The Ethics of Staying
Social Movements and Land Rights Politics in Pakistan
Mubbashir A. Rizvi



Masters, Not Friends

THIS BOOK brings into dialogue two major topics in anthropology and South Asian studies that are rarely studied together in contemporary contexts: subaltern social movements and military-state-society relations. In doing so, it opens up the question of political subjectivity and land relations to provide a novel approach to both. The central focus of this book is on the rise of the peasant land rights organization the Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (the Punjab Tenants Association; AMP), which is made up of a cross section of rural peasantry, including Muslim and Christian tenant farmers, landless farm laborers, and middle peasant families who receive remittance incomes from family members working in the Persian Gulf. The unexpected rise and success of the AMP raises several paradoxical questions about state and society relations in Pakistan: Why is an army that could easily overthrow a parliamentary elected government unable to suppress its own tenant sharecroppers? On what basis are the army’s tenant sharecroppers willing to risk their lives in order to occupy the land that they do not legally own? Following from this, what conception of rights do the tenants invoke to make claims to this land? To address these questions, this book analyzes the rise of the AMP to understand the lineages of land rights and political subjectivity in Central Punjab, which is commonly viewed as the pro-military heartland of Pakistan.

AMP tenant farmers gathered for a meeting. Source: Author photo.

The Ethics of Staying makes three major arguments that explain how the AMP was able to disarm the Pakistan military’s control over this contested farmland by making a moral argument for land rights tied to the material history of infrastructural development. The AMP forged a network of support with urban activists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to organize a contemporary social movement defying military rule. First, I argue that the political agency of tenant farmers is shaped by the spatial politics of this region. The disputed military farms are located in a region that is associated with prosperity and proximity to state power. This region of Central Punjab underwent dramatic transformation through canal colonization at the turn of the twentieth century and transfer of population during partition. A key element of the AMP’s land rights struggle has been shaped by the cultural politics of canal colonization under British colonial rule at the time. By analyzing the politics of infrastructure, the meaning of land rights in contemporary Pakistan is illuminated in a new way.1

With “politics of infrastructure” I refer to the growing literature on the social-cultural impact of modern technologies of communication, transportation, and utilities on integrating spaces by incorporating and differentiating disparate populations within the modern state. In the case of Punjab, the politics of infrastructure lie in the forms of reciprocity established during the massive irrigation and land settlement. The present-day conflict in Okara Military Farms is contextualized by examining the history of state and peasant relations as they were established by canal colonization, irrigation, and land settlement of the Indus Plain. The canal colony project in Punjab and, more broadly, the project of modernization were accommodated, translated, and embedded through symbolic and material exchange. Tenants’ claims to land rights are tied to a politics of recognition that emerges out of the multilayered history of irrigation, territorial formation, and sharecropping in Central Punjab.

The infrastructural modernity of this region of Punjab and the folkloric image of the tenant farmers upended the military’s initial justification to forcibly impose cash contracts for “improvement.” The rise of the AMP is a critical event in the sense that sociologists and anthropologists describe events that rupture the preexisting political understandings about a people and place by offering new insights into overlooked histories, new forms of inquiry into power, and new possibilities to imagine different political horizons. The material and cultural significance of this contested land can be further examined by pairing the literature on infrastructure studies with social movements. This approach broadens the emerging study of infrastructures by combining insights from science and technology studies and subaltern studies to examine the legacy of canal colonization in the articulation of land rights in postcolonial Pakistan.

Infrastructures, unlike social movements, remain invisible during the course of their operation as they meld into the background and become a part of the landscape and routine of administration. As Susan Leigh Star (1999, 382) puts it, the breakdown of systems can become the basis for a more detailed understanding of the relations and procedures rendered invisible by the smooth flow of infrastructure. Roads, trains, and canals form the background of a networked sociality. The simple change in land relations in the military farms had far-reaching consequences and meaning for tenant farmers who understand the changes in land relations as a threat to their livelihood and continued existence as peasant farmers. Hence, the ordinary conceit about the collaborative state-society relations in Punjab was challenged overnight by the mazarin (tenants) who made claims to land rights based on a hundred-year history of suffering, laboring, and settling this land. The AMP saw the military’s moves to change the terms of their contract as social death, which they repeated in the refrain of “Malki ya maut” (ownership or death) during protests, rallies, and public gatherings from the start of the AMP in the summer of 2000. Looking through an infrastructural lens at the social movement shows a more complex account of political agency, which incorporates the role of material history, technology, and administrative practices in shaping the conditions of possibility for the efficacy and visibility of particular mobilizations and their ability to extract concessions.

Building on this history of colonial technology and governance, my second intervention is an analysis of the diverse and creative ways in which the AMP has articulated the language of rights to offset the imposition of the cash contract farm lease system. The tenants demand land rights in relational and ethical terms by invoking customs and obligations based on the hardship of sharecropping and memory of suffering on the land. The AMP differs from many contemporary land rights movements in that its claim is not based on notions of origin or indigeneity. Nor is it based on the model of Movimento Sem Terra in Brazil, which has championed the moral right of landless peasant occupation of unused land from absentee landlords (Wolford 2010). The AMP makes land rights claims based on the ethics of subsistence, as in the right to food, clothing, and shelter that has been the cornerstone of popular politics in South Asia. The AMP was able to challenge the army’s narrative of development by foregrounding a local history of claim by invoking moral claims to livelihood. Recent scholarship on postcolonial government highlights the dialogical relationship between reciprocity and rights, client-patronage relations and postcolonial governmentality, in which the practice of claim making is generative of new understandings and subjects of rights (Moore 2005; Subramanian 2010; Bjorkman 2015). Cultural anthropologists and historians have adopted Michel Foucault’s theories of governmentality and biopolitics to challenge the received ideas of citizenship and political rights by analyzing how these concepts are generated in specific historical contexts, and for specific communities (see Pels 1997; Radcliffe 2001; Hansen and Stepputat 2001).2 Throughout this book I show how the different-positioned tenant farmers in Punjab, including AMP leaders, laborers, sweepers, and landless laborers, have been affected by the land settlement, revenue extraction, and governmental policies.

The third contribution is a grounded analysis of the relationship between the AMP and its translocal partners, specifically NGOs, left-leaning parties, and urban activists. As a grassroots mobilization, the AMP sought and welcomed coalitional links with urban activists and NGOs to gain visibility and spread the narrative of their struggle. The AMP’s success is rooted in local claims to land, but it was also routed through NGOs and urban activists who were able to make tenants’ demands legible through the transnational discourse of a rights-based framework for advocacy that gained new saliency in the post–Cold War era. However, the AMP’s growing connections with civil society also changed the dynamics within the movement. The partnership forged between the AMP and NGOs like Action Aid, Shirkat Gah, and Applied Social Research (ASR) helped the tenant farmers gain national and international press coverage. But the loose, horizontal, almost acephalous nature of the AMP mobilization was altered as NGOs sought out leaders and spokespersons for the movement. The prospect of NGO funds and projects resulted in a growing controversy about the role of money in the movement, and accusations of corruption appeared along traditional lines of religious and/or biradari (patrilineal descent) difference. I analyze the pitfalls and possibilities of grassroots mobilization in contemporary frameworks.

A final concern of this book is to show how the rhetoric of the “war on terror,” which has come to dominate Western perceptions about Pakistan, enables the Pakistani state to use brutal military tactics to suppress popular social movements by labeling them as terrorists. The Pakistan state uses counterterror laws as a cover to arrest tenant farmers on Okara Military Farms and, more generally, political activists, ethnic nationalists, journalists, and civil society activists (Human Rights Watch 2004, 2016). Thus, the state justifies extrajudicial policies as a necessary move to ensure security and development (Rizvi 2018).

