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 an hour.
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
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
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 the village.
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
The writer teaches physics at Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad.