Around two weeks earlier, the Okara military farms management, situated in the Okara District in the Punjab had forcibly evicted and evacuated tenant farmers from a 675 acre plot of land, in which around 100 farmers had earned their livelihood through cultivation of various crops.
The Management had also terminated their tenant agreements while also increasing the rent for the lands to Rupees 22,000 from Rs 17,000 per 25 acres.
Following the eviction orders, the farmers have refused to heed to the demands of the Military Farms Management and had in protest, blocked all water supplies to these lands by closing the water sluicegates – that passes through the chack number 15/4/L (the villages there are divided by ‘Chack’ numbers). On the 3rd of July 2014, as a mark of protest around 700-800 peasant farmers had gathered at the Chack N. 15/4/L, against their forced eviction and peacefully demanded that they be restored with the land for cultivation which they had been engaged in for decades past. Infuriated by the actions of the farmers the Military Farms Management had as retaliation, taking the law onto their hands and had attacked the farmers who were staging the peaceful and passive protest.
Around 4 pm in the afternoon, around 1000 military men led by Lieutenant Colonel Awais, Lieutenant Colonel Shahzad, Lieutenant Colonel Ata Mustafa and Major Nadeem had arrived at the scene in military vehicles and had forcibly opened the water sluicegates that had been closed by the farmers.
This action agitated the farmers who had continued their protest by raising their voices and slogans etc, against the military action. According to reports, the military officers had then launched their attack shooting live bullets blindly into the crowds of farmers assembled there, The farmers then had disbursed and ran away seeking protection, while military men had chased the farmers and physically assaulted them which resulted in the deaths of two farmers, Mr. Hasan Wadwana, 24 years old, and Mr. Noor Ahmad Kamboh, 50 years old both residents of the area of Chak 15/4/L.
The military assault also injured 29 others which included 14 women.
The bodies of the two peasant farmers were taken away by the military officers, and the bodies had remained in their custody overnight for more than 18 hours, before the military men had brought the already decomposing bodies and threw them in the area of the Chack.
These families were earlier evicted from a nearby village taken over by Okara Military Cantonment Administration and in order to compensate the families, they were given several lots land on contract by the Military as tenant cultivators. Subsequently when the military had wanted to increase the contract price for the land unilaterally, the peasants protested and this led to the start of the present dispute for the land.
The Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP) is a movement of 1 million landless tenants based in villages stretching over 10 districts of the Punjab (the districts of Okara, Khanewal, Multan, Lahore, Vihari, Sahiwal, Faisalabad, Sargodha, Pakpattan and Sheikhupura etc.). In these Districts landless tenants have settled in these lands and have cultivated them now for over a century. Official records state that the land belongs to the Government of Punjab. However, on these lands several companies and military agencies such as the RVFC, Military Seed Corporation, Livestock Agricultural Department, and Dairy Farm, Seed Research Farm to name a few are in operation and manage some of the lands in this area.
These companies have been collecting revenue from the peasants both in kind and in monetary terrms. According to the Board of Revenue, Government of Punjab the payments from the tenants to these Departments and companies are unlawful since these organizations have no legal claim over ownership nor revenue generated from this land. In July 2000 a new piece-rate and a yearly lease agreement was introduced to these farms.
This new system and agreement represented a severe loss in the social and economic position of tenant farmers. In fact, it was widely felt that this new system and agreement was deliberately harsh in order to impoverish the tenants and thereby force them to abandon their lands.
Given this situation the tenants of the area mobilized under the slogan “Maliki Ya Maut” (“Ownership or Death”) and rejected the new system of piece-rate and yearly agreements. The movement was organized under the leadership of the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP). The movement grew rapidly to gather hundreds of thousands of tenants all over Punjab.
During this period the movement attempted to negotiate with the district and provincial administrations, the farm management, the Revenue Board, and even the Governor of Punjab. However, the authorities were unwilling to negotiate and began a campaign of intimidation, coercion and cruelty towards the movement. On several occasions unprovoked violence erupted when the authorities sent armed police and paramilitary Rangers forces to terrorize the tenant farmers. Consequently 11 tenants lost their lives, hundreds including women and children sustained terrible injuries and hardships. Hundreds were arrested and sent to jail. To-date 4 tenant farmers are yet serving sentences in the Central Jail Sahiwal, and claim to stay defiant in their struggle.
