Okara, April 17.
A gathering of thousands of peasants in the Okara District of Punjab, to mark International Peasants Day on April 17, went ahead despite a violent crackdown by the police, paramilitaries and the army. The gathering was organised by the Tenants Association of Punjab (AMP) and supported by the Awami Workers Party (AWP).
The government used Pakistan's “anti-terrorist” laws, which are routinely used to squash dissent but only rarely used against actual terrorists, to ban the gathering. AMP general secretary Mehr Abdul Sattar was pre-emptively taken into custody on April 16.
Ironically, the initial demands of the banned April 17 rally included the release of four local AMP activists already in jail.
“We have confirmed reports of extreme physical torture of Mehr Abdul Sattar,” AWP general secretary Farooq Tariq said on social media on April 18. Sattar was formally remanded on 26 charges on April 20, although disturbingly he was not present in court, authorities keeping him in Sahiwal jail.
As thousands of peasants from across Okara and the neighbouring Dipalpur district protested and blocked roads, police and paramilitary rangers used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. The army was then called in, deploying tanks against the unarmed protesters.
The peasant mobilisations and violent response from authorities continued after the International Peasants Day rally. At least two peasants have been killed by the state forces.
“It seems there are no law enforcing agencies functioning in Okara but gangsters roaming around and picking up anyone associated with AMP, a genuine poor peasants' organisation struggling for land rights,” Tariq said on April 19.
He listed six more people who had been arrested and 11 who have disappeared, including a ten-year-old.
On April 21, the Lahore Anti-Terrorist Court rejected prosecution attempts to try Sattar and four other defendants on terrorism charges, although they still face other trumped up criminal charges and remain in jail. “This is the first little victory at a court who have not accepted lies of police against tenants,” Tariq said.
The Pakistani media has mostly ignored the protests. Those journalists who have covered them have also been targeted by authorities. Local journalist Hafiz Husnain Raza has been investigated under “anti-terror” laws. Police attempted to arrest him on April 19 but he was not at home when they raided his house — so they arrested two of his uncles.
One reason for the violence in Okara is that the landlords who the peasants are struggling against are military-owned companies and some individual military officers. The area where the AMP is active is even known as the Okara Military Farms.
Since July 2000, the AMP has organised the peasants to resist an unlawful new leasing arrangement designed to impoverish them and force them from their land. The peasants have won a degree of control over their land and water but the struggle for legal title continues. In the past year the military has increased its use of violence and “anti-terror” laws to reverse the peasants' gains.
The Okara Military Farms struggle has been notable for the unity between Muslim and Christian peasants and a high degree of participation by women.
“The peasants are not terrorists. They are victims of state terrorism. They have lost at least 11 comrades in the struggle. The real issue is that the army wants to take back the land from the peasants and we will not let that happen,” Tariq said, addressing the International Peasants Day rally.
[AWP representative Sarah Eleazar will be speaking at the “Socialism for the 21st Century” conference in Sydney on May 13-15.]