Currently, the AMP stands at the crossroads as it weathers a new wave of repression. The fallout from the war on terror created the conditions of possibility for a new state of exception, a new shock doctrine, whereby the Pakistani state was empowered to suspend basic rights of assembly and public protests in the name of security and to arrest activists who were deemed a threat to law and order. The passage of laws like the Pakistan Protection Act and National Action Plan gave extrajudicial and exceptional authority to nonelected institutions like the military and district bureaucrats to target and rein in social movements like the AMP that had made provisional gains and recognition by occupying the disputed farms since 2003. The AMP’s role in the restoration of parliamentary democracy by initiating a chain of grassroots protests in Punjab was quickly forgotten by Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, who reneged on their promises to the tenant farmers by sanctioning severe state repression of the AMP. Thus, the case of the AMP also sheds light on the broader aspects of political agency and rule in South Asia, which cannot be fitted easily into democratic politics or military authoritarianism.

The title of this chapter plays on Friends Not Masters, the title of the autobiography of Pakistan’s first military dictator, General Ayub Khan. In this 1967 work he directly addresses American policy makers, asking them to treat Pakistan as a partner state rather than a client. The book was written at the peak of the Cold War, and it sought to salvage US-Pakistan relations at a time of growing uncertainty. Ayub sought to craft a new narrative by invoking himself as a reliable strongman in Asia and by painting Pakistan as modern Muslim state.3 Reading against the grain, Ayub’s book can also been seen as case study of how Cold War American support for the postcolonial dictatorships skewed the balance of power in favor of the military and military strongmen who grew to dominate and overshadow the elected and civilian officials in the new nation-states (Gardezi and Rashid 1983). The strong links between the undemocratic institutions and imperial pacts have come to preoccupy the postcolonial regime in Pakistan, which sees them as vital components of national security over and above public works and human development. Ayub Khan’s government, which seemed so well entrenched in power that it could abrogate constitutions, shift the national capital from Karachi to Islamabad, dissolve the provincial units, and dictate the terms of elections as it saw fit, lost power in the late 1960s with a groundswell of student protests in East and West Pakistan that organized against the model of military rule.


Pakistan has been continuously struggling over defining a political identity for itself and its citizens since its inception in 1947. The debate over the meaning of Pakistan can set off conflicts over the roles of religion, ethnic identity, linguistic rights, and sectarian differences. These contested meanings of Pakistan speak to what the historian Manu Goswami calls the problem of “methodological nationalism” as “entailing the common practice of presupposing, rather than examining, the global trends within and against which specific national and regional sub-national struggles begin” (Goswami 2009, 4). The failure to understand the spatial dimensions of the Pakistani nation-state has resulted in the narrow framework of viewing Muslim nationalism as a parochial development in British India (read: communal development). This approach fails to analyze the infrastructural and administrative effects of colonial policies, such as permanent land settlement, public works projects, and the territoriality of nationalist politics in the formation of political subjectivities around national, communal/sectarian, and regional identities.4

Pakistan’s official state narrative evades particular regional, and ethnic identities in favor of Muslim universalism, even though the everyday life of Pakistanis is circumscribed by local ethnic, religious, and linguistic identities. Naveeda Khan (2012) provocatively calls this contradiction between Muslim universalism and regional and sectarian particularism as a politics of “Muslim becoming,” or the idea of Pakistan as an aspirational national project rather than an existing one. This contradiction is least visible in Punjab, where the Pakistani state’s nationalist project is most hegemonic. Pakistani nationalism became hegemonic in Punjab in the aftermath of genocidal violence that ripped apart the regional solidarities that shaped a distinct ecumenical Punjabi identity over centuries of coexistence. My approach to the political subjectivity of the AMP takes inspiration from Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the Southern question (see Gramsci 2005). Gramsci takes a historical and cultural approach to studying the numerous ways in which political subjects can be conceived and political projects undertaken in a particular place and time. As Edward Said has observed, Gramsci’s attention to specific details of Southern Italy gives “paramount focus to the territorial, spatial, geographical foundations of social life” (Said 1995, 26).

The AMP struggle highlights the spatial history of power and the different meanings that are attached to Pakistan as a moral community, a political project, and place of belonging in Central Punjab. This moral ecology, or what recent scholarship has termed the “cultural politics of place,” is forged through the history of land relations, customary notions of sovereignty, and development based on the politics of recognition (Ghosh 2006, 503; Foucault 2007, 106).

Central Punjab (home to eighteen commercial farms that form the core membership of the AMP) is admired and feared for its dominant status in the national life of Pakistan. It is known for a dynamic rural economy based on small land holdings and intensive commercial agriculture made possible by a reliable supply of water and a good road-rail infrastructure that connects most villages to market towns. Some cities in this region have enjoyed rapid growth rates as heavy industries relocated there since the 1970s (Ali 2013).5 Punjabi elites, along with Muhajirs (Urdu-speaking immigrants who moved from India to Pakistan), traditionally subscribe to the tenets of Muslim nationalism and the cultural legacy of the Urdu language.6 The hegemony of Pakistan’s nationalism in Punjab is linked to several factors, which include the bloody legacy of partition that forced some fifteen million people to seek sanctuary with their respective coreligionists across a hastily drawn national border. Prior to partition, this region was the site of some of the most ambitious projects of irrigation, town planning, and colonial administration that strengthened the links between rural communities and the colonial paternalist state and heaviest levels of military recruitment in the British Empire (Gilmartin 2015). Thus, Punjab has been at the center of military and bureaucratic recruitment since the mid-nineteenth century.

Pakistan’s underprivileged regions—rural Sindh and Balochistan, southwestern Punjab, East Pakistan (up until 1971)—routinely single out Punjab (or the Punjabi establishment) as the prime beneficiary of centralized authoritarian rule, so much so that the Muhajir community from North India, which is widely perceived as the vanguard of Pakistani nationalism, has moved away from state nationalism to ethnic-nationalist Muhajir politics since the 1980s owing to a sense of marginalization from the Punjab-dominated state administration at the center (Alavi 1989).7 The ethnic-nationalist regional parties like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, representing Muhajirs, the Awami National Party Pakhtuns, and the Sindh National Front (Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz), see Punjab as the dominant center of power that benefits from a network of farms, factories, and landholdings that consume the biggest share of national resources (Verkaaik 2004).8 The Pakistani state (or, more specifically, its executive military and bureaucratic branches in Islamabad) dismisses the critique of uneven development and Punjab’s dominance as antinational propaganda or feudal paranoia that gets in the way of national development.

The rise of the AMP ruptured the monolithic image of Punjab and brought attention to the subaltern class politics in rural Punjab. The AMP’s slogans, such as “Ownership or death” and “Whoever sows the land shall reap the harvest,” highlighted a class politics of land rights that cuts across rural and regional divides. These sentiments are captured by Zafar Ali, one of the AMP’s leaders, who said the following when I asked him what drives the tenants to mobilize: “For us, Pakistan was never created; we are still living the same way as our ancestors did under the British. We never achieved any independence. We have been living under slavery [ghulami] instead. . . . Are we outsiders? They [the military, the courts, the bureaucracy] treat us this way? After all, we are Pakistanis too” (interview by the author, April 12, 2007). Zafar’s ambivalent feelings about Pakistan are marked by estrangement and desire. His statement questions the very existence of Pakistan, while at the same time he expresses a wish for such recognition (or perhaps desire for such an idea of Pakistan based on inclusion, better economic social justice, or land rights). Here the idea of nation (Pakistanis) is posed against the state (Pakistan).

Furthermore, my interlocutors in the AMP movement admitted that their close attachments to Pakistani military became frailer as the state shifted away from what they once considered a paternalist institution (ma-bap—or benevolent protector, as some put it) to a compromised state that is a facilitator for international corporations like Nestlé (which is a new major player as a buyer of milk and bottled water in the region) and American policies. Murad, a dedicated village-level leader in the AMP who spent three months in jail in 2004 for participating in the tenants’ movement, expressed his growing disillusionment with Pakistan as a nation and state in a conversation when he engaged me about my research.