The government has also applied severe economic pressure by dismissing over 350 government employees because they were relatives of these tenant farmers. Telephones, electricity and canal water were stopped by the Administration and Rangers for an eight month period. Relatives and children of the tenants were badly beaten by Rangers and Police. 45 tenants (men, women and children) died due to the lack of medical treatment during the siege of these villages by the Rangers and the Police.
Demanding Land Rights Is Not Terrorism
By Farooq Tariq
A massive repression of the peaceful peasant movement, the Anjuman Mozareen Punjab (AMP), is underway. Most of its leadership has been arrested under false anti-terrorist laws. Dozens of members are missing, while over 50 remain behind bars. All have been declared “terrorists” by the Okara district police, working hand in hand with the Military Farms administration, which mainly serves military officers.
The source of the problem is that while 14,000 acres of land in the Okara district is owned by the Punjab government, it is occupied by the Military Farms administration. Since 2001, the tenants of the Military farms have refused to turn over half of their crops (bitai), which they and their families had been paying for over 90 years. How could ordinary people dare to say no to the military officers? That is their real “crime”; their demand of their land rights.
The high point of the repression took place on April 16, 2016, when police raided the home of Mehr Abdul Sattar, general secretary of AMP. He was considered the main “terrorist,” having modern weapons at home and surrounded by “proclaimed offenders”. He was taken into preventive custody under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance, and as a precaution against massive resistance, the military trucked in tanks from other cantonments.
Yet Mehr Abdul Sattar was arrested without resistance. No weapons were discovered nor were there “proclaimed offenders” who fired back at his arrest. This myth was consciously promoted to demonize the peasant movement.
Despite a severe crackdown by the military and the police, the AMP went ahead with its planned convention on April 17, marking the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle. Thousands of peasant activists gathered in Okara district to demand an end to state violence, and to seek the release of AMP general secretary Mehr Abdul Sattar and other AMP leaders.
After being unable to stop the huge peasant convention, the police are now resorting to arrests, intimidation and mass charges in order to force peasants off the land.
Currently the police are organising daily flag marches with dozens of heavily weaponized police vehicles patrolling the area.
Pattern of Arrests and Protests
Following the successful 13th commemoration meeting of Bahsir Shaheed, who was killed by state agencies in 2002 in Ranalkhurd, its main organizer, Nadeem Ashraf, was arrested at home. He was charged with murder, attempted murder, anti-terrorism and various other serious criminal charges.
Malik Salim Jakhar, one of the main leaders of the movement from Kulyana Military Estate, has also been arrested and framed up on various criminal charges. Hafiz Jabir and Shabir Ahmad Sajid were arrested as well. Each time tenants protested on the main road. What else they could do? All these arrests took place during 2015/16.
As part of their plan to isolate and destroy the peasant organization, the police charged Okara journalist Hafiz Husnain Raza, who is working for Nawai Waqt group, in April 2016 with breaking several anti-terrorist laws. His real crime is following his father’s path to speak the truth. The police prefer journalists who allow them to review articles.
On April 16, police broke down the doors of Hafiz Husnain’s home in order to arrest him. Fortunately he was in Lahore to see his mother off, as she was going to perform Umrah. Three days later, two of his uncles, attempting to locate the journalist at home, were arrested.
In an official communiqué, the district administrator of Okara claimed that around 200/300 AMP members tried to block the road after the arrest of Mehr Abdul Sattar, but they were “successfully” dispersed.
On April 18, around 4,000 Muzareen had been booked under anti-terrorist laws for “injuring police.” However, no police had been injured on the day as tanks and other military vehicles were used to disperse the crowd.
After arresting Mehr Abdul Sattar, District Police Officer of Okara claimed that he was wanted in 150 cases. But at the Lahore High Court, only 26 cases were entered. Among those 26 cases, the lower courts have acquitted Mehr Sattar in five cases, while the police themselves declared him innocent in another nine.
