December 13, 2020
By Hamid Riaz
Maher Sattar used to be a man on the burly side, with a dark crop of hair and a thick but trimmed mustache. His life in prison though changed him and he seems like half the man that he used to be. He has a salt and pepper beard and mustache now, dark shadows under his tired eyes, pasty skin, and half his size. But while his frail body gives the impression of a weakened man, it still houses the same passionate spirit – a spirit that they could not break, no matter what.
Four years later, finally out of the high prison walls, it is still difficult to cope with life, but Sattar knows what he wants and what to do. Yet it seems to be a long and turbulent journey ahead. To fight against the status quo, he will need to gather all his strength.
His story began when the State started targeting the leadership of the movement in the beginning of 2015, a series of arrests were made first on three of the core leaders of the movement from nearby villages. The Jhakkar family from Kalyana state was even accused of harboring Al-Qaeda terrorists, says Sattar, following a shady police shoot out outside their residence.
When his turn came Sattar was sitting in a panchayat trying to resolve a local feud when in his own words “entire villages were sealed and cut off from each other”.
“Tanks guarded entrances to nearby villages. The people who did manage to come out despite the obstacles were baton-charged, tear-gassed, and later picked up by state authorities. It was a brilliantly executed plan,” smirks Sattar.
It is a notorious place – the disputed patch of Okara farmland, has been the site of perhaps the most violent militant agitation that Punjab has seen in decades. It has an area of 17,000 acres and comprises about 20 villages housing a population of around 200,000. The land is also home to seven industrial farms and two dairy plants. It is here that Mehar Sattar lives.
Locals say that this patch of land used to consist of dense forests long before the British era canal colony scheme was introduced, under which the forests were cleared to make way for agrarian land, and direct the supply of water ensured via the canal system. Farmers were brought in from eastern Punjab and made to settle in the area for tilling of the land and to make it productive, under the promise that their children would be awarded ownership of the land in the future.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
However, contrary to what they had promised, and according to colonial records the British-Indian government leased out the land to the British Army in 1913. Despite the lease contract between the government and the army expiring in 1933 and not being renewed, the army continued to retain control of the land. After the formation of Pakistan, control of the land was transferred to the armed forces of Pakistan.
The Pakistan army managed the land under the colonial-era ‘batai’ system where the army as managers of the land provide fertilizers, seeds, and other necessities of production to the farmers. In turn, the farmers gave away half their produce to the land’s military managers.
ATTEMPTS TO REPLACE THE ‘BATAI’ SYSTEM
The entire set up has caused severe cracks and fissures between the land owners – the army; and the workers – the farmers. In the past, clashes have occurred but have also eventually subsided.
However the most recent wave of conflict – and a long one – between the farmers and the military began in the year 2000, under the General Musharraf regime, when the army moved to unilaterally abolish the batai system and replace it with contracts that would require the farmers to pay rent in cash instead of a portion of their crops.
This caused widespread insecurity within the farmers’ community who believed that the new contracts would take away their ‘occupancy rights’ of land, something they which they could still somewhat accept under the batai system. However now they were more vulnerable to eviction, and this they could not bear. Apart from everything, paying in cash would also end up raising the cost of tenancy, robbing them of their already meager incomes.
BIRTH OF A PEASANT UNION & THE STATE’S VIOLENT RESPONSE
These fears prompted the farmers to refuse to sign the new contracts, choosing to cause agitation for their land instead.
Farmers held peaceful demonstrations and protests across Okara to raise awareness about their plight and out of this direct action the Anjuman Mazareeen Punjab (AMP) was born. Raising the slogan “maaliki ya maut” (ownership or death!) several farmers now even began refusing to offer batai which they had been previously paying to the military managers of the land.
In turn, the military owners of the farmland responded by historic oppression to suppress the movement and forced farmers to sign the new contracts under duress.
In fact, the mechanisms of abuse and torture employed by the army are well recorded in a 2004 report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled ‘Soiled Hands’ and included reports of kidnappings, systemic widespread arrests of farmers and activists, and setting up of torture cells.
The military even moved to lay siege to the farmland twice in 2002 and 2003, subsequently cutting off the free movement of food, medicine, and agricultural produce. But the farmers led by the unwavering leadership of Mehar Sattar, the General Secretary of the AMP, persisted despite all odds.
In 2016, activists filed a petition in the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR) seeking mediation between the farmers and the farm management. Reports of human rights abuses were so rampant that as soon as the meeting began, the NCHR representatives remarked that the extreme suppression of peaceful protests by the Okara district administration, and the Okara Police in collusion with the farm management was completely “unconstitutional”.
