The siege of Okara by Pakistan Army
October 16, 2010
The following is an excerpt from the book Miliraty Inc. (By Ayesha Siddiqa) that comprehensively describes the invasion of Okara by Pakistan Army and the oppression that the local farmers have faced over the years.
It should also be noted that Pakistan Army has recently diverted flood waters to nearby villages in order to save Okara Farms.
“The army’s direct involvement in agriculture and its possession of rural land did not become evident until the eruption of the conflict in Okara in Central Punjab between the landless peasant and the service. A situation resembling a civil war erupted in 2001 on military farms at Okara when the army and para-military forces besieged the local village community to fight the warring peasants that protested the Army’s decision to arbitrarily change the system of contract under which the tenants tilled the land. The army’s decision to change the term of contract from share-cropping to rent-in-cash caused great resentment amongst the tenants and their families who have resided in Okara and Renala for quite some time. The tenants feared the new system of contract would empower the Army, which is not the original owner of the land, to throw the poor tenants out from their abodes. The land belongs to the Government of Punjab that had leased the land to the military before partition. These tenants had traditionally lived on the land and cultivated it for those who exercised control over the land.
The Okara farms are part of the military farms group, Okara and Renala, which comprise 16,627 acres of land consisting of two dairy farms, seven military (oat-hey) farms and 22 villages. Out of the total acreage, 16,627 acres are cultivated by 1,323 farmers residing in Okara and Renala. At one point, some of these villages and land was under the control of the Catholic Church in Pakistan and the village residents were tenants of the Church. The prime proprietor, as mentioned earlier, is evidently the Punjab Government, who leases the land to other people or institutions. The ownership barely bothered the tenants that cultivated the land on a share cropping basis. According to the previous arrangement, the tenants cultivated the land and shared both the input and the output with the owner or who ever controlled the land. The additional benefit to the tenant was recognition by law of his/her claim over the land as much as that of the owner. In case the land was to be sold, tenants held primary claim over the land. This arrangement put a tenant in a better legal position than a simple cash-in-rent arrangement where land is cultivated in exchange for money or a specified rent. The military tried to enforce its arbitrary decision on the tenants by force. After 2000, the para-military forces deployed around the villages in well documented accounts reportedly brutalized the poor tenants, ensuing severe agitation and violence that claimed eight innocent lives. The troops of para-military force, otherwise known as Rangers, besieged the villages twice, imposed curfew, restrained mobility of people, stopped supply of medicine, food and vegetables, and used numerous pressure tactics. The Human Rights Watch Report has detailed testimonials of village people victimized by the military authorities that were generally dismissive of the protest. Army personnel claimed that, rather than being a human rights issue, this was a local law and order issue incited by some NGOs. Army personnel also believe that the ‘muzarain’ or tenants are raising the slogan of ‘mulki ya maut’ (ownership or death) out of greed and malice. According to a Pakistani researcher, Ayesha Salma Kariappar, the Army is not inclined to negotiate ownership rights due to its appreciation of the value of this A-1 land. The conflict, as Kariappar indicates, denotes the military’s power and thrust as a capitalist force. The aforementioned brutalization, however, clearly represents a feudalistic style. Kariappar’s definition of the military as a capitalist force basically describes the rampant profit-making activities of Pakistan’s armed forces. However, it can be argued that, had the Pakistani Army been capitalist, it may not have been obsessed with the idea of controlling Okara farms at all costs. The civil-military conflict at the farms increases the cost of controlling the land, a proposition that a capitalist force might not entertain. The Army’s high-handedness is indicative of the authoritarianism which is reinforced as the norm. The stories of the pressure exerted on Okara peasants is a reminder of the traditional Sindhi ‘wadera’ (feudal lord) or serfdom system in which the poor tenants are treated brutally and even put in private prisons by the feudal lords.”
