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I. Summary

We were produced before Major Tahir Malik.  He asked why we had not made the contract payments.  We answered that we had no money.  They took us to the torture cell and Jallad [“tormentor”] Munir started thrashing us with a leather whip.  He made us all strip naked and whipped us till we bled.  Major Tahir Malik would personally supervise the whippings, abuse us, laugh at us, and punch us….  We were produced before officers again in the morning.  They would insist that we pay the contract money.  Upon our refusal, it would begin again. 

—Interview with Mohammad Iqbal, Okara, October 23, 2003

They snatched our milk and our bicycles.  Gomi, the informer, took away the milk and bicycles.  They blindfolded us and took us to Rangers Headquarters.  As soon as we got there, they started beating us with sticks.  After a while we even stopped crying or screaming…  There were sixteen [adult] farmers [already present when] we arrived there.  [We saw them being] beaten badly with a flat leather whip by Munir ”Jallad” and Inspector Aashiq Ali in the presence of Major Tahir Malik.  The farmers were bleeding and crying in pain.  Some were weeping out of fear and sitting with their heads bowed. 

—Interview with Abid Ali, age ten, Okara, October 24, 2003

Approximately 68,000 acres of state-owned agricultural land in Punjab are now the site of the most significant popular protest movement that Pakistan has witnessed in recent times.  Spread out over ten districts, this land is tilled by the almost one million descendants of migrants settled in the area by the British Raj a century ago. 

The problems in the affected districts result from a straightforward disagreement.  Traditionally, farmers have been sharecroppers, handing over part of their produce as rent to the military, which acts as landlord through military-run farms.  In 2000, the military unilaterally tried to change the rules, demanding that the farmers sign new rental contracts requiring them to pay rent in cash.  The farmers have refused, fearing that cash rents would, when times were lean, place them at risk of being evicted from land that their families have lived on for generations.  Instead, as the situation has grown more polarized, they have begun demanding outright ownership of the land. 

This dispute––over some of Pakistan’s most fertile land––has led to an extraordinarily tense standoff between the Pakistani army, paramilitary and police forces, and the tenant farmers.  Since 2002, tenant farmers resisting efforts by the military to undercut their legal rights to the land—especially those from the movement’s epicenter in the Okara district, where the military claims to own at least 17,000 acres and where farmers are in direct confrontation with military authorities—have been subjected to a campaign of killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, “forced divorces,” and summary dismissals from employment.  Twice, paramilitary forces literally besieged villages in the area of dispute, preventing people, food and public services from entering or leaving for extended periods of time. 

Based on over one hundred interviews with tenant farmers, their children, and some of the alleged perpetrators in Okara district, this report details the abuses committed by Pakistani security forces in the course of the dispute.  Particularly egregious violations include claims of widespread torture including that of children.  Human Rights Watch interviewed thirty children, among many more, who claimed to have been beaten and tortured by paramilitary forces in the course of the dispute. 

The emergence and persistence of such a movement remains particularly unusual in the Pakistani context and the lengths the military has gone to crush the farmers’ movement highlights just how important the land is to the military.  However, given the massive scope of the Pakistan Army’s economic interests, it would be misleading to suggest that it is avoiding a compromise for purely economic reasons.  The Pakistan Army is one of the largest and quite possibly the largest landholder in the country.  Urban land is publicly used by the military to dispense patronage to civilians and perks to its own officers.  Similarly, agricultural land is a resonant and enduring symbol of the powerful status of the military. 

The army likely fears the potential knock-on effects of a compromise in Okara for its land operations nationwide and the damage that any compromise might do to its status as Pakistan’s most powerful and feared institution.  The army’s evident fear is that such a revolt, if allowed to fester or be accommodated, may lead to a reworking of the patron-client relationships carefully nurtured by the military establishment between itself and traditional landed elites, between itself and the tenant farmers and, between the traditional landed elites and peasant farmers. 

The location of the dispute is also problematic for the Pakistan Army.  The Punjab is the power-base of the military.  It has traditionally drawn the overwhelming majority of its rank and file from the province and particularly from the districts that are now offering resistance.  Historically, the army has viewed the area as its backyard and the local people as subservient allies, given the latter’s role as laborers in a military-dominated economy.  Hence, many in the military are outraged that peasant farmers would dare to revolt against any tenancy system that it saw fit to impose upon them. 

This is a dispute that both sides believe they cannot afford to lose.  For the Pakistani military establishment, control of land is essential for maintaining its position within the Pakistani political structure –– it believes that it cannot allow tenant farmers to challenge this position.  For tenant farmers, access to land is often the difference between economic survival and abject poverty, between a full belly and hunger, between a viable future and complete marginalization. 

