The road which leads to Dera Sehgal offers a stark contrast between its broken muddy self and the Grand Trunk road which runs perpendicular to it. Barely an hour away from Lahore lies a site of resistance where the humble inhabitants of a few farmlands have taken on a fight to reclaim their lives. The brave women and men of Dera Sehgal farms in Muridke stand outnumbered in the face of the enemy they have set out to defeat -- the system of feudal exploitation. The history of their struggle is long and riddled with defeats, but the spirit of justice lingers. Three decades after taking on this struggle, these farmers still chant slogans of a red future.
The narrow passageway ends to reveal wide open fields. Two dirt roads run parallel along the fields, enclosing a canal between them. You have to cross a mud embankment and walk over the canal in order to reach the villagers abodes. While walking along the dirt road you feel a serene sense of belonging, of clean air in your lungs. The dirt road swiftly turns left half a kilometer down and you are greeted with resolute faces and outstretched hands waiting to be shook. Half naked children follow you through the maze until you find yourself in a large house with an open veranda. The house presumably belongs to someone influential for it is meant to hold large meetings. Dozens of villagers gather and start a fire with dried tree branches, all the while inquiring whether you are comfortable. At this point women, both old and young, join the group and make seating arrangements. As expected on a cold December morning, everyone huddles around the fire. Once cold, shivering bodies acquire warmth, everyone sings in unison
‘O brothers and sisters, let a red morning dawn’
The farmers tiling the land of the Dera Sehgal farms today are the descendents of the people who initiated this struggle for survival. In late 1960s, the 125 acres of land was owned by the influential Sehgal family. The land was mostly arid land and held little market value. Instead of selling these lands, the Sehgal family decided to keep tenants on it. The tenant-landowner relationship was straight forward enough where the tenants worked the land and gave a determined percentage of their produce to the Sehgals. Within a few years the tenants of Dera Sehgal were able to farm wheat, pulses, cotton, sugar cane etc successfully and the produce was enough to encourage the tenants to settle down permanently by building their houses, mosques and tube wells in the area.
This state of affairs continued until 1972 when the Economic Reforms Order was introduced under President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s nationalisation program. Under this order, five of the Sehgal family’s most profitable industries were nationalised. Under the circumstances, their focus shifted back to the farms, whose market value had increased considerably by that time. Without due consideration for its inhabitants, the Sehgals forced the tenants into vacating the land so that it could be sold. As a result, the tenants decided to pursue the case in court and fight through litigation. The issue was taken to the Federal land Commission, formed in 1972 to assist the Federal Government in deciding any disputes. After thorough investigation, the Commission presented its report to the concerned authorities. The case was decided in favor of the tenants, they were to continue farming the land while giving a proportion of their produce to the Sehgal family.
Despite the court order in favor of the tenants, continuing police actions and arbitrary detentions revealed the fleeting nature of these legal victories. The tactics employed by the land owners followed the familiar pattern repeatedly observed in peasant struggles throughout Pakistan. Large police contingents were used as private militias to surround the village and harass locals. The freedom of movement of the inhabitants was curtailed to the point where children could not be sent to schools and the sick could not be taken to the hospital. Anyone who dared to venture outside the farm land risked indefinite incarceration. These terror tactics have become a part and parcel of the daily lives of the villagers.
More recently, in May of 2012, around fifty tenants blocked the GT road in order to protest against the illegal detention of four fellow tenants. The protest was marred with tear gas, stoning and even live firing. According to an HRCP fact finding mission, the protestors did not carry any arms and the police used disproportionate force to disperse them. Amidst the chaos, a cattle merchant by the name of Mohammad Arif was shot and killed, while a stone seriously injured a police officer. The police officer died at the hospital a few days later. Mohammad Arif was shot and killed by a senior police officer according to Jamila Bibi, a local labour leader. The brother of the deceased, who also happened to be present at the scene, narrated that his brother was beaten and then shot by the cops. He even recorded a statement under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC), but an investigation was not ordered. At the time the police registered cases against 232 people despite the fact that most were not even present at the time of the incident. One such person was Mohammad Tariq, who claims that he was informed about the incident much later but a case had already been registered against him for creating public disorder. The blame for the murder was shifted to Mr. Ghulam Dastgir Mehboob who was leading their movement, despite the fact that the bullet retrieved from Arif’s body did not match the weapon used to establish the identity of the killer. He was taken into custody immediately and is still in jail and awaiting trial as I write this article.
When I visited these farmers in December 2012, I found that despite the fact that they had inherited this struggle from their fathers and grandfathers, their spirits had not dimmed. Often mistaken to be ignorant and simple folk, these revolutionary women and men quoted examples of socialist struggles from all over the globe. In their speeches they reminded us that progressive forces have been defeating capitalist exploitation in Cuba, Venezuela, Chile, Bolivia and others. Their women spoke of equality and liberation, of sending their daughters to study in colleges and work in offices, and of visiting jails in person to get their loved ones released. These people have somehow struck a balance between a theoretical understanding of the system as well as grass root activism.
Over the years these tenants have realised that legal recourse will not get them far, despite numerous court orders in their favor. Their true strength lies in their conviction and numbers. Recently they have focused their energies on mobilizing tenants from nearby farms. They have organised themselves in contingents where if one set of organizers and leaders goes to jail, the other can take over. For now they do not enjoy the same amount of strength in numbers that perhaps the Okara tenants or the Hashtnagar farmers enjoyed, but their strategy is currently focused on achieving that very objective. They have drafted their objectives and listed short and long term goals, latest being maximum visibility in the media. Their stance is unyielding and they live by the same words their forefathers lived by
“The only thing we are certain of is that our ties with this land shall remain unbroken”