‘Tenant movement will affect feudal lords’
LAHORE: The tenant movement is not a mass movement, but it will have long lasting effects on the struggle for oppressed people against the strongly rooted feudalism in Pakistan, said Dr Mubashar Hassan, chairman of the Pak-India people’s forum for peace and democracy.
Speaking at a seminar on the plight of tenants, organised by the Centre for Policy and Development Alternatives (CPDA) at the Pakistan College of Law auditorium in New Garden Town on Tuesday, Dr Hassan said once Pakistan’s peasants are able to exercise their rights, other long forgotten land reform issues could also be taken up. “The severity of the implications for the ruling class is making it difficult for them to make a compromise,” he said.
About the situation at the Okara Military Farms, he said: “I would like to advise the Army not to deal with this issue the way it is dealing with it because ultimately, tenants will win as they are legally in the right.”
Dr Abid Hassan Minto said several governments had tried to implement land reforms, but only Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had had a measure of success. He said the Okara Military Farms were the property of the Punjab government, “but the military is refusing to hand them over to the Punjab government. The military even refuses to pay for the farms. The fact is that two bodies of the state are fighting with each other. We condemn all those who have used torture as a means to silence tenants.”
IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the land issue has changed in the last few years because of the growth of a corporate sector that depended on international investors. “The land reforms issue in Pakistan is almost dead. We have to revive a political process and struggle to fight such issues on the grounds of human rights,” he added.
Dr Christopher John, general secretary of the Anjuman-e-Mazareen, said around a million people were affected by the situation at the Okara Military Farms. “These lands of nearly 68 thousand acres were barren when they were given to the peasants almost a century ago to cultivate. They were told they would be given property rights in due course. This did not happen and the peasant families have been cultivating these lands on share-cropping basis all this time. In the early 90s, they were asked to give a fixed harvest share, but later were asked to change their status from peasants to contractual labourers, which they refused to do. As a result, they are facing all kinds of inhuman treatment by the so-called protectors of the people, i.e., the Army,” he said.
“But the people are resisting, especially women who have formed a ‘thaapa force’. The villages are under siege, and the state is denying them all kinds of basic utilities to force them to sign these illegal contracts. So far 11 tenants have been shot by the armed forces, many handicapped, and there are hundreds of first information reports against them. We are refusing to budge and will keep on demanding ‘ownership or death’ till we win.”
Zafar Iqbal, former president of the Lahore Bar Association and member of the Punjab Bar Council, presented a historical review of the events and argued that the military occupation of the farms is illegal. “Each farm generates Rs 20 billion and there are 25 such farms, and by not providing transparent accounts to the people of Pakistan, the military is embezzling these funds,” he said. “The Army should be subject to audits, just like any other institute.”
Mr Iqbal praised the tenants of the Okara Military Farms. “Unfortunately, these poor people are presented as though they are members of Al Qaeda.”
Farooq Tariq said the tenants movement was the longest civil disobedience movement in the history of Pakistan. “The peasants have refused to pay illegal taxes to the military and are refusing to sign those contracts. Women are leading this movement and are fighting against the administration and military forces. The young are playing a very important role by not accepting the pressure and are ready to die rather than flee. And most importantly, there is no religious disharmony among the peasants; they are fighting as a class.”
“We are all responsible for the plight of the tenants,” Pakistan College of Law principal Humayoon Ihsan said, but added that the military was the biggest culprit. “If the Army needs land, there are plenty of people close to the military that can offer it to them, so they should stop torturing these poor tenants.”
Sofia Noreen, CPDA Executive Director, said it was important that all sections of society be made aware of the importance of the issue. Other speakers suggested that mainstream political parties be included in future discussions on the tenants’ issue, and that a group be formed to collect information on the Okara Military Farms case to help the lawyers fighting the tenants’ case in court.