Ownership or Death

Shaukat Chaudry

For the last 10 years peasants working on the government agricultural farms in the Punjab province of Pakistan have been raising the slogan of ‘ownership or death’. They are demanding ownership rights for the land which was sowed and developed by their forefathers since 1885. This demand for ownership got further strengthened during the era of Perwaiz Musharaf, when he wanted to sell these farms to multinational companies and evict thousands of peasants. The movement to stop this eviction gradually became the movement of ‘ownership or death’.

Voices of protest have been reverberating in support of providing ownership rights to the tillers of the land. The Okara Military Farms became the centre of this movement and peasants from dozens of farms all over the Punjab came together. The slogan ownership or death became the rallying point of this movement. In 1999 during the struggle many peasants gave the ultimate sacrifice, making their name immortal and have secured a permanent place in the minds of the people. This movement of the peasants during the era of Perwaiz Musharaf had played a heroic and unforgettable role without the fear of martial law. It’s also worth mentioning the role of those women who saved their lands from being sold to multinationals and the land mafia by sacrificing their lives at that time. But the saga of this struggle did not end but it continued, all those who believe in the supremacy of the dictatorship of proletariat from all over the country came together further strengthening the ongoing struggle.

The movement had forces associated with NGOs, who with their vast resources wanted to hijack it and for some time they succeeded. They always wanted to deviate the movement from attaining its ultimate goal of land ownership. The leaders associated with the NGOs deliberately collided the struggle with the authorities so that it never reach its final goal and they continue to mint money at the cost of the peasants

But the year 2010 proved to be very different. From peasants’ quarters voices of resistance rose against the NGOs and all other vested interest groups whose prime motive was to fill their own coffers at the expense of the belligerent peasants. With the passage of time these voices said that they would themselves, with the help their own class allies lead the movement. In the beginning this appeared to be a difficult task, as in Anjuman Mazareen Punjab (A.M.P) there was a rift between those who were for the NGOs and those against them. But later the overwhelming majority of the peasants decided that they will not participate in the movement if it was led by the NGOs. In such circumstances the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab in Perowal Stud Farm Khanewal Chak 87-10-R announced the date of a Peasants’ Conference, along with a call of a ‘Protest Rally’ from Khanewal to Lahore. On reaching Lahore, there was a programme to cordon off the Punjab Assembly till the acceptance of the peasants' demand for ownership of land was met. All these announcements were made in the month of February 2010. Peasants from all over Punjab prepared to arrive in Khanewal. It was the first time in the decade long history of struggle that peasants themselves were leading their rally and their conference. All financial costs were borne by them. Every peasant contributed according to their ability. Every wall of the Punjab Agricultural farms was covered by posters announcing the protest rally and the peasants’ conference. Banners with slogan ‘Ownership or Death’ were displayed in every village and town. The only talk of the towns was the Long March from Khanewal to Lahore. Everyone was busy, some sewing the flags while the others collecting rods for them. Tractors and trolleys were being prepared for the journey. There were corner meetings held round the clock, everyone was giving assurance to each other for his participation and were trying to take the lead. Words cannot describe the enthusiastic fervour that I witnessed. I myself keenly observed those bright eyes and shining foreheads. I have not seen such enthusiasm and fervour in my 40 years political life. It was entirely a new experience for me. Along with my old comrade and the leader of Anjuman Mazareen Punjab, Wazir Sahoo, we traversed from village to village witnessing those scenes closely.

On the evening of 8th March a delegation led by special assistant chief minister of Punjab Raja Ashfaq Saroor reached Khanewal to meet the peasants. Negotiations started in the Circuit House, Khanewal, but after 3 to 4 hours discussion the outcome was nil. The delegation of the rulers was insisting that the announcement of the long march be cancelled so that negotiations could take place. At the other end the peasants’ delegation were demanding a commitment of land ownership before they called off the long march announcement. None showed any flexibility in their respective stands. The leaders of the peasants on their return from Khanewal started to more aggressively prepare for the rally. They also decided not to hold the Peasants’ Conference and to be more focused on the long march. All night preparations were in progress. In morning at 8.00 A.M. from the Khanewal Perowal farms men and women carrying with themselves pieces of bread, bottles of water, and with rods started gathering at the points from where they were supposed to start the march. Within 2 hours the roads of all villages were full of children, youth and elders. At the pre-decided time of 10.00 A.M. with the slogan of ‘Ownership or Death’ the rally started for the final destination of Lahore. The distance of Lahore from Khanewal is 287 kilometres. On slow speed vehicles like tractor trolleys this distance cannot be covered in less than 14 to 15 hours. Nobody was concerned when they will reach Lahore everyone had one aim and mission to cordon off the Punjab Assembly after reaching Lahore. This incident reminded me of the scenes from the novel of Krishan Chander ‘Jab Khaet Jagtay Hain’ (When Villages Awake). In every village on each road there was a sea of thousands of men and women holding red flags. When all these small processions gathered on one road it was the march which was spread over miles with hundreds of tractor trolleys (which came from different towns), cars, motorcycles and people on foot. From here the distance of the main road is about 8 to 10 kilometres.

