Okara farms: Fit case for enquiry ...
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)