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«SUMMARY | APRIL 2 WORKING PAPER No. 030 | May 2015 Religion, Land and Politics: Shrines and Literacy in Punjab, Pakistan Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali ...»

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WORKING PAPER No. 030 | May 2015

Religion, Land and Politics:

Shrines and Literacy in Punjab,


Adeel Malik and Rinchan Ali Mirza





The Pakistan Strategy Support Program (PSSP) is an initiative to strengthen evidence-based policymaking in Pakistan in the areas of rural and agricultural development. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the PSSP provides analysis in four areas: agricultural production and productivity; water management and irrigation; macroeconomics, markets and trade; and poverty reduction and safety nets. The PSSP is undertaken with guidance from the Government of Pakistan through the federal Planning Commission and a National Advisory Committee, and in collaboration with Innovative Development Strategies (Pvt) Ltd. (IDS), Islamabad, and other development partners. For more information, please visit pssp.ifpri.info.


The Competitive Grants Program (CGP) is a component of the PSSP that provides support to Pakistani researchers on topics addressing the PSSP and related objectives. The goals of the CGP are to strengthen social science research within the academic community of Pakistan and to produce quality papers on important development policy issues.

While PSSP working papers are not classified as peer-reviewed final publications, the papers developed under the CGP have been presented in program conferences and subject to reviews at the interim and final report stages. The CGP is guided by an academic Research Advisory Committee. For more information on the CGP, please visit pssp.ifpri.info under the tab capacity strengthening/competitive grants program.

This working paper is an output from a CGP grant awarded in June 2012.


Adeel Malik, Department of International Development and Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Oxford.

adeel.malik@qeh.ox.ac.uk Rinchan Ali Mirza, Faculty of History, University of Oxford.

rinchan.mirza@history.ox.ac.uk ii


This project was completed with financial support from an award of the research Competitive Grants ProSUMMARY | APRIL 2 gram, Pakistan Strategy Support Program, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), funded by USAID. We are indebted to: noted literary critic, Fateh Mohammad Malik, for providing initial intellectual inspiration; David Orden for his guidance; Sohail Chaudhry for administrative support; and Rafay Khan for excellent research assistance. For their helpful feedback, we are thankful to David Gilmartin, Simon Quinn, Ferdinand Eibl, Francis Robinson, Mohammad Talib, Farhan Nizami, and seminar participants at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and IFPRI, Washington, D.C. All errors and omissions are the sole responsibility of authors.

This report is being circulated simultaneously as a working paper from the Centre for the Study of African Economies, Department of Economics, University of Oxford.

ABSTRACT This paper empirically examines the impact of religious shrines on development. Compiling a unique database covering the universe of shrines across Pakistani Punjab, we explore whether the presence of holy Muslim shrines helps to explain regional variation in literacy rates. Our results demonstrate that the presence of shrines adversely affects literacy only in regions where shrine-related families have a direct political influence. Shrines in these regions represent the confluence of three resources—religion, land and politics— that together constitute a powerful structural inequality with potentially adverse consequences for development. We also probe the determinants of political selection, and find that shrines considered important in the British colonial assessment were more likely to select into politics in post-partition Punjab.

JEL Codes: I25, N55, Z12, O15



About the Authors

SUMMARY | APRIL 2 Acknowledgments


List of Tables and Figures


Shrines and Development

A Related Literature

Historical Background

Data and Empirical Strategy

Data on Shrines

Land Inequality

Empirical Strategy

Evidence on Shrines and Literacy

Extended Specifications

Is Politics the Primary Channel of Influence?

Shrines and Politics

Determinants of Political Selection

The Political Economy of Schooling

Modes of Governance

Mechanisms of Elite Capture




Appendix 1: Notable Shrines Mentioned in the Punjab District Gazetteers

Appendix 2: List of Tehsils in the Full Sample

Appendix 3: Historical Mapping

Appendix 4: List of Punjab Tehsils in the Historical Sample

Appendix Tables (Additional)



Table 1: Persistence of Leading Shrine Families in Politics

SUMMARY | APRIL 2 Table 2: Key Shrine Statistics Across Various Regions of Punjab

Table 3: Shrines and Literacy

Table 4: Channels of Transmission

Table 5: Shrines and Literacy, Historical Sample

Table 6: Determinants of Political Selection (Probit Models)

Figure 1: Spatial Distribution of the Shrines

Figure 2: Land Inequality and Literacy in Punjab

Figure 3: Average Marginal Effects of Shrines

Figure 4: Shrines Mentioned in District Gazetteers (Number)

Figure 5: Politically Influential Shrines (Number)

Table A.1: Zaildars From Shrine Families, Selected Districts and Years

Table A.2: Estates of Leading Shrine Families Under Court of Wards

Table A.3: Summary Statistics for Key Variables

Table A.4: Distance Regressions



It is a well-received wisdom that human capital is a key determinant of the wealth of a nation. In fact, long-term prosperity is unthinkable without an educated population. A large body of theoretical and empirical research has SUMMARY | APR examined the role of human capital in advancing development (Klenow and Rodriguez-Clare 2005; Glaeser et al.

2004; Gennaioli et al. 2013). This begs the question: What explains the substantial variation in literacy rates across and within developing countries? And, why are some countries are condemned to persistently low levels of literacy? In thinking about constraints to human capital development, the earlier literature emphasized largely proximate explanations focusing on the role of expenditures, inputs and adverse resource endowments. But, as the growing literature on political economy argues, determinants of development are often deep, rooted in the underlying structure of economic and political inequality (Acemoglu and Robinson 2012). This applies equally to education: schooling differences across countries are grounded in history and political economy (Gallego 2010; Acemoglu et al. 2014).