Murad inquired about my research and reacted strongly when I stated that I was interested in the changing relationship between the tenant farmers and the Pakistani state. He replied, “I think there is no such thing as Pakistan. There are no Muslims; everyone is Muslim in name only. No Musalmani way. I always see these rich people—they always say don’t give anything to the poor or help the poor people. A Muslim is one who is sensitive [ehsas] to everyone else’s pain.” I replied by stating that on average, Pakistanis show higher rates of philanthropy. Murad countered that he was talking about the government and gave the following example: “In olden days kings would think about the poor, that these people are poor—don’t bother them; help them. These police officers—what do they do? I was just in the jail, and all the jail officers used to ask the prisoners who didn’t get any visitors, ‘Why didn’t someone [relatives] come to visit you and give us some money? If they give us some, then you can make your life easy for yourselves and get out of here.’ What do we call this government?” (interview by the author, April 15, 2007, Okara Military Farms).

Murad’s remarks were echoed by the AMP leaders and ordinary tenant farmers who voiced growing concern about the unsustainable cost of living, the decreasing returns from agriculture, and the “jarnails” greed for the land. The tenants’ comments illustrate something different from what Benedict Anderson defines as an “imaginary community living in empty homogenous time” (Anderson 1991, 26). Instead, here we see diverse ideas of nation, community, and even temporality signified by “Pakistan.” Zafar’s and Murad’s comments highlight a subaltern critique of land monetization that cuts across different regimes of power. The tenants make claims on this land by invoking a century-old history of suffering, and toiling under sharecropping rules that impoverished them yet guaranteed minimum subsistence.

The tenants’ ability to carry out militant protests against state authorities was made possible by a cultural politics of place, in which the visibility of these farms, the tenants’ subjectivity, and their historically close association prevented the state from convincingly branding the tenant farmers as a seditious or terrorist group at the start of the movement. The tenants’ status as peasant sharecroppers and not owners also placed them in vulnerable position vis-à-vis the state. The rise of the AMP highlights the sociospatial politics of power that illustrate how the postcolonial state constitutes itself as it constitutes its population. The preexisting norms about land are indispensable tools for understanding how the tenants’ political agency is tied to sovereignty and governmentality based on land relations. This genealogical method allows me to pry apart the homology of nation-state to understand the historic conjuncture of land rights and political subjectivity in Central Punjab versus other regions of Pakistan and more broadly in South Asia, where land relations are embedded in different configurations of power. As I show in Chapter 3, the historical proximity between these abadkar (tenant settlers) and the state in Punjab upends the military’s unilateral plans to change land relations in the military farms. The military struggles to justify its use of overwhelming force against this population.

The schematic formulation of the “subaltern” or “peasant” as an idealized non-Westernized subject has resulted in a univocal—or what Eric Wolf might have called the “billiard ball”—model of subalternity, where the “subaltern(s)” take on “the qualities of internally homogeneous and externally distinctive bounded objects” (Wolf 1982, 4). Wolf critiqued the role of historians and anthropologists in creating a binary “model of the world as a global pool hall in which the entities spin off each other like so many hard and round billiard balls” (5). For instance, a “billiard ball” model of subalternity works through oppositional binaries of margin versus center, hegemony versus domination, custom versus contract, tradition versus modernity, and religion versus secularism, in which the imperial colonial stick is always hitting the colonized in its direction. This form of theorization veers away from Antonio Gramsci’s and Ranajit Guha’s original formulation of subalternity as a range of hybrid, contradictory, regional, messy, fragmentary, and mimetic exchanges that cut across the lines of consent and compulsion (Crehan 2002).

The early subaltern studies school of Indian historiography attributed a great degree of autonomy to the subaltern who lived outside of the hegemonic structures and/or disciplinary institutions of colonial rule, whereas the early nationalist elite occupied a liminal gray zone between tradition and modernity, which were both framed by the power/knowledge effects of Orientalism (van der Veer and Lehmann 1999).9 However, these configurations of center, middle, and periphery work through concentrated models of power that exclude the interweaving connections between different forms of labor, capital, and territory. The rural countryside in South Asia has been connected to global trade and disciplinary mechanisms of land revenue fiscalism for as long as there have been colonial cities (Marx and Engels 1967, 135). The rural is integrated into the modern state formation through the imposition of a private property regime, forestry policies, and primitive forms of accumulation starting from the first Permanent Settlement of Bengal in 1793.

In a close reading of racialized dispossession in Zimbabwe, Donald Moore contrasts the ontological framing of subalternity as a consciousness, with Gramsci’s original formulation as a contingent and crosscutting historical condition (Moore 1998, 352). Subaltern existence is not defined by its marginality (which presupposes center and periphery boundaries) but rather its conjunctural condition, a threshold or a meeting point of multiple histories, spatialities, temporalities, and subjectivities.10 Subalternity is internally differentiated with its own received notions of rights and sovereignty; it is the outer limits of modern governmental power, the locus where state power becomes capillary, where other moral and material attributes of life enter politics and alter it (Foucault 2003, 27). The subaltern and the nationalist elite are co-constitutive of the biopolitical process of modern state formation that asserts control over security, population, and territory under the homogenizing and differentiating rubric of sovereign rule (Agamben 1998). Thus, in this book I challenge the ontological premise of subalternity by giving a historical, regional, and anthropological description of the ways in which the rural geography of Central Punjab, including its physical features, were coproduced by governmental technologies of irrigation and land settlement.

Land is the silent hyphen that connects nations to state, as the geographer Matthew Sparke (2005, 170) has noted. A systematic historical and geographic discussion of territory is missing in theories of nationalism and globalization, which often draw on the evolutionary models of territoriality to justify their sovereign power. These ideational tropes of rural South Asia often leave out the preexisting global connections that defined agrarian and pastoral relations in different regions of South Asia (Gidwani 2004). Donald Moore’s (2005) political ethnography on racial dispossession in Zimbabwe, Ajantha Subramanian’s (2010) ethnography of Fisher communities in South India, and Tania Li’s (2014) ethnographic mapping of frontier spaces of capital have all explored this question of territoriality through the lens of governmentality. These scholars focus on the entanglement between emerging forces of capitalism and prior histories, beliefs, and environments in generating new understandings of space, rights, and market and the collective “governmentalization” of society.

The anthropological scholarship on sovereignty and governmentality has greatly extended Phillip Abrams’s call to scholars to challenge the “misplaced concreteness” and “isolated representation” of the state to examine its historical sociocultural production and its “politically organized subjection” (Corrigan and Sayer 1985, 3; see also Abrams 1988).11 I provide historical and ethnographic accounts of the ways in which the Pakistani state is experienced, acted on, and imagined in everyday life in the semirural locality of the Okara district. As I show in Chapters 3 and 4, the application of land allotment policies varied greatly through the two centuries of colonial era, which continues to affect the mode of governance between the state and specific population groups in contemporary times. There is nothing natural about Punjab being the conservative heartland, Sindh being identified as feudal, or Balochistan being identified with tribalism. These cultural slots have a history tied to the existing relationship between sovereignty and rights, which has to be analyzed rather than be taken as a given.

Antonio Gramsci’s and Michel Foucault’s respective formulations of power have undermined the monolithic notion of the state as an entity that is “outside” or “above” society. Instead, their theories enable me to analyze the ways in which the state becomes visible during specific struggles over natural resources, like the farmland at Okara Military Farms. Looking at the state through the prism of the disputed military farms shows how relations between subjects, community, and nation are not consecutive, as they are conceived in theories of nationalism. State formation when localized and limited to historical contexts give us an idea of how “‘projects of change’ have emerged over specific struggles over resources, entitlement and political control in the making of localities” (Stepputat 2001, 286). For Foucault, the state is not a “thing” in itself but an accumulated effect of a wider range of disciplinary practices, and dispersed powers of classification, regulation, and punishment (Foucault 1977, 2003, 2007).

