At the Okara military farms, the peasants’ fight is still on
Shahnaz Bibi, a peasant woman in her 40s standing outside the National Press Club Islamabad, was cursing the Punjab government and its police for committing violence against the poor Okara military farm tenants. Peasants were brutally beaten for protesting for their rights on April 17, a day marked internationally to salute the struggle of small farmers.
"The government used heavy force and weapons to crush our assembly. The police also beat the women and arrested many of our workers charging them under the antiterrorism act." she says. "Do we look like terrorists? We were protesting against the arrest of our leaders and nothing more. They beat women workers ruthlessly and threw men in the fields just like sacks."
Last week, peasants belonging to Anjuman-e-Mazarin Punjab (AMP), with more than 15 years’ long and intense struggle for the farmers working at the Pakistani military farms in Okara, staged separate daylong sit-in protests outside the Lahore Press Club and the National Press Club. They condemned violence by the state agencies and demanded release of their arrested workers.
AMP Chairman Liaqat Ali says 35 people including four women were arrested, and 24 of them were produced before the Anti Terrorism Court in Lahore on April 28.
April 17 -- the International Day of Peasant Struggle -- turned into a battlefield in central Punjab’s district Okara when heavy police contingents tried to crush around 4,000 protesting farmers. Thousands of peasants of Pakistani military’s farms, with a history of struggle for their rights, were set to mark the day that aimed to commemorate the massacre of 19 peasants struggling for land and justice in Brazil in 1996. However, the commemoration plans turned into a clash with law enforcement agencies that had arrested the key leaders of farmers’ organistaion, AMP.
A few days before the AMP announced its convention to mark this global day, the police is said to have raided the villages and arrested their key leaders on charges of extortion of money, murder and terrorism. A day before this scheduled peasant convention, the police also detained Mehar Abdul Sattar, secretary general of the AMP, after disallowing the organisation to hold this public gathering due to security concerns. The district administration also imposed Section 144 that disallows any small or big assembly in the wake of certain concerns.
The convention was meant to demand ownership rights for the land these farmers have been cultivating for generations. The farmers, however, staged the protest on April 17 and blocked the Grand Trunk Road to raise their voice. After crushing this protesting assembly of peasants, the police also charged these around 4,000 protestors, including hundreds of women, under the laws of terrorism and Maintenance of Public Order (MPO). Police also says that four arrested leaders of the AMP are accused of extorting money from poor farmers in the name of donation, harassing people for not giving money and involvement in criminal activities.
The peasants’ struggle in Okara is part of a larger movement in Punjab of landless peasants (spread over at least nine districts of central Punjab) who live as tenants on state farms. They have tilled these lands since colonial times when they were brought in and settled by the British under the Punjab Tenancy Act 1887 during the establishment of canal colonies in the 1900s. Okara Military Farms land comprises around 17,000 acres that was first leased to the British Indian army by the Punjab Government in 1913 for 20 years for "military requirements". This lease was renewed in 1933 only for a period of 5 years. However, the Ministry of Defence (under British rule) continued to pay rent for these lands till 1943.
"We knew about this convention but, after the recent attack in Gulshan-i-Iqbal Park Lahore, we had strict directions from the top authorities to keep an eye on the law and order situation and such assemblies that can cause security concern. We told the convention organisers not to hold this convention -- especially on the GT Road -- but the AMP did not pay heed. We received reports from secret agencies that there were chances of clash and protest if the convention was disallowed. We want to maintain peace so we raided the area and detained some of the AMP leaders including AMP secretary general Mehar Abdul Sattar, who is allegedly involved in criminal activities, and harbouring criminals and extorting money," says District Coordination Officer (DCO) Okara, Socrat Aman Rana while talking to TNS. "There are 26 cases of different nature of crime against Mehar Sattar."
Rana says that with the passage of time, most tenants and peasants of the area have accepted the system of Batai (fifty-fifty share) with the land allottees. He says only a few hundred people of these particular villages are demanding for proprietary/ownership rights of these lands, a claim that the Supreme Court of Pakistan, subsequently, turned down in 2007.
