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



From Farmers to Terrorists

“Do you know that you are sitting in a room full of terrorists?”

Hanif’s unexpected remark caught me by surprise as I reached into my backpack to retrieve a pen and a notepad. The room full of men and elderly women burst into laughter as people debated who was the most dangerous terrorist in the room. Was it the elder Munir, or Maryam Bibi, or her daughter-in-law? Hanif was mocking the anti-terror criminal cases (ATC section 7) registered against him and thousands of peasant farmers for resisting the Pakistani military’s policy to monetize land relations on state-owned military farms. I was attending a gathering of a local chapter of the Punjab Tenants Association (Anjuman Mazarin Punjab; AMP) to discuss an upcoming meeting with state officials and military officers. The AMP has been resisting the Pakistan military’s unilateral plans for farmlands for the past twenty years.

Hanif’s joke lifted the gloomy mood on that emotional afternoon in April 2008. There was nervous energy in the air as tenant leaders discussed the upcoming meeting with the military officers; the AMP was coming under pressure after a protracted détente that lasted four years, and military authorities were installing new checkpoints, fences, and gates at the southeastern perimeter of their village. Hanif struck a chord with the gathering by calling out the absurdity of the state’s attempt to brand tenant farmers as terrorists, while also acknowledging the troubling feeling that this might be the start of a new campaign of intimidation. Hanif’s joke was prescient; a series of extrajudicial measures and anti-terror codes, such as the 2014 Pakistan Protection Act and the National Action Plan, have been used to criminalize and arrest the AMP leadership.

The AMP was formed in the summer of 2000 to resist the Pakistan military’s unilateral policy to monetize land relations on the vast state-owned military farms (approximately seventy thousand acres) throughout Punjab. The army sought to replace the century-old practice of rent-in-kind sharecropping with a cash-based land lease program. This obscure change in land tenure policy led to the largest rural peasant mobilization in postcolonial Punjab. The announcement came after years of whirling rumors about the military’s legal rights over these farms, and there was great speculation about the future of these farms. The tenants’ doubt was intensified by military investigation into the dramatic decline in farm revenue from 40.79 million rupees in 1995–1996 to 15.87 million rupees in 1999–2000 (Akhter and Karriaper 2009). The audit of these obscure military farming estates gained a new urgency because its findings were made shortly after the military coup in 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf dismissed Nawaz Sharif’s elected parliamentary government over charges of corruption. At that time, General Musharraf was able to cast his regime as different from past military regimes by invoking the discourse of open market reforms, transparent governance, and technocratic rule tempered with moderation (Liberalism) to ensure a proper transition to democracy. General Musharraf traded in his military uniform for business suits as he fashioned himself as the “CEO” of Pakistan, a military leader fit to take Pakistan into the neoliberal age.

Farid Daula, the widely respected elder leader of the AMP, recalled the suspense and the rumors surrounding President Musharraf’s intentions when the military was reviewing the military farms operations. “I heard that the jarnails [common Urdu pronunciation of “general”] were about to sell the land to Lever Brothers Company” (interview by the author, June 3, 2004, Okara Military Farms). Other tenants disagreed vehemently, Farid recalled; some tenants even speculated that General Musharraf wanted to establish his reputation and gain popular support in Punjab by redistributing the land to tenant farmers. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, this obscure meeting in the park grounds of Okara in June 2000 would spark the rise of the largest peasant mobilization in Punjab since 1947.

General Qamar Zaman Chatha, the military officer in charge of investigating the decline in military farms revenue, surprised the tenants at the large gathering of tenant farmers in Okara City with his findings. He announced that the military farm operations were rife with corruption and that the farm management had been stealing harvest revenue from sharecroppers and selling the produce in the market while blaming the tenant farmers for huge losses. According to my interlocutors, this was the first time any official had recognized what the peasant farmers had been complaining about all along, and it reflected the new style of “transparent” governance and straight talk championed by General Musharraf.

After stating his initial findings, General Chatha announced the implementation of a new land tenure system that would replace the existing system of battai (sharecropping, rent in kind) with a new, cash-based system of land tenure. The new tenure system was designed to “end the culture of corruption” (baimani) and poverty in these farms. He announced that the new land tenure system was the first step in the impending programs of development involving “model villages,” clinics, and schools. This was a unilateral decision made by the military, and the new lease system was scheduled to start at the end of the month.

