Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad passed away last month at the age of 97
Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad was born in 1923 in Chahrrh Kay village near Jullander (in Indian Punjab). After completing a bachelor in arts degree, he joined the British Indian Army. After the World War II, he left the army and returned to Jullander, where he set up a personal library and started teaching children.
In 1947, Fateh Muhammad and his family migrated to West Punjab. Losing his father Chaudhary Ameer Din during this journey, he settled down in Chak 305-GB near Toba Tek Singh. He would soon dedicate his life to educating and organising the peasants.
Started in 1937, the Punjab Kisan Sabha (PKS) was a reaction to the injustices to the peasants. The movement grew quickly both in terms of membership and outreach.
There was a lull after a number of non-Muslim peasant activists and leaders migrated to India. The peasant movement had to be virtually started anew.
People like Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad emerged as there was no central leadership. He and his colleagues mobilised and motivated the peasants by raising slogans like ‘Bannay uttay adho-adh; na begaar, tey na katoti (The harvest must be shared alike; there must be no forced labour, and no illegal deductions).
Soon Fateh Muhammad was elected the lumber-dar (village headman). The peasant activists organised a Kisan Conference in Chak 405-GB on March 28. Fateh Muhammad could not attend this due to the sudden death of his younger brother. However, deriving inspiration from Dr Muhammad Abdullah, then Lyallpur district secretary general of the Communist Party of Pakistan, he had joined the party by year end.
The Lyallpur Kisan Committee organised its first district-level Kisan Conference on April 2, 1950, in Chak 242-GB. At this conference, Fateh Muhammad Pardhan was elected the president and Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad the secretary-general of the Lyallpur Kisan Committee. A series of conferences followed.
Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and his colleagues organised a historic peasant gathering in Toba Tek Singh on March 23, 1970. The slogan for the conference was: Chalo Chalo, Toba Tek Singh Chalo (Let us go to Toba Tek Singh). The slogan became so popular that it is still used throughout the country.
Chaudhary Fateh Muhammad and his colleagues organised a historic peasant gathering in Toba Tek Singh on March 23, 1970. Some towering political figures, including Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani and Faiz Ahmad Faiz addressed the conference. Around 700,000 peasants attended this conference. The propaganda included edicts by some clerics declaring the conference organisers non-Muslim.
Some towering political figures, including Maulana Abdul Hameed Bhashani and Faiz Ahmad Faiz addressed the conference. Despite adverse propaganda from some right-wing religious-political parties, nearly 700,000 peasants attended this conference. The propaganda included edicts issued by some clerics declaring the conference organisers non-Muslims.
This conference, and others besides, led several political parties to include land ownership ceilings in their election manifestoes ahead of the general elections in 1970.
Even the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), whose founder Maulana Maudoodi had declared ownership ceilings un-Islamic, included land reforms in its manifesto. The Bhutto-led Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) was the main beneficiary of this momentum as the Punjab Kisan Committee did not contest elections and pledged their support to the party.
The PPP introduced land reforms on taking power. In an interview years later Chaudhry Fateh Muhammad claimed that its Roti, Kapra aurMakan (Bread, clothing, and shelter) slogan, too, was originally raised by the PKC.
The Punjab Kisan Tehreek (PKT) can also claim credit for a series of other achievements including the regularisation of sharecropping; the award of ownership rights to peasants working on some of the state land; the abolition of abwab (water tax), haboob (illegal exactions), and begaar (forced labour); the partial abolition of jagirdari and zamindari; the temporary stopping of auction of state land; and the exemptions on land revenue and water tax granted to small land holders.
Fateh Muhammad maintained, however, that the movement had been a failure in that it did not bring about a total emancipation of the peasantry and the eradication of its exploitation at the hands of the landowning class.
Why could the peasantry not achieve its ultimate goal — liberation and autonomy? A probable answer lies in the factionalism among peasant leadership and the repressive policies of the state. Many leaders of the Kisan Committee were imprisoned over charges of involvement in the Rawalpindi Conspiracy of 1951; following the ban on the CPP and the PKC in 1954; the promulgation of martial law in 1958; the ban on the political activities till 1962; and the ban on Kisan Committees from March 1969 till December 1971.
The landed elite and the political elite of the country accused the movement of being anti-Islam and anti-Pakistan. The extent of state repression may be gauged from the fact that Fateh Muhammad spent almost 18 years of his life in imprisonment.
He not only spoke about agricultural problems, but was also an active and dynamic campaigner for the farmers’ rights in Pakistan. His autobiography, Jo Hum Pey Guzri, provides a vivid account of the atrocities he and his colleagues had to face.
His struggle for peasants’ rights, extending over seven decades, came to an end when he breathed his last on May 25 at his hometown.
The question whether or not his legacy will be carried forward by one of his colleagues or a family member remains unanswered.
The writer is a lecturer at GC University, Faisalabad and a PhD student at the Centre for Global Studies at Shanghai University, China.