In 1900, the British Imperial Raj developed a canal system for the agricultural development of Punjab and promised the labourers involved in the project agricultural land as compensation for their work. Some families, settled in Okara were given tenant status and promised full ownership rights within a given period.Though the Okara forests were given to peasants in 1908 by the Raj, the land was under the Punjab Revenue Board’s administrative control and the peasants were ascribed a caretaker role until they receive full rights in 1914. In 1913, under a lease agreement with the Punjab government, the Army took control until 1938, after which the lease was not renewed. In 1947, the Pakistani Army took control of the land, as an illegal trespasser and illegal occupant and has not paid the Punjab government for the produce it has received from the peasants as according to the batai system. The farms on these government-owned lands are operated by different agencies like the military, livestock department and the Punjab Seed Corporation.
After failing to follow through on its 1999 promise to allot land to the landless farmers, in 2000, the farmers began to self-organize and began a campaign to file for legal title to the farms.The next few years saw bloodshed, police brutality, torture and many arrests, but many tenants still refuse to give up their rights to land ownership under the 1874 Punjab Tenancy Act. Female activists, community members and members of the organization Anjuman Mazarain Punjab held a protest camp for women only on May 20 2016 to demand: 1)release of all arrested tenants, 2)end to the use of anti-terrorism laws to harass tenants, 3)ownership rights for tenants , 4)removal of FIRS againt the tenants and 5)radical land reforms in the province.
With the mission of “Malki ya Maut” (ownership or death), Anjuman Mazarain Punjab (Tenant Association of Punjab) is a representative organization of landless tenants on state land in the province of Punjab in Pakistan. The organization works with famers to establish legal claims, protests and acts of civil disobedience to both demand ownership for the peasants and request harvest shares. The organization also works to contest to recent attempts by government to change the tenure arrangement to a contract system to eventually evict tenants (which is prohibited by the tenancy act). Downgraded from sharecroppers to renters, the tenants at Okara Military Farms refuse to pay rent, have staged many protests, to which the army has responded with cutting off water to the fields, sending troops to surround their villages, arrests and torture. In 2000, 7 villagers were killed in clashes between farmers and paramilitary forces. The organization’s most recent work is dedicated to facilitating and arranging Peasant’s Corner Meetings and protests against policy administration to discuss issues affecting local peasants, filing legal claims and solidarity.
The organization represents nearly 1 million tenants and peasants in over 10 districts across the province of Punjab who work on government-owned farms.The current general secretary of the movement is Mehar Abdul Sattar. Participants choose to participate in protests because their livelihoods and material securities are directly threatened and have little protection or support from formal political avenues for recourse.
The methods employed by participants are primarily protest in the forms of protest camps, sit-ins, and mass demonstrations.
Deliberations and Decision
Beyond basic updates on social media, news coverage on arrests and the mission statement of the organization, there is very little information available in en on the official websites and social media platforms (Facebook), on the actual details of the events and their realization. Most updates are in the form of storytelling in picture updates. There is not much available information online on what participants discussed, how they interacted with each other, how they took care of each other etc. at the scenes of protest. However, on the Facebook it was noted that the women arranged to meet at a certain point in Lahore, the Shimla Pahari (Press Club) for a sit-in from 11am to 5pm. The protest was gender-segregated, as seen in pictures and there were many men also in attendance. Other groups of women committed to traveling to Islamabad to stage sit-ins. The Facebook event was organized by Sonia Qadir, a representative of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women. the women and some children set up makeshift camps and held a sit-in as a form of protest. The protestors also used the twitter hashtag #peasantwomenrising to spread awareness.
30 women were arrested at the protest camp and 4 men. Exhausting their non-violent measures of political protest, negotiation and voting, the villagers of Okara have yet to have their cases for ownership heard by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. With this said, solid progress in mobilization, consciousness-raising and claims-making has been achieved through the organization and farmers’ advocacy. Their claims, backed by the Okara District Bar Association, are now supported in coalition with the Lahore High Court Bar Association and the Punjab Bar Council against the district police.In April 2016, legal claims were filed against 4000 Okara tenants for injuring police, damaging police vehicles, displaying weapons indiscriminately and setting crops on fire.
Beyond the case for human rights, ownership rights and human dignity of peasants and farmers, the case of Okara Farms represents a growing resentment over the army’s monopolization of power, land and resources through land-grabbing and military feudalism. The organization, and the contestation by Okara residents, is autonomous, organic and not tampered by paid-rights activism and international development initiatives.