July 3, 2002
Greetings. And much love.
We write to inform you of the plight of landless tenants in nine districts in this state of Punjab, Pakistan.
A war rages here. On one side, thousands of police, rangers, and the military; on the other, thousands of men and women armed with nothing more than ‘thappas’, wooden sticks that women use to wash clothes. The women,thappa in hand, are in the front-line; the men, unarmed, are behind them.
Confrontation of this sort is unprecedented in our country. But it has come about because some brave people have decided that enough is enough. Pervez Musharraf is not to be believed anymore when he says that state land will be redistributed to the landless. The government is not to be believed anymore when it says it is working in the interests of the poor. ‘Malki ya maut’ – ‘ownership or death’ – is the slogan of one million landless tenants.
Allow us to tell you a little of the story.
In the early 1900′s, the British colonialists founded agricultural research, livestock, and dairy farms across approximately 68,000 acres of land in the Punjab. At the time, much of the land was covered by forest. Christian and Muslim families from East Punjab were forcibly migrated to these locations and given the task of clearing and tilling the land. The colonialists promised ownership rights in return for displacement and isolation, aches and pains, diseases and death.
However, once the land was made productive it was quickly registered as state-owned. Then came time for the British to leave and for partition to rip the sub-continent apart. In the newly created state of Pakistan, ownership rights remained elusive. They remained as such in 1952, when land was being redistributed, and in the 1970′s, as Prime Minister Bhutto applauded the success of his land reform program.
And so it is that today, one million tenants live and work on state-owned farms spanning 70,000 acres across the province. While the land is owned by the provincial government, the farms are operated by different government agencies including the military, the livestock department, and the Punjab Seed Corporation. In the 1950′s, these agencies had leased the land from the provincial government but their leases are defunct now, having expired decades ago.
The absence of any moral or legal claim has not prevented the agencies from demanding and collecting shares of each year’s harvest. But this year is different. This year, the tenants are holding back the shares that have made the agencies fat and bloated. Instead, they will only surrender these shares to the government of Punjab, the owner of the land, in exchange for dialogue around the ownership that was promised them a century ago.
You in Chiapas know that human beings have an amazing ability to exist in the midst of misery, hunger and humiliation. Often it takes an opportunity, an event, an inspiration to incite people to demand what is rightfully theirs. Here in Punjab, it was an attempt to alter the tenure arrangement in June 2000 that prompted the risky business of organised resistance. Attempting to consolidate control and crush resistance, the agencies offered the tenants contracts of 3 to 5 years. Once the contracts were up, the agencies would be free to push people off the land. The existing tenure arrangement and tenancy laws prevented them from evicting people, therefore the attempt to change the system.
Anjuman Mazarain Punjab, now a million strong, was formed as an organisation resisting this move towards contract arrangements. Its men and women asked for the ownership rights that were rightfully theirs. And as the agitation for justice spread amongst the tenants, so did the panic within the status quo.
To date, this panic manifests itself in tight media control, heavy police presence in villages, outrageous shows of force, and the shooting and killing of five tenants in the last six months. The first death was in January this year, when a tenant in Renala Khurd was shot by the Director of Renala state military farms, Colonel Mohammad Ali. Then, in mid-May, two more tenants were shot and killed, one in Okara, and the other in Khanewal. In every instance, retired or serving army officials were responsible.
This is the price of resistance. But it is made lighter by the spirit of those who are demanding their due. Thousands are charged with crimes against the state. Hundreds are branded terrorists. Many languish in jail. Water supplies and phone connections to a farm in Khanewal district have been cut off for three weeks now; there is no entry or exit allowed. It is a state of siege. But ‘malki ya maut’ remains the weapon against which they must pit their guns and artillery fire.
We write to you, knowing that the struggle here is the struggle there, is the struggle everywhere. We know you are with us, as we are with you.
People’s Rights Movement
The People’s Rights Movement is a confederation of diverse social movements working for the rights of dispossessed and disadvantaged Pakistanis. Anjuman Mazarain Punjab is part of this confederation.