The reform program got a mixed response from the farmers. Better-off farmers like Farid Daula (a prominent elder and a well-to-do farmer from the village Chak 45/3 R)1 were at first supportive of the plan. As he put it, “We were happy [to hear about the end of sharecropping] because there has been so much oppression [zulm] here, and we were finally going to be free of this servitude [ghulami]” (interview by the author, June 4, 2004).2 The existing battai tenure system was widely disliked. According to this system, the tenant farmers had to surrender half of their harvest to village administrators, who were supposed to provide inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and water. This sharecropping system left the tenant farmers susceptible to rent-seeking by farm managers. According to the AMP, the farm managers (chaks-in-charge) routinely inflated crop estimates, stole from the farmers’ harvests, and intimidated the peasants with fines. However, other less-well-to-do farmers like Ghulam Rasool were concerned about the full implications of a cash-based land tenure system. They feared that they would be subject to eviction if they failed to pay cash rents on time. The old battai system, even if it proved to be exploitive, guaranteed usufruct (permanent land use rights) to tenant farmers and occupancy rights to their houses in the village, as outlined in the 1887 Punjab Tenancy Act.3 The sudden change in land relations in the military farms generated great distress among tenant farmers who had tilled this land for a century under sharecropping.

As Younus, an AMP activist put it, “The new cash lease system did not guarantee our land rights. We learned that as soon as we accept this contract system, they will start to throw us out of these lands. . . . We found this out through our sources. . . . We established contacts in the revenue office to get this information, with a little help from Quaid-e Azam [euphemism for money bribe] . . . and they [the revenue officials] told us not to sign the contract because the army wants to move us out to sell plots” (interview by the author, May 3, 2007). The tenants’ correspondence also confirmed rumors and family stories passed down through generations that challenged the military’s legal claim to the land. The earliest military farm villages had been established by a Catholic Jesuit order in 1913. They had been transferred in 1913 to the Punjab government, which leased them to the British Indian Army in a twenty-five-year lease that expired in 1938. The last payment for these farms was received in 1942. Moreover, the tenants learned that there were no records showing the existence of these farms as agricultural estates; rather, they were classified as oat and hay feed farms for the military’s livestock and horse farms. There were no records for the billions of tons of wheat, sugarcane, corn, and cotton that had been extracted from these tenant families since the farms’ inception in 1913. The military farms reported revenues only for dairy and fodder. It was as if these farms did not exist. The tenants, however, had receipts for sugar and wheat going back two to four generations.

The tenants mobilized and came together to resist the imposition of cash contract farming. They started a campaign of civil disobedience by refusing to pay any rent in kind or cash and by evicting the farm management from their villages. The Okara district administration called in the police to restore order. When the police were unable to quell the protest, they started a campaign of repression by calling in the paramilitary Rangers force to the nineteen villages in Okara where farmers were mobilizing. In a matter of months, the AMP protests spread into nine other districts of Punjab.4

The total land in these ten districts—approximately sixty-eight thousand acres—was leased in the early twentieth century by the Punjab government to the various government departments, including the Ministry of Defense, the Punjab Seed Corporation (in Pirowal, Khanewal), the Maize and Cotton Research Departments (in Sahiwal), the Rice Research Department (in Kala Shah Kaku and Faisalabad) and the Livestock Department (in Sargodha and Sahiwal).

The state suppression of the AMP reached its peak between 2002 and 2004, especially during crucial sowing and harvest seasons (April–June, September–November). Eight tenant farmers were killed when the military and paramilitary launched attacks on villages; many more died as a result of a prolonged curfew, which prevented many villagers and, most crucially, women in labor from getting to hospitals for months. However, the government denied any culpability in the killings, and it blamed the tenant farmers for the violence; for instance, the military’s public relations department tried displace the issue by blaming the death of sixty-one-year-old Ameer Ali on two nonexistent ethnic clans (Sindhis and Macchis) in the village. This strange attribution was the state’s attempt to create the impression that a distinctly “other” ethnic group of peasant farmers lived in these villages.

