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Pakistan: Fear and dissent in Okara; plus Okara Dispossessions: From Jhanglees to Murabba holders to Faltus

 

 

From British India to Pakistan: the journey of dispossessions in Okara.

 

Fear and dissent in Okara

 

By Ammar Jan

 

June 3, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal respoted from The News -- The widespread use of exceptional legal and administrative measures to intervene in social conflicts, particularly in the aftermath of the National Action Plan, is radically altering legal and political conceptions of citizenship in Pakistan. While many have considered the legal aspects of this seemingly permanent state of emergency, there is a need to debate how this environment is (re)defining acceptable political dissent and notions of a legitimate political community.

 

In one of the most extreme examples of state high-handedness, the local administration in the Okara district has imposed a severe crackdown on the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP), a peasant group that has been resisting state-led evictions from the Okara Military Farms since 2000. The AMP, much like other organisations resisting state violence in rural Punjab, had developed legal, media and political networks over the last 15 years which it could mobilise each time the intensity of violence increased.

 

Yet, the movement is no longer able to rely on such support. Since late 2014, the entire top leadership of the AMP has been arrested (five office-bearers) and charged with ‘anti-state’ activities. Over 4000 unarmed villagers across the district have also been charged with terrorism, with periodic arrests and harassment continuing at checkpoints and through police incursions into the villages. Ten days back, over one hundred women and children from the farms were arrested. Some were charged with terrorism, a treatment never before meted out to women, even at the peak of repression under the Musharraf regime. However, despite large mobilisations by the AMP and a persistent campaign of civil disobedience against state repression, their defiance has been met by a haunting silence from civil society, political parties, and most notably, the media.

 

Such indifference to the peasants’ plight is linked to the rather lesser known fact that the current operation against the peasantry was launched by the local administration under the cover of the ‘National Action Plan’, which demands media censorship and limits the possibility of public dissent. How a policy formed in response to an unimaginably gruesome murder of school children is being cynically deployed by the local administration to arrest peasants, prevent them from harvesting their crops, and steal their buffaloes in itself speaks volumes about the disconnect between policy formulations and their actual implementation. The significance of bringing a peasant movement into the ambit of an anti-terror policy, however, has more severe consequences for redefining what is considered to be acceptable political behaviour.

 

The most common and public accusation levelled by district authorities against the AMP revolves around the group’s alleged links to the Indian intelligence apparatus. Okara is currently littered with banners placed by the city administration warning citizens against the widespread presence of “RAW agents” and demanding vigilance as a national duty, giving the impression that the city is about to witness an imminent fall at the hands of our eastern neighbour. Yet, the accusations of Indian support for thousands of tenants, including women and children, fits into a larger history of absurd allegations against political opponents in Pakistan. Popular political parties such as the Awami League (East Pakistan), PPP, MQM, ANP and Baloch nationalists have all been accused of being RAW agents, a narrative that makes little analytical contribution other than unintentionally projecting RAW as the most popular political organisation in the country.

 

The idea that rural Punjab is a bastion of Indian support is an outrageous proposition that no one truly believes. Yet the narrative’s function has been rather strategic in eliminating socio-political dissent in an era where an intense agrarian crisis and a schizophrenic movement of capital (for example in the land market) threaten to economically and socially displace millions of precarious communities into oblivion. When such an economic rationale intersects with a state rationale that views dissenters as nothing more than foreign intruders into the national body, we witness the recurrent and paranoid forms of violence unleashed against vulnerable segments of society.

 

Here lies the political significance of the Okara tenants’ movement. For over a decade, the AMP has consistently refused to be obliterated by the ruthless logic of the current system, disrupting the homogenising fantasies of ‘development’ and ‘nationalism’ parroted by state officials. They have thus far successfully resisted government repression through peaceful acts of civil disobedience, inspiring a number of young political activists in Punjab.

 

It is this spirit of defiance that remains the primary target of state violence, cloaked in the language of national security. By denying legitimacy to their dissent through the invocation of a foreign conspiracy, the administration aims to remind the economically marginalised classes of their place in society – which today means nothing more than being perpetually disposable.

 

It is no wonder then that the state has no language to understand popular movements – from Baba Jan’s campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan to the Katchi Abadi resistance in Islamabad to the peasants’ movement in Okara – other than through the metaphor of foreignness. ‘RAW agent’ has become an imprecise term for local administrators to describe any social phenomena that appears inassimilable into state ideology, or whose popularity exceeds that of the local state. Moreover, it remains a potent weapon to de-humanise thousands of citizens, who are no longer seen as mothers, daughters, children, etc undergoing persistent humiliation at the hands of the local administration, but are awkwardly lumped together under the category of ‘traitors’.