The formal proceedings of the issue began in the year 2018. At the end of the same year Okara Military Farms Commandant Brigadier Rana Mohammed Fahim officially recognized that the Okara Military Farms land belonged to the Government of Punjab and not the Armed Forces of Pakistan, finally conceding to one of the most fundamental arguments of the peasants and paving way for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.
At the end of the proceedings, the NCHRs concluded:
“It has been principally decided that criminal cases registered against the tenants will be withdrawn. Batai (share from crop), which existed prior to the year 2000, will be restored. Tenants would not get ownership rights, but no one will harass them in the future and they will not be dislocated. Furthermore, the army has stated that it will waive off the dues owed by the farmers which have accumulated over the past 18 years and will begin paying rent to the Punjab government after the Batai system is restored”.
A workable truce was created between the peasants and the army, ushering in peace after 18 long years of unrest.
But though the judgment has been hailed by farmers and rights activists alike, many believe that it is nothing but a temporary peace arrangement since the issue of the farmers’ rights concerning their rightful ownership of land was not categorically resolved.
AN UNCOMPROMISING STANCE
Much before he became a local leader, Mehar Sattar was only a university student when the most recent wave of conflict between the farmers and the farm management erupted. Being the son of a farmer, Sattar came back to his village and joined the agitation. Because of his charismatic style and uncompromising stance, Sattar soon rose to a leadership position within the organization. According to Sattar himself, the initial strategy of ‘mass oppression’ by the State backfired as it galvanized the farmers instead of breaking the farm management.
It was now that in a shift of strategy, instead of inflicting pain on the general public, this time the management began focusing on certain figures within the movement. Cases were promptly registered against prominent people within the movement.
From 2015 to 2016, a series of cases were seen being registered against leadership figures including Sattar himself. Around 30 cases were registered against just Sattar leading to his arrest on April 16th, 2016 just some time before he was to address a rally of his supporters on Labor Day. Sattar would spend almost four and a half years in prison which included a two-year stint at a high-security facility reserved only for the most hardened of militants. He was put in chains and was kept in solitary confinement for months at a time.
He was released on September 12 this year after having being cleared by the courts of all wrongdoings. Earlier Voicepk.net sat down with Sattar to talk about his experiences and to discuss the future of the notorious Okara farmland dispute.
FARMERS NOT TERRORISTS!
“The State wanted to label me a terrorist and an enemy of the people but everybody saw how I was greeted by the people of Okara,” says Sattar. “This in itself is a reply to the State. Terrorists are condemned by people, not greeted by them.”
Throughout the interview with Voicepk.net, Sattar asserted that he was a social worker who had sacrificed his life and stature for the well-being of the general people. He says he was implicated in about 50 cases many of which included charges of terrorism. But he was cleared by the courts in every single one.
“My acquittal is the biggest evidence of my innocence,” says Sattar.
Sattar spent some four and a half years in prison and his experience inside custody can be called horrific at best.
Out of these 4.5 years, he was kept in solitary confinement for almost two year; he was denied a meeting with his family and spent eight months in total bound by medieval shackles day and night which were only removed after the leading human rights lawyer, the late Asma Jahangir pushed the Supreme Court to issue an order for their removal. Like many other prisoners, Sattar too was denied proper healthcare and was forced to serve time in a high-security prison reserved for hardened terrorists.
It was after the Lahore High Court had rejected the plea to transfer Sattar to an ordinary jail from the high security prison, Jahangir approached the Supreme Court of Pakistan. When the case came up for hearing at the Supreme Court, she spoke at length about his inhuman treatment in prison.
She said the decision to keep Sattar in the high security prison, was nothing more but a conspiracy to criminalize the peasant movement and its leaders. She said that an under trial prisoner could not be shifted to another jail, but in this case, an order from the Home secretary had been used to move him while court permission was sought much later.
When the prosecutors argued that he was moved as part of a security procedure and accused that his court appearances always see large number of peasants in attendance, Asma Jehangir countered, “When rich leaders appear in courts, no one objects about their followers turning up in large numbers, a leader of the poor is not treated in the same way – why?”
Mehar remembers his time in the high security prison.
“I was the only person in that jail who was not convicted,” he reveals. “All the rest were convicted sectarian fundamentalists.”
Even though he is now out, Sattar is still trying to cope with the mistreatment that he faced, only because he stood up for the rights of the vulnerable few – his community. He may be slightly fearful inside, and his countenance may reveal some hesitation on his part, but he has a barev exterior, and appears resolute, almost duty-bound to continue his struggle against oppression – no matter what form it may take.