Postcolonial theory has focused on the representational and ideological frame of British colonialism in South Asia and relatively less so on the infrastructural legacies of colonial rule and their material entanglements in the production of territory and subjects in South Asia. There is comparatively little theoretical reflection given to the equivalence drawn between qualitatively different types of land relations in South Asia with Liberal ideas of private property. Henri Lefebvre (1991) refers to this transformation as the production of space that changes the use value of land into an abstract exchange value, through the standardization of the property regime.12 This form of simplification is similar to James Scott’s (1998) reading of revenue modernization schemes, but Lefebvre argues that the local is never fully emptied out of its particular distinction. As the geographer Majed Akhter (2015) has argued, the homogenizing effects of infrastructure projects are interrupted and differentiated by the encounter with environmental variables and clashes with preexisting political, economic, and historical contexts. In the next section, I describe some of the historical and regional modalities that have shaped land relations and the lineage of sovereignty in Pakistan.


The transition from precolonial sovereignty as embodied by the Mughal kingship (and its successor states) to the East India Company’s rule represents an epochal shift in the constitution of governance in South Asia and the transition of global trade from the Indian Ocean and Silk Road to the North Atlantic world system. Between 1757 and 1849 (the annexation of Punjab), the East India Company spread its territorial authority from its eastern and southern ports of entry in Bengal and Madras to the northwestern regions of the subcontinent that constitute Pakistan today. The ebb and flow of mercantile trade hardened into the territorial administration of land, monopoly control trade, and population during the century leading to Punjab’s annexation. The process of territorialization and subject formation varied greatly in different regions of South Asia that came under British colonial rule over the course of two centuries.13 I offer a brief survey of precolonial sovereignty to highlight the significance of spatial politics in shaping differential lineage of land rights as they are articulated by social movements like the AMP.

Precolonial territorial polities of the Mughals and successor native sovereign rulers were not invested with the idea of linking territory with a particular notion of “the people” or in regulating the movement of populations; rather, these polities were grounded in different understandings of sovereignty, which was based on the idea of the moral community as vested in the sacred authority of kingship, associated with the Mughal court and the successor states and embodied in its patronage and protection of shrines of saints, monuments, temples, and symbolism that conveyed its transcendental authority (Moin 2012). As Atul Mishra succinctly argues:

Pre-colonial polities were not organized along strictly defined borders—a neat separation of the “inside” from the “outside,” delineating the state’s legal personae from aliens. They did not exhibit the hard edges of modern states. Moral sovereignty of communities preceded territorial exclusiveness. (Mishra 2007)

The political geography of precolonial South Asia was characterized by flexible and decentralized polities that could accommodate the heterotopia of overlapping religious, linguistic, and regional differences. These polities were not egalitarian, yet they did not seek to control the population and territory as extensively and exclusively as the East India Company, the British colonial state. The precolonial revenue administration did not view land as a private alienable resource, but rather saw land relations in the moral terms of revenue built into a customary system of rights based on patronage and obligations. The Mughal revenue system made extensive use of paper documentation and bureaucracy, but the revenue collection was collaborative and less centralized in its executive decision making (Chatterjee 1993; Bellenoit 2017). For instance, the revenue assessment could be subject to negotiation because of changes in monsoon rains, or local testimony was used to check written records, or preexisting debt and default were negotiated with an eye to preserving the moral order (tahzeeb). In addition to farming, there was wide acceptance of itinerant and less-hierarchical nomadic livelihoods involving livestock, craft manufacturing, seasonal labor, and trade that made South Asia conducive to long-distance trade for centuries. The extensive network of merchants and pilgrims and the itinerant spiritual wanderings of Qalandars, fakirs, and yogis all characterized a landscape of extensive movement (Markovits, Pouchepadass, and Subrahmanyam 2006; Bhattacharya 2006). This form of nomadic circulation of ideas and goods was criminalized by the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act.

The East India Company heralded a new sovereign form that was unlike any that had existed before in South Asia. As a British joint stock company, its primary goal was to ensure regular dividends for its investors and maintain monopoly over Bengal’s export commodities, which included textiles, indigo, saltpeter, and lucrative spices. The East India Company’s move to territorial rule was largely driven by the prospects of greater surplus generated from land revenue to pay for its expansion on the subcontinent and throughout the world. To ensure these profits, the East India Company maximized its revenue demands by instituting an inflexible private property regime. The company came to depend on this revenue stream to pay for its expanding war debts. The British crown used its share of company revenue to fund its warfare across the globe, thus creating a tradition of military fiscalism as the primary end of tax revenue (Travers 2007).

The British adapted Mughal administrative records and nomenclature (from record manuals like Abul Fazl’s detailed document recording the administration of Mughal emperor Ain-e Akbari [(1591) 1894]) to institute a private property regime and claim sovereign power of taxation. Thus, as Bernard Cohn (1996) has argued in a series of essays, the British colonial government consolidated its rule over Indian society by exerting its authority to enumerate and codify Indians to demand a greater share of land revenue. Hayden Bellenoit, a historian of the colonial administration, has noted the revenue demands by the East India Company went up somewhere between 143 percent to 325 percent over span of a decade between 1808 and 1818 (Bellenoit 2017, 97). The Permanent Settlement of Bengal initiated the private property regime in South Asia by conferring exclusive land ownership rights to its elite allies, the zamindars, who were charged with collecting revenue from the peasantry at very high rates.

A simple stroke of the pen transformed the fortunes of millions of cultivators; some became landlords and overlords, while most peasants saw their customary rights to land, grazing, seasonal foraging, and water compromised (Smith 1985; Gilmartin 2015). The new system of private property disembedded economic relations from customary rights by stripping away the shared distribution of risks, liabilities, and surplus from land and replacing them with exclusive rights to land conferred to a new class of private landowners, the zamindars, whose property rights were protected and regulated by the state via a permanent standing army (Bagchi 1982; Smith 1985; Gilmartin 2015). Having established itself as the guarantor of “property,” the colonial state falsely assumed sovereign claim over “public” land by labeling uncultivated lands as waste, thus taking over forests and scrublands inhabited by pastoralists, foragers, and seasonal farming communities (Locke 2003; Gidwani 2008).14 East India Company’s jurists and scholars like Henry Sumner Maine justified its rapid colonization as a necessary means to rationalize land relations by shifting from “status to contract” (1861, 170).15

The land settlement reports, revenue records, and cartographic maps created their own morphology of districts and villages in the Indus Plain, where only scant homesteads existed prior to irrigation projects. District-level manuals were written for civil service administrators in such a way as to turn incidents and accidents of history into teleology, and these manuals of custom classified different groups of natives into categories, whether they fit or not (Craib 2004). The success of the East India Company became increasingly linked to its ability to extract revenue by reaching deeper into the essence of the village republic, the elementary unit of Indian sociality, and to transform the agrarian economy by effecting change at the village level while retaining customary institutions to preserve order.16

By the late nineteenth century, South Asia was visualized as a distinct entity, the cartographic “geo-body” of India, that could be governed by paper (Winichakul 1994). Slowly the idea of an abstract and timeless “village republic” came to stand for “authentic” India that corresponded with the Orientalist obsession with civilizational origin.17 The philological projects of translation and commentary on ancient texts were invoked to produce a uniform type of civilizational history confirming British redemption of a great ancient tradition that was burdened by despotic (read: Muslim) rule.

The Orientalist scholarship was mined to come up with a system of land relations that was open to marketing fiscal commercialization but largely governed through customary dictates and obligations determined via religious and ethnic differences that were further differentiated by caste. The notion of the eternal village republic became all the more significant after control over British India passed from the East India Company to the British crown in 1857. Outside India, the concept of the village republic has had a profound impact on Western notions of Asian and Indian society, as theorized by Maine (1861), who influenced twentieth-century political scientists, anthropologists, and economists. As Karuna Mantena (2010) has argued, the ahistorical notion of village republics offered an unchanging, functionalist understanding of Asian peasant life. The official policy of preservation and nonintervention actually put in place institutions, practices, and economic relations that were taken as representative of rural India, which in fact had evolved in line or in collaboration with the military fiscalism of the East India Company.

