Roadblocks around several villages in Okara District, about 100 km south of the Punjabi capital, Lahore, appear to have been lifted by the military in spite of a continuing land dispute, according to the leader of a landless peasants' union.
"The roadblocks around villages with communities which refuse to sign new tenancy contracts have been temporarily lifted," Liaqat Ali, the chairman of the Anjuman-e Mazare'in-e Punjab (AMP), told IRIN from Okara on Friday.
But the Pakistan Rangers, an elite paramilitary unit charged with keeping the peace, were still deployed around the military farm dairies sited on disputed land and could swoop down on unsuspecting and innocent locals to effect arbitrary arrests, he said. "By employing such tactics, the intention is to pressurise people into accepting the army’s unjust demands," he added.
The AMP, which has waged a three-year struggle to obtain land-ownership rights for landless peasants across Punjab Province, accuses the Pakistani army of using coercive tactics to dissuade them from campaigning for ownership rights of what they regard as their birthright: over 17,000 acres of prime Okara farmland sublet to their ancestors in the early 20th century by the British army.
The Pakistani army denies the charge, in turn accusing the AMP of inciting the local people against the state by misleading them as to the facts of the case. Several people have been killed and dozens wounded in clashes between demonstrating villagers and law-enforcement authorities, according to the AMP - another charge the army has been quick to deny.
Meanwhile, the director-general of the army’s public relations unit, Maj-Gen Shaukat Sultan, told IRIN in the capital, Islamabad, that the roadblocks had been removed permanently. "The issue has already been resolved. Everyone is happy with what they are getting. The problems are being created by troublemakers, who have their own ends to achieve," he said. At a recent press conference in Lahore, the president had himself said that a pro-poor policy had been taken, Sultan maintained.
But the AMP’s Ali was not satisfied. "When the land belongs to the Punjab government, why should we accept the military as an intermediary?" he asked, pointing out that no legal document existed to substantiate the army’s claim to ownership of the disputed land. "This land is ours, it is our mother, but when we claim our right to this land, we are branded as traitors," he said.
Almost a million tenant farmers work about 70,000 acres of land owned by the provincial government of Punjab. These tenants - and their ancestors before them - have been cultivating these lands for almost a century; their claim for the land titles they see as their birthright led, in 2000, to the formation of the AMP.
The AMP says it has waged a peaceful struggle in Okara to assert its members' basic right to just over 17,000 acres of what is currently military farmland, being cultivated by local farmers from 18 villages. The government accuses the organisation of "indulging in anti-state activities" and of "instigating and misleading the local population against the authorities".
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions