At the beginning of the 20th Century, they said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Indeed, the sun still does not set on the Empire, as it continues to wield power through sheer dint of its ideas and systems that are practiced in many of its former colonies. Of the laws that the post-colonial state inherited from the British, one notorious practice pertains to awarding land to military personnel. This was a practice adopted to generate a group of faithful warriors, especially after agents of the Crown realized that they could no longer depend on the local Hindustani men—the Bengali, the Mahrashtaran, and the Tamilian or Keralite (this included Muslims as well from these areas)—to faithfully fight for the Crown in London.
While the three main posts, the presidencies at Bombay, Madras and Bengal, continued, the recruitment pattern changed elsewhere. The catchment area for recruiting the local soldier shifted to the north of the Subcontinent to Nepal, Punjab and the North-West Frontier. Indeed, these men had fought valiantly on the side of the British against the 1857 mutineers. In terms of time and concentration, these areas were marginal to British interests and hence were the last to benefit from socioeconomic development. For instance, Punjab University was one of the last ones to be opened in British India, much after other areas had received their share of higher education development. Such social indicators meant that these areas had a population that was eager to find opportunities in life.
Why should a voluntary national military be given excessive rewards? As the renowned Indian film actor (late) Om Puri pointed out for the Indian military, entering the army is a choice that men make with a clear understanding of their pay and remuneration for undertaking violence on behalf of the state
Wisened by their experience of 1857, the British adopted two additional measures to ensure that the local people they inducted into the Royal Armed Forces remained loyal. Firstly, they created the myth of the martial race. This was to given encouragement to the ‘sepoys’ from these areas who had fought on side of the British against the ‘mutineers’ from other areas. Secondly, they rewarded the ‘sepoys’ by giving them land grants. The years between 1900 and 1920 were also a time when the British established canal colonies in areas bordering north and central Punjab. Not only were small agriculturists settled in these canal colonies after being brought in from East Punjab but a percentage of these ‘colonized’ lands were also given to military personnel. This distribution, according to political scientist and author Mustafa Kamal Pasha, represented ‘…a complex interplay of material forces, ideas, and institutions associated with colonial capitalism…” meant to bring control and specialization in the armed forces.
Subsequent laws such as the Land Colonization Act of 1912 were introduced based on the principle of rewarding the faithful, raising horses for the British cavalry, and encouraging military men to lay down their lives for the colonial power. It was this Act that stipulated a grant of 10 percent of colonized land to the military. This act was later updated through a martial law regulation by the Ayub government in 1959 and 1965.
How is that General Ayub Khan received 247 acres, General Muhammad Musa 250 acres and General Umrao Khan 246 acres-even though they lost the 1965 war?
None of these tactics had reinvented the wheel. History is replete with precedence; the Ottoman and Mongol invaders of the 14th Century bribed their military manpower to ensure allegiance. But this does not tackle the question of why a voluntary national military should be given excessive rewards? As the renowned Indian film actor (late) Om Puri pointed out in a controversial interview in which he briefly referred to the Indian military, entering the army is a choice that men make with a clear understanding of their pay and remuneration for undertaking violence on behalf of the state, and in the process also risk losing their life. We cannot, of course, thank these men enough for guarding our frontiers, but we would also like to believe that they take on the risk of their own volition and not because of some greed for land or other rewards. To expect the military or civil bureaucracy to compete with civilians in other walks of life is scandalous and unrealistic.
The anger of the ISPR and several retired and serving generals over questions people have asked about land grants aside, the issue is a contentious one in Pakistan’s case because of an absolute lack of consensus on ownership of the state. This is a problem casually referred to as a civil-military relations imbalance that men in uniform tend to dismiss as created by civilian bias. Nonetheless, this is not about protecting corrupt civilian leaders against patriotic generals but it is about asking what is the basis on which a select group of people have acquired the greater right to the distribution of national resources? How is that General Ayub Khan received 247 acres, General Muhammad Musa 250 acres and General Umrao Khan 246 acres—even though they lost the 1965 war? The underlying criterion for this reward is not transparent at all unless we interpret it as a powerful institution asserting its clout to establish the principle of acquiring a share of national resources. Why, for instance, is the act of a policeman standing in the line of fire less commendable and not worth a reward? This is not about the performance of soldiers but the political clout of their organization that has allowed them this benefit and developed an internal organizational rule no governments question. For a long time, officers of the rank of major general and higher were given 240 or more acres, brigadiers and colonels 150 acres, lieutenant colonels 125 acres, majors and lieutenants 100 acres, JCOs 64 acres and NCOs 32 acres. The acreage was later revised to 50 acres for officers and 12.5 to lower ranks. Additional land is given with gallantry medals, which is why General (retd) Raheel Sharif received 90 acres of agricultural land in Lahore. There is no other government department that rewards its manpower in such a fashion.
Interestingly, land acquisition for the military and its distribution among serving and retired military has taken place for so long that even the ISPR believes that it is stipulated in the Constitution, which is not the case. This is part of the ‘rules of business’ of the Military Lands & Cantonment (ML&C) department and the Ministry of Defense (MoD). The ML&C is essentially one of the eleven services of the civil services of Pakistan, which over the years after General Zia-ul-Haq, gradually came to be controlled by the army through the MoD. In fact, General (retd) Raheel Sharif appointed and even extended the service of the secretary. It is the ML&C that regulates land to the defense services under the old Military Land and Cantonment Act made by the British. A continuous supply and distribution of land to military personnel was ensured through a 1959 martial law regulation that was reflected in the ML&C act. How is that land distributed to military men then the purview of the MoD?
