Given Pakistan’s fast-changing political climate and by-the-minute breaking news tickers on TV channels, there was one bit of news that completely flew under the radar: the longstanding feud between the management of Okara’s military farms and the Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab (AMP) was apparently settled ‘amicably,’ thanks to the efforts of the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR).
What should have been big news barely did get a mention, apparently not deemed newsworthy enough by print and electronic media. What were the terms agreed upon between the two parties? Mainly these: that the tenants would resume giving batai (share of the annual crop yield) as before 2000; batai accumulating in the last 18 years would be waived and tenants would not be harassed nor evicted from the land they have been tilling for generations.
However, the NCHR has left a few important issues in limbo. Among this is land ownership, which has been promised to the tenants since colonial times and that promise has continuously been reneged upon. The NCHR has left the Mazareen to ‘agitate’ on that matter before the Punjab Board of Revenue (BoR) while stipulating that till the time tenants gain ownership of the land, they cannot withhold the batai from the military administrators overseeing farm operations. That means their future, as the rightful owners of this land, is as unclear as ever.
The promise of land ownership was initially made by the British to tenants who were allowed to migrate under theabadkari schemes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. However, these promises failed to materialise and tenants were compelled to continue tilling the land as share-cropping tenants, while not being protected under the same laws as other ‘occupancy tenants.’ This means that these tenants permanently risked eviction, among other threats.
During the peasant mobilisation of the late 1960s and the rise of the populist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in the 1970 elections, peasants on state-owned land were also gripped by the same fervor and they were part of calls for land reforms. Because of the size of the military farms in Okara (17,000 acres and 20 villages), tenants occupying these lands developed a unique political consciousness and lobbied among local leaders to aid them in their quest for land ownership. They were thus liable to be duped by self-serving political and military elites looking for votes or in the case of the latter, legitimacy for their ill-gotten rule.
General (r) Pervez Musharraf promised them the same when he seized power, coaxing them to vote for him in his referendum, which they did. In the 2002 elections, they elected Rao Sikander Iqbal, then with the PPP, who had promised AMP (the representative organisation of approximately one million tenant farmers) his unflinching support in their quest for land ownership rights. After his win, he turned on his own party, forming the breakaway PPP faction called the PPP Patriots and was appointed the federal defence minister in the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-led government. He then proceeded to crack down on the AMP with greater zeal than ever before. The result was a complete breakdown of trust on the part of the tenants in the State. These events led to a deeper sense of betrayal, which partly explains the stiff resistance they put up against the military administrators and adopted the radical slogan Maliki ya Maut (ownership or death).
Military ownership of these lands is a contentious issue in itself, dating back to before the Partition of India. In 1913, the British leased this land to the Ministry of Defence (under British rule) for 20 years for Rs15,000 per annum. Documents show that the lease was extended to a further five years (till 1938) and the MoD continued to pay annual rent for the land till 1943. After Partition, the land automatically passed into ownership of the Pakistan Army under the nascent Ministry of Defence but to date, neither has the lease been renewed, nor has any rent in lieu of the land been paid to the government of the Punjab.
This was confirmed in September 2001 when the BoR asked the deputy director of the farms in Okara to provide proof of rental payment to the government. The failure of the farm management to furnish any evidence in this regard served as confirmation. This fact was also admitted by the commandant Okara Military Farms Brigadier Rana Mohammed Fahim in a December 31, 2008 hearing in front of the NCHR who officially recognised that the farms belonged to the government of the Punjab, stating that “the army had retained control to procure fodder for their horses and cattle.”
This begs the question: what right did the military have to alter the share-cropping arrangement with the tenants in 2000 (that led to the conflict) when it apparently held no legal right to the land in the first place? In that case, are the tenants liable to pay any batai to the military administrators? The NCHR disposes of this particular question with complete disregard, stating that the government of Punjab has no objections to the batai being paid to the military, rather than asking the military to pay their outstanding arrears to the provincial government, just as it demands batai from the tenants.
There is also no mention of any inquiries to be conducted into the human rights violations perpetrated by law enforcement agencies during the dispute. These violations have been well-documented and include murder, torture, extortion, theft and ‘forced divorces,’ among other things.
When the tenants rejected the new sharecropping terms foisted upon them and staged a sit-in as protest in 2000, the military was taken aback by their tenacity. A brutal response was unleashed through the mobilisation of the state machinery against the tenants. Entire villages were held under siege for weeks with their water supplies cut off. This led to the destruction of entire crops. Food and medication were also cut off at entrances until tenants agreed to the new terms.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), in its 2004 report, outlines in detail the various human rights abuses perpetrated by the Pakistan Army, the Punjab Police and Paramilitary Rangers on peasants of Okara, their children, women and the elderly. It even names the officers involved. That no action has ever been taken against them despite the report being over 15 years old does not fill one with hope.
The state also used courts and far-reaching colonial-era laws to attempt to subjugate the tenants. Various charges, ranging from murder to “anti-state activities”, including allegations of working for the Indian spy agency RAW, were concocted against the agitating tenants and their families to bring them to heel. Many have spent years in high-security prisons because of these charges and the leadership of the AMP still languishes there today.
There have been dissenting voices against the ‘agreement.’ Pakistan Kissan Raabta Committee General Secretary Farooq Tariq has come out and called the agreement completely one-sided. He said: “By asking the tenants to pay batai, the NCHR exceeds its mandate…The batai issue would only be solved when the genuine leadership of the Okara tenants are absolved from all the false police cases. You cannot keep leaders in jail and ask the tenants to give batai.”
In many parts of Pakistan, a century or more of colonial rule has been replaced by a post-colonial state still beholden to their former masters’ autocratic tendencies. The Okara uprising and the state’s response proves that the Pakistani state would go to all lengths to preserve its hegemony even when found to contravene the same laws it adopted to subjugate the masses.
The agitation in Okara had its roots in decades of mistrust between the tenants and a state that was happy for the status quo to prevail as long as it continued to reap the benefits at the expense of the proprietary and economic rights of the tenants. That mistrust, coupled with their unique political consciousness, meant that the tenants were far more organised, mobilised and aware than the state could imagine.
The state’s brutal response to a non-violent and peaceful protest movement led by a people merely asking for the rights promised them meant that it did not want the resistance put up by the tenants to set a precedent for the disenfranchised in the rest of the country. Fast forward to the present, and we have a grassroots rights movement in the erstwhile tribal belt of the country. The will of a disenfranchised people can for so long be caged under the shadow of a gun.