The armed group responsible for most of the abuses against the farmers is the Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force normally used for border security.  In some cases the Rangers have been assisted by the police in perpetrating abuses.  Though the Pakistan Rangers are nominally under the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s federal interior ministry, they draw their cadres from military personnel and work in close conjunction with, and often at the behest of, the Pakistan Army. 

The Rangers have set up “torture cells”—a term commonly used in Pakistan by officials and citizens alike to describe areas within detention centers that are used for coercive interrogations of suspects—to coerce the tenant farmers into signing the tenancy agreements.  Schools in the affected areas have periodically closed down as the Rangers have targeted children for kidnapping and torture.  In several cases, Pakistani security forces have targeted the sons-in-law of tenants who refused to consent to the new contracts, torturing them until they agreed to divorce their wives.  Divorce, though sanctioned by Islam, remains taboo in much of Pakistan.  The objective of such “forced divorces” is thus to publicly shame the fathers-in-law (divorce is deeply frowned upon in rural Pakistani society and it is the reputation of the bride’s father and his family that suffers most when a couple divorces). 

In many instances, employees at military farms who are related to farmers who have refused to sign the new contracts have been barred from work until their relatives signed.  They have been threatened with arrest and torture if they attempted to go to work.  And many who have persisted in going to work have been illegally detained and tortured as punishment for not forcing their relatives into signing.  In many cases, such individuals have been fired from employment.  Relatives of farmers were issued “show-cause” notices from their state employers warning of disciplinary action if they did not convince the tenants to cooperate.  Some of these employees were subsequently fired. 

In sum, much of the violence––unprecedented and now routine in this dispute––appears to be aimed at intimidating farmers into compliance or silence.

The dispute reached its peak between May 5, 2003 and June 12, 2003, when Okara Military Farms––and the 150,000 people who live in eighteen villages there––were besieged for over a month by police and the Pakistan Rangers.  The siege, which involved the imposition of a curfew, severe restrictions on movement within and into the district, and the disconnection of water, electricity and telephone lines, ended only when farmers were forced to sign contracts. 

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Federal Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hyat “categorically” denied that the Pakistan Rangers have “ever been involved in human rights violations in Okara.”  The interior minister added that the farmers were simply “greedy” and that local “NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have acted as trouble-makers in the dispute.”  When Human Rights Watch noted that there was clear evidence of the Rangers’ involvement in serious human rights violations, he responded: “I don’t agree that the Rangers can commit abuses.  They are an extremely well-trained and professional force.  There are no rogue elements in the Pakistan Rangers.”  At the end of the discussion, he acknowledged that discipline was not perfect within the Rangers, but claimed that: “The occasional case of indiscipline has nothing to do with Okara.”

In a separate meeting, however, Punjab Chief Minister Pervaiz Ilahi acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that some serious “human rights violations had taken place during this conflict.” 

Ironically, the Pakistani military does not actually have legal title to land at the heart of the dispute—the Okara Military Farms.  Although the military has had long-term leases to the land in the past and has exerted effective control over it, in some cases for decades, formal title to the land continues to rest with the government of Punjab province.  Repeated attempts by the military to effect a permanent transfer of the land to the federal ministry of defense have been rebuffed by the Punjab provincial body that holds title to the land. 

This point was emphasized to Human Rights Watch by Chief Minister Ilahi.  In his government’s view, the land belongs to Punjab province and not to the army.  However, he indicated that this was a “sensitive issue” given the “transition” from military to civilian rule currently underway in Pakistan.  When presented with this claim, the Federal Interior Minister disagreed: “The Punjab Chief Minister is wrong,” he said flatly, neither offering nor suggesting proof.  “I know that the army owns this land.” 

Officers of the Pakistan Rangers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Okara take a similar line.  They are adamant that the farmers are ready and willing to cooperate with the authorities in signing new contracts and that it is only a handful of troublemakers, including outside parties, who have incited the otherwise peaceful tenants into conflict.  Some also suggested that these outside influences had links to RAW, the Indian intelligence agency.  “Its nothing we cannot deal with.  These people only understand the language of the stick” explained an army major serving with the Rangers on promise of anonymity. 

The dispute appears to be nowhere near resolution.  Reflecting the military’s entrenched power and continuing impunity, senior military and political officials in Pakistan have either participated in or allowed violations to occur.  The determination of the Pakistani Army and some local civilian political leaders (themselves members of the landed elite), to subdue the farmers’ rebellion and to set an example for other tenant farmers in Punjab and the rest of Pakistan has ensured that the people of Okara and other Punjabi districts live in fear for their lives and personal security.  Protesting tenant farmers continue to be subject to ongoing threats to life, liberty, and movement. 

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>July 2004