Okara farms: Fit case for en­quiry ...

Pakistan Observer - - IN­TER­NA­TIONAL -

to hos­pi­tals be­cause we run the risk of be­ing nabbed and jailed. Life has turned hellish on mil­i­tary farms which is rem­i­nis­cent of early 2000s when the Rangers ruled the area, said one of the protest­ing ten­ant.

An­other said they were wag­ing strug­gle for the just cause and would not back off. “The choice is with the state – if it wants to treat its peace­ful and peace-lov­ing cit­i­zens as ter­ror­ist, let it do so. These lands, which we have been till­ing for gen­er­a­tions, are a source of liveli­hood for us which the state is now de­ter­mined to turn into a cause of death,” she lamented.

The protesters were joined by lead­ers of the Awami Work­ers’ Party (AWP), the All Pak­istan Wapda Hy­dro­elec­tric Union, the All Pak­istan Bhatta Maz­door Union and the Na­tional Trade Unions’ Fed­er­a­tion.

Khur­sheed Ahmed, the All Pak­istan Hy­dro Elec­tric Union gen­eral sec­re­tary, de­manded that the gov­ern­ment re­lease those ar­rested. “We stand in sol­i­dar­ity with the ten­ants,” he said. Fa­rooq Tariq, the AWP gen­eral sec­re­tary, highlighted the strug­gle of the ten­ants since 2001 when they started de­mand­ing right to land. He said dozens of ten­ants were miss­ing and AMP lead­ers had been ar­rested un­der ter­ror­ism charges. He said po­lice had raided Sat­tar’s house on April 16 and ar­rested him.

The news­pa­per re­ports dated Wednes­day April 27, 2016, throw into bold re­lief a har­row­ing story of ex­treme op­pres­sion of poor ten­ants of Okara mil­i­tary farms by the state ma­chin­ery. It is a story that has been lin­ger­ing on for at least the last 17 years with no let up in the re­pres­sion or any re­lief to the fam­i­lies of poor ten­ants.

In­deed, if one went deeper into the de­tails of this dis­tress­ingly trau­matic story one would find it a fit case for a ju­di­cial in­quiry by a Supreme Court bench.

The Okara farms are part of a mil­i­tary farms group, Okara and Re­nala com­prise 16,627 acres of land, con­sist­ing of two dairy farms, seven mil­i­tary (oat and hay) farms and 22 vil­lages. The farms were cul­ti­vated by 1,323 farm­ers re­sid­ing in Okara and Re­nala. The Gov­ern­ment of Pun­jab is the prime pro­pri­etor of the farm which was first leased to the colo­nial Bri­tish In­dian Army be­fore Par­ti­tion.

The own­er­ship barely both­ered the ten­ants, who cul­ti­vated the land on a share­crop­ping ba­sis, un­der which they shared both the in­put and the out­put with the con­troller of the land. The con­trac­tual ba­sis gave the ten­ants the ad­di­tional ben­e­fit of recog­ni­tion by law of their claim over the land, which as was firm as that of the owner. If the land was sold, the ten­ants’ claim over it be­came pri­mary. The ar­range­ment puts ten­ants in a much bet­ter le­gal po­si­tion than a sim­ple rental ar­range­ment, where land is cul­ti­vated in ex­change of money or a spec­i­fied rent in kind.

The Army de­cided to ar­bi­trar­ily change the sys­tem of con­tract un­der which the peas­ants tilled the land, from share-crop­ping to pay­ing rent in cash. This de­ci­sion caused great re­sent­ment among the ten­ants and their fam­i­lies, who had resided in Okara and the neigh­bor­ing Re­nala for quite some time. The ten­ants feared the new sys­tem of con­tract would em­power the Army (which is not the original owner of the land) to throw them out of their homes.

When the peas­ants protested, the mil­i­tary tried to en­force its ar­bi­trary de­ci­sion by force. The army and para­mil­i­tary force be­sieged the lo­cal vil­lage com­mu­nity, pro­duc­ing a sit­u­a­tion re­sem­bling a con­fronta­tion be­tween a group of poor, de­fense­less ten­ants and an armed- to- the teeth mil­i­tary force.

Ac­cord­ing to well-doc­u­mented ac­counts, the mil­i­tary bru­tal­ized the poor ten­ants, and the en­su­ing se­vere ag­i­ta­tion and vi­o­lence claimed eight in­no­cent lives. The para­mil­i­tary Rangers be­sieged the vil­lages twice, im­posed a cur­few, re­strained peo­ple’s mo­bil­ity, stopped sup­ply of medicine, food and veg­eta­bles, and used nu­mer­ous pres­sure tac­tics. A Hu­man Rights Watch Re­port has de­tailed tes­ti­mo­ni­als of vil­lage peo­ple vic­tim­ized by the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties, which were gen­er­ally dis­mis­sive of the protest.

Army per­son­nel claimed that rather than be­ing a hu­man rights is­sue, this was a lo­cal law and or­der is­sue in­cited by some non-gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions (NGOs). They claimed that Muzarain or ten­ants were rais­ing the slo­gan ‘milki ya maut’ (own­er­ship or death) out of greed and mal­ice.

In­ter­est­ingly, in the Okara case the mil­i­tary was try­ing to change the terms of con­tract for land that did not be­long to it. Hence, the army it­self came into vi­o­la­tion of the con­tract it had signed with the Pun­jab gov­ern­ment, which had orig­i­nally leased out these vil­lages as part of a to­tal of 35,508 acres to the Bri­tish In­dian Army in 1913. The 20year lease agree­ment signed in 1913 and re­newed in 1933 for an­other five years stip­u­lated that the land was to be used as ‘oat and hay’ farms for rais­ing army’s horses.

Ac­cord­ing to se­nior of­fi­cials of rev­enue depart­ment, the Pak­istan Army, which in­her­ited the lease from the Bri­tish In­dian Army, did not bother to re­new it when it ex­pired 15 years be­fore these in­ci­dents, and also stood in vi­o­la­tion of the lease agree­ment by chang­ing the use of land from oat and hay to dairy farms. The lease agree­ment does not al­low the ser­vice to use the land for any pur­pose other than grow­ing fod­der. And con­trary to the claims made by the army that in­come gen­er­ated from the farms is given to the gov­ern­ment, the mil­i­tary farm au­thor­i­ties ac­tu­ally re­tain all earn­ings.

From a so­ciopo­lit­i­cal stand­point, the con­flict is sig­nif­i­cant ex­pres­sion of the mil­i­tary’s power and its de­ter­mi­na­tion to main­tain it. The army’s top lead­er­ship re­mained fear­ful that any con­ces­sion to the ten­ants would have a knock-on ef­fect. This ap­pre­hen­sion, that yield­ing to the farm­ers would weaken the mil­i­tary against other so­cial and po­lit­i­cal forces, and di­min­ish its over­all power, was preva­lent within the army. There­fore, the is­sue was not just about the own­er­ship of the land, but rather the larger mat­ter of main­tain­ing po­lit­i­cal power and au­thor­ity. Such be­hav­ior is rem­i­nis­cent of feu­dal ar­mies in Europe, for whom oc­cu­pa­tion and con­trol of ter­ri­tory was a sym­bol of strength. (Most of the facts, fig­ures and opin­ion in this col­umn have been gleaned lib­er­ally from Aye­sha Sid­diqa’s book Mil­i­tary Inc: In­side Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary Econ­omy— Pp-177-179)

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