Struggling for Land

Adaner Usmani

The Karachi Press Club is an extraordinary place. Teeming – always – with protest, whether miniscule or formidable, hackneyed or genuine, one of the first things one learns is that the space and the contradictions it embodies can be dispiriting and inspiring in equal measure. So it has proved with one of the more public, memorable campaigns of the past year – the Khaskhelis' struggle for land and justice.

For the best part of four months this year, the pavement that runs along the front wall of the KPC was occupied by landless farmers from Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli in Sanghar, Sindh. Numbering a few dozen, they arrived in Karachi wielding a litany of grievances against a local bigwig, Varyaam Faqir, who had been encroaching on the sliver of land on which their village was founded in the 1960s. Prior to his encroachment, the land had been the property of the Sindh Irrigation Department, but had lain vacant before the villagers settled it. A No Objection Certificate (NOC) had been issued by the Department, effectively granting them title.

Varyaam's steady advance on their homes had paralleled his meteoric rise through the economic and political ranks in the district. His story is the stuff of legend. A former goat-herder who used to deliver milk on motorbike, he applied himself to land-grabbing with frightening success. Thanks to a growing army of hangers-on, as well as a burgeoning reputation in Pir Pagara's political fiefdom (the Pakistan Muslim League – Functional), by the time of the Khaskhelis' protest campaign he had succeeded in amassing several thousands of acres of land. In 2003, assisted by pliant local authorities who falsely bore witness to his claim that the Khaskhelis' land was unsettled, Varyaam had his sons registered as the 'owners' of Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli.

Four years later, following the villagers' repeated refusal to work the farmland now commanded by Varyaam, some two hundred of Varyaam's henchmen attacked the village. Homes were razed and women beaten in the streets; in total, almost twenty people required medical attention at a distant hospital, including fourteen women and two children. Unbowed, in the 2008 elections, the village doggedly broke rank to vote for the Pakistan's People's Party. It was in the context of these accelerating tensions that a brother of the village's founder, Wali Dad – hearing rumors of a second attack from Varyaam – recommended the tactic of a hunger strike outside the Press Club.

They came to a Karachi still giddy over the restoration of the Chief Justice, in some sense as alive to the importance of protest as it had ever been. And yet, despite the best efforts of a smattering of local journalists and activists, it took tragedy for their hunger-strike to get the attention of the authorities. Some twenty days into their protest, Wali Dad – tormented by threats and phone calls from Varyaam's goons – had a heart attack during morning prayers. He passed away a few hours later. I was with the Khaskhelis that day in the hospital, when the doctor had matter-of-factly told them that his prospects were exceedingly bleak. I remember looking to them, lost for words, expecting my endless despair to mirror their own. But it was they, instead, who were comforting me through tear-filled eyes, reminding me that the struggle had to go on. Resignation – too often the best weapon of the disengaged – was simply not an option.

The Khaskhelis continued to protest, but without much success. Despite a public, written promise that the government would meet the villagers' demands within seven days – which included, now, the registration of an FIR holding Varyaam responsible for Wali Dad's death – the Khaskhelis returned to Goth Muhammad Issa Khaskheli to much fanfare but no avail.

Around a week later, they returned to Karachi. This time, various NGOs, most notably Shirkat Gah and PILER, participated actively in their campaign, providing them with regular food and shelter. Meetings of the Joint Action Committee, a coalition of Karachi NGOs, were called in order to provide political advice. Justice Rashid Rizvi, prominent in the lawyers' movement, offered them pro bono legal help. Meanwhile the Khaskhelis continued to brave threats, the heat, and the willful complicity of the authorities and politicians. Despite the fact that all the major political parties had shamelessly played politics over Wali Dad's body when it had been brought to the Press Club in protest, Karachi's political players – with the important exception of the Labor Party of Pakistan – were entirely absent from the Khaskheli campaign.

It was a single event in early May that turned the tide, one that for me was one of the most enduring memories of the Khaskheli struggle. After repeated postponements of their bail hearing, Varyaam and four accomplices named in the FIR – along with an ominous number of retainers – had gathered in the City Court to hear a young, untested judge decide whether they would be eligible for bail. If not granted, they would be heading to jail. Given the myriad ways in which the establishment had bent to the will of feudals past and present, no one expected much. However, to the complete shock of the dozens of people in attendance, the 33-year old judge presiding over the case ruled in the villagers' favor. Immediately, Varyaam made a run to escape the court’s premises. In a bewildering turn of events – all of which was captured by Geo – both Varyaam and Dr. Hashim, a co-defendant, escaped the premises with the assistance of their henchmen. Though a handful of policemen had made some genuine attempts to grab hold of Varyaam, in the days that followed it became clear that the police establishment had no real interest in pursuing him.

Despite Varyaam's flight, the momentum was now with the Khaskhelis – the fact remained that a man whose clout was formidable and crimes innumerable was now a fugitive from the law. What's more, villagers and friends from Sanghar reported widespread delight in the district, where the video of the scene at the City Court was doing the rounds on cellphones. For the next two months, events slowly but steadily progressed. The villagers organized press conferences, events, and demonstrations to insist that the government deliver on its promise to recognize their right to the village. A compensation cheque for Wali Dad's widow arrived, albeit belatedly. Finally, in early July, came another decisive victory. After the City Court's refusal to grant bail, Varyaam's lawyer had appealed to the Sindh High Court but on July 7th, the High Court upheld the earlier decision. A few days later, Pir Pagara admitted defeat, and conveyed that he was prepared to compromise. On his orders, the Chief Minister signed a summary report that regularized the village.

Three months on, the lessons learned from the Khaskhelis' activism live on, even if the legacy has been more mixed. Reports are emerging that the final compromise reached has not benefited the poorer villagers, who are still waiting for the leading families to make good on as-yet unmet promises. Moreover, the arrangement by which the Joint Action Committee directed the Khaskhelis' tactics in Karachi had also begun to sidetrack much of the villagers' own initiative.

Yet, the Khaskheli campaign still stands as a testament to the possibility and need for collaborative resistance. Particularly as we turn our attention to landlessness and hunger across the country, struggles such as those of the Khaskhelis must gain center stage in our analysis and activism, instead of being erased in the economistic and technical framing that dominates the discourse on “food security”. The very fact that Pakistan's most famous feudal, Pir Pagara, could be bowed by the simple bravery of a few hundred villagers is not something we can afford to forget. Nor the momentous, lingering effect of the lawyers' movement, without which neither the City Court nor the High Court would likely have taken the risks of ruling in the villagers' favor. For those who have been concerned about saving Pakistan, one lesson is clear: many in the grassroots are often already active and struggling, as they cannot afford to comment distantly and cynically at the sorry state of affairs in the country. We need to recognize their struggles and build on them, while – as I learnt from the Khaskheli campaign – being prepared for the complexities and frustrations that the process of progressive politics undoubtedly entails.

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