The arrest of AMP activists and leaders resulted in dramatic scenes of resistance in Punjab’s villages and cities. Men and women, Muslim and Christian tenants, traveled to Lahore (the provincial capital of Punjab) and Islamabad (the national capital) to protest by holding hunger strikes in front of private cable news channels in Islamabad and confronting political officials. As Hanif, one of my interlocutors, put it, “We’ve sacrificed ourselves and the well-being of our children for this army, we worked for grains and seeds, we considered them to be our protectors, but look at what they are doing to us. They [Pakistan Army] treat us like enemies, the way [Indians] treat Kashmiris. They want the land, not the people.” The news about the siege on military farms reached human rights organizations, civil society groups, and the wider public. The tenants’ plight created public sympathy as parallel strikes against cash contracts spread to other state-owned farms throughout Punjab. The military was forced to back down after its attempts to portray the AMP as a criminal threat failed.

However, Pakistan’s ever-shifting political scenario swung dramatically against the AMP in 2008 as a result of a growing Taliban insurgency in Pakistan’s borderlands and attacks in metropolitan centers. I was reaching the end of my fieldwork at the time, and most of it had been characterized by an informal understanding between the tenant farmers and the military, whereby the tenant farmers occupied the land without public protests and the military kept a close watch over the movement and village harvests without demanding rent in kind or cash. The Taliban attacks were a catalyst for a new wave of state repression against all forms of civilian protest. In Okara, the state authorities began installing new checkpoints, border fences, and gates at the southeastern perimeter of some of the villages adjacent to Okara cantonment. Hanif’s prescient warning about the use of the counterterror policies against the AMP was realized in the form of the extrajudicial anti-terror stricture in 2014, after the Pakistan Protection Act, a series of measures, detention, and arrest laws that criminalized all kinds of dissent, including that of the AMP leadership and a local journalist, charging offenders with terrorism as defined by the National Action Plan. Thus, when Hanif spoke at the gathering about the absurdity of the state’s attempt to brand peasant farmers as terrorists for refusing the sign cash leases, he articulated what was on the minds of many in attendance. The political space for dissent was shrinking rapidly, as the Pakistani state has shifted from development to security as the primary justification to enforce the changes in land relations.5 The tenants’ ability to resist and disobey the state authorities has disappeared almost entirely. Today, a large portion of the AMP leadership is incarcerated. However, the tenant farmers are still occupying their farmlands without paying any rent in kind or cash.


1. Chak denotes “village” in the vernacular Punjabi. Most chaks in Okara have a numerical name. I have changed the names for all the villages where I did fieldwork. While I have given the villages arbitrary names, I follow the naming convention that designates a village number name in accordance with its direction to the canal (#/# L or R designated if the village is left of canal or right). The village naming convention in central Punjab is itself a testimony to the vast engineered nature of this landscape, which continues to distinguish the political economy and cultural politics of Okara.

2. Some interview locations are omitted for safety concerns.

3. Under the contract system, the tenants would no longer be entitled to the protection of the Punjab Tenancy Act 1887, which gives tenants (and their direct descendants) the first right to ownership if they have occupied the land for more than twenty years, whenever the land is sold or leased. They would also forfeit their right of occupancy and be vulnerable to arbitrary eviction at little or no notice. In addition to the general change in status, the tenants’ fears are based on two specific clauses of the contract: “Clause 11: If the land is required for defense purposes, the land is to be evacuated at six months’ notice. In this case, the contractor will be refunded for the rent already paid by him in advance” and “Clause 25: The contractor cannot claim occupancy tenancy rights. Under no circumstances does the contractor possess ownership rights.” See Akhtar and Karriaper 2009.

4. The disputed state-owned farms are located in central and southern Punjabi districts: Multan, Khanewal (Pirowal), Jhang, Sargodha, Pakpattan, Sahiwal, Vihari, Faisalabad, and Lahore.

5. See Goldstein 2010 for a discussion on the shift from neoliberal developmental logic to the post-9/11 security paradigm for governance in the developing world. I follow works on postcolonial states in African anthropology and the Middle East (Comaroff, Comaroff, and Weller 2001; Mbembe 2001; Mitchell 2002; and Ali 2002) that argues that the postcolonial state has maintained emergency powers in order to preserve “order,” and the neoliberal policies were attenuated and articulated with the military-led elite as it expanded its footprint in the national and even transnational market sphere.