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THE SICKLE THAT RUSTED

Updated May 21, 2017

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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Almost exactly a year ago, leaders and activists of the peasant organisation Anjuman Muzareen Punjab [Society of Landless Peasants, Punjab] were detained under the Anti Terrorism Act for the crime of protesting against what they believed were “illegal detentions” of fellow peasants at the hands of the Okara district administration. April 17, globally commemorated as the day of peasants, was round the corner and the Anjuman was out and about canvassing support for its public gathering on the day. As they blocked a main road, police baton-charged protestors and bundled them inside police vans. Later, a number of cases would be registered against them.

In a sign of how dramatically the fortunes of the peasant movement in Pakistan have fallen, the cases registered have dragged on and on — in some instances, an inordinate delay has been caused to ascertain the simple fact of whether the case is admissible in an anti-terror court. Only recently have a handful of landless peasants been acquitted from terror charges and released.

The Anjuman is a 17-year-old organisation which was formed by landless peasants tilling the lands of the Okara Military Farms and other government institutions. The peasants were pushed into the throes of struggle in 2000, as General Pervez Musharraf sought to revise their sharecropping agreements. Rather than batai (distributing half the produce), the General wanted landless peasants to accept a cash-rent and yearly lease system.


Today is the death anniversary of Hyder Bux Jatoi, the face of the erstwhile peasant movement in Sindh. Eos looks back at the rise and fall of the Sindh Hari Committee he headed till 1970 and the reasons why the movement for peasant rights floundered


In turn, the Anjuman — a representative body of over 100,000 registered tenants — decided to stake an ownership claim over the land. They argued that they had been tilling the land for centuries, which accords them the right to ownership as per the law of the land. The tenants subsequently refused to pay any share of the produce to the military authorities. Their claim was “Malki Ya Maut” [Ownership or Death] and “Jehra Wahway, Ohee Khavay” [Those who till the land should reap the produce].

In truth, both these slogans have been raised during recent times in Pakistan before. The Anjuman, much like other populist struggles in the country including the Hashtnagar Kissan Tehreek in Charsadda, draws great inspiration from the Sindh Hari Committee — a social movement that began a few years before the partition of the subcontinent but which eventually became a political movement.

In fact, the few peasant rights that are often taken for granted today — sharecropping, for example — were the outcome of the Hari Committee’s struggle and successes. It was because of the Committee that peasant and labour issues remained key concerns of successive governments for over 40 years.

Today, neither the peasantry nor industrial workforce seem to be anywhere near the top rung of government priorities. Newer, urban realities have come to the fore in recent times and the clout of peasant politics has simultaneously gone on mute. The tale of the rise and fall of the Sindh Hari Committee, while denoting the relegation of peasant politics in the mainstream, also reflects how the nature of politics itself changed in the country.

In an attempt to look ahead, we must first look to the past.

PHASE I: ORIGINS AND GENESIS

The Sindh Hari Committee was a continuity of the progressive movement in the Indian subcontinent and was founded by communist and other left-wing elements in undivided India. These men believed that the socio-economic progress of this land was not possible without addressing the core issues of the masses, particularly the poor rural.

What they formed was the Kissan Bureau in the 1920s which raised the slogan of ‘Hari Haqdaar’ [The hari deserves his rights]. The Bureau turned into the Sindh Hari Association which morphed into the Sindh Hari Committee in 1936. It is interesting to note that the founders of the Hari Association were not from the peasantry but came from more privileged backgrounds.

Among those counted as pioneering leaders of the Association were Ghulam Murtaza Syed, Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta, G.N. Gokhale (the first-full time principal of the NED Engineering College), Shaikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi and Jethmal Parsram — all of whom belonged to privileged families. Mehta, Gokhale, and Parsram in fact came from urban backgrounds. Likewise, Faqeer Muhammad Mangrio, Molvi Abdullah Laghari and Haji Khamiso who rose as founding activists were not from the peasantry either.

The Association’s first test of resolve came in the late 1920s when Sukkur Barrage was completed. As a result of the new barrage, some 7.5 million acres of land had become cultivatable. Out of this land, only around 93 acres was earmarked for landless peasants while the remaining was to be allotted to people from other provinces particularly from Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa). While G.M. Syed and some others did not oppose the allotment of land to big landlords of Sindh (differences over the issue cropped up in the 1930s), what was more unfortunate was that land reserved for peasants was not distributed in full. This was compounded by the fact that most peasants could not pay the monthly instalments fixed by the government in lieu of the land.

