and designed the famous wesh system for land distribution. Mali’s ‘daftar’ was so well-known in Swat that when the famous Pashto poet and tribal leader Khushal Khan Khattak visited Swat in late seventeenth century he was astonished to note the popularity of Mali’s ‘Daftar’ and Akhund Darveza’s Makhzan. Khushal Khattak wrote that in Swat the people heeded to only the ‘Daftar’ and ‘Makhzan’.

A view of river Swat. Photo by Faizan Ahmad

Wesh is a Pashto word that literarily means ‘distribution free of cost’. But Mali’s wesh system was actually a re-allotment or rotation of land among the different clans and families. It was not a permanent settlement. Under this rule the land was not given to any family or clan permanently but allotted for a fixed term of five, ten, fifteen or twenty years. The family would till the land until its tenure came to an end. Then the said portion of land was allotted to another family and the previous was given some other piece.

This temporary settlement was an endeavour to avoid conflicts among the Yousafzai Pathans. But it inflicted serious harm on land and forest management; and on the general development of the area, too. As the wesh system actually kept the people nomadic so they did not bother about constructing houses of good standing or planting orchards. Khushal Khan Khattak states in his poetic travelogue, Swat Nama, that the natural beauty of Swat is adequate to the taste of kings but it has been turned to ruins since the occupation by the Yousafzais. He further states that houses of the Swat Yousafzais are dirty and stinking while one can see large houses in good repair wherein live pretty girls of the Kafirs. (In seventeenth century there were still the dwellings of the Siaposh Kafirs, the ancestors of the Daradas of Swat and Dir).

Many writers on Swat have noted the impacts of the wesh system. Rome quoted H.G Raverty, “One sees the evil results of the system (wesh system) everywhere—no orchards, no gardens, few, if any, trees except in the sacred precincts of a ziarat (shrine); even the masjids (mosques) are a mere roof of mud or thatching, whichever comes cheaper, resting on three sides on a rough mud or stone wall, which also encloses the courtyard or ghole on fourth side. Lands that have been irrigated from the beginning long before Pathan days, by water channels from the rivers and streams remain thus irrigated. All other lands depend upon rain for their crops, although large tracts could easily be brought under irrigation but little united labour”. And in 1926, Aurel Stien wrote, “ But the total absence of gardens and fruit-trees in this fertile and well-watered valley was striking. It was a sad illustration, seen also elsewhere in Swat, of the effects of the surviving Pathan custom wesh.”

The wesh system was romanticized as communism by celebrated authors like Sibte Hasan. Rome writes that Sibte Hasan saw it as the redistribution of land among the members of the tribe equally and hence has tried to justify holding of the land as the common property of the masses under the control of the state as in communism. Rome, asserts that this was not the case although under the wesh system the dawtar— Shaikh Mali term daftar later became dawtar—was liable to frequent re-allotment, it has never been re-allotted equally among all the members of the tribe/clan/family for whatever the duration of the tenure was in the particular area. In fact every shareholder received only the share he possessed prior to the new wesh i.e. re-allotment or interchange.

The wesh system in Swat was like Hardin’s tragedy of commons where the common is the natural resource shared by many people without any regulation. Each individual had a tendency towards exploiting the ‘common’—land and forests—to his own advantage without any limit and concern for conservation; and eventually the ‘common’ was depleted and ruined.

The wesh or re-allotment rules were recorded in the ‘daftar’ of Shaikh Mali. Later when the permanent settlement was carried out during State era the daftar became ‘dawtar’—right to own land and forest. ‘Dawtar’ became so embedded into Pukhtun’s social honour and identity that selling of it deprived the seller of his identity. Rome writes, ‘A person was recognized and entitled to be called Pukhtun as along as he retained his dawtar. By losing his dawtar for whatever reason ‘he and his offspring not only lost their identity as Pukhtuns and the membership of the tribe after a generation or two, but also their voice in their jargahs [village councils].’ This founded the concept of stratification between Faqirs (people without the right of dawtar) and Pukhtuns.

Under the wesh system the Islamic right of women to own and inherit land was, as a rule, commonly not recognized. This was ascertained by Khushal Khan KhattaK in his visit to Swat in a verse: Da Baba da maal yawazey miras Khor di, na pa tarur di, na pa more di, na pa khor di [The menfolk keep everything to themselves what they inherit. No due share is ever granted to the womenfolk be she aunt or mother or sister]. This traditional practice remained the law of inheritance during the Swat State as well.

Along with the dawtar, there existed a tradition to give land to religious leaders for their religious service and to the Khan—village chief—for hosting guests at his hujrah (guest rooms). This right was called serai. This was given permanently. Very often under the serai right the religious leaders and Khan got large chunks of land. Later, during the Swat State era, large swaths of lands were also allotted to people for political reasons. This produced a feudal system in the valley. This inherited disparity escalated the Taliban insurgency in Swat but cannot be taken as the sole cause of the uprising given the geo-strategic dimension of the whole phenomenon.

