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III. Background

Struggle Against Eviction

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the British introduction of canal-irrigated agriculture brought with it the complementary creation of a landed elite.  The migration associated with the development of the so-called “canal colonies” was an important part of the process.  Thousands of the inhabitants of Eastern Punjab (in what is now India) were encouraged by the British to move across to the western part of the province (in what is now Pakistan), including what are now Okara, Sahiwal, Khanewal, and Sargodha districts.  These areas were largely uninhabited forest, and the migrants were brought in to clear the land and develop the canal colonies. 

This radical social upheaval brought about unprecedented demographic and economic shifts in the Punjab.  Ironically referred to by the British as “colonists,” the migrants were promised proprietary rights to the land once it was made arable.  The land turned out to be the richest in the Punjab, and therefore, it was not surprising that the British retained their control over it, rather than giving it up, as promised, to the “colonists.”1

A century later, this land remains the most fertile in the Punjab, and at least part of it now the most disputed.  In Punjab and Sindh provinces, the “colonists” ended up with most of the irrigated land. Some portions however, were retained by the state. 

The Punjab Tenancy Act of 1887 governs the legal relationship between the landlords who own and the tenant farmers who occupy rural land in the Punjab.  The Tenancy Act divides farmers into two categories: “occupancy tenants,” who have a statutory right to occupy the land, and “simple tenants,” who occupy it on the basis of a contract with their landlord.  Most crucially, a simple tenant can be evicted from land when his contract with his landlord expires or for other reasons set out in the Act.  Occupancy tenants––and farmers must meet stringent criteria spelt out in the Act to qualify as such––can only be evicted by court decree.  Central to the dispute between the army and farmers addressed in this report is the ability of the farmers to retain their rights as occupancy tenants under the Act.  How the issue is resolved will also have much to say about the Pakistani government’s broader commitment to private property rights in the face of vested landholding interests of the military and other government agencies. 

Tenant farmers, as sharecroppers, have been surrendering harvest shares to the state since they settled in the area a century ago.  In the spring of 2000, Pakistan’s defense ministry unilaterally imposed a cash payment contract system for the tenants occupying the 17,000-acre Okara Military Farms.  This cash contract system was intended to replace the harvest shares, known as the battai system, the outlines of which are set forth in the Tenancy Act.2  Under the battai system, individual farmers do not have contracts with landowners.  The new contracts require cash payments of rent (“cash rents”) at fixed intervals throughout the year. 

The Ministry of Defense decision directly led to the farmers’ movement in Punjab.  For the farmers, the new system meant that they would have to pay cash rents to the authorities instead of a share of their harvests.  The farmers refused, well aware that under existing tenancy laws they were occupancy tenants protected from eviction, but would not be if they became contract workers.  Many believed they would be unable to pay their rent if it was in cash instead of produce and that, as simple tenants, they could be evicted from their land when their contracts expired.

As pressure increased on tenant farmers to accede to the military farm administration’s demand, the tenants started to organize large-scale public meetings.  A consensus among the farmers soon emerged to reject the new contracts. 

The Okara Military Farms are administered by and for the Pakistan Army and, by their refusal, the tenants were in effect seeking confrontation with the might of the Pakistan Army.  The farmers’ reaction appears to have seriously shaken the Pakistani military establishment.  Apart from the political implications of the farmers’ decision which are discussed elsewhere in this report, the latter’s challenge to the military brought to the fore legal ambiguities that the military had conveniently ignored up to that point.  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.3  

Second, several arms of the Pakistan Army are involved, and culpable, in this dispute, at various levels.  Nationally, military farms fall under the jurisdiction of Pakistan’s federal Ministry of Defense, and hence the army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi.  The Okara Military Farms are managed on behalf of the army by the Remount Veterinary & Farms Corps and the Army Welfare Trust (AWT).4   It is this joint management team, in consultation with GHQ in Rawalpindi, which has invited the Pakistan Rangers to secure law and order on the farms. 

Had the Pakistan Army, as de-facto landlord, simply followed existing law, the confrontation could easily have been avoided.  The Tenancy Act permits landlords to impose cash rents without insisting on individual contracts or jeopardizing the farmers’ status as occupancy tenants.  According to Ahmed Rafay Alam, a lawyer at the Lahore High Court and Punjab Tenancy Law expert, the military could have switched to a cash rent system quietly under the Tenancy Act:

The new contractual “cash rent” system sought to be imposed seeks to relieve the Okara Military Farms from the tedium of dividing produce, but does not provide their tenants with the occupancy rights they would be deemed to have had such a “cash rent” system been implemented under the Tenancy Act.  In other words, the Military authorities are trying to impose a streamlined system of rent collection  while stripping tenants of their right to occupy the land they till.  Talk about trying to have your cake and eating it too.5

Initially, the farmers restricted their opposition to refusing to sign the new contracts and demanding retention of the sharecropping system.  However, the draconian response of the state transformed the situation rapidly. 

