Army, the police, adjudicator, the judge, and of course the executioner of Pakistan, want farm lands in Okara despite the protest of the locals ….writes Manzoor Ahmed
Early May this year, a strange event unfolded in Pakistan’s Punjab, in the agrarian district of Okara—a convoy of armoured vehicles and troops faced a straggly group of poor peasants protesting on the road. The farmers, who eke out a meagre living off their small plots, were raising slogans against the army and the state eager to gobble up their patch of living.
It was a strange sight because in Pakistan, no one questions the army. Even the most powerful who decided to take on the army met with hired killers pumping bullets into them or, if the targets were lucky, at them to put the fear of death into them and every one else who witnessed the attack or read about it in the days and weeks that followed. The Pakistan Army was too powerful and ruthless to be displeased. So here was a small, unarmed group of farmers taking on the might of the army, out in the open, for the world to see.
It was a strange event because it did not attract the kind of media coverage it should have. The journalists were busy chasing the Panama papers and were hardly interested in finding out why a small group of farmers in Punjab were taking on the most powerful institution of Pakistan. The event merited a few paragraphs in mainstream papers, that too was reported by a foreign news agency.
No less strange was the silence on the part of the political leadership. One would not expect Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to speak out; but his party leaders should have. These farmers had voted for the Sharif party. The silence from other political parties is equally deafening. Imran Khan, otherwise a rabble-rouser and quick to take on the Sharif government, is no where to be found. Asif Ali Zardari and his son, Bilawal Bhutto and their family party is in all probability holidaying in London or Dubai.
Now why is the most powerful Army afraid of this small group of helpless and poor farmers. It is simple: the army wants their land and the farmers are not willing to let go of their living without a whimper. The army, as is known, is one of the bigger land owners in Pakistan, occupying at least 30 to 35 per cent of cultivable land in the country. The army wants the farmers to vacate a patch of land in Okara which it claims its own.
Since the army is the police, adjudicator and the judge, and of course the executioner, it is impossible for anyone to contest its claim. But farmers of Okara are perhaps made of different mettle or that they are driven to the wall and it is simply a question of their survival that has made them rise against the Great Protector of Pakistani People.
The army of course was not willing to heed the voice of the poor people. So when the farmers decided to hold a meeting and rally in April this year, the state went into an overdrive and picked up their leader Mehr Abdul Sattar from his home. He is the secretary general of Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab, the group organising the meeting. The arrest sparked off a widespread protest with men and women, in thousands, walking out into the street, hurling stones at the security forces. In return, the forces ploughed into with batons and then fired teargas canisters. Dozens were arrested under draconian counter-terrorism laws and sent to secret prisons. Villages have been cut off from the rest of the country and their food and water supply choked. Strict curfew has been clamped on the area, preventing people from going out to get necessary rations and medicines for their families.
This is not the first time that the army had used heavy arm tactics to cow down poor farmers. In the past, hundreds of them have been detained in illegal prisons, tortured and several have been killed in firing or in prison for refusing to cede their small but precious parcels of land to the army.
The conflict owes its legacy to the British rule when vast expanse of highly fertile land in Punjab were given to farmers to till. A large part of this land was leased out to the British Indian Army and after independence it became the property of Pakistan Army. As per the British and subsequent Pakistani laws, the farmers became tenants and shared the proceeds of their labour equally with the army with the latter providing fertiliser, seeds and other necessary inputs.
In 2000, the army changed the game by turning the farmers into contract labour by imposing an annual rent on them. This was a preposterous move and was opposed tooth and nail by the farmers. The army responded with detention, torture and custody killings. Hundreds of farmers disappeared and were never found. The worst happened in 2002 when villagers were surrounded by Pakistani Rangers to force the farmers to sign the new conditions of lease. Nine died in the protest and farmers were forced to sign away their life and property to the Pakistan Army.
The anger and anguish, however, brimmed on the surface. In June 2015, the military wanted to change the rules once again and raised the annual rents. In protest, the farmers blocked the irrigation channels and sat on a peaceful dharna. The rangers, on the orders of the army, responded with indiscriminate firing.
The farmers have, now, once again come out into the streets, only to face armoured vehicles and armed troops as if they were enemies of the state. The Human Rights Watch, in June this year, said Pakistani authorities had “ used draconian laws and excessive force to prevent tenant farmers in Punjab province from protesting for land rights…The government’s use of vague and overbroad counter-terrorism laws against protesting farmers brings new tensions to this volatile situation“.