The question of property was central in structuring the relationship between the colonial state and the public. English bureaucrats and economists like Baden-Powell expressed great confusion about the complex range of land relations in India throughout the nineteenth century (Gilmartin 2015). However, the company enforced a rule for property to establish an administrative footing to extract maximum land revenue. It recognized that British notions of private property did not correspond to land relations in India, where land use rights were not necessarily tied to individual ownership. The zamindari tenure system of Bengal was heavily criticized by the East India Company for failing to secure sufficient funds for the company military rule even as it accelerated bankruptcies, famines, and economic misery in Bengal, Bihar, and the Eastern Upper Provinces (later renamed Uttar Pradesh) countryside.18 However, the zamindari system had a lasting impact in Bengal in shaping the sociocultural and political dynamics of state-society relations and the urban-rural divide in Bengal, where the predominantly Muslim peasantry in eastern Bengal did not fully embrace the nationalist rhetoric of two major Indian nationalist parties (the Indian National Congress, or Congress Party, and the Muslim League), because both were heavily represented by landed gentry, urban salariat, or bhadrolok (salariat).19

Punjab, in contrast to Bengal, was not colonized by the British for another hundred years. The assessment of land revenue proved to be difficult in Central Punjab (the site of the disputed military farms), because it was a pastoral frontier, the North-West Frontier. As a frontier space, Punjab came to be seen as a site of experimentation and boundary making. Precolonial Central Punjab and Sindh were characterized by extensive nomadic trade with scant agriculture in the riverine areas. Much of the sedentary population in this region lived along ancient cities that ring around the five rivers, but the vast plains were sparsely inhabited. The precolonial regional states collected a grazing tax, known as tirni, but the colonial estate was more invested in selecting a reliable population of peasant settlers for this region to close this nomadic frontier. The openness of this region to Central Asia made it susceptible to the possibility of Afghan and/or Russian expansion. It needed to be enclosed with a settled loyal population, but the prevailing land administration systems proved to be untenable in such a sparsely populated and mostly nomadic region.20 The colonial state introduced the Mahalwari system of revenue in this region, which transferred the responsibility of revenue collection to the representative group. Thus, the colonial state designed Central Punjab according to its own image of a productive modern Indian village, which was to be regulated by the colony manual and settled by a select group of peasants.

The construction of a large network of canals, based on perennial irrigation, transformed the arid plains of Central Punjab into one of the largest centers for commercial agriculture in South Asia. The military figured prominently in the transformation, as both a beneficiary and a benefactor of canal colonization and land allotment. Between 1885 and 1947, the canal-irrigated area in Punjab increased from less than three million acres to around fourteen million acres (Ali 1988, 9–10). The political rationale for the development of canal colonies involved the forcible settlement of nomadic communities into year-round cultivators (Paustian 1930, 27). After the administrative takeover by the British Raj from the East India Company, the logic for canal colonies evolved into a broader project of cultivating new habits, new property arrangements, and new labor relations to create a more “benevolent” and paternalist form of colonial governance. The canal colonies represented a new social and legal space through which novel forms of private property were implemented and other claims to space were reduced. However, as I show in Chapter 3, these new arrangements were reworked by preexisting customs and ethical beliefs that the colonial, and now the postcolonial, state had to contend with.

Unlike most irrigation projects in British India, the canal colonies were established in a dry, sparsely populated region of Central Punjab. The irrigation and settlement of this vast agrarian space brought into being a new hydraulic society where the state controlled the source of agriculture: canal water. The colonial state had complete power over the manner in which the land was disposed, the kind of person (dependent on caste, religion, and loyalties) who was allowed to settle in the area, to whom the land was to be allotted, and the type of tenure rights that would prevail (Ali 1988, 63; Darling 1925; Fox 1985; Gilmartin 1994; Paustian 1930). The creation of canal colonies required massive in-migration of peasants and the forced settlement—and criminalization—of formerly pastoral communities (Arnold 1986; Major 1999).

The Okara district was one of seven large colonies that were shaped out of the canalization project. It was allocated over 1,192,000 acres, the largest distribution of land in this period in colonial India (Ali 1988). As I show in greater detail in Chapter 3, land grants were offered to select groups as an incentive to recruit peasants into enlisting in the British Indian Army. The increasing share of land allocations to the military reflected a major shift in the post-1858 British Raj policy of recruiting soldiers from the newly annexed territories of Punjab and the North-West Frontier province. This militarization of Punjabi society was also encouraged by British colonial ethnographic representations of Punjabis as a martial race (Fox 1985). The political-economic legacy of militarization and its overdevelopment as an institution in the region that is now Pakistan started with the conscription of Punjabis in the British Indian Army. The Cold War and most recently counterterror funding has led to the concentration of commercial and industrial interests in the hands of the military establishment. The Pakistani military has used its extensive land holdings to carve out a position in the public and private sectors, in industry, business, agriculture, education, scientific development, health care, communication, travel, communication, and transportation (Rizvi 2000, 233).

The settlement of the Indus Plain in Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the late nineteenth century resulted in closure and settlement of the North-West Frontier, or what is today’s Punjab. The closure and settlement had two major effects in this region. The most immediate effect was that the mobile livelihood of itinerant peasants, nomads, traders, and hunter-gatherers was seen as a vestige of a primitive way of life that was slowly being criminalized. However, a more indirect and profound cultural impact of territorialization in South Asia was the expulsion of Muslims and Christians as indigenous claimants to Indian civilization, whereas the Hindu (or Brahmanic Arya, to be more specific) and Sikh populations were taken to be indigenous by both the colonial state and the Indian nationalist elite.21 David Ludden (2003) expresses this point when he writes about the cultural fallout of nationalist historiography that naturalized cultural borders and raised doubts about the claims of Muslims, Christians, and other peripatetic communities.22


Punjab did not become a hotbed of Indian or Muslim nationalism, despite the outsized role it would play in postcolonial Pakistan. The All India Muslim League had little or no organization presence in Punjab before the mid-1940s, and the Indian National Congress was unable to break the hold of the Unionist League, which consisted of prominent Muslim, Sikh, and Hindu landlords and gentry who were sympathetic to British Raj and ambivalent about nationalism (Talbot 1998). The Congress Party and Muslim League were also not very popular in rural East Bengal, where a mass farmer-peasant political party, the Krishak Praja Party (KPP), had come to power. The KPP made an alliance with the Muslim League in exchange for the promise of land reforms for Bengal’s predominant Muslim peasants (Bose 2014). The veteran Bengali politician Fazlul Haq presented the Lahore Resolution calling for Indian Muslim nation-state(s). The resolution pieced together disparate interests of Muslims in South Asia ranging from the salaried professional classes (especially in UP and Bihar) to the wealthy landed groups in Sindh Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with appeal to the princely states.

Early forms of anticolonial nationalism in South Asia first emerged among English educated-elite circles. The late Pakistani sociologist Hamza Alavi (1998) refers to this class as the salariat, or individuals who worked in the colonial state bureaucracy, such as revenue clerks, lawyers, teachers, and administrators. The members of the salariat accepted the ideological and spatial presuppositions of Liberalism even as they challenged the colonial state’s use of historical and cultural reasons to exclude them from self-rule and appropriate the surplus generated by British India. The nationalist elite popularized a homogenous image of India as Mother Goddess, a female deity that had been violated by a history of conquest. The cultural and physical homogenization of the national geo-body through the creation of physical borders (boundaries, checkpoints, the Durrand Line, etc.) and images (Bharat Mata, the national personification of India as the Mother Goddess) also differentiated and marginalized minorities and social groups especially for religious, cultural, and linguistic reasons, who were either ignored or, worse, represented as the reason for national weakness or impediments to national unity.