“Ownership or Death”: Radicalization of the farmers’ movement   

The Association of Punjab Tenant Farmers (Anjuman Mazarain Punjab or AMP) is the principal representative organization of the approximately one million peasant farmers and their families residing in Punjab.  The AMP is particularly noteworthy as one of the few successful agrarian movements in Pakistan today.  The AMP has in the past three years transformed itself into a popular movement.  The regularity with which thousands of people have begun to engage in public action is quite unusual given the prevailing, tightly controlled political environment in Pakistan.  The slogan “malki ya maut”’ (“ownership or death”) has been adopted by the farmers.

General Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup in 1999, unintentionally helped spur this movement by making repeated policy announcements that state land would be allotted to the landless.  On August 20, 2000, inaugurating his government’s land distribution scheme as part of a poverty alleviation program, Musharraf announced that, in fact, “all state land would be allotted to landless farmers” and he had directed “all four provinces to give ownership rights to all such people who had been living on state land for a long time.”6  Such statements energized the farmers’ movement, principally in Okara, but to a lesser extent also in other districts and consequently changed the very character of the AMP, by encouraging tenants to articulate a vision instead of just reacting to a threat.  

The AMP’s argument was simple: if the government was giving state land away, then tenants already working state lands should be the first to receive it.  Rapidly, the movement spread to Pirowal and Khanewal districts where another fledgling effort to organize tenants was taking shape.  In Pirowal, the Punjab Seed Corporation (PSC), a wing of the provincial agriculture department, controls the land.  In many other districts, farmers were brought within the ambit of the AMP movement, including those on farms operated by the maize and cotton research departments in Sahiwal; by the military in Lahore, Sargodha, and Multan: by rice research departments in Kala Shah Kaku and Faisalabad; and by the livestock department in Sargodha, Sahiwal.

The AMP gained further support among the farmers when it became widely known that none of the agencies controlling the land that the tenants were tilling, including the military, actually had any legal right to it.  At one time or the other, the military, PSC, and other agencies leased the land from the provincial government, but these leases expired several decades ago.

Though the military publicly claims the land for itself, the land is the property of the provincial government of the Punjab.  The military persists in its claim even though the Ministry of Defense, as recently as 2001, has written to the Punjab Board of Revenue to request that the land be permanently transferred to the military.  The Board of Revenue refused the request.7

The AMP demands that the Punjab provincial government, as title-holder to the land in question, be the ultimate arbiter in the entire affair.  The AMP has consistently asked to meet with representatives of the Punjab government, saying that they will not sign any agreement with any party that does not own title to the land.  Punjab government officials, for their part, have expressed unwillingness to confront the army on the issue and generally have either intervened in support of the military authorities or remained uninvolved through the standoff, reflecting the weakness of the provincial government relative to the Pakistan Army. 

The AMP leadership asserts that, in a private meeting, a senior provincial government official categorically told them that the Punjab government would be forced to crack down on the farmers at the behest of the army unless the movement subsided.8  However, the Punjab Board of Revenue has been unequivocal in stating that the military and the agricultural departments have no claim to the land. 

While the contract dispute and General Musharraf’s announcements on allotments acted as catalysts for the resistance to take shape, they alone do not explain the scale, scope, or intensity of the resistance.  The emergence and persistence of such a movement remains particularly unusual in the Pakistani context.  A number of factors are at work. Bitter experience with past displacement in the region in part explains the strong reaction of the tenants to the present threat of displacement.  Decades of systematic abuse of power by local authorities on the farms is another source of resentment and, in turn, resistance. Finally, the farmers tilling these lands have, at varying levels, lobbied for ownership rights at different junctures in the past, sowing the seeds for a popular movement to evolve in the present.

The Pakistan Rangers

The Pakistan Rangers, the paramilitary force responsible for much of the abuse and at least two of the killings documented below, have a long and sordid history of human rights abuses against civilians.

In Pakistan, paramilitary internal security forces, such as the Pakistan Rangers, are organized at the provincial level by government authorities but are commanded by seconded Pakistan Army generals and fall nominally under the jurisdiction of the federal ministry of interior.  In effect, these forces are an extension of the army for the performance of border and internal security functions.

The Pakistan Rangers are headquartered in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, and boast approximately 50,000 personnel divided into numerous "wings" of approximately 800 Rangers each.

The Pakistan Rangers consistently have been called upon in support of civil authority in Pakistan.  Indeed, the Rangers have maintained a heavy presence in the southern province of Sindh, and its capital Karachi in particular, since the early 1990s.  The Rangers were first brought into Karachi between 1992 and 1997, ostensibly to impose law and order, by the governments of prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto.  Officially described as an “anti-terrorist” effort, the operation in Karachi in fact targeted both political and militant cadres of the ethnic political party Mohajir Qaumi Movement (MQM).  In 1995 alone, Karachi experienced over “500 extra-judicial encounter killings,” most at the hands of the Pakistan Rangers and the provincial Sindh Police.9  During this period, serious and persistent allegations of torture and illegal detention were also leveled against the Rangers.