With the workers of Lever Brothers under the leadership of their leader Mohammad Hussain Bhatti and the comrades of the Railway Workers’ Union under the leadership of Ghulam Nabi Awan and Ghulam Abbas Daha joining the march the atmosphere got charged with the reverberating slogan of ‘Workers-Peasants Unity’. The rulers were also not unaware of all these preparations. The police had blocked the ways which led to the main road from the villages by placing trawlers on it. A heavy contingent of police was deployed to block the rally of the belligerent peasants. But it was not in their (police) control to stop such a big rally of peasants and workers. At last after crossing these blockades and covering the distance of 8 kilometres, peasants and workers came to the main road. Meanwhile journalists from Khanewal under the leadership of the known journalist and social and political leader, columnist Amir Hussaini joined the peasants’ rally. Gradually friends from the electronic media also started coming and people of Pakistan started to know of the struggle of the peasants. After that for 20 kilometres we did not face any blockade but 15 kilometres before Mian Chunno the police had barricaded the canal bridge with the help of containers. There was a deployment of more than one thousand well armed policemen at that spot, high officials of the police was also present at the spot. Due to these circumstances the long march had been stopped before that point.

Dr. Amna Buttar, a Pakistan People’s Party member from the provincial assembly Punjab along with her husband and political leader Advocate Khawar Mahmood Khatana were also accompanying us and they had reached Perowal farm the night before. The three of us after getting the approval of the leadership of Anjuman Mazareen Punjab went for negotiations with the police. The police had adopted an extremely aggressive attitude. From constables to high officials all were steering that they want to eat our flesh. We did our best to make them understand that the unarmed men, children, women do not want to fight with them, that we want our right, our freedom, our farms, we want to get a hearing from the Punjab government that is why we are going there. But the police replied that they have the orders to stop the rally at any cost even by exercising the option to shoot. The police ill treated us. On our return we appraised Mahar Ghulam Abbas, Younus Iqbal, Wazir Ahmed Sahoo, Dr, Cristofer Jan, Liaquat Ali Gul, Faizaan Bibi leaders of Anjuman Mazareen Punjab about the situation. Soon it was decided to sit till the acceptance of the demands. The only highway of Pakistan was blocked. It was 1.30 A.M. Police remained there in position and the peasants camped on the broad road. This status quo was maintained till 5.00 P.M. when the Punjab government called the leaders of the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab and showed their interest in negotiation. A delegation of representatives of Anjuman Mazareen Punjab left Okara for negotiations that continued for three and half an hours. Women, children remained there on the road. There was no regret on any one’s face. Everyone was very much concern about each other.

During this whole process the leader of the Communist Mazdoor Kissan Party Mr. Taimur Ur Rahman along with his comrades made the event more colourful by singing revolutionary songs. At night around 9.30 P.M. news reached that the negotiations were successful and the government of Punjab had announced that they were going to give ownership rights to the peasants of nearly 35 government agricultural farms, it was also announced that the process will be completed within one month’s time. As this news came there was a ripple of excitement amongst the peasants, they felt that now they have broken the shackles of slavery which they were carrying like an albatross around their necks since 1885. In the same zeal and sprit they returned to their homes. It’s for sure that this announcement cannot straighten the back of bowed old peasants but after the ownership rights they will get rid of the pressure that they had been bearing since 1885. This movement was started in 1999, and I want to mention with full responsibility that the movement would not have succeeded if the participation of women along with men was not there. Their role will not be forgotten. Although the government of Punjab has announced the rights for ownership, but there are still several hurdles on the way. There are reservations that the shrewd bureaucracy will try to create hurdles and may not keep to the promised timeline. But because of the scenes which I have seen I can say with full confidence that now no power can stop peasants from getting their rights, and the most important reason of all is that all of the workers of Pakistan are with them.

Shaukat Chaudry is General Secretary, Pakistan Mazdoor Mahaz.

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