 

The fact that the state has been able to induce a perpetual fear of popular agitation in the minds of the country’s upper-middle classes means that there is a large constituency ready to consume the insecurity sold to them by the state, reducing the possibility for empathy with the peasantry from urban centres.

 

Being a defiant peasant in Okara today is a very lonely experience, since there is a virtual boycott of the movement by the media and political parties, who previously used it as cannon fodder in their opposition against Musharraf. Yet, the AMP has maintained organisational unity and refused to accept the humiliation of evictions desired by the local administration. The broader political significance of this episode, however, is the questions it raises on the place of dissent within a legitimate political community.

 

One of Pakistan’s primary tragedies has been the state’s exaggerated fears of conflicts in society, and its impossible (and violent) desire to overcome them through force. In such a worldview, fear becomes the only basis for constructing a political community, and violence becomes the sole method for ensuring its reproduction.

 

Yet, to become a republic (and Pakistan is one on paper), we must acknowledge that any social formation is ridden with conflicts, and that the task of politics is not to circumvent the question of social antagonisms through a recourse to ‘technocracy’ or emergency measures, but to construct institutional frameworks for their contestation and partial resolution. This is more pertinent in a society as monstrously unequal as Pakistan, where only acceptance of a permanent struggle over rights and resources can provide us with a semblance of stability and aid in developing more durable relations between the citizenry and the Pakistani state.

 

Thus, the challenge posed by the tenants’ movement in Okara is about more than merely making visible the suffering currently faced by Punjab’s peasants. It demands us to examine the possibilities of reimagining a politics that embraces social plurality as a pre-condition for socio-economic transformation, rather than believing fantasies of total consent. The task of imagining such a future is as difficult as it is urgent today.

 

Ammar Jan is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Cambridge, and a member of the Awami Workers Party.

 

Okara Dispossessions: From Jhanglees to Murabba holders to Faltus

 

By Hussain Bux Mallah

 

June 2, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Collective for Social Science Research blog -- The resistance of the tenants of Okara Military Farm villages to changes in their contract and to threats of eviction is cause-celebre, particularly for left-leaning activists and intellectuals. This is as it ought to be. There have been various attempts by the authorities to evict residents since the time of General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. The issue flared up again under General Musharraf in 2003, and after a hiatus it came to the headlines once more in April 2016 when it was reported that security forces positioned a tank in addition to the usual tear gas rounds to disperse people who were celebrating the International Peasant’s Day. A 17-year-old boy died and many protestors were injured and arrested. The government stated its determination to charge the protestors under the National Counter Terrorism Act of 2013.

 

“Maalki ya Maut” - ownership or death – is the defiant slogan raised by the Anjuman-e-Muzaraeen Pakistan (AMP) or the association of peasants of Pakistan, since 1989. It has inspired many activists and scholars, and for good reason. At a time when active class struggle is being overshadowed by other forms of mobilization, the movement of Okara peasants stands out as an example of political resistance to what might be the largest corporate landowner in the country.

 

But the story of dispossession in Okara is deeper – and perhaps darker than the current generation of activists and scholars might admit. I have had occasion to visit the district and conduct fieldwork there since 2010 and heard parts of a story of dispossession that goes back at least a century and a half.

 

Hindu villages such as Wan Radha Ram and the other indigenous communities, also known as Jhanglees were evicted by the British Government. The government of the time was keen to develop the eastern rain-fed pasture lands of Okara through a network of irrigation canals. Engineer Ganga Ram was engaged to design the Dhuniwala Feeder to irrigate 17,000 acres of land through a lease document (for a period of 1913 to 1933) for garrison purposes.