In 1997, then President Farooq Leghari dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s government on charges, amongst others, of ordering extra-judicial killings in Karachi. President Leghari’s next step ought to have been to order the withdrawal of the Rangers from Karachi and to investigate those accused of extra-judicial killings within the paramilitary organization.  However, the president and the successor government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not only failed to hold the Rangers accountable, but the Rangers were ordered to stay on in Karachi.  They remain in Karachi to date despite considerable political opposition.   

Given this context, the conduct of the Rangers in Okara and the other affected districts is neither out of the ordinary nor unprecedented.  It is, in fact, part of a larger pattern of state-sponsored repression in which the Rangers have been a persistent tool of successive Pakistani governments.  A high-level meeting chaired by the Punjab governor, Lieutenant General (retired) Khalid Maqbool decided to deploy a large contingent of the Pakistan Rangers to the affected districts on June 6, 2002.  Prior to this, there had been no Rangers presence in the areas.  The meeting decided to entrust the “resolution” of the dispute to the Director General of the Rangers.  The Rangers were ordered to the districts in “aid of civil authority.”  The latter included a police force of eight to ten thousand that had been deployed to the area in May 2002. 

The extent of the Rangers’ authority, as well as the broad impunity they enjoy, is best exemplified by what was commonly referred to as sieges of villages in Okara district.  The Rangers besieged eighteen villages in Okara district twice––from August 24, 2002 for approximately three months, and from May 7, 2003 to August 5, 2003.  The first siege took place following the Rangers’ killing of farmer Salman Masih, the second following the killing of farmer Mohammad Amir, both of which killings are described below. 

During these periods, the Rangers imposed curfews and severely limited freedom of movement of the local population.  All main roads to and from villages were sealed off  with barricades.  Visitors trying to enter villages were often also arrested or harassed along with residents of villages who were not tenants themselves (a fairly large proportion).  Even milk, fruit, and vegetable vendors from nearby urban areas were not allowed into the villages.  Consequently, all normal life came to a standstill.  

A common tactic used by security forces was to arrest the relatives of tenants to compel the tenants to give up their demands.  During the sieges, schools were closed by the authorities and turned into control centers for operations, and medical and food supplies were not allowed to enter the area.  

The basic objective appears to have been to intimidate and harass the tenants into giving up their demands and acceding to the authorities’ will.  During the second siege, which was more persistent and intense, water canals locally known as “maindars” to two villages (Villages 5/4-L and 4/4-L) were closed for the entire period.  Consequently, the summer crop, the main source of livelihood for the community, was destroyed.  Telephone lines, and for a period the electricity supply of some villages, especially Village 4/4-L, were also disconnected by the Rangers. 

The evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, 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.”10

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.”  However, he repeatedly emphasized that Okara was a “sensitive issue” given the “transition” from military to civilian rule currently underway in Pakistan.11

Officers of the Pakistan Rangers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Okara are far less nuanced in their understanding of the issue.  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 a Rangers officer on promise of anonymity.12

The Response of the Pakistan Army  

The reaction of the Pakistani military to the AMP, and the lengths it has gone to crush the farmers’ uprising, highlight 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.  While agricultural land in these districts is generally valuable on account of its fertility, earnings from Okara Military Farms, in fact, can be described as relatively paltry.  In 2000, the tehsildar (local revenue collector) for the Okara Military Farms area reported that a total sum of 12,237,000 rupees was realized from the receipt of 16,316 bags of wheat collected from the farmers who tilled the land.13  This figure amounts to less than U.S. $215,000. 

The army’s motivation thus certainly goes beyond the finances of the particular farmlands in question.  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. 

If one includes both the army’s landholdings and the land it administers, the Pakistan Army is one of the largest and quite possibly the largest landholder in the country.  Extensive land-holdings, both urban and agricultural, remain under the visible control of the army.  Urban land is publicly used by the military to dispense patronage to civilians and perks to its own officers.14  Similarly, agricultural land “is a potent symbol of the privileged status enjoyed by the military.”15 

The military’s persistent efforts to usurp land through institutionalized means have also allowed the landed elite to retain extraordinary political influence.  The military has become particularly adept at maintaining this class linkage with the landed elite while dispensing with errant or rebellious individuals within it.  Traditionally, the Pakistan Army has maintained its predominant position in the Pakistani state by “reconfirming old alliances with the dominant classes as well as creating new ones, by disqualifying old politicians and keeping a firm leash on the new recruits.”16  The military, which seized power for the fourth time since independence in a 1999 coup, views its power as its “ability to be selective in the granting of political privilege to dominant socio-economic groups.”17  Arguably, the Pakistan Army especially needs to cultivate friendly political forces in times such as the present, when it is ruling directly.  For its part, the landed elite needs support to compensate for its eroding power base in rural areas.

