Fighting the Army, for farm land

Print edition : July 18, 2003

A protest in Punjab province against the Pakistan Army's repressive policies. - COURTESY: ANJUMAN-E-MAZAREEN PAKISTAN

At Okara in Pakistan's Punjab province, a peaceful movement by peasants frustrates the Army's attempts, often violent, to assume ownership of the land they cultivate.

PEASANTS spearheading a peaceful land rights movement at Okara in southern Punjab, 100 km from Lahore, fear that their struggle could take a violent turn if the Pakistan military continues to suppress it. The latest brutal act by the military, they alleged, was the gunning down of a farmer, Mohammad Amir.

"For the last three years, the Pakistani Army has been terrorising us in the same manner that it terrorised Bengalis in 1971. So far our movement has been peaceful. But if the military does not end its atrocities, we may take up arms or resort to suicide attacks for our rights," said Anwar Javed Dogar, chief organiser of the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP).

Okara has been under siege since August 2002. More than 20,000 military men have cordoned off the area in an attempt to force the peasants to give up their demand for the "ownership" of the land they till and sign a contract which the peasants say would push them into servitude under the military.

"The Army is torturing our women, children and elders. So far, 11 of our people have been killed. The Army has been usurping our land since 1947. We want malki ya maut (death or ownership)," said Dogar, who had been detained by the military. He faces several cases of murder and terrorism, allegedly fabricated against him for his bold stance on the movement. "The Army will have either to end its illegal occupation of our land or kill all of us. I foresee our youth clashing with the Army... . We are in millions and the Army is in thousands. It will not be difficult for us to overpower the Army," said Dogar.

The military, the AMP claims, uses blackmail to obtain the signatures of the peasants on the contract papers. "The Army and the Rangers take away our women to private detention centres and torture them. Soldiers would ask us to sign the contracts, if we refuse they threaten to rape our daughters and sisters," said AMP chairman Liaquat Ali.

The peasants have been cultivating the land under the batai (sharing) system under the Punjab Tenancy Act, but are being coerced to change over to a contract system. Said Dogar: "We had raised the issue of ownership with the former Governor of Punjab, Lt.-Gen. (retired) Mohammad Safdar. He constituted a three-member committee to ascertain how we could be awarded ownership rights. The Punjab Revenue Board refused to recognise us as tenants. It said the land was under the Army's illegal occupation and therefore the Army wasn't authorised to let it for tenancy. Moreover, the Army has no records of the share of produce it has received from us since 1947 under batai. Thus, it has embezzled a huge amount of money, around Rs.20 billion per farm [there are 25 such farms across Punjab], according to the Board's estimate. The peasants established their right to tenancy by producing documents. Thus a big scam was exposed, in which the Army was involved."

The Revenue Board, according to Dogar, challenged the Army's authority to receive a share of the produce from the peasants under the tenancy laws and claimed that such a share solely belonged to the Board. The Board raised the issue with the Army, but the Army refused to entertain it. When the peasants came to know that the Army had misappropriated the income, they stopped paying their share. But the Army insisted on its share. Thus, the Pakistan Rangers besieged Okara under an order signed by General Pervez Musharraf.

The peasants had a meeting with the Rangers' head, Major-General Hussain Mehdi. "It was a meeting at gunpoint," said Dogar. "Mehdi told us categorically that if we did not sign the contract papers, we would be handed over to a firing squad at the border and gunned down like Indian agents or Al Qaeda terrorists." According to Dogar, Mehdi told the peasants that the contract system had been introduced to counter the corruption and embezzlement that the Army had committed. "He admitted that the Army was corrupt. He reminded the peasants that they could not challenge the Army's occupation of the Okara land because the entire country had already been subjugated by the Army," Dogar added.

Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhary Pervez Ellahi is helpless in the matter of providing relief to Okara's peasants. "We urged the Chief Minister to pursue the Okara case because the land belonged to the Punjab government, but he expressed his helplessness," said Liaquat Ali.

