'An armed resistance may develop'

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy.

Dr. Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, Professor of Physics at Quaid-e-Azam University and a peace activist, visited Okara recently. It was his second trip to the besieged area. In this interview to Mohammad Shehzad, he speaks about the Army's shenanigans and atrocities against the poor peasants. Excerpts:

What is the current situation in Okara?

It seems very similar to that on May 11, when I went to Okara with a group of journalists from the Urdu press and concerned citizens. For over three months now, the Army Rangers have maintained a siege on several villages in the Okara area. Roadblocks are everywhere, manned by soldiers, armed with automatic weapons, as well as the police, who are lighter armed. Everyone is stopped and searched, many are turned back. Four-wheelers with mounted machine-guns travel along the dirt roads next to the irrigation canals. People are not allowed out of or into the villages. Even medicine, food and fuel are not permitted. Agricultural machinery has been confiscated. We were told of a pregnant woman who died while being taken to the local hospital, because the Rangers would not let her through. For all practical purposes, several lakh Pakistanis are under military occupation - by the Pakistan Army. On the two occasions that I visited the area, people had been shot and killed.

Was there any judicial inquiry into the killings?

Not to my knowledge. A young man, Salman, belonging to Chak 10 had allegedly been tortured to death some days before my first visit. Then, on my second visit, I saw the body of Mohammed Amir who had been killed hours earlier. When I requested the authorities to let us take the body to Islamabad for an autopsy, we were denied permission. They claim that all killings so far have been a result of clashes between groups of villagers. But personally, I think this is quite implausible. First, I definitely saw the effect of light machine-gun bullets on the masonry in the village. The only people with such weaponry seem to be the Rangers. Secondly, the villagers deny the existence of any serious differences amongst themselves. Clearly, to get to the truth, an impartial judicial inquiry is essential.

What created the present situation?

The Army wants the peasants to sign on a certain contract document and pay rent. The peasants are resisting because upon signing that document, a peasant surrenders his rights as a tenant and becomes a contract labourer. The Okara peasants were brought into the area about a century ago by the British from other parts of Punjab and Sind. For generations they have dug water canals, cleared brush, and tilled the land. So they feel that they should own the land. But various government agencies - the Army Welfare Trust, the Punjab Seed Corporation, and the Livestock Department (which supplies the Army with dairy products) - would like to own some 70,000 acres (28,000 hectares) of this A-grade agricultural land. There is also the obvious fact that Army officers are eyeing this land as retirement gifts. So, basically it is a conflict between the "haves" and the "have-nots" of Pakistani society.

You have met the Director-General of the Rangers, General Hussain Mehdi, as well as local Ranger commanders in Okara. What do they say?

They say that the peasant leaders are corrupt, have expensive mobile telephones, and are in the pay of NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and anti-national forces. But ordinary peasants, they claim, have willingly signed the contract deed. General Mehdi gave me a copy of the minutes of a meeting held last year in his office to discuss the land issue, with the intent of convincing me that the leadership had then agreed to the contract issue but had subsequently reneged on their promise. Interestingly, the document was in English and the illiterate peasant leaders had affixed their thumbprints. One wonders if they had any clue to what was in the document. Even if they did, would a humble peasant have dared to look an Army general in the face, much less be audacious enough to object?

To me, the question of whether the peasant leadership is corrupt or not is of secondary concern. Let us assume, for argument's sake, that it is corrupt as alleged. Even so, the real issue of land ownership remains.

Many peasants have been killed, others tortured and maimed. Yet Okara is not big news. Why?

Like other rural areas, Okara belongs to the backwaters. It is therefore truly remarkable that, in spite of such a huge disadvantage, Okara has become a national symbol of resistance against the Pakistan Army's insatiable lust for land. Today a wide swathe of society has joined up in protest. It is unprecedented. Vast areas of the best agricultural land in Sind and Punjab have been expropriated in previous decades by the armed forces without so much as a whimper of protest from those dispossessed. But Okara may be different. It could well be the Army's Waterloo.

Do you think the media, and civil society and human rights organisations are following up on the Okara issue seriously?

Not so far. The media are just becoming aware, and only a handful of organisations have sent their people even to see what is going on there. True, there are some dedicated people in these organisations. But the credit of resistance goes fully to the peasants. Peasants have no political agenda - land is about livelihood and survival. Take the land away from a peasant and he knows he is done for. They guess - probably correctly - that their reduction to contract labour is the first step to eviction, and then a life in filthy city slums. So, their reasons for fighting are purely selfish, not altruistic. Should that disappoint us? Not really, survival is fundamental to the species.

Are Pakistan's religious parties interested in the cause of Okara's peasants?

I wish that is where they would put their energies, rather than force us to grow beards and deface billboards with women. So far we have had some rather weak statements only. There are individuals, however, who belong to religious parties and who are very brave. We recently visited Sarwar Mujahid, a reporter from Nawa-i-Waqt and a member of the Ahl-i-Hadith. He is in Okara jail, locked up under trumped up charges of terrorism. But the fact is that he spoke out courageously against the horrible acts of violence perpetrated by the Army. Even in jail he leads prayers and speaks about the vile oppression of the people.

I find it appalling that our politicians - whether secular or religious - never get around to the real issue, which is the usurpation of the rights of our people. This is really why the people of Pakistan have no respect for politicians.

Is "death or ownership" a legitimate demand of Okara's peasants?

This is entirely for them to decide. It is they who have to pay the price of resistance - not outsiders like me who do no more than make an occasional visit to see the situation. The demand for ownership is unquestionably legitimate - after all Pakistan's land belongs to its people. But, having said that, I think that serious thought needs to be given whether this is a wise slogan, given the fact that the peasants face a powerful, modern Army. A mass slaughter must be avoided at all costs.

How could the issue be resolved peacefully, to the satisfaction of all the parties?

General Pervez Musharraf should appoint a commission that draws upon the senior judiciary, the political leadership, and leaders of civil society. The commission should examine the issue and decide what is just. If ownership is to be granted, then what should be the conditions? Who should qualify? To what extent should the state be compensated, that is, should there be some fixed land price as well? After all, the state did invest in creating infrastructure in the area. Clearly, individuals have rights as well as obligations, and the quantum of the latter needs to be decided upon. In any case, land ownership issues should be decided by the courts through a process that gives a proper hearing to all sides. That is why we need strong democratic institutions capable of withstanding pressures from powerful groups such as the Army.

What could happen if the issue is not resolved soon and the siege continues?

For one, it will lay to rest any pretence of democracy. Democracy is not about voting people in and out of office. It is about a rational and equitable sharing of power and resources, educating people into pluralism and tolerance, and providing equality of opportunity. If democracy allows the poor - like those of Okara - to be crushed under the boots of the Army, then we are better off without democracy. Or even Pakistan as a state. How can a state that unleashes the firepower of its Army against its own people ever achieve legitimacy? There is another danger as well - the peasants have chosen passive resistance until now, but if the Army begins mass expulsions of Okara's peasants to the waterless Cholistan or elsewhere, an armed resistance may develop at some stage. It would be tragic if Pakistan's leadership permits the situation to deteriorate to such a point.

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