Taking a cue from this literature, we investigate how the initial configuration of economic, political and religious power might have shaped patterns of literacy across Pakistani Punjab. Specifically, we examine the role played by the confluence of land inequality, concentration of religious shrines and political power. Our main argument is that religious power, measured by the concentration of shrines, only matters for literacy when these shrines own more land and exercise greater political power manifested through direct electoral participation. We argue that this interplay between religion, land and politics constitutes a powerful structural inequality with potentially adverse consequences for development.

Why should religious power matter for development outcomes? The shrines of great sufi mystics, who played a leading role in spreading Islam, occupy a prominent place in the religious, cultural and political life of South Asia. Shrines of prominent mystics have traditionally acted as the “symbolic cultural outposts of the power of Islam and the Muslim state” (Gilmartin 1988). They were also immersed in the local rural economy, and acted as important nodes of political power. They are often structurally positioned within the prevailing economic and political systems. Shrine caretakers (sajjāda nishīns)1 command tremendous respect and influence among their vast network of devotees. The unquestionable allegiance of their followers converts them into important intermediaries between, not just God and man, but also between the state and its subjects. This power of intermediation is particularly important in peripheral regions, where, due to weak power of the central state, rulers had greater dependence on local elites for political support. Shrine elites have traditionally acted as brokers of centralized power throughout history—from Mughal rule and the Sikh interregnum to colonial India and post-partition Pakistan.

While the state, its functionaries and non-religious local elites seek legitimacy from these shrine families, the guardians of these shrines, in turn, use this dependence to access state patronage and other privileges that help them to consolidate their power. In a sense, the power and influence enjoyed by shrine families resembled those of local chiefs and notables of Punjab. In line with Peter Brown’s description of Christian saints as “patrons par excellence”, the shrine guardians serve as a crucial link between the rural populace and the state, binding the pīrs (Sufi saints centred at shrines) and their followers, known as murids, in a patron-client relationship. Over time, continued state patronage has made prominent shrine families into large landowners. In many areas of Punjab they are both “spiritual and feudal masters”, appropriately termed as pīr-zamindārs.2 This linkage between piety and privilege has profound implications for prosperity. The power of the pīr is reinforced in a hierarchical society that is based on loyalty, obedience and superstition. The pīr often acts as the overlord of an exploitative structure, where any material and human uplift is viewed as a threat. As Sir Malcolm

Darling presciently observed in his seminal work, The Punjab Peasant:

“Worst of all, both landlord and pir are instinctively opposed to the two movements from which the ordinary cultivator has most to hope. Neither education nor cooperation has their sympathy, for both strike at the regime which it is their one object to maintain” (Darling 1928: 100).

A more recent assessment on Pakistan by Anatol Lieven (2011: 138) echoes the same concern: “in practice the pirs and their families cannot genuinely advance either local education or local democracy, as this would strike directly at the cultural and social bases of their own power”. In fact, the literature is replete with references to the pīr’s resistance to educational progress. To famous historian, K. K. Aziz (2001: 27), this is unsurprising.

1 Literally: “He who sits on the prayer carpet”. Sajjada Nishins are often hereditary figures with some lineage to the saint originally associated with the shrine.

2 Can be roughly described as religious (sufi) landlords. Terminology was originally deployed by Aziz (2001).

–  –  –

While prior literature has commented on the possible impact of shrines on local development, this paper conducts a first systematic enquiry into the subject. We empirically examine whether the presence of shrines explains regional variation in literacy rates across Punjab. Our focus on Punjab is guided not just by a pragmatic concern—the availability of data on literacy by tehsils—but the central role of Punjab in the transmission of Islam’s mystical influence in South Asia. Interspersed between Central Asia and the heartlands of India, Punjab is home to some of the oldest sufi orders of India. It has a rich tradition of saintly presence: tombs of famous saints have traditionally been important meeting points for religious, economic and political exchange. Shrines are a constitutive element of local political economy. In fact, it is impossible to map Punjab’s rural power structure without accounting for the interaction between sufi saints and state power.

To explore the impact of shrines on literacy, we compile three unique complementary databases on shrines across the 115 tehsils of Punjab (lowest available geographic unit): a database mapping the universe of shrines across Punjab; a mapping of their political influence over time; and a historical database consisting of shrines mentioned in colonial district gazetteers. To our knowledge, this is the first such detailed compilation of shrine-related records in Punjab. We then construct an indicator, shrines per capita, that is used in regression models of literacy rate. An additional contribution of the paper is the construction of a new indicator of land inequality.

Since shrines vary in both size and significance, we do not expect a simple association between the concentration of shrines and literacy. Instead, we are interested in the interplay between religion, land and politics.

A key empirical claim of this paper is that such a nexus is best captured in regions where shrines have a direct political influence, measured through success of shrine guardians in electoral politics. Our empirical results lend support to this. The presence of shrines matters for literacy only in regions where shrine families have entered into politics. The adverse influence of shrines on literacy is obtained after controlling for land inequality, which itself is a powerful negative correlate of literacy. Our results are robust to controlling for a variety of historical and geographic factors. We interpret this evidence to suggest that shrines influence literacy largely through their bearing on local political economy.

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