Among the other seven cases, one particularly stands out: In 2014, two peasants of Anjman Mozareen were killed by Rangers firing on them. Yet, even the deceased’s family and the main AMP leadership were charged with committing the crime.
What Drives the Repression?
Under the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif, the military were given the constitutional power to establish military courts. This was to be the tool through which terrorism could be eliminated. In fact, the military operations in the FATA had some initial success in pushing back the growing tide of religious fundamentalism.
However in Okara, the AMP became a long-awaited target. A retired military captain turned police officer was posted to Okara to launch the attack against the peasant organization.
The district administration created the myth that “tenants are armed and hosting terrorists”, in order to justify massive repression. At rallies with thousands of supporters, there was never any looting, burning, or damage to property or to state security forces however. The protests were a peaceful expression of a mature peasant movement, representing the collective voice of the voiceless.
It is the unjust control of land by military-run companies and some individual officers that drives the protests. The peasants have built a strong organization and pursued their just cause through their constitutionally guaranteed rights of protest and assembly. The PML-n government is doing what Musharaf as a dictator could not do.
According to traditional accounts, the peasantry is expected to resort to armed struggle. Yet in this political struggle against the brutality of the state, the peasants’ main tool was the building of a mass movement.
Defending Peasant Protest
The military, the federal and the provincial governments must clarify their position regarding the suppression of the protesting peasants in Okara. What is the criteria being used to determine legitimate threats to national security and law and order?”
The right to assembly is guaranteed in our Constitution. The government must answer why a group formed to lobby for rights of peasants has been branded a terrorist group. AMP represents more than 100,000 peasants who work and live on Pakistani government and military-owned land. How did a peasant convention called for International Peasants Day threaten to cause a law and order situation?
Use of tear gas and tanks to disperse unarmed citizens is a serious waste of our taxes and calls into question enforcement of the National Action Plan, under which terror laws can apparently be used arbitrarily to crush any form of dissent.
The misuse of the National Action Plan against Terrorism as a pretext for suppressing the peasants’ struggle is very evident in the case of Okara. The peasants are not terrorists. They are victims of state terrorism. They have lost at least 11 comrades in their 14-year struggle. The real issue is that the army wants to take back the land from the peasants. We will not let that happen. The actions of the authorities must be condemned.
The country’s Constitution allows the AMP to hold conventions and to press for its demand for land rights, fair distribution of agricultural resources, and an end to state violence. The right of peaceful democratic protest is non-negotiable.
There should be an immediate stop to all attempts at dispossession and violence perpetrated by any state actor. The state must develop a comprehensive land reform plan with a just and equal distribution of agricultural, land and water resources in the country.
Farooq Tariq, is General Secretary, Awami Workers Party and can be reached at email@example.com
Military Farms in the 21st century, Orwellian
That the Pakistan Military has been extending its tentacles to envelop the State apparatus is no secret. However, a lesser-known aspect is the economic hegemony it is perpetuating over peasants in the shape of Military Farms Okara.
Illegal land grabbing is now being used as a most profitable business for the force, which has anyway been guzzling a lion’s share of the national budget, depriving citizens their right to basic facilities like health and education. As a result, the struggle of the peasantry to own land they have been tilling for generations, which began in the British era, continues in the 21st century. This time it is the Pakistani State goaded by the Military that is denying citizens the right to own what is rightfully theirs.
17th April is the international day of Peasants to commemorate the day Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (AMP), a representative organization of landless farmers, had organized a convention to be attended by the farmers, civil society organizations and prominent human rights defender. The event was banned by the organization and section 144 PPC (assembly of more than 4 people is made illegal) was imposed in the area. On 16th April 2016 Mehar Abdul Sattar was taken into preventive custody on Saturday under the Maintenance of Public Order ordinance.
Despite the ban the event was held as per schedule. A tank was also deployed at the site of the event to intimidate the crows gathered; police also arrested many protestors on charges of terrorism. Thousands of peasant activists gathered in Okara and Dipalpur districts to demand an end to use of violent tactics by the state authorities and to seek the release of AMP’s general secretary Mehar Abdul Sattar.