Noor Nabi, the AMP lawyer, says some individuals filed a petition in the Lahore High Court that was rejected and later the Supreme Court was moved.
"The land was given on lease to army since 1915 and it does not specify any time period or renewal agreement," says the DCO. "There are four main categories of peasants -- those working since 1915 on the 17,000 acre land, tenants at the land allotted for stud farms, tenants at livestock farms run by the Punjab government and tenants at the further allotted land to retired military and civil people."
He maintains that after failed efforts for getting rent from the peasants during the Pervez Musharraf regime, now the army has agreed on the Batai system again and the peasants are working on the same old condition. "However, only the tenants of this 17,000 acre land are calling for ownership. They know that the SC has rejected their claim so they have no other option except to block the GT Road for their demands."
In 2000, the military farms administration had begun a process of shifting the peasants’ status from tenants to contract farmers and forcefully evicting them from the land. This had led to deep insecurity and resistance amongst peasants. The situation forced these farmers to form the AMP for a united struggle for their rights and to assert ownership rights over land they had tilled for generations. In 2002, there was a heavy operation by the state to crush this organised struggle of peasants that continued for several months. The state used paramilitary forces to act against farmers who continued to fight against this oppression. At least eight workers died in those clashes.
The newly-appointed DCO further says that in a recent development, except these old tenants, tenants of other three categories -- stud farms, livestock farms and peasants at allotted land by the army -- have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the government to pay rent to the lease holder. "And the tenants of these villages have also complained against the APM leadership for extortion of money and involvement in criminal activities." Rana says now the court would decide the fate of those arrested "but no one will be allowed to take law and order into its hand".
"End media blackout now," read one of the placards raised by a peasant outside the press club. "Red salute to peasant women of Okara," was another placard raised by an old peasant.
Country’s civil society groups, human rights activists and a few political parties have raised their voice against the state’s alleged high-handedness calling for giving these workers their rights guaranteed in the constitution. The AMP represents more than 100,000 peasants who work and live on the land owned by the government. "How can a peasant convention organised in connection with International Peasants Day threaten to cause a law and order situation?" asks Asma Jahangir, leading lawyer and human rights activist.
"This issue is more than 15 years old. The army is urging the peasants and farmers to accept contracts or continue to work as peasants under the old system. The current situation was built by bulldozing a peaceful assembly of peasants on April 17," Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, representative of Awami Workers Party tells TNS, adding, "We are clear that peasants have the first right to this land; they’ve been sowing this soil for the last century. We demand the government to give ownership rights of this land to them".
"The AMP had arranged the convention to press for land rights, a fairer distribution of agricultural resources and an end to state violence against households of peasants associated with the AMP. It would have been a peaceful assembly of Pakistani citizens striving for their rights in accordance with the parameters set by the country’s Constitution," says Farooq Tariq, a representative of Awami Workers Party. "In banning the assembly of five or more people, the district administration and the police have exposed the authoritarian character of the state institutions and the military establishment’s continued disregard for constitutional safeguards available to the country’s citizens."
The AMP workers say Mehar Sattar is not a criminal but their leader. Also, with the gradually increasing struggle for their rights, people of these villages have also elected Sattar as chairman of union council of the area for three times. Sattar also contested the provincial assembly election from his area on a Pakistan People’s Party ticket in 2013 and for National Assembly as an independent candidate in October 2015 by-polls for NA 144.
"We are patriotic. We are not terrorists or doing anything against the state. We want our rights because we do not want to see our children as slaves in these farms," says Liaqat Ali, chairman of the AMP. "The state has used heavy force to suppress our voice but we will not stop. Twelve to thirteen women were seriously injured while one injured boy died later on. But we want to tell the government to stop killing us and talk."
I.A. Rehman, Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says it is sad that the government is trying to suppress a peaceful resistance movement using the National Action Plan. "The families of these peasants have cultivated this soil for almost a century. They are now being treated as terrorists, for demanding their rights."
He says these peasants have the right to the ownership of this land. He also demanded immediate release of activists and urged the state not to treat them as terrorists -- but to go after the real terrorists.