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April 24, 2016

The fields of Okara


April 24, 2016

The Okara military farms are back in public imagination. The matter became international news in the early 2000s, when peasants who had been tilling the land for around a century refused to shift to a contract-based system. Presenting one of the first public challenges to the Musharraf dictatorship, the peasants of Okara were able to maintain control of their agrarian land by continuing to protest amidst military action despite losing 11 lives. Every year since, the Okara peasants – under the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (AMP) – have commemorated their struggle and celebrated International Peasants Day while demanding a resolution to the status of their lands. Both PPP and PML-N governments have been reluctant to touch the issue. Last week, matters became more serious after a district administration notification banned a planned convention on International Peasants Day, citing the National Action Plan and warning of dire consequences otherwise. The AMP general secretary was arrested by security forces and placed in ‘protective’ custody. Police and some light armoured vehicles descended on the villages where the convention was going to be held. Roads leading into the rally were blocked and tear gas shelling was also reported. More than 4000 peasants were charged under anti-terrorism laws for ‘injuring police’. The HRCP slammed the ‘strong-arm tactics’ used against the peasants. In the meanwhile, the AMP continues to protest.

As it stands, key leaders of the AMP remain in custody on what they claim are trumped-up charges. It has been a decade and a half since the Okara farms issue became a major human rights issue in the country and opened up questions about the position of the peasantry. As recently as 2012, the Punjab government issued an ordinance to transfer property rights of land to ‘occupancy tenants’ but the issue of Okara and other military farms was left untouched. Amidst the complete silence of the provincial government, we must question who ordered the escalation of security forces in Okara so much that it gave a war-like image. How can a district government use NAP to order the cancellation of a peasant’s convention? How can four thousands peasants become terrorists for demanding their rights? Moreover, can a district government call in the army or Rangers if a legal political entity organises a protest or a rally? The issue is serious enough to merit the formation of a judicial commission to adjudicate the issue.

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