In the pre-Swat State there was no written document that mentioned the rights of the holders/dawtaris. It was based on riwaj, tradition, and that was passed from generation to generation through word of mouth. The forests were not communal and were only owned by the concerned dawtar landowners and also by the serai landowners.

In addition to construction, the forest timber was (is) used for burial purposes such as making wooden coffins; and for fencing the grave above the ground. Timber was also used in mosques and hujrah’s especially in winter, for heating purposes.

The cutting down of deodar trees for commercial purposes, especially from the Torwali and Kalam tracts, began in about 1850. This was mostly done by the Kaka Khel Mians of Ziarat Kaka Sahib in the district of Nowshera because of their relations, both with the colonial government and with the Akhund of Swat, Abdul Ghafur alias Saidu Baba. At that time most felling of trees was done in places near the river.

During the reign of Bacha Sahib, Mian Gul Abdul Wadud, the Kaka Khel Mians were favoured by the ruler because of their being the heirs of Kaka Sahib, a religious figure. Mian Rahim Shah Kakakhel, one of the timber contractors, was also in the good books of the colonialist because of the former’s support in the Chitral expedition in 1895.

In his book, Mr. Rome, has also dispelled a number of myths expounded by writers and the general public. He states with reference that, “Prior to the establishment of the state there was no system of the management of forests and haphazard fallings were carried out”. This ‘negates the sweeping statement of Inam-ur-Rahim and Alain Viaro in their book, ‘Swat: an Afghan society in Pakistan’, which states, “The common resources including forest and brush-lands were communally utilized in a sustainable manner till the Swat State merger and different social groups had a well regulated uniform and equitable access to these resources”.

Matiltan Valley, Swat

Similarly, Akbar S. Ahmad’s statement, ‘during his [Bacha Sahib’s] rule womenfolk were restored to their rightful place in society, and were given the rights and privileges expounded in the Shariat’ is refuted by the author quoting the Dir-Swat Land Disputes Enquiry Commission’s report of 1972 that the rule of inheritance in Swat State was riwaj, according to which females were not entitled to inherit property; and that Bacha Sahib himself told the commission, both verbally and in writing, that the rule of inheritance in Swat State ‘was Riwaj and not Shariat’. Not only this, but the women were barred from selling the property they would get in Mahar.

The dawtar and land was owned only by the male members of the family. Neither Bacha Sahib nor his son, the Wali, made any law repugnant to this riwaj.

The Kalam tract, comprising of the scenic town of Kalam, valleys of Ushu and Utror, was never a part of the Swat State era except for the seven disputed years when the Swat State ruler annexed it on August 15, 1947 when India was partitioned. Prior to that Kalam was a Tribal agency ruled by the British through the political agent of Swat, Dir and Chitral based in Malakand. This status of Kalam as an agency was because of the claims to it by the then three princely states—Swat, Dir and Chitral. However, being easily accessed by road, the ruler(s) of Swat had an advantage to exploit its forests through their favorites of the likes of the Kaka Khel Mians and the State’s Wazirs—ministers and advisors.

When the ruler of the Swat State annexed Kalam in 1947 it still remained a disputed territory between the Pakistani government and the State of Swat. In 1954 an agreement was reached between the Pakistani government and Wali of Swat that restored Kalam as a tribal agency with Pakistan and the Wali was appointed as its administrator only. Kalam was made a part of the Swat district in 1969 with the merger of the Swat State in Pakistan.

A few questions left unanswered by Rome in his book are worth mentioning. What system was practiced regarding land tenure in Swat before the Yousafzai occupation? Or, which ethnic groups lived in Swat before or during the Yousafzai occupation? The reason perhaps is that the book is on forest and land management; and is not on anthropology or history of Swat.

Rome justly analyzed the landholding system in Swat-Kohistan writing that here the dawtar rests with four or three main tribes of the Torwali and Gawri people. He states that there was no wesh system here and the dawtar was thus in practice since ancient times. In the rest of Swat we see the dawtar derived from the wesh system. The people of Swat-Kohistan also call their land and forest holding right as dawtar. Similarly in the Torwali tract of Swat-Kohistan we find the dawtar system on the western (road) side of the Swat river whereas on the eastern side the forest ownership right is equally distributed among the dwellers based on household. Why are there two systems in a valley of people having the same ethnicity living on two opposite sides of the Swat river? These are the questions Rome says need further research.

The book has about 600 pages full of citations and references. It has eight chapters and each chapter has a long list of notes and references at the end. The author has taken much time and pains in writing the book. Its bibliography contains lists of English, Urdu and Pashto books along with official reports, magazines, journals and official notifications.

Rome’s book is indeed a scholarly work added to the tapestry of research on the famous Swat Valley in Pakistan.

Note: This was first published by Criterion Quarterly in Sept. 2017. Link:

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