The fallout over the Sukkur Barrage and the associated digging of canals made clear why the formation of the Association had become critical in Sindh. The peasantry needed a political voice but neither the Muslim League nor the Indian National Congress were up to the task. On the other hand, the Association’s position was that these lands should be allotted to landless peasants first and foremost.

Such dynamics gave birth to further complications for the Association and in 1936, it was reorganised. Its name was changed from the Hari Association to the Hari Committee. For the first time, it declared itself as a class organisation which was demanding an end to all anti-peasant laws and the abolition of feudalism. The initial objectives of the Hari Committee were stated as the enforcement of pro-peasant tenancy laws, land for landless peasants and the right to vote for peasants. The new organisation’s head-office was set up in Hyderabad.

The Hari Committee was pressed into action soon thereafter.

The Bombay Tenancy Act of 1939, which was adopted by Sindh, was going to affect the peasant after its implementation in 1940. As Mahendra Lal Patel in his book Agrarian Transformation in Tribal India argues, the Act created a class of “protected tenant” (those with six years’ standing as tenants) but it failed to provide any safeguards to those who didn’t. In fact, tenants could be evicted from the land they tilled in case the feudal lord demanded that he needed this land for “personal cultivation.”

The Sindh Hari Committee understood the new law to be anti-peasant and began mass mobilisation across the province. In 1943, a gigantic rally was staged in Hyderabad so as to display the Committee’s strength. This forced the Sindh government’s hand: a committee was constituted to review the Bombay Tenancy Act and reformulate tenancy laws in Sindh.

With the peasantry in Sindh now turning towards the Hari Committee for leadership, the Committee itself began searching for a dedicated and dynamic leadership. A young tax collector at the time named Hyder Bux Jatoi was gravitating towards the Committee. He resigned from government service and joined the Hari Committee. In due time, he’d become the face of the peasant movement in Sindh.

PHASE II: SEEDS OF A MOVEMENT

The annals of the All India Kissan Sabha state that in 1946, peasants occupied the lands of the Talpurs and the Lagharis in a bid to ask for more rights and representation. This is just one manifestation of how the Hari Committee was evolving — in its second phase now, an element of heroism and extremism had entered the politics of the Hari Committee. Jethmal Parsram and Qadir Bux Nizamani were central characters in this phase, seeking to draw as much grassroots support as was possible and offering as much relief as was possible.

Central to this strategy was the formation of district offices that became known as Hari Haqdar offices. In fact, from the late 1940s to the 1950s, the Sindh Hari Committee was the only (political) organisation that had district offices in the province. And these offices weren’t dominated by individuals from privileged backgrounds either; peasant activists were assigned roles and duties instead.

The Hari Haqdar offices were to provide peasants with legal, moral and political support. The complaints dealt by these offices included complaints of excesses on peasants and their eviction from lands. In turn, the Hari Committee would take up these complaints with the revenue department or the courts. They would write legal petitions and also take up cases through the press. Whenever the need arose, protests were also organised.

With an increasing organisational network, dedicated workers and efficient mobilisation, the Hari Committee soon became a force to be reckoned with. In the 1945 elections, it decided to put up some candidates too. But without many finances, it did not win any seat and lost to the resourceful candidates of the Muslim League and the Indian National Congress.

Despite the electoral losses, however, the Hari Committee grew stronger with the passage of time. Taluka and district-level sub-committees and working committees were established. Peasant activists grew steadily in number to several hundred while sympathisers multiplied in thousands. Slowly the Hari Committee had showed itself to be as political as any other party. In Sindh, it became the second most popular political organisation after the Congress, leaving the Muslim League trailing far behind.

THE PARTITION PICKLE

The year 1947 shook up many political realities in the Indian Subcontinent and the Hari Committee were not spared seismic changes either. Partition would force Hindu and Sikh peasant activists to migrate from Sindh, either before or after August, and this dealt the Committee a huge organisational blow.