Muslim nationalism was doubly derivative insofar as it emerged from a subsection of a larger Indian nationalist movement but could not become one with it. The idea of a separate Muslim state was unimaginable for Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding figure of Pakistan, and most Muslim League leaders until the late 1930s, but it captured the imagination of Indian Muslims by the 1940s. The certainty of British departure after World War II created a competitive atmosphere and uncertainty among Indian elites and political parties, including communists, Hindu nationalists, the Indian National Congress, the Muslim League, and princely states, about the absolute dominance of the Congress Party. “Pakistan” emerged as a floating signifier in the late colonial period that meant different things to different people. Jinnah initially rejected the term as a concoction of the “Hindu press” (Jalal 1995; Chatterji 2018), but it came to capture the imagination and different ideals among a cross section of South Asian Muslims. The call for a Muslim nation represented land reforms to Bengali Muslim peasants, sovereign citizenship to Muslim minority League supporters in UP, regional provincial autonomy to state administrators in Sindh, and the assertion of a Muslim majority in Punjab. Ayesha Jalal (1995), David Gilmartin (1988), and Ian Talbot (1998) have argued that the Pakistan movement articulated vague and at times contradictory messages about its objectives or ideology, but it was brought together under shared concern about representation and fear of marginalization. The failure of British colonial administration, the All India Muslim League, and the Indian National Congress to come to a power-sharing agreement resulted in the bloody partition.

The Pakistan movement promised provincial regional autonomy to Muslim majority provinces like Punjab and Sindh, and it offered sovereign protection to Muslim minorities in Bihar, UP, and Tamil Nadu, who feared becoming a permanent minority. The Muslim League promised to respect the sovereign autonomy of princely states and create a joint defense, foreign policy, and market relations with them. These proposals were seen as a measure of securing national recognition in a federated system where Pakistan and Hindustan could share power in a federal government of India rather than a unitary centralized government. This vision of a looser center and shared governance was accepted by the Muslim League in the Cabinet Mission Plan in 1946, and rejected by the Indian National Congress. The Congress sought to establish firm authority over the central government to undertake major reform and development policies. The rejection of the Cabinet Mission Plan power sharing resulted in growing distrust and intensified calls for partition among the supporters of the Muslim League, who rallied around populist slogans like “Islam is in danger.”

The end of British imperial rule was ushered in by mass civil-disobedience protests but negotiated at round-table conferences, with elite men who had been recognized as the emissaries and ambassadors of ethnic, religious, and caste groups, and many multitudes numbering more than the total population of the UK. These men were tasked with deciding the fate of millions who didn’t have much say in their own destiny, or in many cases the right to simply exist in the house of their birth, and their town and village. This was the culmination of the two hundred years of colonial rule and modernization programs that ripped apart communities that had coexisted for hundreds of years and resulted in one of the most violent forced migrations in modern history (Pandey 2001; Talbot and Thandi 2004). The violence that was unleashed at partition was most severely experienced in Central Punjab, especially in canal colonies, because these regions had been most recently settled by the colonial state and were home to some of the largest number of retired soldiers. The land allotments in this region had been made on the basis of their affiliation with a specific community (biradari), military service, and reputation of industry. The colonial frontier had been designed along the lines of the ethnological science of colonial state.

This suppression in the Okara Military Farms has rekindled memory of partition among older tenant farmers, especially those who made their way to these farms after escaping the violence in Jullunder, Amritsar, and Gurdaspur. The partition was a constant reference in my interviews with tenant farmers, who invoked its legacy, the sacrifice of ancestors, and the aspirations for Pakistan as refuge. The imposition of cash contract farming, the possibility of eviction, and state repression has shaken up the tenants’ identification with the state. Instead, many tenants see the state question the very premise of Pakistan for the poor and the landless. Busra Bibi, an elder of the AMP, wistfully concluded an interview with me in 2014 by stating, “We are human beings just like the military officers. We want the same things: for children to go to school, get an education, to get married, and be happy. We never imagined that our asking for our right to bread [roti], our demand to have a little parcel of land so we can feed our families, will make us into ‘terrorists.’ It’s up to them to let us live or not; we only ask for this land to make a living. How did that become a crime?”


The research for this book started with a preliminary trip in 2004 and was supplemented by extensive fieldwork between 2007 and 2008 and then with brief follow-up trips in 2012 and 2014. It has been a complex task to keep an eye on the moving parts of a social movement in the ever-changing political climate of Pakistan. Since 2000, Pakistan’s political landscape has shifted many times. The neoliberal dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf was overtaken by a broader movement against military rule (partly inspired by the AMP); the restoration of democratic parliamentary rule was overshadowed by the rise of militant attacks; the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, who was leading the opposition to General Musharraf when she was killed in December 2007; and the feeble rule of two elected governments, which, since 2008, have been beset by violence and increasing fallout from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have exacerbated ethnic and sectarian hostilities. During this period, the AMP evolved from a militant grassroots peasant mobilization in Okara Military Farms to a Punjab-wide movement spreading to other military-related farming estates between 2005 and 2007, when the AMP achieved provisional success in occupying the farms. The police and the paramilitary forces withdrew from those farms after growing public pressure and negative headlines in both national and prominent international press. The period saw a consolidation of the AMP leadership, but it also was the time when the movement split along the questions of tactics and leadership.

The bulk of my fieldwork research occurred during 2007–2008, when there was an uneasy détente between the AMP and the state authorities. The mobilization had plateaued, and there were few signs of active mobilization in the villages. The tenant farmers were in control of their land, and the military personnel were on guard at the nearby military cantonment, storage areas, and their other sites of operation. It was possible for a journalist or a visitor to spend time in these villages without knowing they had been the heart of a radical mobilization only two or four years before. The chaks (villages) prospered greatly during this time, as more and more tenants turned to more-intense cultivation by digging new tube wells, investing in tractors, and even renting land from other tenants. The collective ethos of the movement was less visible as the tenants started selling their produce in nearby markets for great profit. This turn of events was distressing for many key participants in the movement, especially women leaders, who played a major role in the movement but were not included in much of the leadership meetings.

I established contact with AMP leaders through student activists and political parties who were working closely with the movement to spread the word about the protests to NGOs and reluctant cable channels and new media. Much of my initial fieldwork involved interviewing AMP leaders, participating in political rallies, preparing materials for rallies, and traveling with AMP leaders to various meetings and villages to spread the word about the movement. It was a moment of immense activity in the villages, as the tenants had just gained de facto control of their land after the military personal and the Rangers paramilitary forces were withdrawn from the farms. The initial successes of the AMP mobilization created generated great optimism among leftists, students, and other progressives, who sensed that the AMP’s de facto victories might galvanize a wider movement for land reform and bring issues of class and livelihood back into the mainstream.

How does one assess a social movement as an ethnographic object? This question followed me into the field. I wanted to take what I thought would be a critical stance toward the AMP while remaining in solidarity with the movement. My interest in the movement was motivated by my affinity toward a shared goal for greater redistributive, democratic, and grassroots politics, which seemed so rare in Pakistan. The AMP base is made up of peasant farmers who themselves belong to different patrilineal groups (biradaris) and religions. The tenants also have a wide range of difference in their personal stakes in the land (some have twenty-five acres; others are landless), their genders, and the generation they belong to. They come together around a shared sense of history, a shared identity. The significance of the AMP does not lie in the number of people it mobilizes or its concrete achievements; instead, the central force of this social movement is ontological: it ushers in a way of seeing and relating to the world that make long-standing injustices suddenly become insufferable and intolerable. In the AMP’s radical slogans and actions we see a clash against long-held assumptions about spatial power in Pakistan, where the army takes Central Punjab as its base of support and patronage. In this sense, the study of the AMP not only reveals injustices carried out by the Pakistani military as landlord but also illuminates the historicity of power in practices and meanings of rights tied to territory and subjects.