Following the arrest protestors took out a demonstration by blocking GT road, the main artery connecting different cities of Punjab province, demanding Sattar’s immediate release. Tanks and military men in hundreds are currently deployed on the GT Road trying to clear the road.
A 17-year-old boy also died when a tear gas shell that was used to disperse the protestors hit him. To intimidate the protestors demanding release of Sattar, tanks were deployed and paraded in the village. Many protestors were arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act, Section 7, which proscribes anti State activity.
Asma Jehangir condemned State actions. She said, “The military, the federal and the local provincial government must clarify their position regarding the suppression of protesting peasants in Okara. What is the criteria being used to determine legitimate threat to national security and law and order?”
Roughly one million tenants work on farms owned by the government of Punjab, in more than 10 districts across the Province. While the provincial government owns the land, the farms are actually operated by different government agencies, including the Military, the Livestock Department, and the Punjab Seed Corporation. These agencies have no legal claim to the land. Some of them had, at one point or the other, been lessees of the provincial government, but presently, none of the agencies are owners or lessees.
According to a subject expert, the actual owner of the land is the Punjab provincial government. The military pays a token fee to use the land, and two years ago, the Province refused an military request to transfer title to the property free of cost, according to a copy of a April 2001 letter from the Punjab Board of Revenue.
In 1999, the government promised to allot lands to landless tenant farmers. However in 2000 the system was changed whereby the peasants were changed from tenants to contractual owners and were required to pay annual rent. This infuriated the farmers and they organized themselves into a representative organization Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (Tenants Association of Punjab) in 2004. However, they were met with brutal repression. Violence and arrests have occurred as tenants have refused to give up their struggle for land ownership.
Since 2001, 11 farmers have lost their lives as a result of brutal force by the Military. The farmers aren’t even allowed the constitutional right to peaceful protest. The Military has time and against used brute force to silence the voice of the peasants. No media coverage of the peasants’ is allowed in mainstream media. Several journalists who have dared to defy the order have been arrested under terrorism charges.
The mighty Military is behaving like an occupation force with these landless, peaceful, unarmed peasants. Peaceful protests are being responded to with gunshots. None of the policemen or Rangers have ever been killed or injured during this movement. The Military’s insatiable lust for power, and the spiteful, will to have their way, by hook or by crook, has deprived the poor landless farmers their means of sustenance. The fight for right of ownership is marred by bloodshed, violence and brutal use of torture.
On 3 July 2014, the Rangers responded with indiscriminate firing on the farmers, and claimed two lives. According to a police official, the paramilitary force took away the bodies and a dozen farmers into custody. The farmers were refused the dead bodies unless they agreed they would not register a case with law enforcing agencies. The dead, along with the kidnapped farmers, were returned after three days.
The illegal land holding in Okara is whimsically being justified through the National Action Plan; this is just one of the many incidents where the National Action Plan has been used to clamp down on peaceful protestors. Selective use of the Plan has reduced it to a national joke.
Fortunately, the Judiciary has provided some reprieve. On 21 April 2016, the Lahore Anti Terrorist Court did not accept the public prosecutor’s argument seeking to charge the 5 protestors held under Anti Terrorist charges. The lawyer argued that demonstration is not an anti terrorist activity and no damage to any public sector building or personnel is been reported. Hearing the argument, the judge ordered the deletion of 7 ATA from the FIR, and asked the Okara police to present the accused in front of a local judge.
In another victory to the cause, on 20 April 2016, the Lahore High Court quashed the frivolous cases registered against Mehr Abdul Sattar. The poor peasants of Okara are being forced to except Military dictates as they are being enmeshed in frivolous cases, according to Muhammad Hanif, a senior defense analyst. Every farmer faces charges in 50 to 100 cases.
Military occupation of State land, and the demand of rent through brute force from the peasants, is not merely a blatant violation of the rule of law; it is a mockery of the institution of civil rule and democracy. Land grabbing by the Military is the biggest threat against the peasants, aggravating food insecurity, while violating human rights with impunity.
The Okara Farms highlight State inability to assert its legitimacy as the rightful authority over the mighty Military expanding its economic interest through real estate and occupying prime property through force and intimidation.