Matters worsened further with the birth of a new contradiction in Sindh: agricultural land abandoned by Sindhi Hindus was allotted in claims to people who had migrated from India and had settled in Sindh. There were also reports that in a number of cases, the property claims made by the migrants were incorrect. The Hari Committee launched a campaign to have these lands allotted to landless peasants who were already tilling these lands. This movement was called the Anti-Claim Movement.

The ensuing hue and cry raised compelled the Sindh Assembly of the time to constitute a Hari Inquiry Committee in March 1947. Some believe this committee also had the blessings of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Three revenue officers were initially inducted into the probe body;

after August 14, a big landlord from Larkana named Ghulam Rasool Kehar was inducted as its fourth member.

Despite the fact that this committee was constituted to identify the issues that the peasants were braving, the terms of reference of this committee were neither realistic nor radical. However, Masood Khadarposh, a tax collector from Nawabshah, wrote a dissenting note which was in favour of peasants and that won much acclaim among the peasantry. In the words of historian Ahmed Salim, Khadarposh argued that, “peasant proprietorship should replace zamindari; that the state should be regarded as supreme owner of all land; that holdings above a certain limit should be appropriated; and that leasing of land for cultivation should be prohibited.”

The big landlord bias of the committee would, however, rule the day. But even as the committee revealed its findings in January 1948, the Hari Committee prepared a draft pro-poor Tenancy Act and pressed for its implementation. The Committee also observed the first-ever Anti-Feudalism Day in the new republic in January 1948.

In the same month, a meeting of the Hari Committee was held in Dadu which was attended by peasant leaders of all provinces, including Bengal. Office-bearers elected at the convention were: Hyder Bux Jatoi, Abdul Qadir, Molvi Nazeer Hussain Jatoi, Shamsudin Shah, Ghulam Muhammad Laghari, Abdul Khaliq Azad and Molvi Maaz.

Hyder Bux Jatoi being received by thousands of peasants at the Hyderabad railway station after his release from incarceration
Hyder Bux Jatoi being received by thousands of peasants at the Hyderabad railway station after his release from incarceration

Most interestingly, apart from forwarding peasants demands such as abolition of feudalism and implementation of pro-poor tenancy laws, the convention also raised political demands such as the creation of a new constitution for Pakistan which could ensure provincial rights. The resolutions of this conference also referred to the international situation at the time, demanding the recognition of the Communist government in Vietnam. It also lent support to the peasants’ movement in Telangana, south India.

PHASE III: A MOVEMENT IN THOUGHT AND DEED

The year was 1950. Sharecropping had become a critical concern among the peasantry as most were being deprived of their due by landlords whose lands they tilled. Before Partition, the British had passed a sharecropping law about handing half the produce to the peasant working the field — “adh batai” as it was known. But this law was rarely implemented; landlords would make deductions on various pretexts, reducing the actual share that the peasants were entitled to.


In 1955, when the government of M Ali Bogra imposed the One-Unit plan, the Sindh Hari Committee joined the anti One-Unit front. This changed the character of the Hari Committee: from a class-based organisation, it became a nationalist one.


On the call of the Hari Committee, about 15,000 peasants from across the province gathered in Karachi and observed a sit-in outside the Sindh Assembly. This sit-in drew an army of protestors; such was their numerical strength that assembly members were not allowed to leave the building. The sit-in managed to hit its target: the Sindh Tenancy Act of 1950 was subsequently drafted and promulgated. For the first time, a peasant’s right of attachment with land (he couldn’t be chucked out anymore) and 50 percent share in produce was accepted. Furthermore, a landlord could now be fined 500 rupees if found abusing a tenant.

The law was a defining moment for the struggle — not only was the Hari Committee denting the social framework of feudalism, it now also enjoyed political clout.

But along with the successes came the disappointments. The Committee was pressured from various segments to declare publicly that it had no association with the Communist Party of Pakistan. Although the dissociation was announced, it was also declared that the Hari Committee would be open to all if they agree with the aims and objectives of the organisation.

Over the following few weeks, a new debate started raging: was the Hari Committee a political party or was it a class-based organisation?

The Hari Committee convened in Hyderabad and decided it would take part in politics. In light of this decision, it contested national elections in 1950 and the by-polls of 1951. Hyder Bux Jatoi was the Committee’s candidate but he was unable to win. Despite that, however, workers from across the country, including Habib Jalib, reached Larkana for Jatoi’s election campaign.