Chapter 1 gives an ethnographic sketch of the AMP and tenants’ testimony about life under battai and the spontaneous beginnings of the AMP mobilizations. Ethnographic scenes focus on the variegated meanings of land for the tenant farmers as a source of subsistence, a place of belonging, and relative freedom. I focus on the political agency displayed by the tenant farmers to resist the Pakistan army in retaining control of the land.

In Chapter 2, I turn to the material history of canal irrigation and the infrastructure of roads and railways in Punjab to understand the conditions of possibility that gave rise to the AMP. I develop the classic theory of gift exchange to analyze the personalized relationship forged between peasant settlers and the colonial state through canals and large and ostensibly impersonal infrastructure projects. The AMP’s land rights claim to the farms is also tied to the expectations of state paternalism, through which Punjab’s large infrastructure projects unleashed intensely personal relationships between people and institutions through public works projects.

In Chapter 3, on land relations, rights, and property, I build on my historical and ethnographic survey of the environmental transformation of the Indus Plain to examine the afterlife of colonial rule in the military farms in Pakistan. I look at what the Punjab tenants’ struggle illustrates about the formation of land rights and how land relations figure in conjuring ideas about community, ecology, and national belonging.

In Chapter 4, I focus on the affective, performative, and pedagogic acts of resistance employed by AMP farmers to make these moral claims, and how these became widespread. The farmers’ defiance of the Pakistan army’s unilateral decision to change the sharecropping system quickly became a full-fledged movement. As one tenant farmer observed, before this event no one dared to talk back to farm managers, but chants like “Ownership or death” and “Whoever sows the seed shall reap the harvest” became common refrains repeated by young and old. The expressions coined by the AMP, the tenants’ testimonies, and poetry provided a moral prism through which to reevaluate the relationships between property and propriety, servitude and freedom, state and society. The AMP’s understanding of land rights is not exclusively about individual possession, but also about common rights that are conceived as moral entitlements. The tenants conceive of land as a question of belonging in terms of a continuity of self through the century of working these lands. Tenants claim rights by invoking dense histories of struggle and the debt owed to them by the state.

In Chapter 5, I sketch out the historical-political vocabulary of protest in these villages, while also paying attention to the translocal links forged between the AMP and civil society actors as represented by various NGOs, urban activists, and left-based political parties. In seeking to examine these relations, my aim is to pursue answers to the following questions: What is entailed in translating local livelihood struggles over land into a coherent sociopolitical movement? On what basis did the tenants forge alliances with NGOs and political parties, and how did the farmers grapple with the influx of civil society actors in their villages and in their struggle? To what extent did the political vision of the tenants differ from the one represented in the pamphlets, brochures, and literature produced by the movement as it was funded by NGOs and leftist parties? What were the promises and pitfalls of such alliances?

Sherry Ortner questions a pattern of “ethnographic refusal” in the anthropological literature on resistance movements (1995, 175). Ortner points to the wide gulf between how social movements are depicted and the actual formation, factions, and internal differences that pervade them. Certainly, some level of ethnographic refusal is strategic, as it might be required to sustain the symbolic unity of a peasant political movement in the face of real differences, but this tension offers a challenge to anthropologists’ and activists’ sensibilities of what qualifies as politics. To what extent can activists, or scholars, efface real differences and tensions “for the sake of the movement”? Protest movements might be rooted in local memories, injuries, aspirations, and struggles, but also they are routed through a transnational discourse of rights and NGO networks that affect the ways in which local demands are represented and made legible to the state, the military, and international civil society. The manifestation of subaltern politics in rural Pakistan, I argue, is a product of colonial land settlement and ongoing processes of dispossession and is shaped by a particular notion of rights connected to a history of settlement and tenant sharecropping, which itself is inflected by notions of caste and territory. A close examination of the AMP illustrates the historicity of power relations in Pakistan and shows us the conditions of possibility when a subaltern movement can challenge a formidable state institution like the army.


1. The AMP protests challenged the conservative image of central Punjab, the folkloric heartland of Pakistani nationalism, by foregrounding the history of canal irrigation and the role of infrastructure in shaping the economic and political sociality in rural Punjab. See Khan 2005; Glover 2008; and Gilmartin 2015.

2. The Subaltern Studies Collective initially came together in the 1970s to critique Indian nationalist historians and policy makers who rejected British imperialism while adopting modernist and Eurocentric understandings of capitalist development. The collective was influenced by the surge of political activism in India during the 1970s, and it set out to document the mostly unrecorded history of ordinary people’s resistance against colonial rule. The Subaltern Studies Collective has had a global impact on academics and activists who followed the collective’s innovative scholarship to challenge condescension of rural livelihoods in the global South and underscore the contemporaneousness of other systems of beliefs and notions of justice. The early writings of the collective emphasized the “autonomous, un-dominated” nature of subaltern consciousness that could be ascertained by studying peasant rebellions from below (Guha 1999; Chaturvedi 2000). Feminist historians like Rosalind O’Hanlon and literary critics like Gayatri Spivak who were sympathetic to the project challenged its ideational view of subalternity based entirely around the negation of the dominant colonial power and the missing account of internal hierarchies, differences of belief system, and internal power relations. O’Hanlon (1988) argues that such characterization of subalternity as a fundamentally reactive response does not hold, even in the historical accounts of the subaltern peasant rebellion where religion, caste, and tribal identities play a contributing factor to subalternity. Consequently, subalternity has come to be identified for its radical difference from Western subjectivity, even when it is the living condition of the vast majority of this world’s poor population whose lives have been intimately shaped and linked to the Western hegemony for centuries (Spivak 2010; Chaturvedi 2000; Chakrabarty 2002).

3. Recent ethnographic and historical research by Mathew Hull (2012), Markus Daechsel (2015), and Tahir Naqvi (2013) on Pakistani state planning and bureaucracy has refocused attention on the Cold War modernizing era of Ayub Khan’s regime, which set in motion many of the governmental processes ranging from executive rule, mass public works projects, Pakistan alliance with American foreign policy objectives, and the use of Islam or Muslim identity to craft a modern national identity, architecture, and style that break away from inherited vernacular traditions but perhaps harken back to the mythic Indus or ancient past.

4. Faisal Devji’s 2013 book, Muslim Zion, is a prime example. Devji’s “idea of Pakistan” seeks to correlate the intellectual history of Muslim nationalism with Zionism without pausing to examine the historical difference between European settler colonialism and anticolonial nationalism. Venkat Dhulipala’s 2015 book, Creating a New Medina, offers an insight into the millennialism of the Pakistan movement in UP, but in making a strong case for the utopian intentionality of the Muslim League, he fails to address the fact that the Muslim League was not the only player among Muslims and certainly not a hegemonic party in Muslim majority areas; thus, the more variable factors in the call for Pakistan that ranged from a call for land reforms in Bengal to regional autonomy in Sindh and the fear of minoritization in UP. See Bose 2014.

5. In “Underestimating Urbanization” (2003), Reza Ali shows that Pakistan is the fastest-urbanizing country in South Asia. He argues that the driving force of urbanization is the rapid industrialization of Punjab cities along the Grand Trunk Road corridor. However, there are also other factors driving urbanization in Pakistan that range from intensifying climate change, which became most visible through frequent flooding like the 2010 Indus floods, along with rural drought, to earthquakes. Haris Gazdar (Gazdar, Khan, and Khan 2002; Gazdar 2009) has argued that the growing disparity of landholdings in Pakistan might be single largest factor in rural dislocation. Also see Hasan 2002.

6. This is certainly a broad generalization with notable exception of Punjabi writers, intellectuals, and political activists. However, the official version of Pakistani state narrative has had a hegemonic hold in this region in a way that contrasts with alternative movements for regional autonomy, linguistic nationalism in Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly NWFP).

7. This essentialist reading of the ethnic question that takes regional identities as a given is common in Pakistan studies (Ahmed 1998). However, the changing landscape of ethnic politics in Pakistan can be seen by the Muhajir (Indian migrant) community as rejection of Muslim universalism in favor of ethnic identity politics in the 1980s, based on their shared experience of exile, sacrifice, and migration from India (Verkaaik 2004).

