Led by the Mazdoor Kisan Party, peasants campaigned for landlords to implement tenancy law and rent control. The movement was successful, empowering those involved and forcing the state apparatus and government to become more accountable to the demands of the peasantry.
Problems and Purpose
In 1968, the Mazdoor Kisan Party (Workers’ Peasants’ Party) formed in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) to organize the tenant farmers and landless labourers living and working in and around the Peshawar valley. Beginning in 1970, the MKP and associated peasant movements undertook campaigns to pressure landlords to implement tenancy law and to control rents. The sometimes armed response of the landlords and police led to a broader struggle between landlords and their tenants which resulted in many tenants occupying land without paying rents, and thus effecting a land reform from below, or effecting rent control. Based on interviews conducted by the author in Charsadda and Malakand Agency in 2013, for many tenants and landless labourers, the movement was empowering and enabled them to exercise control over a very meaningful part of their life; it also forced the state apparatus and government to become more accountable to the demands of the peasantry, as opposed to those of the landlord class.
Background History and Context
Peasant struggles were a recurring feature in the context of dramatic political and economic changes in the Peshawar valley. The set up of landlords and tenants came about in the late 19th century when the British Raj invested in canalizing Peshawar valley in order to irrigate hitherto rain-fed land. The canalization followed on the heels of introducing private property in land that made a handful of individuals owners of thousands of acres of land, practically overnight. The resident landowners, large and small, belonged mostly to the Muhammadzai tribe of the Pakhtun nation, but the tenants were migrants from other parts of the northwest, notably from the Mohmand Agency, providing an ethnic dimension to class contradiction.
By the 1950s and 1960s, the political economy of the Peshawar valley was described by tenants as khanism, a very direct relationship between the economic, political, social and cultural power of the khans (landlords). Large khans owned thousands of acres of land, while smaller khans owned hundreds or scores of acres. Aside from extracting rents from tenants and wage labour from field workers, khans also extracted surplus in the form of (illegal) periodic corvée labour and a mix of codified and arbitrary cesses and services imposed on tenants and workers. Khans dominated regional and national politics, often because they directly controlled who their tenants would vote for. State institutions, such as local administration, the judiciary, the police, and the revenue department, were closely tied in with the khan class. Indeed, access to government officials was mediated by khans, from whose homes police and revenue officials would often operate. Khans also directly exercised domination over tenants through their employees, or themselves resolving disputes among tenants, imposing fines and punishments directly.
Starting in the late 1950s, tentative land reforms and the promotion of Green Revolution technologies by the military regime of Ayub Khan led to significant changes in the rural political economy of the Peshawar valley, namely, the increasing penetration of specifically capitalist forms of production. Land reforms increased inequalities as landlords moved to eject (evict) tenants from lands and take up “self-cultivation,” i.e., hiring waged labour and the new technologies (chemical fertilizer, high-yield varieties of seeds, and tractors and tube wells where possible). However, even smaller cultivators were adopting these new technologies, which meant that tenants who could afford to use fertilizers could advance, while those who could not fell behind in competitiveness, potentially losing their land. The increase in landlessness could not sufficiently be absorbed into agriculture, leading to out-migration as well. So, on one hand, advancing tenants could not fully realize their economic potential (not to mention political, cultural and social potential) due to the khans’ domination of economic and political relations; whereas those tenants who were increasingly feeling the pressure of landlessness also had plenty to hold against the khans. The intensification of grievances provided the basis for a broad anti-landlord politics by the Mazdoor Kisan Party.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The peasant movement was sparked by the Mazdoor Kisan Party (MKP). The MKP was a political party that was guided by Marxist-Leninist theory and that eschewed elections. The MKP emerged in 1968 as a split from the National Awami Party (NAP), an alliance of ethno-nationalist politicians seeking greater provincial autonomy and leftists associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan. Communist Party cadres had previously organized peasant movements, notably a militant peasant struggle in NWFP in 1948, before being banned by the Pakistani government in 1954. Many of these cadres went on to form the NAP’s Kisan Committee (KC) in 1963, when political parties were allowed to operate once more under the military regime. KC activists sought to organize the peasants of NWFP and formed committees in various villages. However, the KC was seen as a communist front, stoking class struggle in its opposition to illegal ejectments, and threatening the landlords in the NAP. NAP’s leading figures thus sought to suppress KC activities, forcing the latter’s activists to exit NAP and form the Mazdoor Kisan Party in 1968. The MKP’s formation also came at a time of upsurge in student and labour movements in Pakistan, which contributed to the departure of Ayub Khan in 1969.
The MKP no longer exists in its original form, having faced several splits and defections in the 1970s. There are many factions of the MKP now operating mainly in Charsadda district, often in cooperation with other mainstream, electoral political parties.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
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Methods and Tools Used
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Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
During the peasant movement of the 1970s, participation took place at different levels. Initially, the MKP organized leading men of different villages and sub-tribal affiliation to converge and make decisions about engaging in a movement, these decisions were both motivated by decisions made by the men of villages and sub-tribal groups and, when plans were made at higher levels of coordination, these were taken back to villages and sub-tribal groups for execution. As the movement developed, these leaders became party workers. New leaders also developed in the course of the movement, organizing people in different sectors (tenants, youth, workers) and places, having to win over pluralities or majorities in their areas of work.
