It is the usual story about a feudal landlord’s repression, killing, torture and expulsion of tenant farmers, something that probably has happened countless times in Punjab’s history. But there is a twist. The landlord in this case is the Pakistan army. The same army which is one of the biggest landlord as well as industrial conglomerate in Pakistan.
Approximately 68,000 acres of state-owned agricultural land in Punjab are now the site of the most significant popular protest movement that Pakistan has witnessed in recent times. Spread out over ten districts, this land is tilled by the almost one million descendants of migrants settled in the area by the British Raj a century ago.
The problems in the affected districts result from a straightforward disagreement. Traditionally, farmers have been sharecroppers, handing over part of their produce as rent to the military, which acts as landlord through military-run farms. In 2000, the military unilaterally tried to change the rules, demanding that the farmers sign new rental contracts requiring them to pay rent in cash. The farmers have refused, fearing that cash rents would, when times were lean, place them at risk of being evicted from land that their families have lived on for generations. Instead, as the situation has grown more polarized, they have begun demanding outright ownership of the land.
This dispute—-over some of Pakistan’s most fertile land—-has led to an extraordinarily tense standoff between the Pakistani army, paramilitary and police forces, and the tenant farmers. Since 2002, tenant farmers resisting efforts by the military to undercut their legal rights to the land—-especially those from the movement’s epicenter in the Okara district, where the military claims to own at least 17,000 acres and where farmers are in direct confrontation with military authorities—-have been subjected to a campaign of killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, “forced divorces,” and summary dismissals from employment. Twice, paramilitary forces literally besieged villages in the area of dispute, preventing people, food and public services from entering or leaving for extended periods of time.
[…]Torture, beatings, kidnappings, and arbitrary arrests of tenant farmers and their families became increasingly commonplace between May 11, 2003 and June 12, 2003, when the Rangers mounted its second siege on parts of Okara district. While the abuses are ongoing, most of the violations identified in this report are from the period of the siege.
[…]It should be emphasized that though the number of violations may have decreased since this period, similar violations continue with impunity to the present.
The land in question in Okara actually does not belong to the army.
Ironically, the Pakistani military does not actually have legal title to land at the heart of the dispute—-the Okara Military Farms. Although the military has had long-term leases to the land in the past and has exerted effective control over it, in some cases for decades, formal title to the land continues to rest with the government of Punjab province. Repeated attempts by the military to effect a permanent transfer of the land to the federal ministry of defense have been rebuffed by the Punjab provincial body that holds title to the land.
This point was emphasized to Human Rights Watch by Chief Minister Ilahi. In his government’s view, the land belongs to Punjab province and not to the army. However, he indicated that this was a “sensitive issue” given the “transition” from military to civilian rule currently underway in Pakistan. When presented with this claim, the Federal Interior Minister disagreed: “The Punjab Chief Minister is wrong,” he said flatly, neither offering nor suggesting proof. “I know that the army owns this land.”
And we also hear the most common excuse for problems in Pakistan —- RAW:
Officers of the Pakistan Rangers […] are adamant that the farmers are ready and willing to cooperate with the authorities in signing new contracts and that it is only a handful of troublemakers, including outside parties, who have incited the otherwise peaceful tenants into conflict. Some also suggested that these outside influences had links to RAW, the Indian intelligence agency. “Its nothing we cannot deal with. These people only understand the language of the stick” explained an army major serving with the Rangers on promise of anonymity.
That last quote is something one hears from everyone in authority irrespective of time and place.
According to the Human Rights Watch,
The armed unit responsible for most of the abuses against the farmers is the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force normally used for border security. To coerce the farmers into signing new tenancy agreements, the Rangers set up “torture cells,” a term commonly used in Pakistan by officials and citizens alike to describe areas within detention centers that are used for coercive interrogations of suspects.
The Rangers have tortured the children of farmers to coerce them into signing tenancy agreements, according to testimony by 30 children interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Because the Rangers have targeted children of recalcitrant farmers for kidnapping and torture, schools in the affected areas have periodically closed down.
In some cases, the paramilitary forces have even forced young couples to divorce by torturing husbands or other male relatives, as a means of publicly shaming their families. On military farms, employees who are related to farmers who have refused to sign the new contracts have been fired or barred from work and threatened with torture.
This whole conflict had slipped my mind since I had first heard about it two years ago. Here is some coverage of the issue by BBC Urdu:
- Extreme Tension in Okara (Aug 24, 2002)
- Okara: Blood Stains (May 12, 2003)
- ‘Okara Journalist is a Terrorist’ (May 13, 2003)
- Okara: Besieged Farmers (May 16, 2003)
- Okara: Village or Military Cantonment (June 22, 2003)
- Okara: Army Accused of Repression (July 20, 2004) (in English)
You might also want to read Pervez Hoodbhoy’s report of his trip to Okara in September 2002. He also wrote an op-ed about the issue in Dawn on May 22, 2003. Ardeshir Cowasjee, the famous columnist for Dawn also wrote an article about the Okara military farms as well as other cases of the army gobbling up land in Pakistan last year.