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"These people extort money from farmers. They misguide and mislead them,” says policeman Akbar Ali about the leaders of the Anjuman Muzareen Punjab (AMP).

The organisation is at the centre of a long-running dispute over 17,000 acres of prime agricultural land that houses seven farms, two dairy factories and some 20 villages (with an approximate population of 150,000) in central Punjab’s Okara district. The other party to the dispute is the Pakistan Army. According to a letter that the military authorities have recently distributed among the residents of the area, “the ownership of all the… land belongs to the military farms.” The letter adds that the superior courts in the country and the revenue authorities have verified this ownership.

The AMP has been contesting this claim through litigation as well as through public protests, sometimes with the support of political parties such as Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Jamaat-e-Islami, Awami Workers Party and human rights organisations. Yet Ali, who works at the office of the district police officer in Okara, takes a dim view of the organisation’s work. “They are just hooligans, nothing else. They block roads for hours. They cause public discomfort. They commit armed robberies in the city,” he declares. “And now they are hosting terrorists in their houses.”

The last development that he mentions pertains to the killing of six alleged terrorists linked to al-Qaeda reportedly in an encounter with law enforcers in village Chak 28/2-R, a few kilometers to the northwest of Okara city, on July 13, 2016. The police record of the ‘shoot-out’ says its venue was the dera, outhouse, of one Malik Naeem Jakhar whose brother Malik Saleem Jakhar is a senior member of the AMP. The Jakhars were the hosts of those terrorists, alleges Ali.

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This is how the police version goes: an operation was conducted in Chak 28/2-R on the basis of intelligence reports; when policemen and personnel of other law enforcement agencies reached Naeem Jakhar’s dera, they came under fire; they then retaliated, killing six terrorists; two policemen were also injured in the ‘shoot-out’.

Four of those killed were later identified as Amir Habib, Samiullah, Yasibur Rehman and Saeedur Rehman. They belonged to places such as Hangu, Bannu and Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Attock in northern Punjab.

The police claim to have recovered from them the maps of schools and police headquarters in Okara district that they are believed to be planning to attack. Naeem Jakhar has gone in hiding after the killings but the police have announced a reward of one million rupees for his arrest and booked him under anti-terrorism laws for what Ali calls “providing shelter to terrorists”.

Noor Nabi, an AMP spokesman, refutes the police version verse and chapter. “How come the police did not know about the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the area?” he asks. “How were these al-Qaeda men linked to the AMP which has never been a religious or sectarian organisation?”

Nabi’s story goes something like this: Some time in the 1990s, the military allotted Major (retd) Faqir Husain 50 acres of land in Kulyana Estate – that includes Chak 28/2-R – for his military accomplishments; in the middle of 2000s, Kulyana Estate became a controversial patch of land between its tenant farmers and retired soldiers who own it; the latter wanted to change the tenancy agreements but the former resisted it and that friction became the basis for a feud between Husain and the Jakhars; in 2009, three people lost their lives when Husain’s men allegedly opened fire on those supporting the Jakhars; this clash led to Husain’s departure from the village, leaving his land in the possession of his opponents — the reported shoot-out with supposed terrorists was staged to evacuate the Jakhars from the land.

That opposing the military is opposing the state, is after all, an old Pakistani truism

Nabi says the alleged encounter took place at 2 am when the village was facing an electricity blackout — a convenient way to ensure that no one except the law enforcers themselves knew what actually happened.

People affiliated with the AMP claim the ‘shoot-out’ was the brainchild of Faisal Rana, chief of the district police in Okara. A retired army captain, he was working as a senior superintendent with the intelligence wing of the Punjab Counter Terrorism Department before he was posted to Okara in December 2014.

The AMP affiliates claim that Rana had brought the alleged terrorists to Chak 28/2-R from somewhere else and he killed them in the village to implicate the Jakhars. At least one other organisation verifies this in the case of two people killed in the alleged shoot-out: Shuhada Foundation, an entity registered with the government and set up to work for the welfare of the heirs of those killed during a security operation inside Islamabad’s Lal Masjid in the summer of 2007, has claimed that Yasibur Rehman and Hafiz Saeedur Rehman were once affiliated to Lal Masjid. They had been in police custody for a year before they were killed, the foundation is reported to have said.

