By Pervez Hoodbhoy
On May 11, 2003, Amer Ali, a 60-year old peasant of Chak 4-L of
Okara district made his last good-neighbourly visit to the adjoining
village, Chak 5-L. As the old man hobbled out of his hosts' house
to see what was going on, he was cut down by a hail of bullets.
Amir Ali was the seventh to have died in recent months in the bitter
struggle between the peasants of Okara and the Rangers, now into
its third year. Coincidentally, just hours earlier, a group of journalists
from the Urdu press and concerned citizens, including myself, had
set out from Islamabad on a fact-finding mission. As I stood by
the blood-spattered earth next to a wall pock-marked with bullets,
grim-faced villagers indicated to me the field from where they said
the Rangers had ceaselessly machine-gunned the village for over
A tour around Chak 5-L followed. It is a fairly typical village
with visible signs of poverty - mud covered huts, open drains,
bare-footed children, and scrawny chickens. Branches of trees
felled in the shooting lay all around. Many houses, as well as
the village mosque, had bricks broken or chipped by the impact
of heavy bullets. They are there for the next visitors to village
5-L to see - but only if they can successfully navigate through
the siege imposed on the 70 odd villages in the area.
Roadblocks are everywhere, manned by soldiers with automatic
weapons as well the lighter-armed police. Four-wheelers with mounted
machine guns prowl menacingly on the dirt roads next to the irrigation
canals, raising huge clouds of dust as they move between villages.
For all practical purposes, the nearly one million people of Okara
are under military occupation.
Why are they doing this? I asked one villager from the crowd
that was now swarming around me. "They want to put us on
contract to make us pay rent to them, take away our rights to
the land, and then throw us out", he replied, "but this
land is ours because our forefathers have tilled it and we have
nowhere else to go."
And then, as if the floodgates had broken, villagers came to
show us wounds on their bodies, some now turning septic. One,
who led me aside, broke down sobbing and told a tale that cannot
be related here for reasons of propriety. A visit to the neighbouring
village, Chak 4-L, showed the situation there to be virtually
identical. Broken limbs, hollow faces, sunken eyes, and marks
of beatings were in abundant evidence there too.
Appalled by what we had seen, we felt it absolutely necessary
to see the point of view of those in authority and therefore drove
to the Okara Rangers headquarters, at whose entrance we were stopped
by heavily armed guards. After some hesitation they conveyed by
telephone our request to meet Colonel Saleem, the head of the
Rangers in Okara.
Permission was eventually granted and we drove into the huge
complex, spread over many acres, containing residences and offices.
The beautifully manicured lawns and flower-beds, gravelled paths,
and ornate structures from colonial times stood in stark contrast
with the brick and mud hovels we had just left behind.
We were received by all who matter in the Okara administration.
Apart from Colonel Saleem, we met Major Tahir Malik who looks
after the military aspects and is greatly feared by the villagers,
the senior superintendent of police, and the district commissioner.
Each had a closely similar point of view to the other. They spoke
good English, the meeting was civil and polite, and we were offered
tea and sandwiches. But there was to be no meeting of minds.
In response to my question of who killed Amir Ali, the administration
officials said that he had been caught in the crossfire between
Sindhis and Machis, two groups at loggerheads over some local
dispute. However, my offer to transport Amir Ali's decaying corpse,
which at the moment was lying in his relatives house in Chak 5-L,
to Islamabad for a post-mortem was summarily dismissed.
And where did the torture marks on the bodies of so many villagers
come from, of which we now have photographic proof? The answer
given was that these had been self-inflicted with the intent of
defaming the authorities, or else they were wounds inflicted by
one group on the other.
Finding the answers to be less than satisfactory, we sought permission
to return to Chak 5-L. After some hesitation this was granted.
Negotiating through the roadblocks required further delays, as
each confirmed by radio whether we were indeed permitted to visit
In my conversations with the soldiers manning the positions,
I learned that they too were disturbed about what they were being
asked to do to the Okara villagers but had no real choice. On
eventually reaching the village, we conveyed to the villagers
what the authorities claimed as the cause of Amir Ali's death.
They laughed bitterly and said that there were no Sindhis or Machis
in Chak 5-L, much less a fight between them.
The siege of Okara is a blot on Pakistan's collective conscience
and must be lifted immediately and unconditionally. Further, the
incidents of torture and beatings that have occurred there over
the last three years should be immediately investigated at the
highest level and the guilty punished. We cannot plausibly demand
that India end the military occupation of Kashmir while employing
similar brutal means and tactics at home.
Pakistan cannot bear the shock of nearly a million of its own
people being dispossessed of the lands they have tilled for over
a century. Peasants have no political agenda - land is about livelihood
and physical survival. To evict them would be cruel and unjust,
and certainly was not what Pakistan was made for. President Musharraf
must move quickly to see that this outrage is no more.
The writer teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad