If there ever was doubt that the Pakistani state’s current antidotes were not sufficient enough against the security challenges it faces, than the reigniting of violent flare-ups at the Okara military farms ought to put those doubts to rest. To be upright though, it has to be pointed out that the above-mentioned dilemma does not solely apply to the Pakistani state, but, to a large part of the world that still seems to be reeling from the lack of attention they might have given to the human security paradigm even decades after the cold war, and from their rigid adherence to the erstwhile national security paradigm. Before one goes into why these paradigms ought to be deliberated on more than ever by the Pakistani state, one needs to delve into the background of the conflict at the Okara military farms in order to understand the current conflict.
Colonialism and its discontents
The historical scenario that ultimately gave rise to the Tenants Association of Punjab is a classic case of colonial development, dispossession, settlement and social engineering. It all started with the British colonial government’s plan of turning arid land in West-central Punjab into canal colonies. For this purpose, it enabled the migration of a large number of landless peasants from East Punjab to these prospective colonies. The immigrants helped cultivate the land along with laying down canals, in order to make the land ripe for settlement. In 1913, the British colonial government in the Punjab leased out some of these lands to the British military so that the latter could utilize the land for the growth of dairy products and grain. The duration of the lease was set for twenty years; however, it was renewed for another five years till 1938. During this tenure, about 50 percent of the cultivated crop was shared with the government and the military. This share-cropping method in the local Punjabi dialect is known as the batai system. Staying true to colonialism’s inherent tendencies at exploitation, the provincial British government promised to give the tenants land ownership rights before reneging on that very gesture. The British Indian army was given de facto control of the villages after the expiration of the lease, and the Pakistani military inherited this arrangement.
Neo-liberalism gives birth to the movement
From independence onwards, the tenants continued to give 50 percent of the share of the cultivated crop to the military. While campaigning for his referendum vote, President Pervez Musharraf promised the tenants to give them land ownership rights over the land they cultivated. However, shortly afterwards, in June 2000, the regime tried to change the status of the cultivators from tenants to contractors under a more formalized lease relationship. It felt that the old sharecropping system was more inimical to corruption by both the peasants and the farm officers. It also intended to make the farms more economically permeable to investment. On the other hand, after thoroughly researching their legal position and the legal history of their tenancy arrangement, the tenants believed this to be a ploy to get them evicted from the land. The Punjab Tenancy Act 1887, differentiates between occupancy tenants and simple tenants, where, the former would have rights to occupy the land and would only be evicted in the case of court orders, whereas, the latter could be evicted by the landlord on his or her own discretion.
The Musharraf regimes attempt at modernizing the lease system was an attempt at integrating the lands into the global economy followed by compensatory social safety nets in the form of contractual agreements. This is a fundamental hallmark of the neo-liberal mode of development.
From here onwards, the tenants refused to give the share of their crops as a sign of protest, and after an ensuing physical confrontation with the military and the police, the tenants organized themselves within the framework of the Tenants Association of Punjab or the Anjuman-e-Mazirin Punjab. The use of force by the state made the movement turn partially violent at stages as well. At its peak, it was a million strong movements and about 40 percent of it was composed of tenants from the Christian minority apart from enabling the participation of a large number of women in the struggle. It demanded nothing less than ‘ownership or death’, i.e., ‘Malki ya maut’. The movement had also spread to nearby districts and villages such as Khanewal and Pirowal, since the latter was under the control of the Punjab Seed Corporation. Despite having been Promised Land ownership rights by the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) during the anti-Musharraf movement, the status quo prevails today.
New fault lines and prospects for the proliferation of class struggle
In the second week of July 2014, violence returned to the Okara farms. The farm management had purportedly tried to increase the rent, which was met by protest from the peasants in the form of blocking the irrigation canals inside the farms. The military sent troops to reopen the canals. Both sides have different accounts as to what happened later, with each accusing the other of starting the assault on the other party.
The tenants’ movement remains more visible and permeable to the rest of Central Punjab since the villages are located right on the edge of the Grand Trunk road. What also makes this movement more powerful is the fact that it is located in the heart of the Pakistani power structure, i.e., Central Punjab. The executive, both the military and the civil service, draws much of its personnel from this region. This is coupled with the fact that a number of landed families along with industrialists serving in the national and provincial parliaments come from this portion of Punjab. What would pose a challenge to all of these power centers is a solidarity network between the peasants and the wageworkers. However, this proliferation might be halted by the strong conservative worldview that is being trickled down from the trader class to the working class in the form of madrassa funding and the spread of Deobandi and Ahl al-Hadith madrassas and networks. This stands as barrier to any left leaning political movement and these forces have their own strategies at exploiting class divisions.
Whose land is it anyway?
Within the framework of the Punjab Tenancy Act 1887, it is obvious that the freeholder or the entity that owns the title to the land in dispute is the provincial Punjab government that has made close to no contribution at all in settling this dispute. It is also interesting to note that although enabling the military to acquire de facto control of the villages since Independence, the Punjab government refused to transfer the title of the land to the military, under the Land Acquisition Act 1894 after the latter had requested it to do so. The military itself does not meet the requirements of temporary occupation or acquisition of the land under Part 5 and 6 of the 1894 statute. Nevertheless, in 2001, the Lahore High Court held that tenants refusing to pay rent to the military amounted to an illegal possession of the land.
The convergence of patronage politics, neo-liberalism and the national security paradigm
The implementation of a neo-liberal economic model of development in a state and society such as Pakistan necessarily entails a merger with the power dynamics at play. Hence, it can be seen that this model is being used by the state, intentionally or unintentionally, at enabling decades old patronage politics in the form of patronage-client relationships whether those are in the form of military-tenant relations, landed elite- tenant relations or government-tenant relations. Therefore, a model of development that is not inclusive of the landless in a society such as Punjab is bound to entrench the current mode of politics that we see, something that the Pakistani urban middle class and their political representatives continues to complain about without realizing the structural roots of the issue.
This is coupled with the Hobbesian approach of the Pakistani state towards International Relations in particular where its worldview is colored with mutual fear and suspicion of a number of countries, which enables it to see groups of its own people with fear and apprehension, turning the state into a national security state. This is not to deny the immense threat the country faces from within and outside the country, however, a ‘Lockean’ approach may be better suited if Pakistan is to meet its challenges. This entails recognizing threat perceptions on factual and sound basis while being attentive to cooperation if the opportunity arises.
The need to deliberate on the Human Security paradigm
With the war in Waziristan, insurgency in Balochistan, ethnic violence in Urban Sindh and militant sanctuaries in South Punjab, the last thing the state can afford to do is to open up another front in Central Punjab. This is even more so important because the tenants in the Okara and neighboring farms do have genuine grievances against the state. The right to housing is recognized in international legal instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Social and Political Rights.
It is in the utmost interest of the government and other important institutions of Pakistan to start at least deliberating on a discourse that recognizes that the security of the state, society and individuals is interconnected. The past 66 years are a testament to the notion that insecurity felt by any one of these entities spreads is bound to affect the others.