The weight of Jatoi’s personality on the politics of the Hari Committee in fact became clearer once he was put in prison by Defence Minister Ayub Khan. Since the politics of the Committee by now revolved mostly around the person of Jatoi, his incarceration meant that no junior leadership could be thrust into the limelight. As a result, the organisation struggled to inch forward.

While he was in prison, G. M. Syed decided to reorganise the Committee. Elections were held at the Sakrand Conference in 1952 but these elections proved fractious and the Committee stood divided. Only later did progressive leader Mian Iftikharudin intervene and undertake some reconciliation efforts, which led to the reunification of the Committee at its Tando Jam meeting.

CHANGE IN CHARACTER: FROM CLASS TO NATIONALISM

In 1952, Hyder Bux Jatoi contested by-polls against Nawab Sultan Khan Chandio. Habib Jalib and other leftists also participated in this drive with Jalib even penning poems for the election campaign. The opponent was a big feudal lord and his cronies attacked peasant activists with hunting dogs.

And yet, the peasant question remained hot and the peasants’ movement influential.

In 1955, when the government of Mohammad Ali Bogra imposed the One-Unit plan, the Sindh Hari Committee joined the anti One-Unit front. This changed the character of the Hari Committee: from a class-based organisation, it became a nationalist one.

By this time, of course, the national question had become quite sharp particularly for those in Sindh. The land that was irrigated due to the newly-constructed Kotri Barrage was being allotted to serving and retired civil and army officers in grants and auctions. Once again, the landless peasants were removed from the conversation altogether. Thousands of haris from Nawabshah subsequently marched to Karachi and camped at the Jahangir Park, where a public meeting was also held.

During 1957-58, the Hari Committee revived the Allottee Tehreek — a movement demanding that lands allotted to peasants should be sold to them at an appropriate price. Hari Commitee activists mobilised peasants, created awareness and by holding conferences, corner meetings, painting slogans on walls, and distributing posters and handbills. The committee also succeeded in holding a show of strength in Karachi.

Recent attempts to revive the peasants’ movement in Sindh have largely been spearheaded by NGOs
Recent attempts to revive the peasants’ movement in Sindh have largely been spearheaded by NGOs

Then president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza, and the minister of rehabilitation, Anwar Adil, subsequently met with peasant leaders. These negotiations led to about 40 percent of the permanent peasants succeeding in securing allotment of the lands that they used to till for Hindu landlords. The Allottee Tehreek practically ended when Ayub Khan promulgated martial law in the country.

RESIsTANCE AGAINST THE RESISTANCE

The landlords were feeling the growing influence of the Hari Committee. They resorted to violence against peasants as well as activists to keep them away from the struggle. Back in 1947, a peasant woman named Bakhtawar Lashari was murdered near Kunri when she resisted the landlord’s men taking away wheat produce without giving the peasants their due share. At the time, all male members of the community had gone away to attend a peasants’ conference in Jhudo.


From the 1940s to 1970, all parties were united on the peasant question. But After 1970, each political party formed its own peasant body. This led to further fragmentation.


The trend became more vicious as the Committee grew bigger. In another incident, a peasant named Pathai Unnar was killed in Tando Bago (now district Badin) because he sought legal help to get his rights. Seven peasant activists were injured in an attack by landlords because they were mobilizing peasants for a 50-percent share in produce. Later, one of them named Khamiso Khaskheli succumbed to his injuries.

Separately, Ghulam Mustfa Abbasi and Balach Brohi were killed in Nawabshah. Peasant activist and poet Azizullah Majrooh was killed in Garhi Yasin. His comrades took an oath at his grave just after his burial to avenge the killing. Veteran peasant workers claim that they later did exactly that.

AFTER HYDER BUX

Despite all odds, including violence meted out by landlords and the government machinery, limited resources and poverty, peasant activists continued their struggle bravely. Till May 21, 1970, when Hyder Bux Jatoi passed away.

His demise created a vacuum that was hard to fill. A two-day historic peasants’ conference was organised on 21-22 June, 1970 in Sakrand, district Nawab Shah to grapple with the matter. Veteran Sindhi politician Sheikh Abdul Majeed Sindhi headed the conference. Peasant delegations from across the province travelled to Sakrand, many barefooted, to attend.

