The conflict in Okara has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th century when the British initiated an irrigation system with establishment of ‘canal colonies’ in the Punjab. The vast expanse of land that these ‘colonies’ comprised was uninhabited and lying idle as forests. These were large areas in West Punjab that now form part of Pakistan, mainly the districts of Okara, Sargodha, Sahiwal and Khanewal. The farmers from east Punjab that now constitutes India were encouraged to make this land arable. This resulted in the internal migration of thousands of farmers, which was ultimately responsible for huge demographic changes in Punjab.

This land was used by the British to reward (and corrupt) the elites who had helped them in the 1857 War of Independence. A big swath of land in Okara and some adjoining districts was leased out to the British Indian Army, which was to be used for stud farming and horse breeding. The way British doled and leased this land out in the early 20th century laid the foundations of a patronage network that was established to keep the landed elite loyal to the interests of the rulers.

The lease agreement in 1913 was signed for twenty years only expiring in 1934 after which the tenants were to get ownership rights. So rich was this land that the British decided to linger on the arrangement and none of their promises ever materialized. The land continued to be under the ownership of the British Indian Army without any legal lease agreement. In 1947, it was bequeathed to the Pakistan Army with the sharecropping system (called battai). In Okara and Renala Khurd, more than 17,000 acres of this land was now governed by military run Okara Military Farms (OMF).

Under the battai crop sharing system, the farmer who tills the land gets 50% of the produce while the owner of the land gets the other 50% in lieu of providing seed, fertilizers and other agricultural inputs. The farmers – the Mazaraeen or tenants – had been tilling these lands since several generations up to 2000 under the same sharing formula. Things were not good enough even before that because according to a 2004 report by Human Rights Watch, some tenants had reported the military’s highhandedness in the crop sharing process to the HRW. The battai (division) was in many cases done in the absence of the tenant extorting more than 60% of the share.

In 2000, the military changed the nature of the lease in a surprise move. According to the new arrangement, the tenants would pay an annual rent thereby turning to contracted labor with no occupancy rights. As per Pakistan’s Tenancy Act of 1887, the farmers would either be the simple tenants who would occupy the land on the basis of contract with the landlord or there would be occupancy tenants who would have the statutory rights to occupy the land. The occupancy tenants would only be made to vacate the land with court orders, while simple tenants would be obliged to leave the land when the landlord so desired it. With the 2000 move, the army turned these farmers into simple contract holders who were contracted labor with no occupancy rights (HRW, 2004).

This triggered a strong resistance amongst the farmers who organized themselves into a representative body, Anjuman-e-Mazaraeen Pakistan (AMP) – the Association of Tenants, Pakistan –to fight their case in a peaceful but assertive way. AMP started the movement “Maalki Ya Maut” (ownership or death), which became a form of civil disobedience. They refused to pay 50% share of the harvest whereon the military started using torturous pressure tactics.

As per the account of some farmers, they had to face the worst kind of torture at the hands of military. According to Mohammad Iqbal, a farmer at OMF, who was interviewed in 2003 by HRW, he and others were produced before one Major Tahir Malik who asked them to make the payments, which they refused. Following this, they were taken to the torture cell and thrashed with a leather whip. There are other accounts of torture, kidnap and even killings.

AMP fought against this suppression rather strongly on the streets and in the courts. Women made a major part of this resistance and made a “Thaappa Force.” A thaappa is a thick wooden stick that women use to beat the dirt out of the clothes while washing them. “What are we doing? We are just beating dirt out of this system,” said a woman while holding her thaappa determinedly. When the Rangers announced in 2001 that a heap of expensive fuel wood piled up in the center of the village would be confiscated if the farmers did not pay their share, the Thaappa Force comprising hundreds of women forced the police and rangers to escape from the scene.

It however, didn’t end very well for the Mazaraeen. In 2002 the villages were besieged by the Rangers to pressurize the farmers into signing the new conditions of lease. After several weeks of the siege, the farmers had to succumb to the pressure after nine precious lives were lost at the hands of paramilitary forces and the Police. They now became contracted labor on the lands they had been tilling since generations.

Surviving various such ‘operations’, sieges, killings, torture, unlawful capture of farmers and their supporters, AMP kept resisting through the following years to date. In last June, the military managers of these farms once again took the farmers by surprise and raised the annual rents unilaterally. They started a peaceful dharna and blocked the water channels that irrigated the military land for several days. On July 3, the Rangers responded with indiscriminate firing on the farmers that claimed two lives. According to a police official, the paramilitary force took away the bodies and a dozen farmers in their custody. The farmers were refused the dead bodies unless they agreed they would not register the case with law enforcing agencies. The dead, along with the kidnapped farmers were returned after three days.

The entire saga has started appearing increasingly like the Israel-Palestine conflict to put it in a radical way. The state of Pakistan through its mighty military is behaving like an occupation force with these landless, peaceful, unarmed peasants. The thaappas and dharnas are being responded to with gun shots. None of the policemen or Rangers have ever been killed or injured during this movement. But farmers are still picking up dead bodies.

This struggle symbolizes major choices of the state of Pakistan on the nature of the citizen-state relationship and sticking to the colonial legacy. In the way leftist political groups, human rights activists and the tenants themselves have responded to it, one can make out the general resentment over the growing political power of the Pakistan Army. The political clout, which has historically made the Army dominate decision-making processes and institutions, has subtly transmogrified itself into the Army’s ever-increasing economic might, making it a predominantly capitalist force in the country. The question is, does Pakistan need a military or the Military Inc.?

 The writer is an Islamabad based defender of human rights and works on democratic governance.