THE issue of Punjab’s landless tenants is in the headlines again. On Monday, the Anjuman Mazareen Punjab organised a march to Lahore to press for ownership of the land the tenants have been cultivating for over a century. The marchers’ route was blocked at Khanewal, and the police, which had made the highway impassable by placing containers across it, resorted to unnecessary force. Cases were registered against scores of tenants under the anti-terrorism act, prompting the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan to issue a statement of concern on Wednesday. The following day, the police said that the demonstrators would not be released, adding that only 29 individuals had been arrested. Reportedly, an attempted dialogue on Thursday between the tenants and the local administration failed.
The protesters have set up hunger strike camps in seven villages, and the AMP has accused the Punjab government of intending to hand over portions of the land at the centre of the conflict to multinational companies and Gulf-based enterprises.
The use of force is unlikely to achieve much; we cannot expect the matter to die down quietly. Over the years the issue has cropped up time and again, with the Punjab government doing little other than making empty promises. In 2000, protests were launched across the province to counter the government’s attempt to change the tenants’ status by putting them down as ‘contractors’ in the revenue records. It is time that the administration took concrete steps to address the tenants’ one-point agenda of ownership rights. At stake are nearly 70,000 acres of state land in 10 Punjab districts that has been cultivated by tenants since 1905. Some of the land has already been taken over as military-owned dairy farms and for agricultural research. The provincial government and the military have continually overlooked the rights of the tenants, and as the 2000 move and the police violence on Monday show, have at times acted directly against the tenants’ welfare. The interests of the province and the military must be balanced against the tenants’ rights and the injustice they have long suffered.