 

Although the partition of Punjab between India and Pakistan happened in August 1947, violence which had started several months earlier caused mass evictions from both sides. Hindus and Sikhs of Okara were dispossessed at this time. Thereafter, in preparation of the 1965 war with India, the Pakistan Army initiated construction of cantonments in various districts of the country including Okara. The army occupied the garrison and developed infrastructure over 5,000 acres of land and allotted the remaining 12,500 acres on a patta system, also known as a one year lease system to residents of various Chakooks - canal colony villages. Through the Okara Military Farms, the Pakistan Army smoothly continued its agricultural businesses with the cooperation of settlers in the canal colony villages until 1969. However, things changed when the ill-fated Muslims and Christians of Chak 17/4-L first experienced eviction during Bhutto’s inaugural election campaign. Bhutto’s election manifesto was pro-hisa batai system (a sharecropping system according to the Tenancy Act of 1887) rather than the lease on annual contract patta system. Bhutto’s land and tenancy reform policies and slogans fostered a strong sense of resistance against the patta system and led to the emergence of tenants’ movements under the slogan of "jhara wavay, oohi khaway" (loosely translated as the one who grows has the right to consume), in various parts of Punjab particularly in Khanewal and Sahiwal. Despite peasants’ resistance residents of 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18 Chakooks were displaced from their sakni or residential and agricultural land under tenancy up to 2010.

 

Yasin belonged to a cultivator caste group and was only 8 years old when his village in Chak- 17/4-L was demolished with heavy machinery in the presence of a military brigade. His father could not survive the shock and died. The family, who also held one murabba (approximately 25 acres) of agricultural land in the Military Agriculture Farm, had to take refuge in another Chak and survived by doing casual labour for many years. A female respondent also shared her family’s experience of dispossession when her father was a tenant on the patta arrangement and their land was under the control of Army’s General Head Quarters (GHQ). According to the revenue and tenancy rules, the GHQ was obligated to fulfill all of the government’s revenue tax requirements and had the responsibility of providing water, seeds and fertilizers to the tenants. However, there was a minimal role of the numbardar (a person who collects revenue and taxes on behalf of government) in these military farm lands. “We were dislocated from our residential land as well the murabba in the Military Farm” she reports. The respondent also added that in the past ten years the GHQ had stopped providing various inputs to the tenants and the Muzaraeen, who are the occupants of Military Farm lands, also revolted and stopped paying output shares to the military.

 

Due to mass resistance the military forces could not evict people of 21/4-L Chak’s from their residential land, although they were forced to write off their agricultural lands. The tenants of Chak 14/4-L, who had lost both their agricultural and residential lands, were later allotted residential lands by the government as it was easy for the government of the time to discriminate on basis of murabba holders and non-murabba holders or non-cultivator castes in residential plot allotments.

 

The government did this by dividing the residents of 14/4-L into two categories; one of those who were murabba holders or tenants and second of those families who were non-murabba holders, who came to be known as the Faltus. Murabba holder families were awarded 7 marla plots in Gamber 4-L distributary’s embankment and Faltus were allotted 3 marla plots on an evacuee property of a ruined brick kiln (previously owned by Hindu and Sikh families) inside the Chak 10/4-L. The government of the time named murabba holders’ settlement as Muhammad Nagar and the Faltus’ settlement was titled Saabreen-e-Hijaz, though it later came to be known as Batha Abadi. The Pakistan Army also owned a dairy farm inside Chak 10/L-4 and had initially resisted the allotment but had to back down after uproar from the displaced families. Ironically, the murabba holder residents of Chak 10/L-4, while resisting the Pakistan Army, were at the same time embroiled in persecution of the Faltu residents of Batha Abadi.

 

Batha Abadi, the settlement of the dispossessed Faltus, was allotted 8 acres of land out of which 4 acres were allotted for construction of homes and the rest were spared for communal or shamlat use such as funerals, weddings and rearing animals etc. A murabba holder resident of Chak 10/4-L, who was leading the confrontation against the Pakistan Army, had occupied 2 out of the 4 acres spared for communal use. Another Christian Muzara, also occupant of the Military Farm lands, had occupied one acre of land in Batha Abadi which was being used as a chappar or a drain pond.

 

Violence and dispossession has been ongoing in Okara for over 150 years with every new generation of dispossession classifying its own victims - from the Jhanglees of the mid-19th century to the Faltus of the early 21st century. Through these left-leaning activists and mainstream political parties alike have paid the most attention to the murabba holders among all the classes of victims. The Punjab Land Alienation Act of 1900 which formally divides the society into 'cultivators' and 'non-cultivators’ is still intact and it allows the Punjab Government to evacuate non-cultivator caste groups and agricultural labour from their allotments. Within this context the murabba holders of Okara Military Farm peasants movement are relatively privileged. Their demand for tenancy security leading to ownership rights, while valid in itself, excludes the non-cultivator castes and agricultural labourers who have no right of tenancy to start with. Are the Jhanglees and Faltus unwitting pawns in hands of the government, the political activists and the murabba holders?

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