Why Does Pakistan Fear its Farmers?
May 8, Islamabad: The security forces’ deployment, with its convoy of armored vehicles, seemed like a large-scale military operation. In fact, the besieged were unarmed, landless farmers living in the Okara district of Pakistan’s Punjab province.
Why is the government afraid of these farmers? Possibly because the Pakistan army claims ownership of the land being farmed, a claim disputed by the tenant farmers who have tilled the land in Okara for generations.
The farmers had planned to hold a peaceful gathering on April 17 to protest for land rights and to mark the International Day of Peasants’ and Farmers’ Struggle. But on the day before, April 16, authorities arrested in his home Mehr Abdul Sattar, the secretary general of Anjuman-i-Mazareen Punjab, the group organizing the meeting. Authorities also invoked a colonial-era law to stop the meeting.
Thousands of men and women protested the arrest of Sattar and other peasant leaders. When some of them hurled stones, security forces carried out baton charges and fired teargas canisters to disperse the protesters. Dozens were arrested under various counterterrorism and public order provisions, and many remain detained at undisclosed locations. Security forces have since cordoned off villages in the area of dispute, preventing people, food, and public services from entering and those inside from leaving.
The Pakistani army is possibly the largest landholder in the country, and the crackdown in Okara is about demonstrating its power. In the past, police and paramilitary forces have killed and tortured farmers who refused to sign contracts that would cede their land rights to the army.
Instead of protecting their rights, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been a willing participant in repressing the downtrodden farmers. This should change, and soon. The Sharif government should stop ceding authority to the military and protect the rights of all citizens. This, need they be reminded, is the government’s role in a functioning democracy.
The Oslo Times/IFEX