8. A recent example of an otherwise sophisticated study of the state question in Pakistan is Politics of Identity: Ethnic Nationalism and the State in Pakistan by Adeel Khan (2005).

9. There is an echo of this schema present in Partha Chatterjee’s (2004) reformulation of political society, in which the urban subaltern population is composed of subjects who are governed but not necessarily disciplined by institutions, schools, and factory work.

10. For a discussion of the links between global exchange and postcolonial state formation, see Radcliffe 2001.

11. For instance, the austerity policies and structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Asian Development Bank have profoundly weakened the ability of postcolonial states to offer minimal services like public education and basic health care and guarantee job security to establish a monthly salaried middle class. See Mbembe and Roitman 1995; Ali 2002; and Gazdar and Mallah 2013.

12. Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space has been helpful for me to understand the historical and geographical dimensions of state formation and political subjectivity in South Asia, especially in Central Punjab. I read Lefebvre’s theory of “production of space” as not simply the physical construction of roads, canals, cities, and the infrastructure of urbanity but also the realignment of the preexisting land relations, environmental resources, and labor into new channels of circulation and spatial abstractions. Lefebvre characterizes this process of state formation as a strategy to map territory and people from the viewpoint of revenue extraction and establishment of private property (1991, 233). This process faces a series of interruptions by local customs, environments that prevent the installment of a perfectly alienable, equivalent property regime based on individual ownership. As I describe below, the revenue system in British India varied greatly in different regions and at different times under colonial rule because of political calculations and environmental constraints.

The second major element of Lefebvre’s theory of “production of space’ is the perception of space, which is tied to administrative, representational, and logistical breakdowns of space through land surveys, census, and administrative technologies that give rise to the state. The third element of spatial production is the imagined space as the realm of production that is the creation of the ideological truth or the construction of nationalisms and ethnic nationalism within. Local livelihood practices, moral economies, traditional identities, and even modes of resistance are constantly being made and unmade in the contentious process of social (and spatial) change. Lefebvre’s spatial analysis looks at land as a set of relations (rather than an object of possession) that are tied to social reproduction. See Lefebvre 1991 and Brenner and Elden 2009.

13. A materialist reading of Pakistani nationalism is important because the idea of Pakistan has been understood through an ideological lens (as in the history of the idea of a Muslim nation), even though the movement for Pakistan gained ascendancy because of concrete, material, and regional demands for greater provincial autonomy in Sindh; competition between urban and rural elites in Punjab; and the demand of mostly Muslim peasants for swift land reforms in Bengal (Talbot 1998).

14. The idea of a sovereign right to unused land did not exist in Mughal India or under Islamic rule. Land cannot by owned exclusively but managed. It is ironic that the East India Company invoked successor sovereign rights, even after decrying the unjust Oriental despotism.

15. The East India Company presented itself as the bearer of legal rights and rational jurisprudence combined with the Orientalist spirit of restoration of an ancient civilization that had been perverted by Mughal despotism (read: Muslim rule). However, as Uday Mehta (1999) has elaborated in detail, the liberal principles of democracy and rights that were at the heart of colonial self-image were denied to Indians, who were deemed unfit for self-rule because of Oriental exception. James Mill, the East India Company company’s administrator, historian, and utilitarian philosopher, justified the restriction of liberty to Indians and non-Europeans whom he deemed unfit for freedom. Colonial sovereignty was built on a generalized state of exception, where political, economic, and social rights were not extended to rival sovereigns like Tipu Sultan of Mysore state, who were treated as despots, or the itinerant nomadic populations, who were designated as criminal tribes. Achille Mbembe has called this selective granting of rights as a form of bad faith he calls commandement: “On the one hand, it combined weakness of, and inflation of, the notion of right: weakness of right in that, in the relation of power and authority, the colonial model was, in both theory and practice, the exact opposite of the liberal model of debate and discussion; inflation of right in that, except when deployed in the form of arbitrariness and the right of conquest, the very concept of right often stood revealed as a void” (2001, 25).

16. See Baden-Powell 1978 for a summary of land settlement policies and debates about the nature of property and land tenure in colonial India.

17. The colonial administrators sought to emancipate the Indian peasantry from rigid customs with the promulgation of new land relations that were open to monetization and cash crops. The colonial bureaucrats made claims on the authentic nature of the Indian peasantry, whom they selected for specific tasks, land allotment, and administrative and military service. As Mathew Hull (2012, 80) has illustrated, the creation and circulation of files and authoritative documents gave rise to official stamped papers that aim to secure impersonal bureaucratic order; but in practice, political administration was (and is) deeply entwined within a connected sociality in which the civil service officers, bureaucrats, and state authority figures, down to the local revenue officer (the patwaris), exercised the power of the state over society through paper and documentation. The documentation and paper bureaucracy that was supposed to bring a greater level of transparency and order to the complex revenue arrangements in South Asia was remediated, repurposed, and recoded into bureaucratic procedures through litigation, using access to files and documentation to consolidate power and claims over land.

18. Company officials like Thomas Munro blamed the problem of settlement on absentee landowners as an exploitive class who maximized their rental incomes at the expense of the cultivators and the colonial state (Gilmartin 2015). The various administrative reports and cartographic surveys were seen as the best way to overcome the obstacles to better understand Indian society.

19. The Bengali countryside and poorer urban classes responded to the Krishak Praja Party (KPP), the farmer-tenant party, which was rallying around major land reforms and disbanding the big zamindari system dominated by absentee landlords. Neilesh Bose (2014) has argued that a rural- and land-reform-oriented Muslim nationalism came out of this nonelite population of rural, and newly urbanizing, Bengali Muslims. They saw the congress as the perpetuation of the regional elite culture that marginalized their literary and economic interests, which could be secured with the promise of regional autonomy and land reforms as offered by the nascent Muslim nationalism (enshrined in the 1940 Lahore Resolution for the creation of separate Muslim states, introduced by Bengali KPP leader, Fazlul Haq).

20. By 1820, the British India Company had revised its land settlement system in South India by transferring land titles directly to the middle peasants, or ryots, who were regarded as the true proprietors of the land. The state would survey the land and assign revenue liability to the actual cultivators without going through the zamindars. It was argued that these assessments would generate greater revenue while lowering the burden on the peasantry. This new revenue system required far greater administration and knowledge of local landholdings, recording existing plots for fixing and collecting revenue rates. The process required many surveys and familiarity with rural districts and expansion of administrative rule. However, this form of assessment gave greater protection to peasant farmers and it brought them into a closer relationship with the administration.

21. The Muslim community emerges out of the colonial period in a precarious position, as both minoritized outsider and insiders. However, the degree of this displacement varied greatly according to region and status. In a suggestive article, Faisal Devji demonstrates how the “politics of space” underwent significant change in the North Indian Muslim discourse in the second half of the nineteenth century with the onset of the British Raj. He shows how premodern notions of sovereignty tied to a particular idea of the moral city (or certain understanding of the public, defined as the community of zaif, or moral guardians) withered after the defeat of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Like the elite Hindu nationalists, the Muslim reformers created new distinctions between the home and the outside world. The private sphere, which was previously seen as a place of moral exception and weakness (the inner domain being associated with feminine-gendered notions of fitna, or social chaos) became the domain of virtue, tradition, and moral sovereignty. The Islamic reformist institutions in colonial India were founded outside the major cities in rural locales such as Aligarh and Deoband to better impart this notion of reform (see Devji 1994).

22. Similarly, there were other trends in the issue of nativism in South India that emerged in the form of Dravidian politics in South India and social reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar’s politics that sought to portray the Aryan theory of invasions as a colonial conquest to advocate for the subjugated population of the Tamil non-Brahmins, or Dalits, in Ambedkar’s case (Ambedkar 2014).