Many in the military were outraged that peasant farmers would dare to revolt against a tenancy system that it saw fit to impose upon them.  Major-General Shaukat Sultan, the Director General of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR, the public relations wing of the Pakistan Army), succinctly summarized the views of the Army:

The needs of the Army will be decided by the Army itself, and/or the government will decide this.  Nobody has the right to say what the Army can do with 5,000 acres or 17,000 acres.  The needs of the Army will be determined by the Army itself.18

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 the farmers’ movement likely is viewed by the military as particularly inimical to its interests.

Finally, in a military and landlord dominated country, army leaders may fear that, if the army succumbs to the will of tenant farmers, the consequences will be far-reaching and unpredictable.  The stakes are indeed high in Okara and the other Punjab districts.  The fact that all major political parties in Pakistan have major landlords in senior party positions and much of each party’s funding comes from landlord interests explain why support for the AMP from Pakistan’s traditional political parties has remained limited.19  The case of the elected representative from Okara is illustrative.  In national elections held in October 2002, Okara elected Rao Sikandar Iqbal, a local influential aligned with the Benazir Bhutto-led opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), to the National Assembly.  During the campaign, Iqbal pledged his support to the tenant farmers’ cause and was supported by the AMP.  However, upon election, Iqbal defected from the PPP, forming his own breakaway faction titled PPP (Patriots).  Iqbal was appointed federal minister for defense as reward for his defection to the Musharraf camp.  Technically, as defense minister, Rao Sikandar Iqbal now holds jurisdiction over the army – the institution involved in a bitter and violent confrontation with his constituents.  The minister’s office failed to respond to repeated requests by Human Rights Watch for a meeting. 

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.

[1] For in-depth analysis of the issue, see Imran Ali, The Punjab under Imperialism, 1885-1947, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[2] The Tenancy Act envisages a division of the harvest in a pre-determined ratio between the landlord and the tenant farmer.  The Act stipulates that during such divisions, which are to be carried out in the presence of both tenant and landlord, the latter cannot collect more than 43 percent of the harvest.  Disputes between tenants and military farm authorities, of course, did not begin with the military’s recent attempts to switch to a cash contract system. Farmers report that, even under the harvest share system, the military routinely carried out divisions in the absence of the tenants and regularly extracted crop shares as high as 60 percent. 

[3] See Appendix 1: Letter from Board of Revenue, Punjab to Federal Secretary, Ministry of Defense, Islamabad dated April 13, 2001. 

[4] The Army Welfare Trust (AWT) is a registered society under the Societies Registration Act of 1860.  Although as a legal matter it is a private organization not subject to government audit, the AWT is managed by the Pakistan Army and was instituted with a seventeen billion-rupee grant from the Army in 1977.  The AWT is one of several enterprises operating ostensibly as private sector outfits that are in fact managed by serving or retired army personnel and are part of the corporate assets of the Pakistani armed forces. 

[5] Human Rights Watch interview, Lahore, March 19, 2004.

[6] “Correspondent’s Report,” Dawn, August 21, 2001.

[7] See Appendix 1: Letter from Board of Revenue, Punjab, to Federal Secretary, Ministry of Defense, Islamabad dated April 13, 2001. 

[8] Human Rights Watch interview with AMP General Secretary Abdul Sattar, Lahore, November 14, 2003.

[9] S.A.D. Hasan,  “City of Lights,”  Herald, February 2000.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview with Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat, Islamabad, January 30, 2004 (at his office).

[11] Human Rights Watch interview with Chief Minister Pervaiz Ilahi, Lahore, January 26, 2004 (at his office).

[12] Human Rights Watch interview with Pakistan Army officer, Okara October 27, 2004.

[13] Record of the Executive District Officer (Revenue), Okara. 1999-2000.

[14] Urban land is regularly absorbed by what are called military Defense Housing Schemes.  This land is allotted to military officers at highly subsidized rates who are then free to sell it to civilians at market rates, ensuring massive profits. 

[15]John Lancaster, “Fighting an Army's Empire; Pakistani Farmers' Land Battle Underscores Tension Over Military's Economic Power,” The Washington Post, June 29, 2003.

[16] Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The origins of Pakistan’s political economy of defense, (Cambridge, 1990)

[17] ibid.

[18] “Capital Talk” (talk-show aired on Geo Television), through August 2003, Islamabad.

[19]The opposition Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy (ARD) planned a public meeting on April 7, 2003, but the ARD leadership was denied access to Okara district.  The police eventually allowed the meeting to take place without the leaders of the ARD.

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