“From a socio-political standpoint, the conflict is a significant expression of the military’s power and its determination to maintain it. The army’s top leadership remained fearful that any concession to the tenants would have a ‘knock-on’ effect. The apprehension that yielding to these farmers would weaken the military against other social and political forces and diminished the overall power of the armed forces was prevalent within the army. Therefore, the issue was not just about the ownership of the land but rather, the larger matter of maintaining political power and authority. Such behavior is reminiscent of the feudal armies in Europe for whom occupation and control of territory was a symbol of strength.”
“Interestingly, in the Okara case the military was trying to change the terms of contract for a land that did not belong to it. Hence, the Army itself came into violation of the contract it had signed with the Punjab Government, who had originally leased out these villages as part of a total of 35, 508 acres of land to the British Army in 1913. The 20 years lease agreement signed in 1913 and renewed in 1933 for another five years stipulated the land to be used as ‘Oat-Hey’ farm for raising army’s horses. According to senior officials of the revenue department, the Army, which inherited the lease from the British, did not bother to renew the lease which had expired 15 years ago and, hence, stood in violation of the lease agreement by changing the use of land from oat-hey farm to dairy farm. The lease agreement does not allow the service to use the land for any other purpose than growing fodder. The only detailed study on the Okara farm issue highlights interesting facts about the management of the farms. First, contrary to claims made by army authorities that income generated from the farms is given to the government; the military farm authorities retain all earnings. Second, the farm produce was being mismanaged as a large quantity of farm products such as milk and animal were used to bribe senior officers. In her study on the Okara farms, Kariapar claims that the Auditor-General’s Department had accused the military farm authorities of mismanagement rather than holding the tenants responsible for the loss of revenue.”
“The military spokesman Director-General Inter-Services Relations (ISPR), Maj. General Shaukat Sultan, in defense of the conversion of use of military farms in Okara said:
“The needs of the Army will be decided by the Army itself, and/or the government will decide this. Nobody has the right to say what the Army can do with 5,000 acres or 17,000 acres. The needs of the Army will be determined by the Army itself.”
“This arbitrary conversion of the usage of land violates the principle of ‘eminent domain’, a concept defined by Hugo Grotius as the law governing the acquisition of the property of the subjects of the state.
According to Grotius:
“the property of subjects under the law of eminent domain belongs to the state, so that the state or the person who represents the state, can make use of that property, can even destroy or alienate it whenever it is to the public advantage.”
“The application of this law varies according to the political nature of the state. In the US, the law of eminent domain has been interpreted according to the liberal philosophy of John Locke. So, the 5th Amendment to the US Constitution advocates the preservation of the right of private property. Locke had enunciated the right of a government to draw its costs to rule but without excessively threatening an individual’s right to private property or all such rights that generate happiness. This right is upheld in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 as well. The declaration stipulates that: “Property being an inviolable and sacred right, no one can be deprived of it unless the public necessity plainly demands it, and upon condition of a just and previous indemnity.” These approaches, it is noteworthy, evolved as a result of years of struggle by the people in France and the US to establish the primacy of private property or rights of people. Although the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 used in Pakistan puts down specific conditions such as ‘public purpose’ for acquisition of private land by the government, the rules are implemented in letter and not in spirit due to the authoritarian nature of politics.”
As opposed to Locke’s philosophy, the Hobbesian or a ‘brutish’ approach was reflected in the handling of the Okara farms case based on a more authoritarian control of the society by the state in which the main authority could be an individual or a group of people, has the power to determine the good of the rest of the population. This Hobbesian notion is truly reflected in the feudal character of the Pakistani state where ‘public good’ is determined by the ruling oligarchy. Being part of the dominant elite, the military has aped feudal behavior according to which the authoritarianism of the institution determines the flow of capital and the monopolization of resources. Pakistan military’s land appropriation and subsequent possession and profit-making is unrivaled by the US, France, Israel, India and all such societies that have consciously moved towards capitalism.”