Staying on the Land in Pakistan

by Mel Gurr, Lahore University of Management Sciences

The Ethics of Staying: Social Movements and Land Rights Politics in Pakistan, by Mubbashir Rizvi (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019)

Globally, observers have witnessed the proliferation of rural social movements that demand the right to stay on the land. These movements mobilize on the basis of indigeneity, agrarian reform, and social justice, and in so doing, counter predominant trends of rural authoritarianism, dispossession, and land speculation. In Pakistan, rural resistance exploded in a somewhat surprising location, Okara military farms, deep in what is commonly thought to be the nation’s conservative, pro-military heartland. In The Ethics of Staying, Mubbashir Rizvi documents the meteoric rise of the Anjuman Mazarin Punjab (Tenant Farmers Movement, or AMP) and addresses urgent questions, such as: How did sharecroppers disarm the Pakistani Army in the midst of dictatorial rule? Why and on what basis did they risk their lives for land they didn’t legally own? How have they managed to survive in the context of extreme repression?

This book is of interest to scholars of development, agrarian change, military authoritarianism, and rural social movements. Suitable for a general (non-area studies) audience, it seamlessly weaves back and forth between present and past, shedding light on a complex a history that might otherwise remain forgotten. Tracing the history of canal colonization and tenant farming under the British and the later, military-led, land distribution after partition, it reveals the spatial history of power and the divergent meanings attached to Pakistan as a moral community, while exploring the contested terrain between political subjectivity and land relations. The Ethics of Staying also contributes to a much larger story—of how Cold War American support for dictatorships skewed the balance of power toward military strongmen in postcolonial settings, to the detriment of tenant farmers (among others).

Echoing James C. Scott’s classic insights on the importance of subsistence security for peasants, the AMP’s rebellion was triggered when the Pakistani Army unilaterally attempted to monetize tenure relations on its vast military farms in 2000. While some farmers initially welcomed the deal (as the former sharecroppingsystem was widely resented) this arrangement was viewed by AMP organizers as a threat to tenure security, subsistence, livelihood, and family ties. Rallying behind the slogan, “Malki ya maut” (ownership or death)— they created a diverse mass movement (Christian, Muslim, women, men) that captured the sympathies and imagination of beleaguered Pakistani leftists. The AMP’s rise provided an opening to put land reform (long banished from public discussion) back on the political agenda and question the Pakistani military’s growing involvement in land speculation. Thus, the author asks: How can we understand the emergence and rapid expansion of the AMP? What sorts of moral and ethical claims energized their demand to remain in place?

To answer these questions, Rizvi draws upon literatures about subaltern social movements and military-state relations. The first part of the book lucidly details the regional history of canal colonization, agrarian change, and the militarization of land development in colonial and postcolonial Punjab. It is highly accessible (even for South Asian novices), with important parallels with cases elsewhere in the global South. Contributing to emergent scholarship on infrastructures and territoriality, he documents the ways the cultural politics of canal colonization continue to haunt the Pakistani state—informing sharecroppers’ claims to land based on collective memories of hardship and broken promises. The AMP’s moral arguments for land rights tied the material history of infrastructural development to demands for recognition. As one of his interlocuters explained:

We’ve sacrificed ourselves and the well-being of our children for this army, we worked for grains and seeds, we considered them to be our protectors, but look at what they are doing to us. They [Pakistan Army] treat us like enemies, the way [Indians] treat Kashmiris. They want the land, not the people (xi).

After protracted siege and military occupation, the Army’s attempts to portray the AMP as a terrorist organization and criminal threat backed by foreign agents backfired, and the AMP was able to secure some of the rights it demanded. The help of NGOs, left-leaning parties, and urban activists was crucial for the success of the movement, although these relationships did contribute to the proliferation of factions along religious, gendered, and classed lines (unfortunate for a movement celebrated for its inclusivity and diversity). Drawing primarily on interviews with several generations of AMP leaders, Rizvi sheds light on ideological heterogeneity within the movement—an important task, too often neglected in social movement scholarship.

Clearly, mobilizing alternatives to capture by regressive political forces is not straightforward, especially considering the difficult conditions posed by Pakistan’s “war on terror.” From 2008 (and especially after 2014), the prioritization of security above all else has empowered the establishment to employ counterterror laws and extrajudicial measures to quell dissent. That being said, today, as many AMP leaders remain incarcerated in maximum-security prisons, tenant farmers continue to live on the land, rent-free. A promising case study in support of Pakistani land reform, these farmers have reported dramatic improvements in terms of income and productivity. While the movement may seem to be dormant at present, Rizvi claims that memories of struggle, suffering, and mobilization will sustain it across the generations.

The text shines when we hear directly from his informants. Rizvi’s immersion in the challenging world of the AMP is admirable, but at times seems to fall into a common pitfall within social movement scholarship—a preoccupation with the movement’s heroic trajectory (the “genesis story,” in Wendy Wolford’s phrase) and the prioritization of the voices and experiences of leadership at the expense of attending to the rank-and-file. For instance, the author notes that he didn’t feel comfortable interacting with rural women (a critique repeatedly articulated by female leaders in the text). This neglect is unfortunate, as women AMP members (and their notorious Thapa brigades), have become iconic symbols of resistance for an emerging generation of Pakistani feminists. It would have been useful if he provided a more thorough description of his methods and the limitations of his study (as all studies have such limitations).

Overall, this book is a hopeful and necessary read. It demonstrates that struggles for land justice can weather even the most terrifying conjunctures and formidable opponents—in this case, the Pakistani Army. We learn that movements rooted in shared histories of suffering and an ethics of subsistence can survive the vagaries of dictatorship and democracy. While some of these movements are larger and more stable than others, collectively they constitute a significant accomplishment, offering the possibility of an alternative future—one in which at least some peasants remain on the land rather than being shunted off to urban peripheries.

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