Land grabbers - all!

25 May 2003

Email

For three years, in an off-the-beaten-track area of Punjab, a most unusual confrontation, violent at times and largely ignored by us here in Sindh, has been underway. It is somewhat of a David and Goliath situation involving weak deprived sharecropping peasantry taking on the might and weight of the largest landowners of the country, the Pakistan army authorities backed by their auxiliaries, the Rangers.

In a column printed on this page on May 22, our nuclear physicist and human rightist Pervez Hoodbhoy recounted his experiences when he visited the scene of the crime, so to speak, earlier this month, and it made horrific reading.

To go back in time, to the era of the British Raj and the brilliant irrigation network of canals they established all over Punjab, extending into Sindh. A century ago, the British Indian army built canal colonies with the help of imported migrant labour employed to clear and develop the forest and scrub land.

The peasant migrants were promised ownership once it was rendered arable, but as it turned out to be the most fertile and rich of the provinces, the army reconsidered, retained ownership of the land and settled the migrants as tenants. In 1913, the land was leased out to the Punjab government to cater to the needs of the army for horses, fodder and dairy products, and the tenancy agreements continued.

Come partition and with it the Pakistan army, which took control of the major portion of irrigated land left by the army of the Raj on which it established its own farms, keeping the tenants. One of the largest of these farms is that at Okara, spread over 17,000 acres of prime land. It is in Okara that the unthinkable, as far as Pakistan is concerned, has happened.

In mid-2000, the tenants of the Okara farm were informed by their military lords that their tenancy was up and henceforth they would sign limited-year contracts and, rather than pay their way with their harvest, they would now pay cash rents. To the credit of these poor, illiterate and downtrodden people, they stood up for their rights.

As tenants they could not be evicted; as rent-payers they could be and feared they would be. They organized public meetings, they agitated, they objected, and their movement spread to other areas where the military had acted in a similar manner.

Our army is at odds not only with the tenants, but also with the Punjab Board of Revenue which claims that the lease agreement with the army lapsed many years ago and the land rightfully belongs to the BoR The army, true to form, has ignored both disputes, maintains that it still owns the land, and brought in the Rangers to control the peasant uprising. So far, 18 tenants have lost their lives, shot by the Rangers, and reportedly many more have been subjected to physical pressure and maiming.

In the many villages spread over the Okara military farmlands dwell hundreds of thousands of citizens of Pakistan who have for months on end been besieged by the Rangers. Reportedly, some, exhausted and worn out by coercion and threats, have already put their thumbprints to rental contracts.

Reportedly, the army is also pressuring the Punjab government to give up its claim to the disputed land. It seems keen to increase its already huge landholdings as is evident from its recent purchase from the Punjab government of the 5,000-acre Renala Khurd Stud Farm. Fine, buy, but, for the purpose of grabbing land do not employ violent means against poor tenants who have farmed their land for generations and rendered their dues.

As editorialized by a Lahore newspaper last week, it ill behoves the army, the ruling presence in Pakistan right now, to misuse its might in such a manner. Pakistan's human rights record is already in tatters and apparently even the slumbering supine foreign office is worried about the Okara situation in view of the impending visit of the European Union chief election observer. Killings, torture and eviction attempts will not go down too well with him and his team. President General Pervez Musharraf would do well to order that the Okara siege be immediately lifted, that the situation be sorted out swiftly in a fair and just manner, and that the tillers of the military lands in Punjab be allowed to till and live in peace as they have done for nearly on a century.

The armed forces own Pakistan's largest industrialist empire, and they are also the premier landowners both in the rural and urban areas - defence housing schemes, and generals' housing colonies occupy vast tracts of land in cities and towns from one end of the country to the other. They are surely not in dire need of space in which to expand their various interests. But it does happen sometimes that they do not merely acquire land but that it is thrust on them, as happened in Karachi eleven years ago.

When, in September 1992, the going got tough for the then chief minister of the province of Sindh, Muzaffar Hussain Shah (now the honourable speaker of the Sindh assembly), and his government began to seriously wobble, he sought to salvage the situation by ingratiating himself with the then Chief of Army Staff, General Asif Nawaz , and dutifully penned to 'My dear Asif Nawaz Janjua Sahib' a suitably sycophantic letter.

After informing him that Flagstaff House, up on the Bath Island hill area of Karachi, was owned by the Sindh government but occupied by the army, he wrote, "I feel pleasure to announce that the government of Sindh has decided to gift the said Flagstaff House to Pakistan army for the residence of Commander 5 Corps. Necessary instructions for the transfer of said property have been issued."

Soon thereafter, 1,941 square yards of adjacent land, in a dip at the rear of the house, was also gifted to the Commander 5 Corps (at that time Lt General Nasir Akhtar), ostensibly for the safety and security of the occupying general.

Now, should the army have accepted these unsolicited gifts, knowing fully well the spirit in which they had been gifted? And as to the security angle, that was ridiculous. The corps commanders are more than fully protected and as such should be the least vulnerable of men. The generals know this themselves, for Akhtar's predecessor, Lt General Arif Bangash, had no objection to a house being built by a private individual on one of the plots that made up the 1,941 square yards.

Could it be conceivable that this act of Muzaffar Shah has been long remembered and that it contributed towards his selection as the speaker of the present Sindh assembly? What type of men is it that this nation produces and nurtures?

Now to the land of the Karachi cricket stadium taken in such a cavalier manner by another army general, Tauqir Zia of the Pakistan Cricket Board, and 'gifted' to his fellow generals. Apparently, this is not the first time the army has made a grab for the stadium land. It made an attempt way back in 1988. The Board of Cricket Control of Pakistan (predecessor to the PCB) filed a case in the Sindh High Court (Suit 224/88), it was admitted and a stay was granted stymieing the army's try. Later, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan intervened, the army backed off, and the land was saved for cricket.

Tauqir Zia having finally succeeded in presenting the land to the army, the 1988 case has been quietly withdrawn.

Imran Khan of the Tehrik-e-Insaf and some of our other cricket 'greats' have for long been trying to preserve the stadium land.

They should now immediately leap into action, move the High Court once again and obtain a stay. Waiting for higher instincts to prevail over baser attributes (as did Bartle Frere and John Jacob) in days such as these is a waste of time and gets one nowhere.