The military continues to acquire agricultural land as part of the Colonization of Land Act of 1912. It does not matter any more that new agricultural land is not being created due to irrigation sources. But 10 percent of state land is placed at the disposal of the MoD on a regular basis for further distribution. Up until 2007, approximately seven million acres out of the total 12 million acres controlled by the military were agricultural land. Out of the total seven million acres, the largest chunk of 6.8 million acres were distributed among serving and retired personnel. Another 70,000 to 80,000 acres were given to the welfare foundations, Fauji Foundation, Army Welfare Trust, Shaheen Foundation and Bahria Foundation, and the rest are controlled directly by the services. According to some desegregated data available for a period from 1965 to 2003 for a few administrative districts in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, an average of 190,000 acres were distributed in each of these districts given in the following table.
Land Allotment to Military Personnel, 1965 – 2003
District Province Acreage
DI Khan NWFP 185,000
Muzaffargarh Punjab 173,000.7
DG Khan Punjab 153,000.5
Rajanpur Punjab 133,000.3
Vehari Punjab 170,987
Pakpattan Punjab 193,676
Multan Punjab 123,793
Khanewal Punjab 143,283
Sahiwal Punjab 173,407
Lahore Punjab 273,413
Kasur Punjab 387,283
Sheikhupura Punjab 193,863
The land is distributed among officers and sepoys on the basis of the MoD’s internal formula which is then touted as a system of merit. The fact of the matter is that there is a clear bias in favour of the officer cadre versus the sepoy when it comes to the distribution of land and other facilities that would make the land productive and financially lucrative. A tour throughout the country would demonstrate how senior officers get help in cultivating the land, getting access to a greater share of water, construction of farm-to-market roads, and other facilities (this at times even includes free seed and labour from local military units). The favorable treatment received by officers is historical as claimed by the Punjab finance minister Nawab Iftikhar Hussain Mamdot, who stated before the assembly how some of the financial aid to the military was diverted during the 1950s and 1960s to the development of land owned by senior officers. Of course, the lower cadres do not get similar benefits and thus the majority tends to sell their land to local landowners. This feeds into the problematic system of large landownership and maintenance of a feudal culture.
Interestingly, land acquisition for the military and its distribution among serving and retired military has taken place for so long that even the ISPR believes that it is stipulated in the Constitution, which is not the case
The entire land distribution system flies in the face of even the original regulation providing land to the military because the recipient had to give an undertaking of cultivating the land himself. While some JCOs and NCOs might fit the bill, there is no possibility of applying this criterion on the officer cadre. This means that General (retd) Raheel Sharif, his predecessors and successors will simply use the facility to join a class of elite military-agriculturists, or elite in general. Skeptics might argue what is 90 acres of land as compared to the hundreds of acres that civilian large landowners have. However, it is the principle of elite access to state land that underlies such distribution and does not favour, for instance, the 20 million to 25 million landless peasants in the country who would be ecstatic if they were allowed to purchase state land at Rs20 to Rs60 per acre. In fact, when it comes to the poor, the state has always been very hardhearted. There are hundreds of incidents in which landless peasants were evicted from state land after it was transferred to the MoD without any consideration for the land revenue principle that whoever makes the land cultivable (a lot of state land requires development to make it cultivable) has the first right over it. In such contentious cases, the revenue officers dare not support the poor and play a critical role in forcing the landless peasants out.
As if agricultural land were the only piece of land that officers get to live a reasonable life, all three-star generals and higher ranking officers are given numerous properties. General (retd) Musharraf had eight pieces of urban property in addition to the agricultural land in Bahawalpur that was developed at state expense. The posting of serving lower army personnel to cultivate the land, the use of state machinery, the supply of seed, the construction of farm-to-market roads and water channels for this land is an expense that was never booked under military expenditure. Generals Musharraf and Zaidi, both neighboring agriculturists, later sold their land. This is what may happen with General Raheel Sharif’s 90 acres as well. Given the location of his land on Lahore’s outskirts, it will already fetch him a lot of money, a fact that is being viciously contested by some retired army generals-turned-informal-spokesmen. One wonders how they could label as a real estate agent conspiracy the fact that the rapid crowding out of rural land by urban Lahore has actually escalated the price of land in Badian. In recent years, the expectation of relations improving with India has also added to an increase in the value of land in the area. But eventually, the 90 acres will be a most valuable inheritance for the Raheel Sharif family, who could turn it into small plots or a housing scheme in the general’s name if they are in no mood to become farmers.
This is not ‘jealousy of civilians’ as Pervez Musharraf once said in reaction to questions on the military in business. Such land allocation are about the endless greed of the elite and its possible consequences that the Supreme Court warned about in 2003 in the case of Muhammad Bashir vs. Abdul Karim. The highest court of the land cautioned Brigadier Bashir and the rest of the elite through a citation from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath:
“And the great owner, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands, it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out. The changing economy was ignored, plans for the change ignored; and only means to destroy revolt were considered, while the causes of revolt went on.”
The writer is research associate with SOAS South Asia Institute and can be contacted through her website at drayeshasiddiqa.com. She is the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, whose second reprint was published in Dec 2016