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Politics of the Oppressed in Pakistan

The formation of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen-e-Punjab (Association of Punjab’s Tenants) in Pakistan signaled the re-carving of political space by Punjab’s peasants.  This interview with Asad Farooq, Professor in the Law Department at LUMS, charts the development of Anjuman-e-Mazareen-e-Punjab from its formation to its recent struggles.  Asad Farooq is interviewed by Qalandar Memon.

QM: Professor Farooq, you have worked with peasant movements across Pakistan. The Okara peasants’ movement of 2000 appears to be a landmark. Can you brief us as to what the struggle was around?

AF: The peasant movement against the Okara military farms is what you are referring to. Before we head into the movement itself, the history of the military farms is important to understand – to build context.

During the British period, as part of the Punjab’s canal colonisation, the British set up military farms. The military farms needed tenants since military men could not cultivate the farmland themselves. The British administration needed diggers and cultivators to make the land productive, and so cultivators from East Punjab were brought to West Punjab to clear the land, to build canals, to cultivate the land, and to settle. The process spanned over thirty to forty years. These settlers from East Punjab were made promises that they would be granted land rights.  The settlement processes around the Okara farms are replicated across Punjab at a number of military farms.  The military farms were kept by the British to keep horse-stables, or produce crops to feed the British Indian Army. Thus, cultivators were settled onto the military farms and took the legal status of ‘tenants.’ Tenants were bound to share crop:  they gave 50 percent of their crop to the military and kept 50 percent of the crop themselves. The original lease agreement was between the British Indian Army and the imperial Punjab government. The lease began in 1913 and ran out in 1933, and was then renewed for an additional 5 years (till 1938). While the lease expired in 1938, the Military did pay rent to the Punjab govt. until 1943. They stopped paying rent after that date. 1933. However, this contract remained hidden until 2000 when the peasant farmers looked into the matter.  During the entire period after the lapse of the lease, the British and Pakistani militaries continued to extract 50 percent of the crop from the tenants.  In 1947, de facto ownership was transferred to the Pakistani military which continued the arrangement.

The land where the struggle is happening is around 68,000 acres in the district of Okara. Around a million people are connected to these farmlands – either directly or indirectly.

The trouble began when the Pakistan Army tried to stir the status quo at the farms. In 2000, with  General Musharraf in power, the military decided to expand its tentacles into the economic life of the country. It decided to change the relation of peasants to the land. From tenants, the military asked the farmers to be contractors.  The shift would give the military legal power to evict the peasants from the land after the end of the contract period.  This is when the contest began

QM: The military starts forcing people in 2000 onwards to sign various contracts, how much success did they have initially, when did the movement start organising against this and what form has this organising taken since?

AF: The movement organised itself straight away in 2000.

It’s a typical peasant movement organising around ownership of land but some of the dynamics of this movement have made it particularly unusual.

For a start, it is located in the Punjab which is the heart of the Pakistani military, which itself is the most powerful institution in the country.  So, you have in the center of Punjab a movement that is fighting the military. If you look back and think about the time, that is, during the early period of Musharraf’s rule, you had no one challenging the military.  After civilian rule in the 1990s, everyone welcomed the military, including the liberal and intellectual elite.  Thirdly, the movement is a million strong.  Minorities also play a leading role in the movement. 30 percent of folks involved in the movement are Christian.In addition to that, the role of women in the movement has to be noted.

Women were at the forefront of all the resistance to the violence of the military. When   the military would lay siege to villages by surrounding them, medical provisions were limited, they wouldn’t let doctors in, they wouldn’t let patients out, and so we are looking at a period where extreme brutality in the army. During this period,  the women would form the first circle of resistance and keep the army at bay from entering the village or from taking the leaders out of the village.  They would put their bodies on the line.  It is extremely unique for those sets of reasons. And extremely powerful and hugely significant at the time where there was no other resistance happening in Pakistan on that scale. The Lawyers’ movement and all these other movements started 7 to  8 years later.

QM: How did the movement evolve? And how do activists and intellectuals of the Left react to this movement?

AF: It had an organic growth, it organized  itself.  We are talking about self-organization.  The Left do get involved and play a facilitative, healthy type of engagement in the movement, in the way they connect it to wider struggles across the country and also to struggles across the world.  So the movement is represented in  various social forums: the Irish social forum and the World Social Forum, for example.  So, that’s the traditional Left . The other side of the coin is the involvement of  more civil society sectors and the NGO crowd.

For example, you have some solid involvement by the lawyers who are taking up a number of the cases which is fantastic but, on the other hand, you have the standard NGO involvement. We don’t need to talk about the foundation of the NGO culture and how they historically have been used, in part, to depoliticise countries. In the Okara movement, we have a very clear example of what happens here, when an NGO gets involved. The NGOs want to get the peasant movement to start to articulate itself in the framework of development discourse. Clear political demands are being reframed into “we want better roads or we want better schools.  ” The demands were for land, and with land, as Fanon told us many years ago, comes dignity—comes everything. And that is their struggle. Their struggle is not about having better roads or better education. That comes with that land. And what the NGOs did was highly problematic and highly unaccountable. 

