In the dead of night on July 17, police vans snaked their way into Chak 4-L village in Okara City in Punjab province.
At about 2am, several dozen police officers forced entry into the house of Mehr Abdul Jabbar, younger brother of jailed peasant leader Mehr Abdul Sattar.
They broke down the front door and opened fire indiscriminately, shattering cupboards and other household items. They departed 15 minutes later but left behind a cloud of uncertainty and fear that spread among the villagers jolted awake by the gunfire.
Within half an hour, several private television channels broke the “news” that the Okara police had rescued six hostages from Jabbar's house and had found wads of Indian currency and ammunition including hand grenades.
The charade was necessary to feed the narrative that Sattar was an anti-state agent working for India, that he had a cache of illegal weapons at home and that he was harbouring criminals at his house who had shot at the police.
The police were, of course, lauded for being the heroes who had successfully freed “hostages” from the peasant leader's house.
National Action Plan
The incident is an example of how the Pakistani state's black brush is being used to paint any dissenting voices as terrorists under the National Action Plan. The plan is now directed towards the ongoing peasants' movement in the heart of Punjab.
The security framework has allowed the state to create an atmosphere of repression and impunity in the Okara Military Farms. The security framework forms a narrative that demonises peasants and allows for unbridled violence under the guise of national security.
Sattar was arrested on April 15 and accused of being a foreign agent working for the Indian intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The allegation was tied to Sattar's visit to Nepal in 2007, where he attended a meeting of the South Asian Alliance for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE) as secretary of Pakistan's Kissan Rabita Committee.
To provide this measly accusation with teeth, the police staged the July 17 raid at his house, claiming they found 85,000 Indian rupees. This is, apparently, all the proof required to brand someone a spy and an anti-state agent. Due process be damned.
Hundreds of villagers, on tenterhooks after hearing the gunfire, gathered around the house in the aftermath of the raid. Jabbar's wife, who was at home with her children when the police broke in, explained that while police had not harmed her or her children, the cops had taken away clothes and cell phones, and ransacked the house. One of them, she said, had taken photos and video footage of the house.
Inventing terror links
The raid comes barely a week after the same cops claimed to have killed six al-Qaeda terrorists at the house of the younger brother of another peasant movement leader, Malik Naeem Jhakkar, in Kulyana Estate on July 12.
The narrative in this case was further skewed by the fact that the police had, in fact, murdered the terrorist suspects at another location — the dera (private place for meeting guests) of retired Major Faqeer Hussain. Villagers in the area vouch for the time the “encounter” took place (2am) and explain that it was not carried out at Jhakkar's house.
Jhakkar's elder brother, Malik Saleem Jhakkar, is a peasant movement leader who has been in jail for the past two years. The police moved into Jakhar's house in his absence to seize his tractor and animals.
A week after this incident, on July 19, the Shuhda Foundation of the Lal Mosque mullahs claimed that two of those killed supposedly at Jhakkar's house had been in police custody for more than a year. The statement, coming from unlikely quarters, only strengthened what the peasants of Kulyana Estate have been saying all along — they had nothing to do with terrorists.
The Tenants Association of Punjab (AMP) has long opposed brutal Islamist militancy and has called for civilian state intervention to protect the lives of citizens. Events unfolding this month, however, speak of a blatant attempt by the state to box in AMP leaders with the same extremist elements the peasants oppose.
The attempts have been made in service of powerful sectors trying to build a case to persecute peasants and undermine the AMP's struggle for land ownership rights.
This latest encounter, if indeed staged, is telling of the dangerous tactics the police and intelligence officials are employing to implicate and criminalise peaceful political activists.
Furthermore, they speak volumes of the extent of the misuse of the National Action Plan and anti-terror laws. The police appear to have adopted a no-holds-barred approach to seeking to prove that the five main leaders of AMP they have arrested — Mehar Abdul Sattar, Nadeem Asharf, Malik Salim Jakhar, Hafiz Jabir and Shabir Sajid – have been funded by foreign elements, including foreign intelligence agencies.
Land rights struggle
The peasants' struggle is not a recent occurrence, nor has the brutality directed towards it emerged out of a vacuum. The people arrested for leading the movement have been demanding the right to own land they have worked for more than 16 years. The peasant communities of the Okara Military Farms have lived in and tilled the land there since 1910.
The state narrative has been contrived so as to criminalise their demand to own the 27,500 hectares of land they have been tied to for generations.
Since 2001, the police have registered 348 cases against the tenants of Okara. The Anti-Terrorism Act is being used to create extra pressure and to tighten a noose around the movement. Most of these cases against peasant activists were registered in the aftermath of protests by tenants against state injustice.
Women peasants in Okara have been dealt the same hardened blows by the state. This is because the women peasants have managed to organise and mobilise in a manner unprecedented by any peasant movement in Punjab.
More importantly, never before has any segment of the have-nots, the oppressed and the financially and politically weak dared to so directly challenge the most powerful institution in the country — the military. The peasant farmers of Okara had stood up to the Military Farms administration and the serving military officers based there.
Hundreds of criminal charges later, the accusations directed against the peasants have been unable to hold. As many as 11 tenants have lost their lives due to state brutality in their struggle for land ownership rights.
Not a single casualty has been reported by those wielding the guns. There has never been an attack on the oppressors by those oppressed — yet the brutality continues unabated.
The security agencies' blundering attempts to connect peasants to terrorists in their custody speaks volumes to their desperation to destroy the movement. The staged encounter on July 12 is one of the tactics the state has employed to turn public sympathy away from the peasants and to undermine their moral or ethical claims to land the state elite have their eyes on.
The aftermath of the police encounters and staged raids has created an environment of trepidation among the tenants. With their leaders in jail, the tenants now fear the wrath of the security apparatus will be turned on them.
The very basis of the movement pits the tenants against the Okara Military Farms administration, which demands share-cropping rights. The tenants, however, argue that the land does not belong to the military but to the provincial government.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, chair of the Pakistan Muslin League (N) that is in power in Punjab, had earlier promised to extend land ownership rights to the tenants.
It was after the tragic mass murder of children by religious extremists at an army-run school in Peshawar in 2014 that the security apparatus was given a free hand to rein in terrorists and extremists. Two years later, the National Action Plan has been directed towards the most vulnerable segments of the society to silence those who dared raise their voice for their rights.
Despite warnings and remonstrations from human rights quarters, including the National Commission for Human Rights and the Senate Committee on Human Rights, the violence does not appear to have abated. If anything, it has worsened and the peasants of Okara lie in the heart of this brutal onslaught.
[Farooq Tariq is general secretary of the Awami Workers Party.]