OKARA'S peasants are more aware about their rights now than they were before the land rights movement took shape. They are not intimidated anymore by the military's use of force. They have refused to sign the documents that would put in place the contract system and they no longer share their produce with the Army. Their children chant the slogan malki ya maut and their illiterate women run the rights campaign. "Recently our women snatched the rifles of the Rangers and beat them up when they tried to misbehave with them," said Dogar.

The AMP has emerged as a political entity, even winning a few seats in the local bodies elections. It wanted to contest the national and provincial elections in 2002 but the Army and the Rangers allegedly abducted all its leaders and detained them in private cells. "I was tortured for six months. The torture has badly impaired my eyesight. I have been implicated in several fake murder and terrorism cases and declared a proclaimed offender," said Dogar. "The police are chasing me. But I am ready to give my life for our cause," he added.

The peasants want Musharraf to intervene and hold talks with them. They want him to make the Army accountable to the National Accountability Bureau for the corruption it has committed; lift the siege of the village; release all the detainees; withdraw all the cases against them; and provide them the ownership rights guaranteed by the law.

The long siege has had its effect on the civic conditions in Okara. "The Army has cut off our electricity, phone and water supplies. Food can't reach us. We are really in a war-like situation," said Dogar. The outbreak of several diseases has also been reported.

The Army holds the `miscreants' in the AMP responsible for the situation in Okara. "There is a massive distortion of facts about Okara," said Maj-Gen. Mehmood, Director-General, Military Land and Cantonment. "Eleven persons, including some national leaders, have been identified to be patronising this movement with the support of some non-government organisations. People provoking unrest are non-lessees, who have nothing to do with the situation. `AMP & co.' are exploiting the people through their strategy of instilling `fear and hope' - the fear of eviction and loss of rights under the Punjab Tenancy Act, and false hopes of getting them proprietary rights," said Mehmood.

He denies the AMP claim that the Rangers killed 11 peasants. "So far there have been only four deaths. None of them was in firing by the law-enforcing agencies. One of the four was hired for Rs.150 to take part in a protest. He was killed in firing by the mob." The AMP contradicts Mehmood. The country's largest political party, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), supports the peasants' movement. The party's chairperson, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has condemned the military action in Okara and asked the government to give ownership rights to the tenants as promised by Musharraf during his referendum campaign. "The military high command should recognise the changing ground realities and intervene urgently with a view to preventing a clash with the poor people," Benazir said.

Ayesha Siddiqa, Islamabad correspondent of Jane's Defence Weekly, says: "The tragedy is, the land belongs to the Punjab government, which is in no mood to challenge the Army's illegal occupation. It has become a tradition to treat the Army as a holy cow and not challenge its misdeeds. The Punjab government should take this matter to a court of law and thus a new precedent could be set in Pakistan's history that would lead to improving the peasants' plight."

Afrasiab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said: "The peasants have demonstrated enormous courage. They are fighting the most organised and highly armed force of the country, that is, the Pakistan Army. They are fighting its repression with empty hands, peacefully. This is a rare phenomenon in the history of Pakistan. If they succeed, a revolution could come in Pakistan that will end the feudalism."

THE Okara farms (17,013 acres, or 6,805 hectares) were dense forests when they were given to the peasants in 1908 by the British government. The land was under the Punjab Revenue Board's administrative control. The peasants were asked to cultivate it and promised ownership rights by 1914. In 1913, the Army took control of the land under a lease agreement with the Punjab government. This lease expired in 1933 and was renewed for another five years. At the end of this period the lease was not renewed. The land was occupied by the Pakistan Army in 1947. Since then the Army has not sought a renewal of the lease and under the law it is a trespasser and illegal occupant. It has not paid the Punjab government for the share of the produce it has received from the peasants under the batai system.

Some three years ago, the Army asked the peasants to cultivate the land under a contract system instead of the batai system. The peasants fear that under the contract system they could be deprived of their tenancy within hours and have refused to sign despite the siege of the village by the Army and the Rangers.

According to human rights activists, the situation in Okara is serious. Amnesty International has raised the Okara issue with the Pakistani government but to no avail. Unfortunately, Okara has not come under the media's spotlight either. Even the people of Pakistan know very little about it.

Mohammad Shehzad is an independent journalist based in Islamabad.

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