Secondly, they create divisions within the movement. For example, ActionAid proceeds to distribute funds to the movement, funds with which there are issues of accountability. These are largely channeled to the leaders.  The NGO has no accountability to the rest of the movement and has had no conversation with the rest of the movement. They had conversations with part of the leadership, gave the leadership significant amounts of money and as a result, deeply fractured the movement.  At that time, the leadership was primarily Christian, the NGOs having engaged with them and funded them invoked levels of mistrust amongst members of the movement that deeply fractured the movement on religious lines.  It is not that the NGO gave them money because they were Christian but that they got money and the necessary power that comes with this NGO support led to fragmentation in the movement for a time. 

The fact that the movement remained and that these communities remain in control and in occupation of their land is important.  The changes that have taken place from 2000 till today 2011 are immeasurable.

 QM: Can you talk about some of the changes?

One of their constant refrains one hears around Okara is that actually independence never came to them in 1947 but in 2000.  For it is then that structures of power were  broken.  This is a community, which in 2000 was amongst the most oppressed in Pakistan. You know, a military man would come, sit on a chair and the entire village would appear and sit in front of him and split their crop in front of him.

Before 2000 you were told what you can grow, where you can grow it; you were told how much you must give to the military; you were told where you can grow and also where you were to live. These villages are called chaks. Historically, they were organised by the British: the Christians would live in one corner, the market would be in one area.  You could not go outside that grid. These structures remained in place all the way up to 2000 for these communities. They couldn’t go outside the chaks,. They couldn’t grow crops as they liked. Everything they made was regimented. Everything was organised, and nothing allowed to change. The rigidity was enforced by extreme violence, constant beatings, and tortures of various kinds. So, what happens in 2000  is a radical transformation..  With the military gone, power and decision making is localized and democratized. 

QM – Can you talk about the redistribution of land among them? How do they farm and organise themselves within this new freedom?

AF:  Before the movement the farmers would give 50 per cent of whatever they grew to the military and keep 50 per cent for themselves.  Now they keep everything.  They grow what they want; their land is their own. One of the interesting dynamics within the movement is that some of these communities had people who didn’t have any land, so there were various moments within the movement where land was distributed to those without land.

But the wider effect is that there’s debate about how we should organise, what we should do from now on. And, those debates are ongoing; I don’t think there’s a resolution to these debates.  But now these are debates from a position of power. It’s a debate amongst  tenants owning their own land. The military continues to make incursions now and then to lay claim to the land. It’s not a dead issue, but aside from defending the gains, the questions of what to do and how to organise are on-going.

QM: Explain a bit more about the tactics that the peasants have used, I mean the military is obviously powerful with modern weapons and all and the peasants don’t have any such weapons?

AF: I remember once in 2002, when the military had surrounded numerous villages, and the villagers were on the periphery of the village, armed to their teeth, ready to respond to any military incursion. A military incursion would be about going in, taking one or two people of the leadership. That’s one of the key tactics of the military: just this constant presence, constant sense of fear, constant pressure and constant picking one or two people here or there, so if someone wants to go to the hospital, a child is ill, they just pick them up. I have seen children die because the military did not allow them to go to the hospital.  That was their tactic, the response was equally simple and clearly equally effective – huge demonstrations, blocking of roads and wiliness to fight on.

The villages responded with arms. It was not a peaceful movement.  They defended themselves with arms.

They would also block traffic. They would call huge demonstrations, tens of thousands of people. One of the advantages this movement was   its proximity to Lahore. It lies on the Grand Trunk Road (GT road), one of the major highways in Pakistan. If you manage to block GT Road, it’s a huge statement. So, its proximity allows a certain voice, a certain loudness that other movements across Punjab don’t get. In Southern Punjab, you have similar kinds of organisations and similar kinds of struggles, but the ability of those movements to make statements by blocking major roads isn’t possible.

QM: Today these communities have the land; they occupy the land and they live on the land.  How do the peasants claim it as theirs? What are the bases of this claim?

AF: These are the communities that moved here a hundred years ago, primarily from East Punjab. Their ancestors cleared the land, built these canals, made these lands. The peasants’ claim rests on that memory. There is the entire discourse that they have constructed around that memory, and that is the key for the movement: that this is our land. And related to that, is a fear of what it means to be landless. Because a lot of them were landless when they came here from East Punjab and they also know  what it’s like to be dispossessed, so it was that kind of fear of dispossession and that memory of their forefathers, of having tilled this land, having created this land and having given it the value that it has. That is their claim: “We have been here for 100 years.” It’s not a claim that you can ignore.

[Transcripted and edited by Hashim Bin Rashid]

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