By this time, the Sino-Soviet split in the international communist movement had arrived on Pakistani shores. The division took a toll on the peasants’ movement too. In Sindh, Aziz Salam Bukhari was in charge of the peasants’ front in the Communist Party and he adopted a pro-China line. A group of activists followed him. But since Hyder Bux Jatoi had stood with the mainstream communist movement during his lifetime, his followers remained rooted to the pro-Soviet parties.

Jam Saqi, who later became the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Pakistan, was assigned the task of reorganising the Hari Committee. With his inclusion, the colour of the Hari Committee became more radical but its base was dramatically reduced. Since Jam Saqi was simultaneously a party leader, he had little time for Hari Committee activism proper and the cause of the landless peasants in Sindh suffered as a consequence.

Meanwhile, in the 1980s, the Communist Party inducted over half a dozen cadres into the Hari Committee including Ghulam Rasool Saheto, Ghulam Hussain Shar, Saleh Billo and Taj Marri. This was done in an attempt to turn it into a mass movement. According to Sufi Huzoor Bux, former secretary general of the Sindh Hari Committee, the 1980s witnessed a revival of the Hari movement, when different factions once again united and held numerous public meetings. Later differences cropped up again and divisions soon followed.

The regime of General Ziaul Haq had rolled in by this time. The Hari Committee followed the larger Left strategy of aligning with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD); in part, the communist strategy of turning the Hari Committee into a mass movement was to swell numbers in MRD protest demonstrations and rallies.

Although there were hints of a revival due to this strategy, the Martial Law era had pushed the issue of provincial identity and autonomy to the fore. Class, peasantry and the industrial working class all became secondary concerns to those of how to restore democracy and the people’s will.

By the time General Zia passed away, the Soviet Union too was on its last legs. Its eventual dismemberment led to a global inertia in left-wing movements and the Hari Committee was no exception to the rule. Even though the Hari Committee had begun as a collective of progressive thought, the fragmentation in the Left post-1960s meant that it was losing clarity in leadership. Jam Saqi, for example, disbanded the Communist Party of Pakistan on the pretext that a working class revolution was no longer possible in Pakistan.

While the Left’s strength was affected after the breakup of the Soviet Union, working class struggles in Sindh also needed to be recalibrated. Nationalist ideology had taken hold (over and above class-based solidarity) and this began reflecting in peasant politics too. Consider this: G.M. Syed took an active part in the Hari Committee during the two early periods, 1930s and 1940s. Later in the 1960s, particularly after defeat in the 1970 elections, he changed his strategy. It can be safely said that from 1940s to 1970, all parties were united on the peasant question. But after 1970, each political party formed its own peasant body. This led to further fragmentation of the peasant movement.

Then there were questions of whether the movement could respond to contemporary realities and how. The last three decades witnessed many changes to the means of productions as well as to relations between landlords and the peasantry. In lower Sindh, sugarcane and other cash crops became in vogue and this led to agriculture labour. Sugarcane needs a large number of agricultural labour for harvest; this phenomenon made migrant labour more important than peasants. Similarly, increasing urbanisation, the power of the middle-man, and the weakening of feudal power posed separate challenges to the movement. But where the Hari Committee was once able to put its weight behind struggles against injustices, now the cause of the peasantry is carried forward by individuals instead of parties.

In the absence of any strong organisation, the question of how to improve the peasant’s lot is still largely absent from the state agenda as well as from mainstream politics. During the last two decades, some NGOs attempted to become the voice of peasants. But these are not representative bodies of peasants; they are project-oriented moves aimed at raising peasant issues as “human rights” or “labour” issues. Their entire strategy is issue-based, not class or struggle based.

But the legacy of the Hari Comittee is quite the opposite. It was a genuine peasant movement engaged in sustained activism in popular struggles and peoples movements, meant to bring about a change in the lot of the rural poor. Today while the Sindh Hari Committee maintains a formal organisation, the condition of Sindhi peasants has worsened. Some believe that a more sincere leadership will turn the tide. The seeds of struggle were sown decades ago, it now needs courage and vision to harvest the crop.

The writer is a senior journalist, teacher and author

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2017