Village assemblies appear to have been held to bring together the male tenants and landless labourers, where important decisions reached at higher levels were communicated by party workers and deliberated upon. Party leaders often conducted tours of villages where they consulted with the males to determine what kinds of decisions ought to be made.
When crucial decisions were made about participation in a particular action, or non-cooperation with landlords or the state, such decisions could be enforced through social boycotts of the defectors or through imposing fines (the proceeds going to fund MKP activities). Initially, the charged atmosphere of peasant struggle made it unlikely for defection, but as the peasant struggle abated and people began to defect, the mechanisms of social boycott and imposing fines were used more often (although, still not very frequently), until these could no longer be meaningfully enforced.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The movement that began in 1970 converged with other student and worker movements in the country to press upon the military government of Yahya Khan to abdicate to the democratically elected Zulfikar Ali Bhutto by 1972. Bhutto implemented a land and tenancy reform regulation. These land reforms enabled some redistribution of land from landlords to those tenants who were cultivating such lands, but their most important effect was ensuring the continued tenancy of many peasants who now could not be arbitrarily ejected from lands. Additionally, the North-West Frontier Province government eventually formed conciliation committees between landlords and tenants in order to bring about compromises, which often meant that tenants purchased lands at discounted rates, or continued to pay rent but at very strictly controlled prices. In effect, these conciliation committees effected a land and tenancy reform as well. The state apparatus was thus forced to treat landlords and tenants as formal equals, whereas before the state apparatus (police, revenue officials, politicians) were deeply embedded with and were often seen as agents of the landlords alone.
For many tenants and agricultural labourers, the loosening of the control of the landlords meant some degree of economic and political autonomy. With reduced rents or newly purchased lands, many tenants or former tenants could invest a greater portion of their surplus into agriculture or into non-agricultural forms of income-generation (e.g., investing in education for their youth). Producers could more freely sell their produce on markets of their own choosing. Moreover, tenants and labourers were freed from corvée labour and other cesses and services. Now, tenants and labourers could vote for the political party they wanted to vote for, which meant that khans – still, by and large, the only social actors who could afford to run for elections – had to (and continue to) approach peasants as political clients rather than as pliant dependents.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the peasant movement pushed the state apparatus to become more autonomous from the landlord class, the state apparatus was also under the control of politicians (Bhutto and the Pakistan People’s Party) who sought to transform economic relations toward greater capitalism. Thus, some level of land reform and some weakening or transformation of the role of landlords was part of their agenda. Accordingly, the kinds of land reform undertaken by the state, as well as the ways in which the conciliation committees provided state sanction to the land reform “from below,” tended to reward and promote the richer stratum of the peasantry. Given inequalities in capital ownership and control, the land reforms spurred the process of peasant differentiation, leading some to become richer, while others became even poorer and, while not necessarily losing lands outright, through generational subdivision of landholdings had to rely more and more on waged labour. Landless labourers did not get any land from this movement, although in many cases their rights to their homesteads were secured, but on the whole their economic situation did not necessarily improve.
Indeed, richer tenants tended to be the leading forces of the movement, and as the ideological influence of the MKP wore thin, the interests of these richer tenants came to predominate the entire movement. (Indeed, rich farmers continue to be the intermediaries between village societies and mainstream political parties.) Even when it was not just richer tenants who were dominating the movement, it was still male village elders who tended to make decisions, albeit with the input and keeping in mind the passion of many of the male youth. Male youth were often organized into paramilitary squads known as the “Naujwan Tanzeem” (or Youth Organization). Children were often organized into a children’s organization, but by and large women were excluded from political participation given the dominant sociocultural norms of Pakhtun society. Despite its communist orientation, the MKP could not overcome this disparity.
More broadly, the peasant movement demonstrates the importance of independently organized political power in transforming economic relations. Democratic participation and entitlements must involve people’s rights to livelihoods, which may not be about influencing government policy in one way or another, but may be more directly about seizing the means of production. Yet, when a movement includes multiple contradictions (class, ethnicity, age, gender), it is also important to focus on the independent organization of various groups so that they can also press for their own interests. Doing the latter is, of course, easier said than done.
Nazeer Chauhdry, "Mazdoor Kisan Party, Wichar, A Comprehensive Punjabi Journal, December 31, 2016, http://www.wichaar.com/news/315/ARTICLE/32031/2016-12-31.html
Sohail Sangi, "The Sickle That Rusted," Dawn, May 21, 2017, https://www.dawn.com/news/1334492
Vidrohi, "History of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party," The Rebel Road, August 20, 2017, https://redtribution.wordpress.com/history-of-the-communist-mazdoor-kiss...
Lead image: Pashtoonkhwa Milli Awami Party, https://goo.gl/Xd4Bnm