Another related development suggests the government is ready to go to any lengths to quell the unrest in Kulyana Estate and other military-run farms nearby. Less than a week after the alleged shoot-out, Okara police claimed to have seized four hand-grenades, some rifles, a large quantity of ammunition, 80,000 Indian rupees, 56,000 UAE dirhams and some cell phones during a raid on the house of one Mehr Abdul Jabbar in Chak 4/4-L village, just a few kilometres to the southeast of Okara city. Jabbar is the younger brother of Mehr Abdul Sattar, who heads the AMP.

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The members of the AMP allege the police broke down the front door of Jabbar’s house and fired indiscriminately, damaging furniture and other household items during the July 16 raid. The policemen departed 15 minutes later, leaving only mystery and confusion behind, says Nabi.

Immediatly after the raid, television channels started to relay news about the discovery of the explosives, ammunition and money. This, he says, was done in order to “build the story” that the two brothers were “enemies of the state, working on a certain anti-Pakistan agenda, with RAW-funded weapons at home.”

Nabi is surprised at the allegations that the leaders of the AMP have links with al-Qaeda on the one hand and Indian intelligence agency on the other. “These allegations are an insult to the tenants’ struggle and are only meant to give a bad name to their movement and its objectives,” he says.

The land dispute in Okara initially erupted in 2000 when the management of the farms tried to change the terms and conditions of tenancy agreements. The tenants rejected the new agreements, dreading they would increase the cost of tenancy, would not offer them guaranteed tenure and would make it easier for the authorities to evict them from the lands their families have been cultivating for generations. A vast majority of them refused to sign the new lease agreements. They also fiercely resisted the military’s efforts to evict them from the lands. They then organised themselves as the AMP, under the desperate sounding slogan of maliki ya maut (give us land ownership or give us death).

Many clashes ensued between the two sides. In 2002 and 2003, the authorities placed Okara farms under a virtual curfew and disconnected water and power supplies to the villages so as to force the farmers into signing the new agreements. The clampdown, that once again met with angry protests from the farmers, led to the killing of at least four of them, as reported by the Human Rights Watch (HRW), an independent international human rights organisation, in its 2004 report on Pakistan.

In the next two to three years, the AMP became a broad movement against eviction from state-owned lands and spread in many nearby villages and estates. At the peak of its agitation, the AMP had approximately one million members from all over Punjab. Buoyed by mass support the AMP had acquired, its chief, Sattar, ran for a Punjab Assembly seat (PP-191 Okara-7) in the 2008 general elections as an independent candidate. He garnered 13,542 votes, second only to the winner, Mian Yawar Zaman, who secured 16,975 votes. Sattar was a candidate for the same provincial assembly seat in the 2013 general elections, this time as a PPP nominee. He secured 34,103 votes, again coming second to Zaman who got 45,739 votes.

On July 5, 2014, violence returned to Okara farms after years of relative calm. A large contingent of heavily-armed military troops raided the villages located on the farms, leading to the killing of one Noor Muhammad Kamboh, a 55-year-old resident of Chak 15/4-L, the daily Dawn reported.

“The troops were sent to reopen closed water channels,” the newspaper quoted a policeman posted at the Okara Cantonment police station as saying. “When they reached there, the villagers pelted stones and fired shots at them. Warnings were given but the villagers didn’t stop. [Finally] the troops retaliated with fire and chased the protesters back to the village.”

Nabi, the AMP spokesperson, contradicted this. “No shot was fired from our side. We didn’t carry arms; we never do,” he reportedly told Dawn.

In March 2016, the authorities made another move. Okara’s district coordination officer Socrat Aman Rana issued a 30-day detention order against Sattar so that he could be investigated for “26 cases registered against [him] from 2001 to 2016”, according to Dawn. In a recent letter, the management of the Military Farms Group Okara says “his arrest had absolutely nothing to do with the military farmlands.” The letter claims Sattar was arrested because of “anti-state activities” he was carrying out in collaboration with “foreign, Indian agency RAW”. That he is no longer being seen merely as the leader of a recalcitrant peasantry is very obvious.

Along with some other senior leaders of the AMP, Sattar is detained in a newly set up high security jail in Sahiwal town meant for hardened criminals and feared terrorists. He is facing multiple charges of involvement in anti-state activities, conspiring with the Indian government and perpetrating multiple acts of terrorism besides committing armed robberies and murders. “Many of these [AMP leaders] have hundreds of cases registered against them. When they were arrested, they planned to attack District Police Officer Rana, and his office. They wanted to bomb the place,” policeman Ali says.

That opposing the military is opposing the state, is after all, an old Pakistani truism.

This was originally published in the Herald's August 2016 issue under the headline, 'The police estate'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a Lahore-based independent journalist and photographer.