Pakistan: Peasants uprising on military farms

"In order to understand this struggle it is important to look at the historical background."

On a recent visit to Pakistan, Kevin Simpson interviewed Sadjid Balouch, a member of the Socialist Movement Pakistan (CWI in Pakistan), about his involvement in the struggle of the poor peasants who are still to this day continuing their struggle to remain on lands owned by the government and the military. At the height of the movement Sadjid was a political coordinator for the AMP, the mass peasants campaign which led this struggle and faced imprisonment and torture as did many other activists.

Peasants uprising on military farms

"The military and government have a number of farms which they own covering 67 000 hectares of land in different cities of the province of Punjab like Sahiwal, Lahore, Khanewal, Okarra, and Sarghoda. Over a million poor peasants and their families live on these farms.

“British imperialism first set up these farms and encouraged poor peasants to move there so that they could clear the lands and tend the crops that were to be grown. This process started in 1913. The British administration organised to lease these lands from the Punjabi government for 20 years.

“The peasants who moved there worked under what was called the Bhatai system. This meant that the farm management provided seeds, pesticides, and irrigation. The peasants in return for growing the crops received 25% of all produce for their own consumption.

“After independence was granted in 1947, ownership of the farms passed to the Pakistani military and government of the Punjab. Under the regime of Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto there was some limited land distribution but the peasants on the military farms did not benefit. They instead faced decades of unfulfilled promises by various governments to improve their situation and they were always betrayed.

“In 2000, the present government started to introduce a contract system on the military farms. This new system meant that under the Punjab tenants act, the peasants would have lost all their rights, and many feared that they would be simply kicked off the farms. This is because under the contract system, peasants had to pay a certain amount each month to keep their contract to stay on the land. Even falling behind by one month could lead to a situation where the peasants were thrown off the land. The old Bhatai status they had gave them limited tenancy rights on the land but the proposed changes would have taken away this protection. It was clear that the Musharraf wanted to kick the peasants off the land because they wanted to sell it to big corporations who were keen to start large scale capitalist agro-businesses.

“From 2001 the government started forcibly implementing the new contract and the peasants resisted. As a result they set up the Anjumam Muzareen Punjab (AMP – Organisation of Peasants of the Punjab) and because of the sharp nature of the struggle, the main slogan of the organisation was ‘Land Rights or Death’.

“This was a unique peasants struggle in many ways for Pakistan – unusually women were involved from the beginning and it was a movement that crossed the religious divide since 40% of the peasants are Christian and the rest Muslim. Peasants from both religious backgrounds took part in the struggle in a united struggle.

“In a first response to the movement, the military farm managers started negotiations as a manoeuvre to try to diffuse the struggle but this did not succeed. After this the managers called in the police and the paramilitary Rangers to start repression of the peasants and the areas they lived in.

“The Rangers concentrated on those areas in which the most militant struggles were seen such as around Okarra and Khanewal. Basically these paramilitary forces laid siege to over 30 villages in this area, cutting off supplies of food, electricity, and water as well cutting telephone communications. The aim was to starve the masses into submission and get them to pressurise the leadership of the AMP to halt the struggle. The Rangers also organised raids into the peasant areas to pick up the most militant activists and torture them. The government also used the threat of court action to take out false cases against the activists in order to intimidate the rest of those involved in the struggle. There are still a number of activists in prison today on the basis of trumped-up charges.

“There were many armed clashes between the Rangers and the peasants. In one of them 7 AMP members were killed.

“The struggle continues to this day with the peasants refusing to accept the new contract system. While the AMP has stood by its slogan and has emerged as the main representatives of the peasants, some organisations attempted to use the struggle for their own ends.

“The Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) took part in this movement and gave funding to the AMP leadership. In the process of doing this the NGOs encouraged differences within the leadership and as a result two rival groupings appeared. The old leadership was accused of attempting to betray the struggle of the peasants in return for money from the NGOs. These differences weakened the movement for a period but lead to a new leadership being elected.

“I was involved in the AMP in the office that was set up in Lahore to provide publicity for their struggle and coordinate national solidarity and my role as political coordinator was to build links with the trade unions and workers’ movement in Pakistan and the peasants struggle. This meant politicising the struggle.

“On April 2, 2003 I was arrested along with other leaders of the AMP when the Rangers raided the Lahore offices of the AMP. All of us were picked up and held in different secret prisons by the Rangers across Pakistan. We all underwent systematic torture for over a month. Four anti-terrorist cases were registered against us by the government and we went to prison for a further two months. After three months imprisonment we finally were released on bail. Two cases were dropped but two more are still pending. The struggle of the peasants of the military farms still continues to this day”

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June 2006